Updated 23 March 2022
Business property relief is an effective way to reduce or eliminate inheritance tax on business assets. Many UK businesses will qualify for up to 100% relief, but it is a complex area of estate planning that you may need expert help to get right. You may also find that other strategies, such as lifetime gifting, are better suited to your unique circumstances.
Business property relief (BPR) is a way to reduce the amount of inheritance tax (IHT) payable on certain business assets. It was first introduced as part of the 1976 Finance Act and aimed to help family-owned businesses carry on trading after a death, without the need for shares or the whole business to be sold to pay inheritance tax.
BPR has evolved since its inception and is now a popular way to minimise tax deduction following a death or on lifetime gifts. For example, a 2013 decision allowed investors to hold BPR-qualifying, AIM-listed shares in an ISA, making them even more tax efficient. It’s likely it will continue to change in the future – hopefully, for the benefit of inheritors.
In order to qualify for BPR, your business must not be listed on a main stock exchange, meaning it may not be an option for public limited companies. However, many private limited companies, limited liability partnerships and even sole trader businesses, or business interests, will qualify for BPR. Some examples include:
Since 6 April 1996, sole traders have qualified for 100% BPR if they are transferring their business as a whole entity over to another. However, sole traders will not qualify for any BPR if they are transferring land, buildings or machinery used primarily for business purposes.
Most businesses and partnerships can qualify for BPR if they pass the 50% trading test. According to HMRC, this means less than 50% of a business’s activity needs to be made up of investment activities, which include:
As a result, a business in the property investment industry (where land/property is bought and sold without making changes), for example, would not qualify for BPR. It can get a bit complex here, as a property development company (where land is bought, built on and then sold on) would qualify. And even if just 51% of the business’s activity is active trade, it will still qualify for BPR.
You also need to make sure the business is not in the process of being wound up or amalgamated at the time, and within a year, of your death. It’s best to seek professional advice if you’re not sure if your business qualifies.
If you’re claiming after someone’s death, BPR can be claimed by the executor of the Will or administrator of the estate when working out its value. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow:
Provided the business passes the 50% trading test, the following would qualify for BPR at 100%:
A number of other assets qualify for 50% BPR:
Some business assets are excluded from qualifying for BPR. One common example is the buy-to-let property, as this is considered purely investment. Other common assets to be excluded from BPR are:
Inheritance tax is a challenging area, so here are two examples to help you understand how BPR works.
Helen’s father set up a successful car repair garage as a private limited company. Just before his death, he signs the company and all its assets over to Helen, making her the sole owner. Now, if the company is worth more than her father’s nil-rate band, Helen could claim BPR and dodge a hefty inheritance tax bill.
However, if Helen’s father was running his garage in partnership with a friend who still wants to be involved in the business, he may instead choose to leave Helen land, buildings or machinery that is used in the business. As Helen would not be inheriting the business as a whole, she could only claim 50% BPR on these valuable assets. Again, this would only apply if their value exceeded her father’s tax-free allowance.
BPR is best suited to situations where you want your family/friends/business partners to continue to benefit from your business in its current form (i.e. they’d like to continue running, or step up and run, it). But if your loved ones have no interest in keeping the business going, or would benefit more from the cash contained within your assets, it can cause tax headaches.
If you know your business is not going to qualify for BPR, lifetime gifting could be a tax-efficient option. By gifting a ‘relevant business property’ (RBP) to your chosen successor at least seven years before your death you can avoid at least some inheritance tax, as it will be classed as a ‘potentially exempt transfer’ or PET.
If you choose to make your business a lifetime gift, it’s important you do not continue to benefit from it. Otherwise, it will be considered a ‘gift with reservation of benefit’ and the recipient could be asked to pay inheritance tax on some or all of the business properties – potentially even more than if you hadn’t made a PET.
Here’s another example. Mark owns a number of buy-to-let properties, which he knows will not qualify for BPR. Mark could sign the properties over to his children or place them into a trust, as long as he no longer receives income or is a beneficiary. As long as Mark survives for seven more years, nobody will have to pay inheritance tax.
There are a few more things to consider here. If you have a business or asset that has increased in value since you purchased it, you may have to pay capital gains tax. You can also only put up to £325,000, or £650,000 if you’re a couple (the current nil-rate band limit), into a trust before you incur 20% inheritance tax.
Inheritance tax is best handled with the help of an expert – who will usually be an independent financial adviser (IFA). It’s easy to find yourself in HMRC’s bad books if you try to make your legacy tax efficient on your own. An IFA will clearly explain your options and help you reduce IHT as much as possible. And if you don’t qualify for BPR, they will work with you to find another solution to help your beneficiaries enjoy as much of your assets as possible.
It’s a good idea to set up a discretionary trust if there’s a possibility the deceased’s spouse or business partner may not want to run the business. If it is sold, the cash tied up in the business will be released, meaning it no longer qualifies for BPR. By setting up a discretionary trust, which will legally own the assets and their proceeds, it doesn’t matter if the business or business assets or sold, as they will still qualify for BPR.
If you’re the only person your spouse has listed as a beneficiary in their Will, you will usually be able to inherit their assets tax free. What’s more, you can also apply any of your partner’s unused nil-rate band (their tax-free allowance for inheritance gifts) to your estate. Currently, that means you could have up to £650,000 in tax-free allowance to leave to your chosen beneficiaries.
A business can take advantage of business property relief after owning a property for two years. You also don’t need to have used the land or property for the same business; all you need to demonstrate is that the space was used for any kind of business purpose. There are three exemptions, however, that may allow you to claim regardless of the length of ownership:
If you’ve got any other questions about inheritance tax planning, we’ve answered more of the most common queries in our other articles on this topic.