Offshoring of non-resident capital gains – the India experience of Vodafone and Cairn Energy

LotsOfRupees

Two Indian tax cases that have now largely run their course illustrate difficulties faced by countries determined to tax major economic activity in their own territory by non-residents.

India stands out as a rare jurisdiction determined to tax major foreign investors that greatly gain from economic activity there.

The cases show how difficult it can be to prevent profit shifting to tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands which features in each of the cases considered in this blog. The Cayman Islands is a haven of financial secrecy with no direct resident taxation of companies that can attain Cayman resident status.

The Indian cases have comparable facts and have followed a similar course:

Vodafone

In 2007 Vodafone Group PLC (British) sought to re-organise its nationwide telecommunications business in India. So Vodafone International Holdings BV (VIHBV) acquired the share capital of a Cayman Islands holding company from Hutchison Telecommunication International Ltd giving Vodafone Group PLC 67% control of Hutch Essar, an Indian joint venture company that owned the business’s Indian telecommunications licences.

A “crore” is 107. The Indian Income Tax Department sought to tax VIHBV on a capital gain of around Rs 12,000 crore with penalties on the transfer of telecommunications licences, the capital assets of the Indian business, re-organised between non-residents.

Cairn

In 2006-7 Cairn Energy PLC (British) re-organised the largest privately owned oil and gas business in India by transferring its shares in Cairn India Holdings, a Cayman Islands company to Cairn India, an Indian company.

In 2011 Cairn India merged with Vedanta Resources, another Indian mining conglomerate. The Indian Income Tax Department sought to tax a capital gain of around Rs 24,500 crore on these transfers of the capital assets of the Cairn India business.

Source taxation

The capital gains reflected growth and the increase in value in Indian-based business assets. India sought to subject these Indian-based gains to taxation based on their source in India.

Vodafone contested their assessment and was successful before the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court found that the Indian Tax Department couldn’t tax VIHBV, a non-resident, on gains it realised in the Vodafone re-organisation as there was no relevant capital asset of VIHBV of, or facilitation of a look-through to a capital asset in, the Indian Income-tax Act 1961 in its pre-amendment version.

Following that loss in the Supreme Court the Indian government amended the Income-tax Act 1961 with the Finance Act 2012 to retrospectively target indirect gains made by non-residents on realisation of Indian capital assets. Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961, with retrospective effect from 1961, treats income in the nature of capital gains from the direct or indirect transfers of Indian capital assets between non-residents as Indian-sourced income.

The retrospectivity was justified as a “clarification” of how the Indian tax law is to apply but the impact of the amendment suggest this government descriptor was euphemistic.

Comparison with Australian tax on indirect gains on non-residents’ assets

There is no comparable between Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961 of India and the Australian and most other taxation systems where source taxation of gains on moveable assets made by non-residents is generally not pursued unless the non-resident has a direct interest in an asset used in a local business permanent establishment.

Australia has conformed with OECD model treaty conventions, and so most Australian treaties are based on, or are comparable to the OECD model convention which provides:

4. Gains derived by a resident of a Contracting State from the alienation of shares deriving more than 50 per cent of their value directly or indirectly from immovable property situated in the other Contracting State may be taxed in that other State.

Article 13(4) of the OECD model convention

This substantially confines when Australia and these other places will tax non-residents on their disposals of shares in companies. That is the source country only taxes gains on shares of a non-resident who is resident of the other treaty state where shares reflect immovable interests such as in real estate, mines, forests, fisheries etc.

The rationale of the confinement, as I understand it, is to avoid double and multiple taxation arising when countries tax dealings by non-residents outside of, or with no connection to, their own country especially understanding the country where a person is resident is expected to tax the person on their worldwide income. But the confinement in Article 13(4) and the like excludes the right to tax indirect gains enjoyed by non-residents on movable property that does have a true connection with the country such as the movable business property in India of Vodafone and Cairn owned by Cayman Islands companies.

So these treaties don’t concede rights to countries to tax a non-resident to gains on shares reflecting growth in capital assets used in a local business realised indirectly through a sale of company shares of the non-resident. Instead that right to tax is ceded to the treaty partner where the owner of the shares is tax resident in that other country.

Comparison with taxes on business profits under OECD-like treaties

This is in contrast to business profits with a source in, say, Australia where Australia has first right to tax non-residents under OECD model-like articles when a non-resident, though tax resident in the other treaty country, has a permanent establishment in Australia.

In other words Australia, like many other countries but unlike India, generally does not pursue source income taxation of gains on Australian assets of non-residents made outside of a business permanent establishment. Capital gains on Australian assets realised by non-residents, and not just treaty partner residents, that are not Taxable Australian Property (I capitalise this defined term in the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997) are not subjected to the Australian CGT regime under Division 855 of the ITAA 1997 though capital gains of non-residents made on Taxable Australian Property which extends to:

  1. immovable real estate, mines, etc. and interests in them – see section 855-25 of the ITAA 1997: that is, indirect interests in these too are Taxable Australian Property, and options to acquire them; and
  2. assets that are business assets used in permanent establishment though:
    • inclusion of permanent establishment business assets in Taxable Australian Property can be subject to treaty constraints; and
    • indirect interests in business assets used in permanent establishment are not included in Taxable Australian Property;

(see the table in section 855-15 of the ITAA 1997;)

are subject to Australian CGT.

The limits on non-residents relying on treaty protection to resist Australian tax on indirect capital gains are also evident in Australia in Resource Capital Fund IV LP v Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCAFC 51 which again featured the Cayman Islands. The Full Federal Court found that a Cayman Islands limited partnership with U.S. resident limited partners could not invoke Article 13 in the Australia USA Double Tax Treaty to prevent Australia taxing capital gains on sales of shares in a limited partnership (treated as a company under Australian tax law) which held interests in immovable mining assets in Australia.

Australian opportunities for non-residents and tax havens

Where Australian shares or other business assets aren’t or don’t reflect interests in immovable property or direct interests in permanent establishment assets (other than Taxable Australian Assets in Australia’s case) then Australia and other OECD member states generally don’t look to tax non-residents on gains on them say by imposing withholding taxes to assure collection from non-residents.

It follows that these countries give non-residents based in low-tax jurisdictions, or non-residents who structure their holdings through tax havens, much opportunity to invest in movable Australian assets including brands, digital assets, designs, licences, other intellectual property and goodwill on a virtual CGT free basis.

It is known that the rather extreme minimal or zero tax outcomes these non-residents can access by offshoring their interests are a principal driver of “private equity” opportunities where restructure into, or using, either genuine or contrived non-resident ownership is a common feature.

Desirable destinations for foreign investment

Australia and other OECD nations supposedly encourage and compete for foreign investment by their light touch of capital gains on moveable property connected to local business which non-residents can realise their interests in offshore. Patent boxes, conduit foreign income exemptions, CGT participation exemptions come to mind as light touches on non-residents onshore.

Clearly, and rather dramatically, the Indian government is not so willing to give up the huge tax revenue at stake although there is awareness in India about the impact of their policy of pursuing non-residents for taxes on India-generated capital gains on India as a desirable destination for foreign investment.

The retrospectivity stumbling block

India also tried to introduce General Anti Abuse Rules (GAAR) in 2012 to retrospectively attack the Vodafone and Cairn arrangements however India was not able to implement their GAAR until 2018-19.

The retrospective elements of Section 9(1)(i) of the Income-tax Act 1961 and the proposed GAAR are controversial and the retrospective application of Section 9(1)(i) by the Indian Tax Department, especially with the imposition of penalty, now appears to be its stumbling block in its pursuit of Vodafone and Cairn.

Both Vodafone and Cairn have lately been able to rely on international treaties (not tax treaties) to resist Indian taxation under the retrospective law on the basis that imposition of the retrospective law was unfair and inequitable.

Treaty arbitration

India and the Netherlands entered into a Bilateral Investment Treaty in 1995. In the Vodafone case VIHBV obtained an order against the Indian government for violation of the treaty at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague, Singapore seat) as the tax, interest and penalties assessed to VIHBV under retrospective legislation violated the fair and equitable treatment of Dutch investment required under the treaty. Simply stated VIHBV was held to account against a tax law that was not in place at the time it undertook Vodafone India re-organisation and when VIHBV would have returned its income in India.

In December 2020, three months after the Vodafone arbitration, Cairn obtained a similar arbitrated order under a similar Bilateral Investment Treaty between the UK and India.

The Indian government can still pursue rights under these treaties to appeal to the High Court in Singapore however they will be aware that this court will be reluctant to disturb Permanent Court of Arbitration findings. Nevertheless it is surprising that both arbitrations treated the Vodafone investment as Dutch and the Cairn investment as British respectively even though the investments in India in both cases were by Cayman Islands entities presumably outside of the coverage of these bilateral investment treaties.

Conclusion

It seems clear enough that countries with the will and fortitude to do so, like India, can impose tax laws which bring gains on offshore holdings of non-residents which indirectly reflect or look through to gains on onshore capital assets used in local businesses to local tax. However these countries will be pitted against powerful interests willing to structure through tax havens and keen to resist taxes relying on any weakness in the imposition of their tax collecting law.

In that context legislation that takes effect retrospectively, even where effective under local law, is a serious flaw in the international treaty domain. Further, like in the Vodafone and Cairn cases, these countries may find tax pursuit of non-residents stymied by:

  1. treaty commitments;
  2. international norms largely set and dominated by the OECD nations; and
  3. reputational risk that the country does not welcome foreign investment;

with tax havens like the Cayman Islands and others ever ready to facilitate offshore realisation of gains effectively tax free for their clients.

Avoiding the igloo – land sold for a GST-inclusive or GST-exclusive price?

