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When a pension is not a pension

This may seem a peculiar title for an article but tax systems the world over can be peculiar, and Spain is no exception. In this article we review the types of foreign ‘retirement pension’ and explain how they are taxed in Spain.

How can this be so significant? Because in some cases pensions paid from other countries can be either:

  • Completely exempt from tax in Spain
  • Partially exempt from tax in Spain
  • Subject to the lower tax rates than usually applies
  • Be treated as investments with the cost of contributions deductible from income received.

Let’s first remember that being a Spanish resident means that you are subject to Spanish income tax on all your worldwide income.

Let’s now look at the typical kinds of income many of us would consider to be included in the term ‘pension’.

State paid pension

No surprises here. A pension paid by the social security system of any country is exactly what it says on the label. State pensions from any country are treated as earned income by the Spanish system.

The good news is that because pensions are treated as earned income, in addition to personal (5.550€) and age allowances (65+ 1.150€, 75+ 1.400€), an extra 2.000€ general deduction plus a further low income deduction of up to 5.565€ are available.

This means that a person over 75 years old pays no income tax on pension income below 14.000€.

Pension paid by a former foreign employer

Such income is treated as normal earned income by Spain, just like State paid pensions.

Pension paid by a foreign Government employer

In the case that a double tax treaty exists between Spain and the other country, pensions paid by former State employees are exempt from income tax in Spain. Most countries have a double tax treaty with Spain, including of course the UK. Brexit has not changed this.

This exemption applies to retired Government employed nurses, teachers, police, army personnel, civil servants and local authority employees of all types and even, sometimes, retirees of nationalised industries.

The way the exemption works depends on the precise text of the tax treaty but, usually, the pension is not taxable but does use up Spanish personal allowances and lower tax rates. This can cause other income to be taxed at higher rates.

The country that is paying the pension has the right to charge income tax but usually allows the deduction of personal allowances.

Foreign private pension schemes

This is where the most surprising differences exist. Foreign private pension schemes are not treated as pensions by the Spanish tax system and instead are subject to income tax like a savings or investment schemes, much like Spanish “Planes de Jubilación” that can be obtained from any Spanish high street bank.

Note that Spain also has ‘Planes de Pensión’ which are specially regulated private pension schemes, quite different to “Planes de Jubilación”.

These foreign pension schemes often have exotic names like SIPPs, QROPs, QNUPS, 401k, Roth IRAs, etc. They exist because many countries encourage saving for retirement and offer favourable tax treatment either in terms of tax deductions for contributions made to a scheme, or the growth of the investments is tax free, or both.

Spanish tax treatment of these foreign schemes varies according to how income is drawn from the scheme:

Lump sum draw downs/withdrawals

Firstly it is important to note that there is no tax free lump sum withdrawal, as exists in the UK tax system.

To work out how much taxable income applies to a withdrawal you need to calculate the difference between the amount originally invested in the scheme and compare this with the amount withdrawn and the value of the scheme at the time of the withdrawal, all amounts being calculated in historic Euros. This is not a simple calculation at all. The difference is regarded as a capital gain and tax is payable in Spain at between 19% and 26%.

The tax rates and bands are:

  • 19% 0€ – 6.000€
  • 21% 6.000€ – 50.000€
  • 23% 50.000€ – 200.000€
  • 26% over 200.000€

This treatment also applies where funds have been transferred into a Spanish compliant investment bond, often recommended when a person moves to Spain. These compliant bonds greatly simplify administration because the insurance company calculates what tax has to be paid and deducts this at source, providing the bondholder with details of what to declare in the annual income tax return.

Annuities

In the case that part or all of the capital saved in the pension scheme has been converted into an annuity then the Spanish system makes it simple to calculate the amount of taxable income.

In the case of a lifetime annuity this is set according to the age of the person at the time the annuity was contracted. As an example, an annuity contracted when a person is 65 is treated as 24% taxable income, the rest being treated as tax free capital return. The 24% taxable income is subject to income tax rates of 19%-26%.

In the case of a fixed term or temporary annuity, it is the contracted number of years that determines how much taxable income applies. As an example, an annuity that pays out for a fixed period of 5 years is treated as 12% taxable income.


In summary, the treatment of pensions in the Spanish tax system is not as straightforward as it might seem, which causes many to file their income tax declarations incorrectly and pay too much tax.

Unfortunately, the complications of Government pensions and foreign private pensions are also not understood by many tax practitioners and even the staff of tax offices, so, if you have these types of ‘pensions’, make sure you ask how they are being treated in your tax declaration.

Spence Clarke & Co specialises in the provision of Spanish tax, legal, audit and accountancy services, mainly to foreigners with interests in Spain. Our cross-border knowledge helps clients adapt to the Spanish system with the minimum of doubt and disruption. If you have any questions about this article or any other matter contact us, with no obligation, to see how we can help you.