Should more than one family share a family discretionary trust?

pointatdeedFrom time to time a family discretionary trust is set up for the benefit of two or more families who may be pursuing a business or a venture in common.

Risk of unequal returns from the discretionary trust!

A double (or more) -throated family discretionary trust is unwise on a number of levels and often reflects misunderstanding of the tax and civil dispute realities that can apply to trusts.

If there is a dispute between the business/venture principals then backing out of this kind of structure it can lead to complications where there are assets in the discretionary trust still to be divided and distributed to beneficiaries. One of the principals controlling the trustee may die or become incapacitated and the other principal may take the opportunity to distribute the assets of the trust solely to his or family! The other family may claim, say, that they should get 50% of the assets of the trust, or the value of the work contributed by them to the trust, but the trust document, being based solely on discretion, will disavow that any family has a 50% or other set interest in the trust.

A family discretionary trust is often funded by gift from the beneficiary family or by the unrewarded work of a member of the beneficiary family. That may be but there is no obligation on the trustee to return the capital or the income of the discretionary trust in proportion to those contributions to that family. The families are highly reliant on the arrangements for control of the trustee, who holds the discretion to distribute the income and capital of the trust, to ensure members of each family will participate in the income and capital of the trust on any equal basis.

A hybrid trust is an alternative to a multi family family discretionary trust which addresses such problems but hybrid trusts have their own separate set of commercial and tax difficulties.

Reimbursement agreements

Multi-family family discretionary trusts can be at high risk of audit under the “reimbursement agreement” provisions in s100A of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. Income distributions by the trust could be used to shift value between the families tax effectively however, if section 100A is applied, the distributions are void for tax purposes. The principals and their families, as beneficiaries, can’t resist a section 100A assessment with the usual defence based on the definition of “agreement’ in sub-section 100A(13) viz. that the distribution reflects an ordinary dealing within the family, because it does not. They are dealing between families.

Sometimes these structures are used to save establishment costs notably stamp duty which in NSW is as much as $500 to establish a trust where the trust holds no dutiable property. Such savings may prove inadvisable due to later considerable cost.

Be wary of constitutional fails by your private company

sqpegroundholeAdministering a private company requires sound business skill and judgment. Since the Commonwealth has substantially taken legislative responsibility for companies and securities from the states, regulatory reform has been introduced so that numerous compliance obligations have been streamlined in a practical way.

It is not always understood that the reforms were only to the regulatory framework of companies. They do not necessarily extend to the differing regimes in place for each company. Conduct of a private company still very much remains the responsibility of the directors of the company who are required to observe the constitution of the company (COTC). A number of the regulatory reforms have no affect on the regime that applies to a company unless the company takes the necessary action to enliven them.

From 1998 – the “replaceable rules”

Reform to the framework in the Company Law Review Act 1998 (CLRA 1998) introduced “replaceable rules” that apply to a proprietary (private) company other than a company with a sole director/shareholder. Unlike “Table A” in the former states’ Companies Acts, which could be adopted as articles of association optionally by a private company, the “replaceable rules” take effect by default. In other words a company, which does not adopt a custom divergent COTC, is taken to adopt and can rely on the “replaceable rules” in the Corporations Act 2001. Nevertheless a majority of private companies, including companies established prior to 1998, have adopted a COTC which overrides the replaceable rules and their impact. So the reforms reflected in the “replaceable rules” don’t apply to those companies.

This post highlights some of the difficulties this causes to private companies that we notice in practice.

Directors meetings

When private companies take significant actions resolutions need to be passed by the directors. As a standard, resolutions of directors need to be passed or agreed to at a directors meeting. It is a common alternative practice for directors of a company to complete a “circulated” resolution of directors signed by all directors of the company without formally holding a directors meeting. For most private companies that is fine as their COTC permits this procedure as an alternative to the company holding a directors meeting. The alternative procedure is authorised both in:

  • model “Table A” type COTCs which pre-date the reforms; and
  • section 248A of the Corporations Act 2001 where section 248A applies to the company as a replaceable rule.

However there is a minority of companies with old or inadequately drafted COTCs where the “circulated” resolution of directors capability is not available to the company either under the COTC, or under the replaceable rule in section 248A where the provisions in the COTC replace the replaceable rules including section 248A.

Invalid directors’ resolutions

Thus directors of private companies may be completing “circulated” directors’ resolutions on the mistaken assumption that their COTC, or the replaceable rule in section 248A, authorises the resolution without the holding of a directors meeting. The impugning of all of the resolutions of the directors of a company done in this way could have far reaching consequences for the company particularly if the activity of the company comes under the close scrutiny of government or lawyers. For instance, say a company in this predicament is a trustee of family discretionary trust: It is open for the Commissioner of Taxation to treat a resolution to distribute income to beneficiaries done in a way unauthorised by the COTC as invalid and not made in time to prevent the income being assessed for income tax to the trustee of the trust at the highest marginal rate under s99A of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

If a COTC displaces the replaceable rules it is prudent to identify the capability in the COTC that permits the directors to use a circulated resolution instead of holding a directors meeting and to cite the reference to the capability in the circulated resolution. Look for wording in your COTC similar to section 248A. It is often the last article under the DIRECTORS PROCEEDINGS part of a COTC.

