English Family Law and justice Life

Marriage and gift tax in Finland

TL;DR: A married couple in Finland should keep the spouses’ money and property separate.
A common household expenses account is probably fine, as is paying common expenses and personal expenses of the other spouse from one’s own money. Direct transfers of money or other property from one spouse to the other are likely to trigger gift tax, however.

Recently I have studied the law of marriage. As regards to money issues, I was naive to think that I could regard both spouses’ money as common property; in Finland, this is not so.

It is true that when a marriage ends (by death or by divorce), in the absence of specific prior restrictions, both spouses’ net worth is combined and distributed to each spouse (or their inheritors) 50-50. However, this does not say anything about how things are during a marriage.

In a marriage, under Finnish law, money and property held in the name of one spouse is generally the money and property of that spouse, and money and property held in joint ownership is (of course) jointly owned in the proportion specified. Interestingly, a court has held that a spouse transferring money to a joint bank account to which they have unilateral access retains ownership of that money until it is transferred out of their grasp (by being spent, for example); thus, money in that account is separately owned by each spouse to the extent of their net contributions, and no joint ownership is implied.

A spouse in a marriage has, in Finland, the legal duty, to the extent they are able, to take part in the common household economy and in fulfilling both spouses’ common and individual needs (see the Marriage Act, Section 46, Paragraph 1). This seems to mean that both spouses must take part in household chores and contribute what they can from personal income and assets to the family economy: the household must be maintained, and its needs must be met by appropriate purchases. Additionally, each spouse has a duty, in addition to meeting their own needs, to contribute in the fulfilling the needs of the other spouse. In many cases, this means that the spouse who makes more money spends money not only on their own needs and on common needs but also on the needs on the other spouse.

This duty does not mean, however, that a spouse can simply give money to the other spouse without tax effects. The gift tax enters the picture as soon as one spouse gives money or other assets freely to the other spouse. Just the intention of covering marital duties does not exempt the transfer from tax. What is needed is that the recipient must not be able to spend the money on other things. Thus, one can pay a grocery bill, but one cannot (without demanding an accounting) give money to pay for the groceries. As little as 150 euros per month is enough to trigger the tax within three years. See the inheritance and gift tax act Sections 19 and 19a.

It seems safe to use a joint debit card to be used for household and private expenses, so long as both spouses demand an accounting from the other on its use. The court decision I mentioned above seems to mean that simply putting money on such an account is not a taxable gift, and so long as both spouses actually account for their use of the joint card, their use of it in excess of their own contribution should be the exploitation of an untaxable marital duty. I am not certain of this interpretation, however.

Accumulating assets over what a spouse can afford by themself is very likely to involve taxable gifts, however. For example, if the couple uses the savings and future earnings of the higher earning spouse to buy a house under 50-50 joint ownership, this is very likely a taxable gift to the other spouse. Similarly, using both spouses’ income to accumulate retirement savings in one spouse’s name might be seen as a taxable gift (though it might be possible to explain it to the tax office as a joint savings in truth). Instead, both spouses should save independently, and at retirement, the higher savings of one can be used to discharge the marital duty to the other spouse.

My conclusion is that married spouses in Finland should keep their finances separate as much as possible. Avoid common bank accounts (apart possibly from household and private needs spending accounts), avoid joint savings. Undivisible property, like apartments and houses, should be listed in the ownership proportions corresponding to actual contributions: if one contributes 100 000 euros and the other 10 000 euros, the proportion should be listed as 90–10. If you do all this, you are unlikely to accidentally breach the gift tax act.

If you have a different opinion, or if you want to discuss this, feel free to use the comment box below. I ask that you substantiate any factual or legal propositions by reliable sources, however.

English Family

Just Married! – There’s nothing just about it

Waiting for the Vietnamese wedding to start
We got married, twice, in March: once in Hà N?i, Vi?t Nam, on March 10, and another time in Jyväskylä, Finland, on March 29. Both ceremonies are happy memories for us, as we get on with the rest of our lives together. This post, however, is the first in a series about the details of actually having a legal and culturally respected marriage between two different countries.

My wife is, in Western style, called Hang (not pronounced like the English word). Officially, in Vi?t Nam, she is Nguy?n Th? Thu H?ng, and in Finland, she is Thi Thu Hang Nguyen. She was born in Hà N?i, Vi?t Nam, and is a Vietnamese citizen.