AvoidIgloo

A local sale of goods or a supply of services by a GST-registered business will usually be:

  • for a GST-inclusive price/fee; and
  • accompanied by a tax invoice confirming the GST-inclusive price and the 10% (1/11th) GST included in the price/fee.

When to look out for GST on land sales

The price and GST on a sale of real estate in Australia can be far less clear. Although a majority of sales of residential property are not subject to GST, sales broadly of:

  1. new residential premises (where not tenanted for at least five years);
  2. vacant land that can be used for residential development; and
  3. commercial residential premises;

are generally (GST) taxable supplies at settlement where the sale is by a seller who is either registered or required to be registered (perhaps solely required to register due to the sale). There are some exceptions.

Unanticipated GST and reducing GST with the margin scheme

Sometimes the parties can be caught unaware of a GST liability on the land sale or of an opportunity to apply the margin scheme to a sale of residential land under Division 75 of the A New Tax System (Goods And Services Tax) Act 1999 so a GST rate lower than 10% can be applied. A margin scheme rate lower than the 10% rate (or 1/11th of the GST inclusive price) will suit:

  • a purchaser:
    • not entitled to claim a GST credit (purchaser credits are not available when the margin scheme is applied to the purchase) ; and
    • liable for stamp duty calculated ad valorem based on the (lower) purchase price plus GST; and
  • the vendor who receives a higher nett price.

GST-inclusive or GST-exclusive price in the contract?

Normally a price for land is GST-inclusive under a contract in NSW.

Still, a purchaser should be vigilant when purchasing real estate where GST could apply. The current 2019 Law Society NSW and Real Estate Institute NSW contract of sale of land (the NSW contract) now has a number of checkboxes and GST residential withholding details which should indicate if GST is to apply when a proposed contract is received from the vendor. However where vendor agents and conveyancers are unaware or unsure about whether GST applies these can be left unchecked or incomplete when they should be proposed checked and completed.

The general conditions in the NSW Contract state that:

Normally, if a party must pay the price or any other amount to the other party under this contract, GST is not to be added to the price or amount. (Emphasis added)

General condition 13.2

That normal case thus matches a GST-inclusive price one is used to seeing on a tax invoice for goods or services from a supplier. However beware a contract which reveals that the purchaser must pay the price “plus GST” (so the price is GST-exclusive and general condition 13.2 is thus overridden) in a special condition even where less than obviously so: see Booth v Cityrose Trading Pty Ltd [2011] VCAT 278.

The importance of the terms of the contract, and the imperative to pick up an exceptional GST-exclusive special condition, is apparent from the NSW Court of Appeal decision in Igloo Homes Pty Ltd v Sammut Constructions Pty Ltd [2005] NSWCA 280. In that case a price plus GST (GST exclusive) provision in a 2000 edition NSW contract permitted the vendor to recover an additional amount of $250,000 on account of GST even though a series of misunderstandings (or worse) indicated that:

  1. the vendor had put the properties on the market at a price inclusive of GST;
  2. the purchaser had intended the price it offered to be inclusive of GST;
  3. the selling estate agent had intended the price agreed upon to be inclusive of GST;
  4. the selling estate agent was the vendor’s agent for the purpose of negotiating the sale and the price;
  5. the selling estate agent had given written advice to the vendor of the terms agreed;
  6. the vendor’s directors had intended the price to be the price agreed plus $90,909 on account of GST applying the margin scheme;
  7. neither party had intended the price to be the price agreed plus $250,000 on account of GST;
  8. the vendor had settled the sale even though GST of any amount and other amounts due at settlement hadn’t been paid by the purchaser;
  9. at settlement the vendor had accepted the price agreed and undertook to provide a tax invoice; and
  10. the purchaser’s mistake as to the effect of the contract was induced by the vendor’s agent who knew of and intended that outcome.

Contract could not be rectified

The evidence in the case showed that the purchaser did not understand GST and the margin scheme and had not examined the contract to identify the GST-exclusive special condition. It was found that the vendor’s conveyancer’s and the agent’s conduct described above was not so wrongful that the “rectification” of the contract sought on appeal was justified: a rewriting of the contract by the courts to reset the price as GST-inclusive.

Add the GST inclusive amount in the box to avoid an “Igloo”

The 2019 NSW contract includes a box on the front page:

The price includes GST of: $ _________

however the box is marked “optional”. It is in a purchaser’s interests to ensure this box is completed before contracts are exchanged so a purchaser’s liability for a “plus GST” amount above the agreed contract price can be countered for whatever reason.

The margin scheme and the price

One reason the parties may not complete this box is that the parties do or would seek to apply the margin scheme where GST must be charged. Eligibility for the margin scheme and thus a GST rate lower than 1/11th of the sale price is limited – see Eligibility to use the margin scheme at the ATO website. A GST liability under the margin scheme needs to be calculated by the vendor and the vendor may not have performed the calculation in time for the exchange of contracts. A further requirement of using the margin scheme is that the parties must agree to apply it under their contract (another checkbox on the NSW contract).

Under the consideration method for applying the margin scheme, which will usually be the only method applicable to property acquired on or after 1 July 2000, a margin scheme GST is 1/11th of the margin viz. the margin is the difference between the property’s selling price and the original purchase price. That is, the sale price less the purchase price equals the margin.

The GST residential withholding amount when the margin scheme applies

The margin scheme GST and rate differs from the flat 7% GST residential withholding amount which a purchaser must usually withhold at settlement based on the vendor’s notification that margin scheme GST applies on the contract.  GST residential withholding was introduced in 2018 to require a purchaser to withhold an amount to meet the GST on the sale (taxable supply) of residential land at settlement. The GSTRW amount is paid by the purchaser to the Australian Taxation Office at settlement as an approximation of the margin scheme GST with credit given to the vendor for the payment.

The 7% GST residential withholding amount is presently set by sub-sections 14-250(6)-(8) of Schedule 1 to the Taxation Administration Act 1953. Under sub-section 14-250(7) the 7% rate is applied to the “contract price” to determine the amount that must be withheld. It is to be remembered that the 7% is not the GST payable by the purchaser so a calculation treating a notionally GST-exclusive price as the price in the 7% calculation  viz.

notGSTRWcalc

viz. 6.542056075% of the contract price on a supposed GST-inclusive basis withheld as GST residential withholding is not compliant either with this author’s understanding of sub-sections 14-250(6)-(8) or with the ATO website guidance on withholding on GST at Settlement. It should be 7% x Price.

Etmekdjian – the disqualified are out of the SMSF system

You are leaving the SMSF sector

In an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision this month in Etmekdjian v. Commissioner of Taxation  [2020] AATA 3821 (1 October 2020), the AAT refused to extend a waiver of disqualification to the applicant so the applicant could manage his own self managed superannuation fund (SMSF). The applicant had been disqualified under Part 15 of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (SIS Act).

Automatic disqualification and its waiver

There is a thin 14 days following disqualification to apply for a waiver of the disqualification once a person is disqualified: section 126B. In this case the applicant had been disqualified automatically under sub-section 120(3) of the SIS Act on conviction, by a NSW Local Court, for Commonwealth Criminal Code offences. The offences were for dishonestly backdating employee share scheme elections under former section 139E of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

The applicant was outside of the 14 days allowed to seek the waiver so the applicant sought an extension of time to do so from the AAT.

AAT decision

The AAT refused:

  • to accept that the applicant’s unsuccessful appeal to the District Court against the conviction stayed the conviction by the Local Court and thus the date of automatic disqualification for section 120 purposes; and
  • to allow the extension of time as there was an absence of exceptional circumstances explaining the failure to lodge the application for waiver against disqualification within 14 days.

Context of the AAT decision and Part 15 disqualifications

Deputy President Bernard McCabe observed at the outset in paragraph 1 of the AAT decision:

Managing a superannuation fund – even a small, self-managed fund – is a big responsibility. There is a public interest in managing these funds properly given the tax advantages they enjoy. To that end, the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (Cth) (SISA) establishes rules designed to ensure prudent management. Part 15 of SISA includes rules regarding disqualified persons. A disqualified person may not be a trustee, investment manager or custodian of a superannuation entity, or be a responsible officer (such as a director) of a corporation that performs those roles: s 126K. A person can be disqualified by the Commissioner of Taxation (where the Commissioner is the regulator) or the Federal Court (where the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority is the regulator) on a variety of grounds, but a person will be automatically disqualified in circumstances set out in s 120. .…

[2020] AATA 3821 at paragraph 1

The AAT found that it only had power to extend the 14 day period strictly when exceptional circumstances warranted that extension. Deputy President McCabe concluded:

….The law requires that I identify exceptional circumstances that prevented the applicant from complying with the 14 day time limit. It is not enough to establish the applicant had a good excuse, or that non-compliance does not result in any harm, or that the applicant has a good case in relation to the substantive issue. This is not a standard ‘extension of time’ case.

21. The applicant has failed to identify any ‘exceptional circumstances’ that prevented him from making the application within the time frame contemplated in s 126B(3). In those circumstances, the decision under review must be affirmed.

[2020] AATA 3821 at paragraphs 20 and 21

The AAT’s strict approach is no surprise when it comes to the disqualification rules in Part 15. Part 15 reflects a low tolerance approach in the SIS Act to persons designated unfit to manage a superannuation fund.

Difficulties – SMSFs with a disqualified trustee/director/member

The author has seen Part 15 disqualifications happen on bankruptcy by operation of sub-section 120(1) of the SIS Act.

A person disqualified on bankruptcy, or any other disqualified person such as Mr. Etmekdjian, can’t be a trustee, a director of the trustee or a member of a SMSF. A fund with a disqualified participant falls off the register of superannuation funds as a SMSF regulated by the Commissioner of Taxation. The fund becomes (at least notionally) regulated by the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) instead.