A COTC without the circulated resolution capability frequently has other shortcomings such as no capability for a director to attend a directors’ meeting by telephone or online over the internet. This is another case where inadequacy of the COTC can lead to invalidity of attempted directors resolutions done with this capability assumed by the directors.

Directors resolutions can also fail due to other procedural misunderstandings such as:

  • failure to give notice of a directors’ meeting to all directors;
  • a meeting may have a quorum requirement under a COTC which is not met; and
  • a proceeding by a single director is not a meeting.

Single director companies

The CLRA 1998 also changed the regulatory framework to allow for single director companies. Prior to the CLRA 1998 the minimum number of individual shareholders of a private company was two and so many memorandums and articles of association of private companies then in place, which became their COTCs from 1998, entrenched the two individual director minimum to comply with the pre-CLRA 1998 law. These COTCs required alteration to remove the minimum of two individual director stipulations and to allow the company to have a single director. This is a more obvious case of where a pre-CLRA 1998 COTC, in particular, needs alteration should the private company seek to have only one director.

Common seals

The obligation of a company to use a common seal to execute documents was also removed from the regulatory framework by the CLRA 1998. Still a private company which was established before 1998, or any private company that has otherwise adopted a common seal, may need to act to dispense with its obligation to use the common seal.

Ordinarily this action would be:

  • The COTC is altered to:
    • provide that the company need not have a common seal; and
    • support the execution of documents by the company without a common seal.
  • The directors resolve to dispense with the common seal.

Execution of deeds and other documents, including, for example, an election by a company as trustee to become a regulated superannuation fund, can be invalidated if the private company must use a common seal that remains adopted by the company but executes the deed or documents without that common seal.

Special purpose superannuation companies – reduced ASIC annual fee

The reforms allowed for a company that has been set up to act solely as the trustee of a regulated superannuation fund, or for other designated special purposes, to apply a substantially reduced ASIC annual fee of $40 rather than $226.50. Entitlement to the reduced fee for a company that has been set up to act solely as the trustee of a regulated superannuation fund turns on the limit on the purposes for which the company can act being effectively included in the COTC.

It’s a fail for the directors to complete the declaration to claim the reduced fee without understanding whether the provisions of the COTC support the entitlement to a reduced fee.

Summary

Directors of a private company are expected to understand and to take responsibility for what is in the COTC.

Although the company regulatory framework has been reformed:

  • to more readily allow circulated directors’ resolutions as an alternative to holding directors’ meetings;
  • to allow private companies to have a single director;
  • to make common seals optional; and
  • to extend a reduced ASIC annual fee to dedicated superannuation trustee companies;

among other reforms, the COTC of the company and the standing resolutions of the directors are a regime which constrains how the reforms may apply to a private company. Directors of companies should check COTCs and their records to ensure that they support the company using capabilities supported by the reforms.

The discretionary capital distribution – it’s a CGT free gift!

giftAnnual income distributions by family discretionary trusts (FDTs) are routine for trustees for apparent Australian income tax reasons but trustees of FDTs can be reluctant to distribute trust capital. What would be the reason for that reluctance? Why don’t trustees of FDTs make capital distributions more often?

The trust deed

The regime in a FDT deed typically centres on distribution of capital on the vesting of the FDT. However even older and archaic FDT deeds usually expressly allow for interim distribution of capital, that is, distribution of trust capital before the FDT vests and winds up. Interim distribution of capital to beneficiaries, rather than holding it for them until the vesting day, is often conditional on the distribution being for the “maintenance education advancement in life or benefit” either for infant  beneficiaries or for beneficiaries generally – see Fischer v Nemeske Pty. Ltd. [2016] HCA 11: a condition which, in ordinary family dealings, can readily be met.

Purpose of a FDT

A FDT is, in its essence, an arrangement to benefit family members. A FDT can be seen as a pool set aside to gift to family members. But is a distribution to a family beneficiary from a FDT treated the same for tax as a family gift to a family member?

It is useful to think about differences between a FDT and other types of entities before answering that:

Difference to a proprietary company

A proprietary company has the legal status of a separate person and the release of company capital to a shareholder of a company is subject to a number of corporations law and tax technicalities. A company can have wide objects but giving its value away to other persons would not usually be one of them. Under tax rules the enrichment of a shareholder’s family member from a company’s capital is likely dividend income assessable to income tax either directly or as a “payment” under section 109C of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

Difference to a unit trust

A trustee of a genuine unit trust would generally be required to make capital distributions in equal proportions based on the unit holdings of unit holders. If capital distributions from a unit trust are feasible the capital gains tax (CGT) rules can discourage the trustee from making these distributions before vesting.  CGT event E4 applies to distributions of capital of a unit trust which are not in connection with the disposal of the units to reduce the cost base of the unit holder by the amount of the distribution and, to the extent the cost base doesn’t cover the amount of the distribution, the excess is a capital gain assessable to unit holders.

