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That is the dire warning from accountants Saffery Champness, who say that up to 30,000 individuals and families in the UK could be affected.

In many cases the rule changes may force people to dispose of works of art in order to pay hefty tax bills that they could not have foreseen under the old rules.

Many of those affected have set up legal Gifts with Reservation (GWR) schemes, which have been widely used over recent years to pass on property or chattels to beneficiaries while they themselves continue to have access to or use of the assets.

According to Saffery Champness partner Martin Webster, “Some of these GWR schemes date back to 1986 and some have never been challenged by the Revenue before. These include so-called reversionary or deferred lease schemes, double trust/home loan schemes or the gift and leaseback of chattels where former owners pay an annual commercial leasehold charge for access to, or use of, their erstwhile possessions.

“When they originally set up these structures people were just following advice and acting within the existing legal framework of the time: now, years later, the Government is trying to shift the goalposts.”

Mr Webster illustrated his point by highlighting the gift and leaseback provisions, under which former owners pay an annual commercial rent on valuable antiques given to beneficiaries where the previous owners continue to enjoy access to them.

“Hitherto, this has been set at roughly one per cent of value: the Revenue has recently floated a figure of five per cent. Imagine trying to find five per cent of a £1m painting every year, when you do not even own the asset any more. The Revenue is targeting entirely the wrong people! Left unchanged, this could lead to personal bankruptcies among former owners.”

The answer for many may be for their beneficiaries to hand the chattels back so that they can then be included as part of the estate when it comes to inheritance tax instead. In that case, the beneficiaries may well be forced to sell works of art when they finally inherit in order to pay inheritance tax.

Where the beneficiaries retain possession but feel obliged to help out those who have passed their assets onto them, they may still be forced to dispose of chattels to meet the new tax bills.

For some who have handed over their assets to beneficiaries, the prospects could be even worse, says Mr Webster. “The beneficiaries may not be willing to hand assets back to the people who originally set up the scheme who may then find themselves lumbered with liabilities they could not possibly have foreseen. The charges could lead to elderly previous owners being forced out of their homes or to further loss of Britain’s privately owned cultural heritage.”

The changes appear to fly in the face of recommendations made by Sir Nicholas Goodison in his review of incentives to help the authorities save outstanding works of art for the nation. Sir Nicholas suggested the carrot approach in a bid to make more works of art available. The Chancellor’s Budget changes appear to opt for the stick.

Describing part of the Inland Revenue’s thinking as being “in cloud cuckoo land,” Mr Webster concluded, “The Chancellor has torn up the rules and now you have to decide whether tax should be paid on the value of the benefit or, if you cannot afford to do this, you have to decide whether to bring the house [or chattels] back into your estate for inheritance tax purposes, undoing years of expensive planning undertaken in good faith.”