So the Australian Taxation Office won’t and can’t assist once the fund is no longer a SMSF.

Unless a deactivated SMSF, on a participant becoming Part 15 disqualified, can nimbly:

  • convert to an APRA regulated fund; and
  • appoint an approved trustee;

based on a power in the trust deed of the fund to do so, or disqualified persons promptly vacate the fund to prevent deactivation, the fund reverts to an administrative no man’s land. Even arranging a roll out of benefits to another fund is fraught following deactivation. The fund won’t be practically manageable or administrable.

Time for a SMSF deed upgrade?

Lack of capability in a SMSF trust deed to convert a SMSF to an APRA fund is one of a number of indicators that SMSF trust deed may need of an upgrade to comply with today’s SIS Act requirements.

Foreign purchaser stamp duty and land tax surcharges – design faults & unit trusts

DesignFault

Advent of the state foreign person property surcharges

Foreign person surcharges have applied on New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia and Australian Capital Territory property taxes following Commonwealth action to have the Foreign Investment Review Board more closely monitor the acquisition and holding of Australian real estate by foreign interests: see our July 2016 blog post:

Australia is now tracking & surcharging foreign buyers of land

https://wp.me/p6T4vg-56

NSW surcharges and current rates

In NSW, surcharges imposed since 2016 are:

(a)          a surcharge purchaser duty (currently 8% of the market value of the property) on the acquisition of residential property in NSW (Chapter 2A of the Duties Act (NSW) 1997 [DA]); and

(b)          a surcharge land tax (currently 2% of the unimproved value of the land) for  residential property in NSW owned as at 31 December each year (section 5A of the Land Tax Act (NSW) 1956).

(Surcharges)

The foreign trusts that aren’t foreign problem

Discretionary trusts with all or predominantly Australian participants and entitled beneficiaries can nevertheless be caught as foreign trusts that must pay the Surcharges. Liability for the Surcharges is based or grounded on sub-section 18(3) of the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (C’th) 1975 (FATA): Sub-section 18(3) provides:

For the purposes of this Act, if, under the terms of a trust, a trustee has a power or discretion to distribute the income or property of the trust to one or more beneficiaries, each beneficiary is taken to hold a beneficial interest in the maximum percentage of income or property of the trust that the trustee may distribute to that beneficiary.

sub-section 18(3) of the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (C’th) 1975

If the income or property (capital) that could be distributed to a foreign beneficiary of a trust is 20% or more of income in a year or property of the trust, the trust is foreign for FATA and Surcharge purposes. An ameliorating aspect of the Surcharges legislation is that:

  • Australian citizens who are non-residents of Australia; and
  • some New Zealand citizens with certain Australian visas;

who are foreign persons under the wide sweep of sub-section 18(3) of the FATA are excluded from being foreign persons for NSW Surcharges purposes: see sub-section 104J(2) of the DA.

The lengthy transition

Even for those not averse to the idea that foreign individual and foreign trust investors should pay higher property dues the implementation of the Surcharges in NSW has been agonising. Even now, in 2020, four years after liabilities for Surcharges were first imposed under the DA and the LTA the State Revenue Legislation Further Amendment Act (NSW) 2020 (“SRLFAA”) is still needed to phase in the Surcharges, and transitional relief from them, as they apply to trusts.

As well as imposing the wide sweep of what the FATA treats as foreign, the SRLFAA:

  • imposes impugnable trust deed requirements on discretionary trusts (see below); and
  • extends transitional arrangements that were set to end on earlier dates in versions of Revenue Ruling G010 from Revenue NSW and the State Revenue Legislation Further Amendment Bill (NSW) 2019.

Trust deed requirements on discretionary trusts

Where a trust is a discretionary trust for Surcharge purposes then the SRLFAA requires that the terms of the trust must be amended by 31 December 2020 so:

(a) no potential beneficiary of the trust is or can be a foreign person [the no foreign beneficiary requirement]; and
(b) the terms of the trust cannot be amended in a manner so a foreign person could become a beneficiary [the no amendment requirement];

and then only does the discretionary trust, even a discretionary trust that:

  • has no foreign participants or beneficiaries; and
  • thus is not foreign after the FATA wide sweep and sub-section 104J(2) of the DA are considered;

(a Local DT) escape treatment as a foreign trust for Surcharge purposes.

Why the no amendment requirement?

The object of the no amendment requirement is to impose the Surcharges based on the contingency or possibility only that a Local DT may come to have a foreign beneficiary in the future. The position of Revenue NSW is understood to be that Revenue NSW does not have the compliance resources to monitor Local DTs for foreign beneficiaries into the future on an ongoing basis.

Although nearly all discretionary trust deeds contain some kind of variation power, a design fault of such resource-saving requirements viz.:

  • the “irrevocable” requirement of Revenue NSW in paragraph 6 of Revenue Ruling DUT 037 concerning sub-section 54(3) of the DA concerning concessional duty on changes of trustee; and
  • the no amendment requirement now in the SRLFAA;

is that the variation power in many or most trust deeds of trusts in NSW may not permit modification of the variation power to satisfy either of these requirements.

Changing the scope or amending the terms of a trust amendment power

In Jenkins v. Ellett, Douglas J. of the Queensland Supreme Court stated the relevant law and learning about changing the variation power in a trust deed:

[15] The scope of powers of amendment of a trust deed is discussed in an illuminating fashion in Thomas on Powers (1st ed., 1998) at pp. 585-586, paras 14-31 to 14-32 in these terms:

“In all cases, the scope of the relevant power is determined by the construction of the words in which it is couched, in accordance with the surrounding context and also of such extrinsic evidence (if any) as may be properly admissible. A power of amendment or variation in a trust instrument ought not to be construed in a narrow or unreal way. It will have been created in order to provide flexibility, whether in relation to specific matters or more generally. Such a power ought, therefore, to be construed liberally so as to permit any amendment which is not prohibited by an express direction to the contrary or by some necessary implication, provided always that any such amendment does not derogate from the fundamental purposes for which the power was created ….It does not follow, of course, that the power of amendment itself can be amended in this way. Indeed, it is probably the case that there is an implied (albeit rebuttable) presumption, in the absence of an express direction to that effect, that a power of amendment (like any other kind of power) cannot be used to extend its own scope or amend its own terms. Moreover, a power of amendment is not likely to be held to extend to varying the trust in a way which would destroy its ‘substratum’. The underlying purpose for the furtherance of which the power was initially created or conferred will obviously be paramount.”

Jenkins v. Ellett [2007] QSC 154

In our experience a small minority of trusts in NSW have a variation power which expressly permits extension of its own scope or amendment of its own terms. That kind of extended power can raise its own set of difficulties which explains why these extended variation powers are not especially popular. It follows, as stated, that a substantial number of variations of the terms of discretionary trust deeds which the no amendment requirement imposes are prone, or likely, to be beyond the power conferred by the variation power of the trust and thus ineffective on a trust by trust reckoning.

discretionary trust for Surcharges purposes

In section 1 in the dictionary of the DA a discretionary trust is defined for DA and Surcharges purposes:

“discretionary trust” means a trust under which the vesting of the whole or any part of the capital of the trust estate, or the whole or any part of the income from that capital, or both–
(a) is required to be determined by a person either in respect of the identity of the beneficiaries, or the quantum of interest to be taken, or both, or
(b) will occur if a discretion conferred under the trust is not exercised, or
(c) has occurred but under which the whole or any part of that capital or the whole or any part of that income, or both, will be divested from the person or persons in whom it is vested if a discretion conferred under the trust is exercised.

section 1 of the dictionary of the Duties Act (NSW) 1997

More time to check for unexpected foreign trust treatment

With time extended to 31 December 2020 by the SRLFAA to amend trust deeds so a discretionary trust won’t be treated as a foreign person it is timely during the remainder of 2020 to also check the terms of residential land holding trusts that may not ordinarily be thought of as a discretionary trust.

A trust, including a unit trust, that contains powers in its terms which:

  • allow for a beneficiary to be selected by someone to take income or capital;
  • allow for the amount of income or capital a beneficiary is to take to be set by someone;
  • which can change the income or capital a beneficiary will take if the discretion is not exercised; or
  • which can divest a beneficiary of an interest in income or capital which they otherwise would take;

that brings the trust within a discretionary trust in section 1 of the dictionary of the DA needs to meet the no foreign beneficiary requirement and the no amendment requirement in the SRLFAA.

Hybrid trusts and other unit trusts

This definition brings in trusts known as hybrid trusts within this construct of discretionary trust. Shortly stated a hybrid trust is a tax aggressive structure where unit or interest holders have standing vested interests in income or capital of the trust but where, usually, the trustee has a supervening power or powers to divest those interests in income, capital or both in favour of other beneficiaries such as family or related companies or trusts controlled by the unit or interest holder with the standing interest.

Other unit trust arrangements can be treated as a DA discretionary trust even where the discretion is historical, redundant and income tax benign. For instance an older style standard unit trust may be set up by way of initial units and the trustee may be given a discretion in the trust deed not to distribute income or capital to initial unitholders once ordinary units in the trust are issued.

This discretion in the terms of a trust is enough for the unit trust to be treated as a discretionary trust so it would be prudent for the terms of the unit trust to be amended to remove the discretion if that can be done:

  • without resettling the trust; and
  • less onerously than amending the trust deed to comply with the no foreign beneficiary requirement and the no amendment requirement.

Australian Tax Office maps lawyer-lodged objection decision process

The Australian Taxation Office has recently reviewed how it engages with lawyers. They have released the chart below (best viewed on a large screen) setting out how lawyer-lodged objections for lawyers’ clients progress to decision.