How CGT applies to distributions of capital by FDTs

CGT event E4 does not apply to non-assessable capital distributions from a FDT. In Taxation Determination TD 2003/28 Income tax: capital gains: does CGT event E4 in section 104-70 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 happen if the trustee of a discretionary trust makes a non-assessable payment to: (a) a mere object; or (b) a default beneficiary? the Commissioner of Taxation confirms his longstanding view and practice, since the introduction of CGT in 1986, that CGT event E4 does not happen if a trustee of a discretionary trust makes a non-assessable payment to a mere object. That is, a mere discretionary beneficiary where the entitlement to the payment arose because the trustee exercised its discretion in the beneficiary’s favour and the interest was not acquired by the beneficiary for consideration or by way of assignment.

The CGT similarity of FDT cash distributions and cash gifts

The enrichment of a family beneficiary of a FDT by an interim distribution of the capital of a FDT is not, of itself, subject to CGT based on TD 2003/28 i.e. there is no CGT on a distribution of cash to a beneficiary from the capital of a FDT. If there is a distribution of a CGT asset from the capital of a FDT to a beneficiary that is a different story. CGT events E5 and E7 can apply to subject the realisation of the CGT asset by the FDT to a family beneficiary to CGT. But there is no fundamental difference between a distribution of a CGT asset from the capital of a FDT, and the CGT events that apply to it, and how a family gift of a CGT asset by an individual is treated for CGT. That is, a gift of cash is CGT free and a gift in the form of property that is a CGT asset is subjected to CGT: not because of the gift but because a CGT asset is being realised and the CGT regime brings gains in value on a CGT asset to tax on a change of ownership.

So cash distributions of capital by a FDT, where permissible under a trust deed of a FDT, can generally occur, either with income year end income distributions or at other times during the currency of a FDT, without income tax consequences.

However there is a problematic exception:

Small business CGT concessions participation percentage

Under item 2 in the table in section 152-70 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 the “small business participation percentage” of a beneficiary of a FDT is the smaller of the percentages of the beneficiary’s entitlement to income and the beneficiary’s entitlement to capital in an income year if both income distributions and capital distributions are made in that year. Generally beneficiaries are better off qualifying for a sufficient small business participation percentage to qualify for the concessions if no distribution of capital, or no divergent distribution of capital (bearing in mind that a capital gain on an active asset distributed by a FDT is likely to have a capital component), has been made in the income year the relevant capital gain has been made in to some other beneficiary.

So if a capital gain arises to a FDT in an income year which can attract the small business CGT concessions in Division 152 of that Act, then a distribution of the income in that income year substantially to family member A, including entitlement to a capital gain, may not count or count sufficiently in the measurement of small business participation percentage where a cash distribution of capital has been made to family member B and not family member A who is left with a “smaller” participation percentage. It could be that family member A may thus not qualify as a significant individual or as a CGT concession stakeholder without the sufficient interest in capital distributions of the FDT in the relevant income year in which the capital gain was made.

So a trustee of FDT needs to be wary of cash distributions of capital from a FDT and, indeed, the streaming of capital gains where there has been a capital gain that can attract the small business CGT concessions to ensure that the desired beneficiaries have sufficient entitlements to capital that can attract the concessions. If the small business CGT concessions participation percentage is not in issue a cash distribution from from the capital of a FDT to a beneficiary can be a tax benign.

How perpetuities law limits can impact trust distributions to other trusts

WaitandSeeVesting of trust property

Perpetuities laws apply in Australian states to limit the period by the end of which interests in property of a trust must vest in a beneficiary. As I mentioned in my March 2018 post on bringing trusts to a timely end, “vest” broadly means to imbue with ownership of property. So, when property of the trust vests, the beneficiaries of the trust succeed the trustee of the trust as entitled to the property in the trust.

Discretionary trusts are subject to an eighty year maximum perpetuity period

The maximum perpetuity period (MaxPP) under each perpetuity law is the maximum period by the end of which property held on trust must vest. As I observe in my March 2018 post, property of a trust can already be vested in beneficiaries but, in the case of property of an ongoing discretionary trust, where there is a discretion to distribute income or capital to discretionary beneficiaries; the property held on the trust has not vested.

The MaxPP is consistently eighty years from when the trust commences under state perpetuities laws excepting South Australia where the perpetuity law has been repealed.

Where a disposition of property held by a discretionary trust does not vest within the MaxPP then the disposition of property to the trust is void under the perpetuities laws. That is the trust fails over that disposition and the property that was supposedly to be held on the trust is vested in and held for return to the settlor and the others who have given it to the supposed trustee.