I was born in Jyväskylä, Finland, and am a Finnish citizen.

Waiting for the Vietnamese wedding to start
Now, as I understand it, wedding customs in Vietnam are quite formal, derived from arranged marriages. There are three major meetings of the bride’s and the groom’s families: once to allow the couple to meet each other, once for the formal betrothal, and once for the actual marriage. Nobody asks the couple anything: all talking is done by the parents. In addition, there are introductions to make across families and prayers (and chickens) to offer to dead ancestors. We asked for a simple ceremony, but it ballooned into something reasonably big, about 150 guests in the main event, so that our marriage looked respectable in the local custom.

After the Jyväskylä wedding, at Maistraatti
In Finland, in contrast, we were in charge ourselves and could choose something simple. We arranged for ourselves a small ceremony in the state registry office in town, maistraatti, followed by a very classy fine dining meal at the best restaurant in town. We entertained only ten guests. This happened a couple of weeks after the Vietnamese ceremony.

However, celebrating marriage does not make it official. In the Vietnamese custom, the state does not enter into weddings – the marriage is registered officially usually weeks, sometimes years, before or after the wedding. Similarly, our Vietnamese wedding did not have any official status recognized by the state. However, we did need to make ours official, and that required paperwork.

We first had to decide whether to create the official marriage in Vietnam or in Finland. In the end, we would need to register it in both, but the first country would be recorded as the place of marriage in both countries, and the date of the first official act would be the official date in both countries. In the end, it seemed simpler for us, as we both live in Finland, to do the official here.

So, paperwork. To get officially married in Finland we first needed to have our eligibility to marry to be officially determined. The key question is whether we both were unmarried. For me the answer was easily obtained, as it is recorded in the state population database. However, even though Hang is registered in the database, her marital status was not. Hence, we needed a document from Vietnamese officials. Being naive, I thought she could get one from the embassy in Helsinki. Turns out, the document she got from there only stated she had not married anyone while in Finland, as far as the embassy’s records showed; it said nothing about her time in Vietnam. So, we sent her father a power of attorney to get another paper from Vietnam itself.

Now, there are two main ways for a country to authenticate its official papers for use in official process in another country. If both countries are parties to the Apostille Convention, certain officials of the originating country can, on request, grant an apostille that certifies the signature of the paper, and the receiving country will accept that certification. Unfortunately, while Finland is a party, Vietnam is not.

The other possibility is grand legalization. Usually, the foreign ministry of the originating country certifies the signature of the paper, and the embassy of the receiving country will then certify the foreign ministry’s certification. In addition, there is often a required step of official translation from a language to another.

Thus: Hang’s father got her single certificate. Then it was given to an official translator to be translated into English. Then, both the certificate and its translations were brought into Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which certified both the certificate and its translation. Finally, both the certificate and the translation were brought into Finland’s embassy in Hanoi, where the foreign ministry’s certifications were certified. Complicated, no?

Eventually, we had two properly certified papers for Hang, saying that she had never married in Vietnam or Finland. We then went to the state registry office, who received our request for certification of marriage eligibility. They told us that we would hear from them if there was a problem, but we would get no confirmation of success until marriage day. A couple of months later, we got a bit nervous and sent email to ask; they confirmed all was good.

Another thing is surname. It is the Finnish custom for a couple to settle on a common surname, usually the husband’s, though the law recognizes the right of both spouses to keep their name, or for one to adopt a double-barreled name containing both spouse’s surnames, and many couples end up choosing one of these options. The Vietnamese custom is for both spouses to retain their names. We chose to respect the Vietnamese custom, and neither of us changed our official names.

A collage from the Jyväskylä ceremony, compiled by Hang.
The official ceremony in Finland did not quite go as planned. We forgot to bring one of our identity cards, so I had to make a quick drive to home to fetch it. Fortunately, we had rented a very nice car and we did not live very far, so it took me only about half an hour to make the trip. Still, that half an hour meant that we changed from being early to being very late. Fortunately, although we used a bit of the next couple’s time, the officials were understanding and allowed us to complete our ceremony and do some photography as well.

Later, I will write more about our Vietnam trip and our Vietnamese wedding, as well as the process of getting our Finnish official marriage recognized at the Vietnam embassy in Helsinki. For now, I will just say that we are very happy together, and look forward to the many decades to come.

[Edits May 7, 2018, to clarify the order of events.]