Some comments and explanation

RDR is Review and Dispute Resolution, an ATO section (business line) established by the ATO in 2013.

We have had positive experience of the “triage” process and the aid of competent triage officers to help resolve procedural dilemmas so that the objection officer can focus on the grounds of objection.

The chart encourages lawyers’ use of Objection form – for tax professionals (NAT 13044) to achieve “direct routing”. We have said on this blog why this form is not so helpful. We don’t use this form to prepare an objection for a client and we haven’t had routing trouble we have noticed.

Woes of a beneficiary of a discretionary trust in getting a tax deduction for interest: Chadbourne v. C of T.

CarWoes

In the recent Administrative Appeals Tribunal case Chadbourne and Commissioner of Taxation (Taxation) [2020] AATA 2441 (10 July 2020) the AAT confirmed the disallowance of tax deductions to Mr. D. Chadbourne (the Applicant).

The Applicant was a beneficiary of the D & M Chadbourne Family Trust (DMCFT) and the Applicant was denied deductions for:

  • interest on money borrowed by the Applicant to fund the acquisition of real estate and shares by the DMCFT; and
  • other expenses incurred by the Applicant expended;

so the DMCFT could earn income.

The discretionary trust

The DMCFT was a discretionary trust. In Chadbourne Deputy President Britten-Jones usefully described a discretionary trust:

I note that the meaning of the term ‘discretionary trust’ is disclosed by a consideration of usage rather than doctrine, and the usage is descriptive rather than normative. It is used to identify a species of express trust, one where the entitlement of beneficiaries to income, or to corpus, or both, is not immediately ascertainable; rather, the beneficiaries are selected from a nominated class by the trustee or some other person and this power (which may be a special or hybrid power) may be exercisable once or from time to time.

Chadbourne at paragraph 8

The mere expectancy of a beneficiary of a discretionary trust

Because the beneficiaries of a discretionary trust are not immediately ascertainable and are to be selected, a prospective beneficiary only has an expectancy of earning trust income unless and until the beneficiary is so selected by the trustee to take income:

Unless and until the Trustee of the discretionary trust exercises the discretion to distribute a share of the income of the trust estate to the applicant, the applicant’s interest in the income of the discretionary trust is a mere expectancy. It is neither vested in interest nor vested in possession, and the applicant has no right to demand and receive payment of it.

Chadbourne at paragraph 57

or in the case of a beneficiary who takes in default of exercise of discretion they have no more than a similar expectancy.

The Applicant was a beneficiary of the DMCFT with an expectancy interest.

The available tax deduction

The Applicant could not satisfy the first limb of the general deduction provision, now in the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997, which allows an income tax deduction for a loss or outgoing to the extent:

it is incurred in gaining or producing your assessable income 

paragraph 8-1(1)(a) of the ITAA 1997 (emphasis added)

In Chadbourne the Applicant’s expenditure was incurred to gain or produce income for the trustee of the DMCFT, a separate legal entity. Applying authority including Federal Commissioner of Taxation v Munro (1926) 38 CLR 153, Antonopoulos and FCT [2011] AATA 431; 84 ATR 311, Case M36 (1980) 80 ATC 280,  Commissioner of Taxation v Roberts and Smith (1992) 37 FCR 246, where Hill J. referred to Ure v Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1981) 50 FLR 219, Fletcher v Commissioner of Taxation (1991) 173 CLR 1 and other cases, the AAT required a nexus between loss or outgoings of the Applicant and the assessable income of the Applicant; not the DMCFT. Although the Applicant stood to earn income indirectly as the likely beneficiary of the DMCFT the AAT found:

The Trust is a discretionary trust the terms of which require the Trustee to exercise a discretion as to whom a distribution of net income is to be made.  It is an inherent requirement of the exercise of that discretion that it be given real and genuine consideration. There must be ‘the exercise of an active discretion’. There were numerous beneficiaries in the Trust.  There was no certainty provided by the terms of the Trust that the Trustee would exercise its discretionary power of appointment in favour of the applicant.

Chadbourne at paragraph 53

and the Applicant thus had not incurred the expenditure in gaining or producing the assessable income of the Applicant.

Why did the Applicant run the AAT appeal?

The Applicant in Chadbourne was self-represented. With the benefit of professional advice or assistance the Applicant may have:

  • more readily foreseen the outcome of his appeal to the AAT which, in the light of the authority applied by Deputy President Britten-Jones, could be seen as inevitable; or
  • moreover, arranged the loan to achieve the required section 8-1 nexus between the outgoings and the assessable income of a taxpayer.

Safer alternative 1 – trustee loan

The most obvious alternative would have been for the trustee of the trust to have been the borrower and to have directly incurred the relevant expenses though those actions would have been different commercial arrangements to those that were done.

These actions may have been more complicated and expensive to arrange: not the least because the financier may have required the Applicant to personally guarantee repayment of the loan by the trustee of the trust which was a corporate trustee with limited liability. Nonetheless these precautions would have ensured section 8-1 deductions were available to the trustee of the trust.

(Somewhat) safer alternative 2 – on-loan to the trustee

The other and perhaps commercially easier alternative would have been an on-loan of the borrowed funds by the Applicant to the trust.

The Applicant in Chadbourne may have belatedly considered an on-loan solution. At paragraph 11 of the AAT decision it was observed that the Applicant had abandoned a contention that there was a “written funding agreement” between the Applicant and the trustee of the DMCFT which the Commissioner had suggested was an invention to assist the Applicant in the appeal.

In the event of a genuine on-loan the trustee of the trust would hold the borrowed funds as loan funds with a clarity as to whom interest and principal is to be repaid rather than as a capital contribution or gift to the trust without that clarity.

On-loan – interest free

Clearly the on-loan by the Applicant to the trustee of the trust should not be interest free as the Applicant then faces the Chadbourne problem of having no assessable income with which to justify a section 8-1 deduction. In the words of Taxation Determination TD 2018/9 Income tax: deductibility of interest expenses incurred by a beneficiary of a discretionary trust on borrowings on-lent interest-free to the trustee:

A beneficiary of a discretionary trust who borrows money, and on-lends all or part of that money to the trustee of the discretionary trust interest-free, is usually not entitled to a deduction for any interest expenditure incurred by the beneficiary in relation to the borrowed money on-lent to the trustee under section 8-1 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (ITAA 1997)…  

TD 2018/9 – paragraph 1

On-loan – at low interest

An on-loan at low interest was arranged in Ure v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1981) 11 ATR 484. In Ure the borrower borrowed funds at up to 12.5% p.a. interest and on-lent the funds to his wife and his discretionary trust at 1% p.a. The Full Federal Court found that the deduction Mr. Ure could claim under the first limb of the general deduction provision, sub-section 51(1) of the ITAA 1936, was limited to the 1% p.a. by which the interest income earned by Mr. Ure from his on-loan was confined.

On loan – at equivalent interest

It thus follows from TD 2018/9, Ure and Chadbourne that, to achieve deductibility in full for interest on funds borrowed and on-lent to a related discretionary trust, the interest earned by the beneficiary/on-lender on the on-loan should be the interest payable by the on-lender on the loan from the financier. This should leave the beneficiary/borrower in a tax neutral position on his or her loan on-loaned with assessable interest earned under the on-loan equalling deductible interest paid on the loan.

Related loan issues

As the on-loan is a related loan there are further considerations which will attract the scrutiny of the Commissioner:

A related on-loan should ideally be carefully documented and it should be clarified that the beneficiary/on-lender has an indefeasible right to the interest even though the on-lender is a related party of the borrower. It is also important that commitments in the on-loan agreement are met and generally interest due to the beneficiary/on-lender shouldn’t be capitalised and, especially, shouldn’t be aggregated with unpaid present entitlements due to the beneficiary.

The Commissioner could take these positions:

  • that the on-loan with interest is inadequately documented and can’t be proved so accounting entries capitalising interest shouldn’t be considered conclusive; or
  • the on-loan may be documented but it is a sham and the failure of the trust to pay interest when due shows this.

See my blog post at this site “Only a loan? Impugnable loans, proving them for tax and shams” https://wp.me/p6T4vg-8a which shows the fallibility of related party loans when these questions are contested with the Commissioner.

Woes with hybrid trusts

A hybrid trust, also a descriptive rather than a normative structure, can also fit the Deputy President Britten-Jones formulation of a discretionary trust where the entitlement of beneficiaries of the hybrid trust to income is not immediately ascertainable and is subject to the exercise of a discretion. It has been recognised,  including in the Commissioner’s Taxpayer Alert TA 2008/3 Uncommercial use of certain trusts that the considerations of the AAT in Chadbourne can similarly apply to deny a section 8-1 deduction to the holder of an interest in a hybrid trust who incurs expenditure to earn income through a hybrid trust structure.

In passing I note my wariness of hybrid trusts which are typically aggressive and sometimes tax abusive arrangements. The Commissioner’s Tax Alerts are particularly directed against tax aggressive activity.

That said, the trust in the case of Forrest v Commissioner of Taxation [2010] FCAFC 6, which was referred to in a citation (sic.) in Chadbourne, appears to have been an instance of a hybrid trust where entitlement of unit holders to ordinary income was ascertainable and not subject to a discretion. On appeal to the Full Federal Court, the unit holders in Forrest could establish a nexus between borrowing expenditure incurred and assessable income.

Controlling who gets death benefits from a SMSF

A widower nominated his son and daughter to take equal shares of his superannuation benefits on his death on a basis not binding on the trustee. The daughter, who was the surviving trustee of her father’s self managed superannuation fund (SMSF) after his death, appointed her husband as the new co-trustee and excluded the son from control of the SMSF. The daughter refused to pay the son the equal share of death benefits based on the father’s non-binding death benefit nomination (DBN). The son unsuccessfully challenged the daughter’s conduct in the NSW Supreme Court: Katz v. Grossman [2005] NSWSC 934.