“Wait and see” rule

The states that have a perpetuity law also adopt a “wait and see” rule to soften the harsh outcome of causing a trust over property, which might fail to vest the property within the MaxPP, to be void. Under the “wait and see” rule persons interested can wait until the expiry of the perpetuity period to see whether a disposition of property on trust has vested. If the property has not vested in a beneficiary by then, then the affected disposition of property to the trust is void.

The perpetuities complication of trusts as discretionary beneficiaries of a trust

Many family discretionary trust arrangements allow distribution of income or capital of the trust to other trusts.

Example

Let us say Trust A and Trust B:

  • are family discretionary trusts that commenced in 2010 and 2015 respectively;
  • to which the law of Queensland applies;
  • with each specifying a perpetuity period for the vesting of their property of eighty years from their commencement.

Trust B is a beneficiary of Trust A and in 2018, the trustee of Trust A exercises its discretion and distributes some of the 2018 income of Trust A to Trust B.

Under the perpetuities law the MaxPP is eighty years. The income of Trust A, which was the property of Trust A, must vest in accordance with that law and under its perpetuity period term by 2090. But, following the distribution to Trust B the prospects are that the trustee of Trust B:

  • may not vest the income received from Trust A by 2090 even though 2090 is the expiry of the MaxPP applicable to property (that wasn’t vested in a beneficiary) that was held in Trust A; and
  • is not obliged to vest the property of Trust B under the perpetuity period applicable to Trust B before 2095.

If the trustee of Trust B hasn’t vested the income received from Trust A by 2090, the disposition of that income from Trust A to Trust B is void as the property of Trust A hasn’t vested by the expiry of the MaxPP for Trust A when the “wait and see” rule no longer has effect. But does that prospect invalidate that disposition at an earlier point in time because Trust B, which has received the property which must vest by 2090, is not slated to definitely vest until 2095?

Nemesis Australia Pty Ltd

This situation was considered by the Federal Court in Nemesis Australia Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation [2005] FCA 1273. In that case the Commissioner asserted that distributions by the Steve Hart Family Trust to other trusts that were discretionary beneficiaries of the Steve Hart Family Trust, each of which had perpetuity periods which extended beyond the MaxPP applicable to the Steve Hart Family Trust, were too remote i.e. violated the perpetuities law and were thus void.

The Commissioner contended that the “wait and see” rule should not save the distributions where the source Steve Hart Family Trust and the relevant receiving beneficiary trust, looked at together, prescribed a period longer than the allowable eighty years applicable to the disposition in the deed of the Steve Hart Family Trust.

Tamberlin J. rejected the Commissioners contention and found that the “wait and see” rule applied to prevent the perpetuities law from invalidating the dispositions even though the receiving trusts might not vest the property they had received from the Steve Hart Family Trust before the expiry of the eighty year MaxPP applicable to property held in the Steve Hart Family Trust. The “wait and see” rule could apply because the trustees of the receiving trusts could act to advance their vesting dates so as to bring them within that MaxPP applicable to property they received from the Steve Hart Family Trust.

Inferences from Nemesis Australia

It follows from Nemesis Australia that the distribution in my example from Trust A to Trust B won’t be void under the perpetuities law as “wait and see” applies even though the income Trust B has from Trust A might not vest until 2095.

Should the trust deed of Trust A constrain distributions to trusts that may vest outside of the eighty year MaxPP applicable to property in Trust A?

Where Trust A distributes income of Trust A to Trust B and a beneficiary B1 of Trust B is presently entitled to that income of Trust B, which originated in Trust A, then B1 has an interest which has vested thus there is no need to “wait and see” any longer to see if the interest has vested: that disposition does not offend the perpetuity law. Where, however, Trust A distributes income or capital of Trust A to Trust B which does not vest in individual or corporate beneficiaries before the MaxPP applicable to Trust A expires then that income or capital will inadvertantly revert to the settlor or to other persons who have funded Trust A.

So the inclusion of a mechanism in discretionary trust deeds which synchronises vesting dates applicable to particular interests in income or capital that are distributed to other trusts with a later vesting day may avoid inadvertant ownership outcomes and liabilities when source discretionary trusts reach the end of their MaxPP. Following Nemesis Australia more radical restriction and control of discretionary trust distributions to other trusts as discretionary beneficiaries does not appear necessary.

Trouble objecting to a tax assessment again

ObjectionIn an earlier blog post we observed that the practical way and thus the only way to challenge Federal and State tax assessments is by objecting against the assessment with an objection.

The Taxation Office raises the tax assessment & decides the objection!

Like the decision to issue a tax assessment, the objection to that assessment, if any, is decided by the (office of the) relevant Federal or State Commissioner of Taxation too. The Commissioner will usually require that the objection is decided by an objections officer other than the officer who raised the tax assessment.

Still, even if that process is followed, an objections officer will be inclined to support the position of their colleague unless the taxpayer can show, with the objection, that the assessment is wrong. The burden of showing it is wrong is on the taxpayer. So the objection needs to make out a convincing case before the tax liability in the tax assessment raised by a colleague will be reduced by the objections officer.

Objection – a one off chance

Where the Taxpayer has given the Taxation Office a hastily prepared document objecting against an assessment, the objection right is used up. If the objections officer disallows the objection then the tax law doesn’t give the taxpayer any further right to object against that assessment again.

After an objection against an income tax assessment is disallowed the taxpayer faces the generally expensive option of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the always expensive option of appeal to the Federal Court. Either way the taxpayer is usually required to appeal within sixty days of the disallowance and will generally be limited to the grounds and arguments raised in the objection unless the taxpayer can convince the tribunal or the court that there are reasons why further grounds not set out in the objection that should be taken into account.

Had the taxpayer known this then he or she may have been more wary about rushing to lodge an objection – in the case of a disputed original income tax assessment, the taxpayer will have either two years or four years following the original notice of assessment to lodge an objection.

It is important that the taxpayer uses this time advisedly to ensure an objection (only one per disputed tax assessment) is prepared which:

  1. demonstates that the tax assessment is wrong; and
  2. establishes grounds of objection rigorous and comprehensive enough to be used in a tribunal or court appeal should the objection be disallowed.

Withdrawal

Sometimes a hastily or inadequately drawn objection doesn’t raise valid grounds at all. The Australian Taxation Office has been known to invite taxpayers to withdraw their objection in these cases. Then they no longer have to decide to disallow the objection. In that situation it may be possible to object again, with better grounds, but it is open to the ATO to contend that the taxpayer has used up their right to object.

It’s clearly best objecting with rigour first time.

Bringing trusts to a timely ending

MovingOnEnding a trust is straight forward, isn’t it? Vest all interests in the trust in beneficiaries and make the right accounting entries and the trust is terminated? Not quite.

That word “vest”. What does it mean? Vest is a technical legal term. Broadly it means to imbue with ownership of property. So, when a trust ends and the property of the trust vests, the beneficiaries of the trust succeed the trustee of the trust as entitled to the property in the trust.

But not all trusts end that way. For instance a unit trust or an unpaid present entitlement may already be vested in a beneficiary or beneficiaries. Clearly something other than vesting is needed to bring trusts of that type to an end. In those cases property that has already vested in beneficiaries may need to be paid to or put in the possession of the beneficiaries too for the trust to end.

Ending is all in the timing

In most states and territories of Australia trusts must vest within a statutory perpetuity period, typically 80 years. From this point this post relates to jurisdictions where a statutory perpetuity period applies.

Trusts that are fully vested, such as bare trusts, fixed trusts, some sorts of unit trusts and “indefinitely continuing” superannuation funds may continue for longer than the perpetuity period. A discretionary trust must vest no later than the perpetuity period, that is, discretions to distribute all income and capital of the trust must be taken and sunset once the time for vesting has been reached otherwise it will be too late and the formula for distribution for “takers-in-default” set out in the trust deed will apply to the property then left in the trust. The divesting of those interests, which are then held by the trustee outright for those beneficiaries, by payment over to, or at the direction of, the beneficiaries, can happen later after the expiry of the perpetuity period.

Bringing forward the ending of a trust

The trust deed should also set out how the time for vesting can be brought forward from the expiry of the perpetuity period. That time of expiry will usually be the “default” time for vesting, or a time just before it, (the last vesting time) in a well-crafted discretionary trust deed.

An objective of winding up a trust is to satisfy all parties with interests, in the wider sense,  in the trust, including creditors, trustees, beneficiaries and the Commissioner of Taxation.

Failure to address these interests of the parties interested, or the trust deed requirements and formalities for the bring forward of the time of vesting, can mean that the trust, or its aftermath, will remain a matter in contention or dispute which is diametrically not what a trustee will want to occur following their effort to bring the trust to an end. A trustee can face difficulty in the converse case too where a trust is inadvertently brought to an end prematurely. In other words trustees can face problems where a trust has a mistimed ending either way. A trust may go on longer than planned or it may be inadvertently brought to an end before the trust should end. An example of the latter is to be found in trust deeds which set an inexplicably early time for vesting many years prior to the expiry of the perpetuity period.

Ending by depletion and merger

Depletion and merger are two other ways a trust may be brought to an end even where the intent of the trustee and beneficiaries is, and the trust deed may suggest that, the trust is to go on for longer.

Depletion is where the trustee no longer holds property on trust. If trust property is depleted and the trustee acquires more property on trust, the arrangement is treated as a new and separate trust. A “resettlement” occurs as well as likely confusion about which trust is which. Hence the device of a “settled sum” for a discretionary trust, which remains as trust property, to ensure continuity of the (original) trust even where the trust is in deficiency and has no other identifiable property.

Merger also brings a trust to an end in an untimely and premature way. Merger occurs where the trustee and the beneficiary are or become the same person. In the case of a merger the trust obligation of the trustee under the terms of the trust is no longer owed to the beneficiary so the trust does not continue.