Dilemma – the SMSF trustee’s control over where death benefits go

Katz v. Grossman reveals a dilemma with SMSFs: whoever survives a member as trustee of a SMSF generally has significant autonomy as to whom death benefits of a deceased member will be paid to by default unless the member:

  • has taken effective steps to ensure the DBN is a valid binding DBN (BDBN) to bind the trustee to pay his or her benefits to:
    • dependant/s nominated by the member; or
    • the member’s estate by nominating the member’s legal personal representative (LPR); or
  • the member has made his or her pension reversionary to their chosen dependant: although a reversionary pensioner generally cannot be an adult child as only death benefits dependants contemplated by section 302-195 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 can receive pension, including reversionary pension, death benefits.

(Exceptions)

The challenge of directing death benefits to dependants

Member control of superannuation is all well and good but selection of dependants to receive death benefits, either by member’s DBN or by the trustee of the fund, is fraught and is just as prone to dispute between disgruntled family beneficiaries as disputes over wills (Wills) and deceased estates are.

With superannuation funds generally, and especially SMSFs, it is a challenge for a member to:

  • maintain an up to date expression of where he or she wants his or her benefits to go on his or her death; and
  • to effect those wishes by way of a DBN.

In many cases this will be inconsequential such as where a surviving spouse of a deceased member is the surviving trustee, or controls the trustee, and is the obvious dependant of the member to take death benefits. But where dependants are next generation, or where a member has a blended family, surviving trustee decisions to pay death benefits of the deceased may not align with the deceased member’s wishes or their DBN especially where trusteeship of the SMSF passes into unexpected and unprofessional trustee hands on their demise.

Section 17A of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (the SIS Act) limits who can be or control a trustee of a SMSF to:

  • the members of the SMSF; or
  • their enduring attorneys;

unless the fund is a single member fund and, in any case, trustees of a SMSF must be unremunerated in their role as trustee: paragraph 17A(2)(c) of the SIS Act. Member controlled superannuation by a SMSF can be a control vacuum isolated from professional trustee expertise following the death of a SMSF member unless a professional is involved in the limited ways possible under sections 17A and 17B.

Does a SMSF member need to control where their death benefits go?

Is it desirable that the member controls where he or she wants his or her benefits to go in any case? Superannuation is explicitly to provide for a member’s dependants when the member dies. The SIS Act defines a dependant:

“dependant”, in relation to a person, includes the spouse of the person, any child of the person and any person with whom the person has an interdependency relationship.

Section 10 of the SIS Act

A deceased member may nominate a dependant by a DBN that is not the dependant of the member most truly dependent or most in need of the member’s death benefits. That is why it is doubly desirable to have a competent and trustworthy person succeed the member as trustee who will genuinely assess these needs. It is on the assumption that such a trustee will survive the member as SMSF trustee that superannuation fund governing rules (SFGRs) generally give the surviving trustee an open discretion to select the dependant of the deceased member to take the member’s benefits unless one of the Exceptions applies.

So even with the guidance of a non-binding DBN (NDBN), which expresses a deceased’s wishes as to whom his or her benefits are to be paid, SFGRs, the SIS Act and trust law typically give a superannuation trustee a power to pay benefits to dependants the trustee chooses in the trustee’s discretion contrary to and despite a NDBN as occurred in Katz v. Grossman.

The binding death benefit nomination

To immunise a DBN from a wrong choice of trustee, who may select a dependant in their discretion at odds with the member’s wishes, a member can use a BDBN. A widow or widower in circumstances similar to Katz v. Grossman can prevent override of their wishes as to who is to be their superannuation dependant to take their death benefits by force of a BDBN to bind the trustee to pay to that dependant.

The BDBN obstacle course

A SMSF member seeking to impose a BDBN to control his or her superannuation needs to be sure it will take effect. There are numerous contingencies. Consider these:

  • is the capability in SFGRs allowing BDBNs effective and does it have integrity? Does the member appreciate that BDBN forms and arrangements differ from trust deed to trust deed? Not all BDBN arrangements in trust deeds are rigorous;
  • will the BDBN be validly completed? (Wareham v. Marsella discussed below is an instance of invalid completion of a BDBN);
  • if the BDBN is stated to be non-lapsing will it take effect as non-lapsing? That is: will the BDBN continue to bind the trustee more than three years after it is made? In the recent case Re SB; Ex parte AC [2020] QSC 139 a non-lapsing BDBN was accepted by the Supreme Court of Queensland. Non-lapsing BDBNs are understood to be feasible for SMSFs following:
    • Donovan v. Donovan [2009] QSC 26; and
    • Self Managed Superannuation Funds Determination SMSFD 2008/3 Self Managed Superannuation Funds: is there any restriction in the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) legislation on a self managed superannuation fund trustee accepting from a member a binding nomination of the recipients of any benefits payable in the event of the member’s death?
  • what if the member marries, divorces or commences a reversionary pension after making a BDBN?
  • will the BDBN have a fraud risk? Who needs to witness completion of a BDBN form by a member under the SFGRs? Depending on arrangements and the regime in the SFGRs for safe custody and verification of a BDBN, is there a risk that a BDBN may be altered by a dishonest successor trustee or a trustee in a conflict of interest with other dependants or “lost” so the BDBN won’t take effect as intended by the member? and
  • what if the SFGRs are subsequently amended so that a BDBN made under former SFGRs of a SMSF no longer comply with the later SFGRs?

So a member looking to rely on a BDBN to direct who will take their superannuation faces a veritable obstacle course turning on:

  • the SFGRs in the trust deed of the fund;
  • the member’s domestic circumstances; and
  • the security integrity of the BDBN arrangements;

in his or her quest to have a BDBN complied with by the trustee of the SMSF when the member is no longer around.

Better for a BDBN to be in a member’s Will?

Although a payment of death benefits is not a testamentary disposition:  McFadden v Public Trustee for Victoria [1981] 1 NSWLR 15, it is desirable that a BDBN should be set out in, or, in the least, kept with, the Will of a SMSF member to avoid some of the above contingencies.

Generally speaking Wills are:

  • subject to strict witnessing and other evidentiary requirements under state laws which reduce the prospect of fraud. By inclusion of a BDBN in a Will the BDBN can attract the same protections; and
  • revoked on marriage and, depending on state laws, altered by divorce. A dependant nominated in a BDBN may pre-decease the member. On any of these events BDBNs are ideally revisited and, in that context, a non-lapsing BDBN is especially fraught after a situation where a long-dated BDBN should have been updated to reflect changes in a member’s domestic situation. If a BDBN is in a Will there is a greater likelihood that desirable update of a BDBN will not be overlooked.

There is also the advantage of consolidated consideration and expression of the member’s wishes for his or her property and financial resources substantially in a single document. Superannuation death benefits of deceased superannuation members now frequently exceed deceased estate property governed by their Wills in value.

To include a BDBN in a Will there needs to be a basis or regime for making a BDBN in a member’s Will in the SFGRs (in the trust deed) of a SMSF. Ordinarily SFGRs/SMSF trust deeds do not provide for BDBNs to be set out in a Will and instead require the BDBN to be in a discrete BDBN form.

When there is no BDBN

When:

  1. a BDBN fails;
  2. there is a NDBN but no BDBN; or
  3. no DBN at all;

what assurance does a member have that a trustee will act in the interests of and fairly to the prospective dependants of the member?

There is initially the issue with the first and third cases that there is no satisfactory expression of what the member wishes. This situation arose in the recent Victorian Supreme Court Appeal decision in Wareham v. Marsella [2020] VSCA 92.

Wareham v. Marsella

In Wareham v. Marsella the dependants of the deceased member of a SMSF included:

  1. the deceased’s daughter from her earlier marriage, Mrs. Wareham; and
  2. her husband of 32 years up to her death, Mr Marsella.

The deceased had made a BDBN in favour of her grandchildren at the inception of the SMSF but her grandchildren were not her superannuation dependants (see the definition in section 10 of the SIS Act above) so the BDBN was invalid.

Mrs. Wareham was the deceased member’s surviving trustee. Relations between her and the husband, Mr. Marsella, were strained. Mrs. Wareham appointed her husband Mr. Wareham as co-trustee. The trustees paid all of the deceased’s SMSF death benefits to Mrs. Wareham wholly excluding Mr. Marsella.

At first instance McMillan J. held that Mr and Mrs Wareham had exercised their discretion as trustees without giving real and genuine consideration to the interests of the dependants of the SMSF and:

  • set aside the exercise of their trustees’ discretion to favour themselves; and
  • removed Mr and Mrs Wareham as trustees of the SMSF.

This result was upheld on appeal to the Court of Appeal.

The court confirmed the wide autonomy the trustees of the SMSF had to select a dependant to take death benefits:

Apart from cases where trustees disclose their reasons, the exercise of an absolute and unfettered discretion is examinable only as to good faith, real and genuine consideration and absence of ulterior purpose, and not as to the method and manner of its exercise.

from Karger v Paul [1984] VicRP 13

Mr and Mrs Wareham did not give reasons for their decision to distribute all of the death benefits to Mrs. Wareham which meant that Mr. Marsella needed to establish:

  • bad faith;
  • lack of real and genuine consideration by; and/or
  • an ulterior purpose of

the trustees in making the decision (the Challengeable Grounds).  These are all matters that are challenging to prove before a court particularly where there are no expressed reasons of the trustees for making the decision. However in this exceptional case the Supreme Court could focus on:

  • the erroneous response by the trustees’ lawyers in correspondence with Mr. Marsella over his claim to participate as a dependant. From that it could be shown that the trustees misconceived their obligation to give Mr. Marsella’s claim a real and genuine consideration. For instance, the trustees’ lawyers had asserted in the correspondence that “Mr. Marsella was not a beneficiary or dependant and had no interest in the fund”; and
  • the bad faith of the trustees. The court observed that “the decision to pay no part of the death benefit to the deceased’s husband of more than 30 years was, at least, remarkable” and the “grotesquely unreasonable” nature of the decision to exclude him was enough to establish bad faith. As there was actual conflict between Mrs. Wareham, a trustee, and Mr. Marsella the court observed that it may remove a trustee in its discretion.