Merger and SMSFs with individual trustees

Merger can be an interesting issue in the case of a self managed superannuation fund with individual trustees. There is no merger while the fund has two trustees: Trustee A has trust obligations to member B and trustee B has trust obligations to member A. However if a trustee/member dies and the surviving sole trustee is also the sole member of the fund with a fully vested beneficiary account of the entirety of the fund, the fund likely merges. It follows that the fund is no longer a trust. The Commissioner of Taxation has not addressed how the doctrine of merger may apply in these cases, and, as I understand it, the Commissioner treats a fund in this situation as continuing on as a matter of administrative convenience. If the Commissioner’s approach, which may be tantamount to a recognition of a self managed superannuation fund that is not a trust, came before the courts, it is unclear how it might be explained or permitted.

Some starting points

Trusts that require winding up usually commence by and are governed by a trust deed. I am not writing here of testamentary trusts. A trust deed will usually state the requirements to wind up the trust including how the time of vesting must be brought forward. A trust deed may also provide for other things which complicate vesting or winding up, or both. The trust deed may require that a party’s consent is required before either can happen. There may be other forerunner steps which haven’t been taken which must be taken before the trust can vest under the deed. A grasp of the design or method of the trust provisions in the trust deed will build confidence that all requirements for a winding up raised in a trust deed have been identified and addressed.

If the accounts of the trust have been correctly prepared then the current balance sheet, in particular, gives a list of activity to be addressed before the trust can be wound up. For a company liquidation, liabilities need to be satisfied with the balance of assets (property) distributed to owners. Trusts are no different. The more assets have been converted to cash and liabilities have been met the simpler the contemporary balance sheet and the winding up will be.

Tax planning

The conversion of assets to cash can give rise to taxable capital gains and assessable balancing charges but the alternative, their distribution to beneficiaries on a winding up inevitably does so too. It is generally simpler or more tax effective, or both, if these CGT events are contemporaneous with the trust coming to an end.  In the cases of a fixed trust or a unit trust CGT event E4 can occur where a non-assessable part of a capital gain is distributed to a beneficiary when the interest of the beneficiary in the capital of the trust persists.

Errors frustrate the ending

Correct accounting in the trust will follow correct treatment of interests, assets or liabilities in the trust by the trustee. But correct treatment of interests, assets or liabilities doesn’t always happen. Notable examples where correct treatment doesn’t happen include:

  • the elimination of entitlements of family beneficiaries in the course of a winding up. Trustees of discretionary trusts distribute trust income to family members on lower tax rates (A) which remains unpaid and which is treated in the accounts of the trust as an unpaid present entitlement under terms in the trust deed. On winding up the distribution may revert to or may be paid to the principals of the family (B) instead without explanation. That suggests that the present entitlement of beneficiaries to former income of the trust was a sham or misunderstood with potential tax liability for the trustee;
  • distribution in the course of a winding up to individuals where the trust holds money or property sourced from a private company to which Division 7A of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 applies. This may be inconsistent with repayment of the money or property to the relevant company and could trigger a “deemed dividend” tax liability; and
  • backdating and forgiveness of loans – it can be tempting for a trustee to purge debts to related parties in the accounts of a trust but the purge is unlikely to be legally effective. A more nuanced treatment, which actually addresses the nature of the original transaction, is more likely to be accepted.

The Commissioner of Taxation investigates, audits and challenges trusts and the parties involved in these kinds of errors including after a winding up.

Conclusion

The affairs of trusts vary greatly and some have deeply intransigent issues. Getting a trust ready to wind up, and executing that wind up at a custom desired point in time may pose a number of challenges which should be considered and addressed in the process. The legal, accounting, business and practical attributes of the trust and possible errors should be considered through the due diligence process so that a non-contentious consignment of the trust to history can be effectively documented.

Minority SMSF investors and related unit trusts

AssociatesA popular pro-active SMSF strategy is to skirt the boundaries of the associate rules in Part 8 of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (SISA) with minority SMSF investors taking units in a unit trust with no apparent majority controller with other unrelated SMSF or non-SMSF investors. The object of the minority strategy is that the minority SMSF investor and associates have a less than 50% entitlement to income and capital of the unit trust and so the unit trust will not be a related trust of the SMSF automatically. This is an alternative strategy to investing in a non-geared unit trust which complies with Regulation 13.22C of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Regulations.

If the minority strategy doesn’t work

If the unit trust is, or becomes, a related trust of the SMSF the consequences can be severe. The investment in the related trust by the SMSF is taken to be an in-house asset. A SMSF that fails to remedy an investment of more than 5% of its assets in in-house assets faces loss of complying status potentially causing:

  • tax at 47% on its current income; and
  • loss of almost half of the assets of the SMSF in a one-off additional tax bill in the year in which the SMSF becomes non-complying; or
  • prosecution for civil or criminal breach of a civil penalty provision under the SISA.

An investment in a non-geared unit trust which complies with Regulation 13.22C is specifically excluded from being an in-house asset. The minority strategy does not give the same assurance to a SMSF investor in units in a unit trust which is not Regulation 13.22C compliant.

Control of a trust

The more  than 50% entitlement to income and capital test is one of the tests of control of a trust in sub-section 70E(2) of the SISA which determine whether or not a trust is controlled and is thus an associate and, by that, a related trust. An alternate test in paragraph 70E(2)(b), sometimes overlooked by users of the minority strategy, is the directions, instructions or wishes test which is an alternative test of control of a trust. Its formulation:

an entity controls a trust if:
…               (b)  the trustee of the trust, or a majority of the trustees of the trust, is accustomed or under an obligation (whether formal or informal), or might reasonably be expected, to act in accordance with the directions, instructions or wishes of a group in relation to the entity (whether those directions, instructions or wishes are, or might reasonably be expected to be, communicated directly or through interposed companies, partnerships or trusts);

is based on a similar formulation in sub-section 318(6) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 which deals with associates under the income tax controlled foreign corporations (CFC) rules.

MWYS v. Commissioner of Taxation

The directions, instructions or wishes test in paragraph 318(6)(b) in the CFC rules was recently considered by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in MWYS v. Commissioner of Taxation [2017] AATA 3037 (22 December 2017) and the companies in dispute with the Commissioner in that case were found not to be associated even though the companies concerned had the same directors.

Deputy President Logan found that, despite the unanimity of the directors of the companies involved, the companies were not associates as it could not be concluded, on the evidence, that the directors of one company, acting in that capacity, would influence themselves acting in their capacity as directors of the other company. Deputy President Logan observed that the arrangements between the companies involved: an Australian listed company and a UK publicly listed company which enabled them to dual list on the ASX and the London Stock Exchange, were for the purpose of compliance with dual listing requirements but, within that framework, the companies were structured with similarity to unrelated joint venturers. No inference could be drawn about one company acting on the directions of the other.

Moreover the strict governance which applied to both of the listed companies actually helped the companies to establish that the directors were acting independently and at arms length from the other company even where the directors were directors of the other company too. Short of a sham, or a cipher, as arose in Bywater Investments Ltd v Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2016] HCA 45 (see our blog -Why setting up offshore companies for Australians is a tricky business), the AAT was prepared to rely on the meticulous corporate documents which set out the distinct responsibilities of the directors of the companies they separately served.

Directors in common

It is certainly clear from MWYS that commonality of directors of a company, or in the case of paragraph 70E(2)(b) of the SISA, commonality of directors of a corporate trustee is not enough, in itself, to amount to a reasonable expectation that one company will act in accordance with the directions, instructions or wishes of the other company or of a group including it.

Is MWYS good news for SMSFs using the minority strategy?

Is the decision in MWYS a relief to minority SMSF investors in unit trusts concerned about paragraph 70E(2)(b) of the SISA? Maybe not. Documents of SMSF trustees and of unit trusts, in which they invest, are far less likely to be as meticulous at keeping the affairs of entities being examined for control apart. A unit trust deed is more likely than, say, a joint venture arrangement to show that the trustee of a unit trust might act in accordance with the directions, instructions or wishes of a unitholder, albeit a minority unitholder.

Frequently, under unit trust deeds, minority unitholders have the right to vote on resolutions which bind the trustee of the unit trust to act. A minority unitholder may not have the votes, alone, to so bind the trustee; but the question posed by the test is whether the trustee is accustomed to act, or whether there is a reasonable expectation that the trustee of the unit trust will act, in accordance with the directions, instructions or wishes of a minority unitholder. The answer in fact is equivocal – yes, if the minority unitholder votes are in the majority and no, if not. So yes, a part of the time or on some occasions. So the minority SMSF investor and the trustee of the unit trust are associated?

What will facts show under scrutiny?

The concern for SMSF users of the minority strategy is: will their position, that the unit trust they invest in is not a related trust, become less defensible under scrutiny from the Commissioner? From the activities of the SMSF investor, its associates and the trustee of the unit trust the Commissioner can gauge how the trustee of the unit trust has reached decisions, which may not have been in accord with documents, whether sound or not, and form a view as to how likely the trustee of the unit trust is likely to have acted on directions, instructions or wishes of the SMSF investor and its associates.

Until the circumstances of a SMSF using a minority strategy, including the relevant documents, are considered it can be uncertain whether a SMSF minority unitholder may “control” a unit trust and cause it to be a related trust.

Aussiegolfa SMSF hits sole purpose flag

golfflagThe sole purpose test in section 62 of the Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (the SIS Act), which requires that superannuation funds be conducted solely for core and ancillary purposes (superannuation purposes) with core purposes including:

  • funding for retirement from gainful employment of a member;
  • a member reaching a prescribed age; or
  • the death of a member,

is fundamental to the integrity of Australia’s tax-privileged and compulsory superannuation system.

The sole in sole purpose

In practice section 62 is a difficult provision to apply at the margin because of the ostensible purity of purpose of conduct of a superannuation fund to meet the sole purpose standard, or more precisely, a collection of allowed purposes.