Balanced against that was:

  • the trustees’ resolution to pay Mrs. Wareham which did not reveal errors that establish any of Challengeable Grounds;
  • the power of the trustees to pay death benefits to a dependant who is a trustee despite the conflict of interest; and
  • the trustees did not give evidence and so where not examined about their consideration of Mr. Marsella’s claims as a dependant;

An exceptional case

So even though Mr. Marsella was successful the case was appealed and hard fought. The trustees’ lawyer’s unlikely lapses in the correspondence and the extreme outcome and treatment of a husband of more than 30 years were vital to the result especially where SFGRs expressly permit a trustee to favour themselves in death benefits discretionary decisions despite their conflict of interest with other potential dependants that could receive those death benefits.

Where a trustee is more cautious and opaque in the course of:

  • their decision to pay death benefits to their own benefit, despite their conflict of interest; and
  • in related correspondence;

the trustee will reveal little which will give a disgruntled dependant Challengeable Grounds to challenge the trustee’s exercise of discretion.

In that respect Katz v. Grossman more likely reflects the reality facing most disgruntled family members who miss out on death benefits, especially those who are not a spouse or in an interdependency relationship. In Katz v. Grossman Mr. Katz may not have been in a position to establish the Challengeable Grounds even though:

  • his father had nominated him on a non-binding basis to take an equal share of his death benefits; and
  • his sister and her husband as trustees of the SMSF instead distributed all of the death benefits of the father to his sister.

Conclusion

It follows that the authority of Wareham v. Marsella may only assist a spouse or interdependency dependant highly deserving of death benefits as dependants in compelling cases where:

  • a SMSF’s trustee makes identifiable error in the process of discretionary decision-making to pay death benefits to himself or herself despite their conflict of interest with the deceased’s spouse or interdependency dependant; and
  • where that spouse or interdependency dependant can endure legal action to challenge the decision based on the Challengeable Grounds.

Otherwise SMSF members need to ensure the right person or people are their successor trustee of their SMSF if a Katz v. Grossman or other situation where a dependant favoured by the member misses out on death benefits is to be avoided. A valid or current expression of wishes either in a NDBN or better:

  • in a BDBN, rigorously backed by SFGRs, included in or with the Will of the member to ensure its integrity, reducing the likelihood that a payment of death benefits will be made to the exclusion of a desired or deserving family member especially where, due to the confines of the SIS Act, the member can’t be confident that their successor SMSF trustee won’t use the opportunity to favour their own benefit; or
  • where a member foresees that their dependants will be in potential conflict, in next generation or blended family circumstances, by taking steps in accordance with the SFGRs to remove trustee autonomy to make the death benefits payment decision and to instead mandate that death benefits are to be paid to the LPR of the member in compliance with core purposes of superannuation which allow payment of death benefits to the LPR under section 62 of the SIS Act. In that case the member can set out how death benefits are to be left in his or her Will.

The AAT applies Bamford to rubbery number trust income distributions in Donkin – or does it?

RubberyNumbers

In Donkin & Others v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2019] AATA 6746, a recently published decision of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the AAT considered how section 97 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1936 applied to distributions by the trustee of a family discretionary trust (FDT).

Distributions of income were made to up to five beneficiaries (the Participating Beneficiaries) by resolution of the trustee of the Joshline Family Trust (the JFT), a FDT, for the 2010 to 2013 income years (the Years).

Tax audit – taxable income of the JFT increased

Following an audit of the first Participating Beneficiary, Mr Donkin, and his associated entities the Commissioner of Taxation (Commissioner):

  • disallowed deductions to the JFT increasing the taxable income of the JFT for the Years; and so
  • increased the taxable income of the JFT.

Before the AAT the Participating Beneficiaries contended that:

  • on the increase in the taxable income of the JFT the respective shares of taxable income of the Participating Beneficiaries should remain constant (unaltered); with
  • the increase in JFT taxable income taxable to (another) residuary beneficiary Joshline (understood to be a company taxable at no more than 30%).

The Commissioner contended that, based on the High Court authority in Commissioner of Taxation v. Bamford [2010] HCA 10 (Bamford), the proportionate approach should be applied to proportionately increase the taxable income of the Participating Beneficiaries under section 97 from their shares of taxable income on which they were originally assessed.

AAT decides – aligns with Commissioner

The AAT accepted the Commissioner’s contentions and increased the taxable income of:

  • the Participating Beneficiaries where section 97 applied; and
  • the trustee in respect of Participating Beneficiaries where section 98 applied.

The residuary beneficiary Joshline was not assessed to any of the increase.

Opaque expression of distributable income

The resolutions of the JFT during the Years were odd in that they expressed or specified distributions as amounts of assessable income to which (“trust law”) income (unspecified) was to equate to. The trust deed of the JFT supported this novel approach which was directed to tax planning and, in particular, to certainty of assessable income that each Participating Beneficiary would receive.

These resolutions did not specify distributable income and so obliged a backwards calculation from shares of “assessable income” of the JFT to ascertain the distributable income and the share of it each Participating Beneficiary was entitled to.

How distributable income can be distributed

“Trust law” income, referred to in the legislation as “a share of the income of the trust estate”, considered by the High Court in Bamford to be “distributable income” is, and was described in Bamford as:

income ascertained by the trustee according to appropriate accounting principles and the trust instrument

Bamford at paragraph 45

which can be distributed and which the trustee distributes to beneficiaries and by which the respective shares of assessable income of beneficiaries, and trustees on behalf of other beneficiaries of a trust, is determined under sections 97 and 98 respectively.

If, on a 30 June at the end of an income year (30 June), the trustee has a specified a prescription for the distribution of income of a FDT whether it be:

  • an amount (from);
  • a set proportion, say expressed in percentage terms; or
  • a residue or remaining amount;

of distributable income then that can be accepted understanding that, almost universally, the trustee will not have had the opportunity, by 30 June, to ascertain the distributable income of the FDT to a final figure or amount.

Timing of present entitlement to distributable income

Nevertheless:

  • distributions are FDT trustee decisions that need to be made by 30 June if the distributions are to confer present entitlement on beneficiaries in the year of income; and
  • beneficiaries must be presently entitled to a share of the distributable income for either of section 97 or section 98 to apply.

Section 99A will apply to a FDT to tax the income to which no beneficiary is presently entitled by 30 June to the trustee at the highest marginal income tax rate. See my post (My Lewski Post) about Lewski v. Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCAFC 145 where that happened. Lewski was referred to by the AAT in Donkin: Full Federal Court pinpoints year end trust resolutions that fail https://wp.me/p6T4vg-8s

Setting distributable income by 30 June

It follows that to effectively confer present entitlement a trustee decision to distribute trust income under a discretion needs to determine the share of distributable income of each beneficiary by 30 June. That determination of the trustee is confirmed and applied when the trustee prepares accounts for trust purposes in accordance with the terms of the trust deed and, if beneficiaries are entitled to a proportion or a residue of distributable income rather than a fixed amount of distributable income, those entitlements can then be ascertained from distributable income or the remaining distributable income numerically.

Distributable income not set in Donkin

However, in Donkin, the Participating Beneficiaries had entitlements to a proportion of “assessable income” (viz. taxable income or “net income” for the purposes of sub-section 95(1) of the ITAA 1936) (Taxable Income).  For instance, under the resolutions Mr. Donkin was entitled to 70.11% of the Taxable Income, not distributable income, of the JFT for the 2013 income year. So in the Commissioner’s contention, as accepted by the AAT, Mr. Donkin was taxable under section 97 on:

  • $262,659 being 70.11% of the Taxable Income of the JFT for the 2013 year when an original assessment was raised on Mr. Donkin’s share of trust Taxable Income returned by the trustee of the trust; and then
  • $304,137 being 70.11% of the Taxable Income of the JFT for the 2013 year following the amendment of the assessments following the audit.

It can be inferred from and is consistent with the Commissioner’s contention that, on the amendment of Mr Donkin’s 2013 assessment in or around 2015, the distributable income of Mr. Donkin was increased at that later time – the proportion of Taxable Income, 70.11%, did not change.

But how can distributable income of a trust increase after 30 June income year end?

Understanding that the trustee of the JFT determined the distributable income of the JFT and Mr. Donkin’s share of it by 30 June 2013 by mechanisms in the trust deed fixing and thus making Mr. Donkin presently entitled to a share of income confirmable and confirmed when 2013 accounts of the JFT were taken, how can a 2015 amendment to Taxable Income of the JFT alter the 2013 distributable income of the JFT and the present entitlement of Mr. Donkin to it at 30 June 2013?

It seems to me that the AAT has set out good reasons why the Commissioner’s contentions to:

  • alter distributable income; and
  • increase the present entitlement of each Participating Beneficiary supposedly by the end of the relevant June 30;

should not have been accepted and there should have been no change in distributable income of the Participating Beneficiaries in the Years. In paragraphs 42 and 43 of the AAT’s decision, in a response to different propositions put by the Applicants, the AAT stated:

42. It seems to us that on the Applicants’ construction of the resolutions their alternative submission would be correct. That is to say, the resolutions would be ineffective to confer a present entitlement on the individual beneficiaries because they involved a contingency.

43. They would depend on the occurrence of an event which may or may not happen, in particular, the Respondent disallowing a deduction and including an additional amount in assessable income. It follows that the individual beneficiaries would not be “presently entitled” under ss 97 or 98 of the ITAA36 to a share of the income of the JFT.

Donkin & Others v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2019] AATA 6746 paragraphs 42-43

These findings do resonate against the Commissioner’s and the AAT’s construction of the resolutions and the trust deed too.

Construing trust income resolutions applying Bamford

The High Court in Bamford stated:

The opening words of s 97(1) speak of “a beneficiary of a trust estate” who is “presently entitled to a share of the income of the trust estate”. The language of present entitlement is that of the general law of trusts, but adapted to the operation of the 1936 Act upon distinct years of income. The effect of the authorities dealing with the phrase “presently entitled” was considered in Harmer v Federal Commissioner of Taxation where it was accepted that a beneficiary would be so entitled if, and only if,

“(a) the beneficiary has an interest in the income which is both vested in interest and vested in possession; and (b) the beneficiary has a present legal right to demand and receive payment of the income, whether or not the precise entitlement can be ascertained before the end of the relevant year of income and whether or not the trustee has the funds available for immediate payment.”

Bamford at paragraph 37

So in whatever way the trust deed of the trust allows the trustee to ascertain distributable income, the trustee must identify distributable income, or use a method which enables identification of distributable income not subject to contingency, by 30 June to confer present entitlement by 30 June. Without that a beneficiary has no present legal right to demand and receive payment of their share of income by 30 June.

It is that identification of distributable income referred to in Zeta Force Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation  (1998) 84 FCR 70 at 74‑75 to which the High Court in Bamford refers where the High Court cites Sundberg J. with approval:

The words ‘income of the trust estate’ in the opening part of s 97(1) refer to distributable income, that is to say income ascertained by the trustee according to appropriate accounting principles and the trust instrument. That the words have this meaning is confirmed by the use elsewhere in Div 6 of the contrasting expression ‘net income of the trust estate’. The beneficiary’s ‘share’ is his share of the distributable income.”

….

“Having identified the share of the distributable income to which the beneficiary is presently entitled, s 97(1) requires one to ascertain ‘that share of the net income of the trust estate’. That share is included in the beneficiary’s assessable income.”

….

from Bamford at paragraph 45

It is respectfully suggested that the later part of Sundberg J.’s findings cited by the High Court:

Once the share of the distributable income to which the beneficiary is presently entitled is worked out, the notion of present entitlement has served its purpose, and the beneficiary is to be taxed on that share (or proportion) of the taxable ncome of the trust estate.

from Bamford at paragraph 45

does not mean that the distributable income of a FDT is to be or can be derived from Taxable Income of the FDT unless that proportion must be quantified or quantifiable, maybe by backwards calculation, by 30 June. For instance, the trustee’s own estimate of Taxable Income on or before 30 June, which could be supported by evidence after the fact, could be a parameter of distributable income which must be fixed if not ascertained by 30 June to achieve present entitlement.

Distributable income at 30 June is then routinely reflected in the accounts of a FDT at 30 June and other evidence which later demonstates what the trustee fixed as distributable income at 30 June.

Why was there no distributable income calculation for each 30 June in Donkin?

The Commissioner too could have worked out the amount of, or the figure for, distributable income of the JFT consistent with resolutions and accounts for the Years and other evidence. including trust tax returns, prepared and lodged later. It is implausible that the trustee of the JFT took into account the 2015 inclusions in Taxable Income in its 2010 to 2013 decisions which the AAT correctly observed was a contingency at the each of the 30 Junes through the Years.

Section 99A should have applied

In my understanding:

  • the Participating Beneficiaries in Donkin were not presently entitled in the Years to a proportion of amounts first included in Taxable Income in around 2015 following the Commissioner’s audit and amendment of assessments: and
  • section 99A should thus have been applied to these proportions when they became Taxable Income in 2015.

Distributable income – no place for a variable parameter

The AAT appears to have accepted that distributable income can be a variable parameter which can fluctuate after 30 June; the Commissioner and the AAT accepted a distribution method in Donkin based on a set proportion of Taxable Income, a variable parameter, which, in their view, caused distributable income to vary after 30 June when assessments were varied following audit. This sanctioned the use of rubbery numbers for ascertaining shares of distributable income, which the trust deed of the JFT contemplated for opaque tax reasons, without applying section 99A which, in my understanding and based on this analysis, should have applied.

That is disappointing, especially on the urging of the Commissioner, as the AAT decisions may influence future practice and encourage rubbery distributions of distributable income and the use of contorted trust deed provisions that facilitate them.

Income equalisation clauses

Family discretionary trust deeds I have prepared for over thirty years, and deeds drawn by many other preparers, have long based distributions of distributable income on an income equalisation clause. I suggest that an income equalisation clause is, and has always been, a more conventional mechanism for practically dealing with the divergence between distributable income and Taxable Income in section 97 of the ITAA 1936 than the mechanisms contained in the trust deed of the JFT.

An income equalisation clause is a provision in a FDT trust deed which allows the trustee to align the distributable income of a FDT to Taxable Income.

The above analysis is also relevant to how an income equalisation clause using Taxable Income, a parameter that can change after a 30 June year end, should be construed. I addressed this question in My Lewski Post. There I concluded, based on the Full Federal Court’s views of how trust deeds and resolutions are to be construed, that Taxable Income in an income equalisation clause should be construed as Taxable Income based on knowledge of the trustee, informing the trustee’s decision at the time of the distribution, which is confirmed when accounts of the FDT for the relevant income year are taken and the mechanisms from the trust deed for determining distributable income are applied. On that construction Taxable Income is or should be fixed and present entitlement of beneficiaries to shares of distributable income of a FDT at 30 June can thus be attained.

Australian non-fixed trust liable for CGT on non-TAP gains given to a foreign resident: Peter Greensill Family Co Pty Ltd

BigBen

A mirror of the general principle of source and residence taxation broadly setting the parameters of international taxation, and reflected in Australia’s income tax law, is that income of a foreign resident not from sources in the state is not taxable in the state (in this post called the Mirror Principle). In Australia:

  • interests in real property in Australia and related interests; and
  • interests in assets used in business in permanent establishments in Australia:

are designated “Taxable Australian Property” (TAP) (see Division 855 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997). TAP is used in Australian income tax law to apply the Mirror Principle.

Foreign resident capital gains from non-TAP disregarded

Property which is not TAP, that is, property not taken to be connected to Australia for income tax purposes in the hands of foreign residents includes shares and securities as opposed to property interests in or related to Australian land or of permanent establishments carrying on enterprises in Australia which are TAP.

Capital gains made by foreign residents from non-TAP assets are disregarded for tax purposes: section 855-10.

Trouble pinpointing trusts as foreign or not

Trusts are elusive and create enormous difficulties in the international tax system see Trusts – Weapons of Mass Injustice. Trusts can detach beneficiaries who benefit from property who may be in one state from:

  • the trustee of the trust, in whose name the property is held, who may be in another state; and
  • the activities of trust which may be in yet another state.

Apt taxation of those activities in line with Mirror Principle thus poses a significant challenge to governments. States are justified imposing laws to counter offshoring with trusts to ensure the integrity of their tax systems.

Some states don’t recognise trusts.

In Australia trusts are mainstream. Some types of trusts are considered tax benign and conducive to legitimate business, investment and prudential activity. Fixed trusts are often treated transparently for Australian income tax purposes so that a fixed trust interest holder is:

  • taxed similarly to a regular taxpayer or investor; and
  • no worse off, tax wise, than a taxpayer or investor who owns the property outright rather than by way of a trust beneficial interest.

So, consistent with the Mirror Principle that a foreign resident owner of non-TAP who makes a gain on the non-TAP shouldn’t be taxable on the gain, a foreign resident beneficiary (FRB) of a fixed trust can disregard a capital gain made in relation to their interest in a fixed trust: section 855-40.

Peter Greensill Family Co Pty Ltd (trustee) v Commissioner of Taxation

In the Federal Court case Peter Greensill Family Co Pty Ltd (trustee) v Commissioner of Taxation [2020] FCA 559 this week the issue arose whether an Australian resident family discretionary trust – a non-fixed trust, was entitled to rely on section 855-10 and the Mirror Principle to disregard capital gains distributed to a FRB, a beneficiary based in London, of the trust from realisation by the trust of shares in a private company, GCPL, which were non-TAP of the trust.

Detachment of capital gains from the workings of trust CGT tax rules

The capital gains of a trustee are distant from the capital gains of a beneficiary under the ITAA 1936 and the ITAA 1997. Transparent treatment or look through to the capital gains of the trustee as capital gains of the beneficiary/ies became even more remote following changes to Sub-division 115-C of the ITAA 1997 including the introduction of Division 6E of Part III of the ITAA 1936.

These changes brought in distinct treatment of capital gains and franked distributions of a trust from other trust income following the High Court decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Bamford [2010] HCA 10 and the clarification of taxation of trust income in that case.

Legislation unsupportive of transparent treatment

In Greensill Thawley J. analysed the provisions in Sub-division 115-C and Division 6E to deconstruct the applicant’s case to disregard capital gains using Division 855. 

Section 855-40 specifically allows a FRB of a fixed trust to disregard non-TAP capital gains. The absence of an equivalent exemption for FRBs of non-fixed trusts is telling unless section 855-40 is otiose or represents an abundance of caution. Thawley J. did not follow that line. As the applicant in Greensill could not disregard the capital gains using section 855-40 in the case of non-fixed trust, or section 855-10, the capital gains were taxable in Australia.

Unless there is an appeal to the Full Federal Court the Commissioner can finalise his draft taxation determination TD 2019/D6 Income tax: does Subdivision 855-A (or subsection 768-915(1)) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 disregard a capital gain that a foreign resident (or temporary resident) beneficiary of a resident non-fixed trust makes because of subsection 115-215(3)? as the Federal Court has accepted the view in it.

Deep pockets couldn’t overturn tax resident and evasion decision

Full Wallet

Plenty was spent by Malaysian multinational timber tycoon Yii Ann Hii unsuccessfully fighting $A 64m in income tax. This tax litigation looks like it has just ended with Hii v Commissioner of Taxation (No 2) [2020] FCA 345 in March 2020.

The litigation

Although the litigation with the Commissioner of Taxation was about whether the taxpayer was a resident of Australia between 30 June 2001 to 30 June 2009 (the relevant years), this issue never came to be decided in the litigation with the Commissioner which included:

  • a tax appeal to the Federal Court from objection decisions;
  • an appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for administrative review in relation to penalty assessments for the relevant years;
  • proceedings under section 39B of Judiciary Act 1903 collaterally taken in the Federal Court: Hii v Commissioner of Taxation [2015] FCA 375 before Collier J.;
  • an original proceeding in the High Court under sub-section 75(5) of the Constitution seeking writs of certiorari and mandamus; and
  • further proceedings under section 39B of Judiciary Act taken in the Federal Court seeking to quash an audit decision and an objection decision: Hii v Commissioner of Taxation (No 2) [2020] FCA 345 before Logan J.

An insight into the Australian tax system

Although the litigation never came to decide whether the Commissioner was correct in finding that the taxpayer was a resident taxable on worldwide income during the relevant years there is something to be drawn from these cases about the operation of Australia’s tax system.

Forum to fight the Commissioner

As we have said before on this blog in Is an objection needed to amend a tax assessment?, proceedings against the Commissioner other than under Part IVC (of the Taxation Administration Act 1953) where taxpayers can object against assessments of tax and appeal against the objection decisions arising, are expensive and are prone to failure. In Hii No. 1 Collier J. applied the High Court’s decision in Federal Commissioner of Taxation v Futuris Corporation Ltd (2008) 237 CLR 146 where it was held, by virtue of section 175 and section 177 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1936, that judicial review under section 39B of the Judiciary Act 1903 is limited to where:

  • an assessment is tentative or provisional; or
  • where conscious maladministration by the Commissioner has occurred.

There were no allegations of tentativeness or bad faith of the Commissioner amounting to maladministration by the taxpayer in Hii No. 1; the taxpayer’s counsel instead sought to establish that the principles from Futuris did not apply to the taxpayer.

The taxpayer did not succeed. The Federal Courts in Hii No. 1  and in Hii No. 2 applied the principles from Futuris and decided for the Commissioner.

Getting advice or legal help in tax disputes

It would appear that the taxpayer was selective about taking or, alternatively, following counsel. It appears that the taxpayer conducted the section 39B proceedings in Hii No. 2 from Malaysia seemingly without Australian legal representation. The Federal Court found his action in Hii No. 2 to be an abuse of process. Moreover a vexatious proceedings order was made against the taxpayer preventing the taxpayer taking further action in the court in relation to these disputes.

In contrast, through the earlier litigation, the taxpayer engaged experienced senior and other counsel. In the appeal against the objection decisions the Commissioner obtained an order for security for costs in the Federal Court against the taxpayer who is a citizen of Malaysia and who had, by then, left Australia. The taxpayer never complied with the order nor sought any extension of time to do so. One can only assume his counsel would have advised him of the risk that he would lose his rights to contest the tax bills by not engaging with the security for costs order.

The subsequent litigation shows that is what happened. The Part IVC appeal was struck out because security for costs was not given to the Commissioner.  From then the taxpayer was unable to get his tax residence issue, or any review of the Commissioner’s decisions to treat him as a resident, before the courts at all despite his numerous and expensive efforts to do so.

Commissioner’s residency findings

As stated the courts were never able to get to the residence issue in the litigation. In the transcript of the High Court refusing an extension of time to apply to the High Court to the taxpayer the Commissioner’s findings of fact about the taxpayer nonetheless appear:

(i) the plaintiff was granted a permanent residency visa on 20 March 1992;

(ii) the plaintiff was granted a five year resident return visa on 27 February 1995, which allows current or former Australian permanent residents to re-enter Australia after travelling overseas and to maintain status as a permanent resident on return to Australia;

(iii) the plaintiff was issued a Queensland Drivers Licence on 6 February 1996, and his most recent Queensland Drivers Licence had effective dates of 23 December 2005 to 30 January 2011, with a Queensland address listed by the plaintiff;

(iv) the plaintiff applied on 6 September 2005 to alter his credit card limit with the National Australia Bank, listing the same Queensland address for his contact details;

(v) the plaintiff and his wife purchased the property at that Queensland address on 2 April 2001 for $6.5 million and more than six gigabytes of documents pertaining to the plaintiff’s business interests were found at that Queensland address and another property owned by companies controlled by the plaintiff;

(vi) the plaintiff’s immediate family, his wife and six children, resided in Australia as permanent residents of Australia, the plaintiff’s extended family lived in Brisbane, and his brothers lived in Victoria;

(vii) all the plaintiff’s children undertook their schooling at Queensland schools, and several children attended the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology; (viii) the plaintiff held in his own name 15 separate Australian bank accounts in the relevant years;

(ix) the plaintiff stayed at seven different hotels between 2002 and 2007 on his visits to Malaysia, but there was no evidence of any hotel stays when he was in Brisbane;

(x) As at 21 January 2009, the plaintiff had a number of vehicles registered to him or his wife in Australia for which insurance was obtained listing either him or his wife, or both, as the main driver, including a Lamborghini Murcielago, a Rolls Royce Phantom, a Ferrari Coupe, and a Bentley Continental;

(xi) in the relevant years, the plaintiff departed Australia 85 times, of which 84 departure cards were located on each of which the plaintiff indicated that he was an “Australian resident departing temporarily”;

(xii) the plaintiff spent between 65 and 189 days in Australia in each of the relevant years with 6 to 125 in Malaysia for the years known;

(xiii) the plaintiff was a director of seven Australian companies with registered offices in Queensland (in six of which the plaintiff held between 35% and 90% of the shares) during the relevant income years; and

(xiv) the plaintiff wrote a letter dated 12 March 2009 to the Australian Department of Immigration which he signed on behalf of one of the companies in which he was a director, which included his statement that “My family currently resides permanently in Brisbane since our first landing in 1993 … Due to the nature of my business I am forced to regularly travel overseas, because of other business interests”.

Did the taxpayer get advice about tax residency?

If these findings are plausible then, without even expressing a view on whether the Commissioner should have determined that the taxpayer was a tax resident of Australia as no Australian tribunal or court did, it can be inferred that the taxpayer was desultory in either taking or, if he took it, following advice on how to avoid being treated by the Commissioner as a tax resident of Australia.

A journalist’s report https://is.gd/KWH9jj suggests that the taxpayer may have over relied on the 183 day test (in the definition of “resident” or “resident of Australia” in sub-section 6(1) of the ITAA1936) but that report is unconfirmed. Could it be that the taxpayer did not take advice during the relevant years about the risks of his activities and circumstances possibly leading to him being treated as a tax resident of Australia either:

  • under ordinary concepts?; or
  • due to adopting Australia as a domicile of choice?

(See our blog from February 2020 When 183 days is not enough to make you an Australian tax resident )

It is through the relevant years in particular that advice or legal assistance to the taxpayer acted on by the taxpayer may have really counted.

Evasion and the resident determination

A further grievance of the taxpayer in the litigation was that in those years of the relevant years where the Commissioner raised original assessments based on the taxpayer’s non-resident returns, the Commissioner was out of time to amend the assessments raised under section 170 of the ITAA 1936.

Amended assessments were there raised by the Commissioner on a footing of evasion under Item 5 of sub-section 170(1).

Is getting tax residence wrong evasion?

One would think that an error by a taxpayer on the frequently nuanced and complex question of whether or not the taxpayer is a resident of Australia does not amount to evasion. However once the question of tax residence is investigated under audit by the Commissioner it is then more awkward to hide behind that simple proposition. In Hii No. 1 it is stated that the Commissioner justified his evasion determination on the following acts of the taxpayer:

  a.           Listing a Singapore business address on his Australian tax return as his residential address

  b.           Providing different reasons as to why various addresses are used in each country [during the course of the audit]

    c.           Not providing details of his offshore income and assets when requested [during the course of the audit]

    d.           Failing to provide full and complete details of foreign entities he controls [during the course of the audit]

    e.           Omitting foreign source income from his Australian tax returns; and

    f.            Failing to pay appropriate tax in Australia.

(see paragraphs 12 and 28)

Viewed skeptically one could suggest that facts e. and f. could happen when a taxpayer innocently believes they are a tax non-resident and may not be evasion. Facts  a. to b. more strongly can support an evasion finding.

Evasion & co-operating with an audit

From c. and d. it can be inferred that full co-operation with the Commissioner in the course of an audit is an imperative where a taxpayer is contesting an amended assessment which would be out of time in the absence of fraud or evasion.

The question again arises, did the taxpayer get or follow advice this time about what information to provide to the Commissioner’s auditors? Based on c. and d. the withholding of information from the auditors prejudiced the taxpayer’s position on the evasion issue.