Between commencement of the SIS Act in 1993 and December 2017 the meaning and scope of “sole” in the sole purpose test was not specifically considered in reported court cases.

The opening round

In Case 43/95, 1995 ATC 374 (the Swiss Chalet Case) the Administrative Appeals Tribunal considered whether a superannuation fund had met the sole purpose test where the fund had invested in:

  • shares which enabled access to a golf club for; and
  • a Swiss chalet which earned income for the family trust of:

the managing director of the employer-sponsor of the fund. The AAT found that the fund had been conducted for purposes other than superannuation purposes and thus the fund failed the sole purpose test.

The latest play

The Federal Court has now considered “sole” in the sole purpose test and referred, with approval, to the reasoning in the Swiss Chalet Case in Aussiegolfa Pty Ltd (Trustee) v Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 1525. Given the significance of the golf club access of the managing director in the Swiss Chalet Case and the allusion to golf in the name of the trustee of the superannuation fund, one might think that the trustee was looking for the attention and the view of the Commissioner of Taxation, as the regulator of self managed superannuation funds, on the purposes of Aussiegolfa Pty Ltd.

A provisional ball?

Indeed, the facts in Aussiegolfa indicate the trustee sought to test whether residential properties held by self-managed superannuation funds could be used by related parties under the SIS Act.

Facts in Aussiegolfa

In Aussiegolfa the trustee was the trustee of the personal SMSF of the Victorian State Manager of DomaCom Australia Ltd., a managed investment scheme regulated by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The trustee of the SMSF and the family of the member of the SMSF invested in units in DomaCom which were directed to and funded investment by DomaCom in a student residential accommodation to be leased to the daughter of the member of the SMSF who was a university student. DomaCom was hopeful that they had initiated an effective and attractive SMSF investment strategy.

Investment in an in-house asset?

The first SIS Act hurdle for the SMSF trustee to overcome in Aussiegolfa was whether there was an investment in a related trust causing the investment to be an in-house asset to which section 82 of the SIS Act would apply (with or without a determination by the Commissioner that the investment was an in-house asset under sub-section 71(4) of the SIS Act).

The investment by the SMSF trustee was in units in DomaCom, a managed investment trust. The Federal Court worked its way through the terms of the constitution of DomaCom, and amendments of it, and a series of product disclosure statements to determine the basis on which the SMSF trustee had invested in DomaCom at the time of its investment. Pagone J. found that the trustee had invested in a sub-trust which was a discrete trust and so a related trust of the SMSF for SIS Act purposes.

Not out of bounds

That finding was despite equivocal provisions in the applicable terms of the constitution of DomaCom which sought to reinforce, unsuccessfully to Pagone J., that the units in DomaCom did not give a unit holder, whose investment had been directed to certain assets and whose income and entitlements were ring-fenced to those assets, an interest in those particular assets and that DomaCom was one indivisible trust of many assets.

It followed from this framing of what was the trust by the Federal Court that the SMSF trustee could not rely on the widely held unit trust exclusion in paragraph 71(1)(h) of the SIS Act from being a related trust and an in-house asset.

… and hitting the sole purpose red flag

Turning to the sole purpose issue, Pagone J. accepted the reasoning in the Swiss Chalet Case and applied authority which explains how a “sole” purpose requirement is to be interpreted and applied. Broadly, Pagone J. concluded that:

  • the inquiry into sole purpose is a question of fact;
  • the inquiry is not an inquiry into motive but into the “end sought to be accomplished”;
  • the sole purpose requirement precludes there being any other purpose , however minor; and
  • there may be facts which could suggest pursuit of other purposes, if those facts were considered separately, but these do not necessarily connote other purposes if they show pursuit for the required sole purpose.

In Aussiegolfa Pagone J. held that providing housing to the daughter of the member of the SMSF was not within and inconsistent with superannuation purposes and so the SMSF failed the sole purpose test.

A two shot penalty

The trustee of the SMSF in Aussiegolfa had hoped that its investment in units in DomaCom would not jeopardise its status as a complying superannuation fund. But due to the decision of the Federal Court:

  • the units are an in-house asset comprising more than 5% of the assets of the SMSF so section 82 can be applied to deprive the SMSF of complying superannuation fund status if the level of the in-house assets of the SMSF is not brought to 5% or under before the end of the income year following the income year of acquisition of the in-house asset; and
  • the SMSF can be made non-complying because it has failed the sole purpose test in section 62;

and various other civil and criminal penalties can potentially be applied for both of the SMSF’s breaches of the SIS Act by the Commissioner of Taxation.

An uncertain lie in the rough?

Pagone J. observed in Aussiegolfa that there may be circumstances where a lease to a related party would not breach the sole purpose test but, in Aussiegolfa, he observed that the evidence was that the purpose of the investment through DomaCom was, in part, for another purpose of providing housing to the daughter of the member of the SMSF. This is not a complete reassurance to other SMSFs that invest in business real property to lease to a related party. That investment can be excluded from being an in house asset under paragraph 71(1)(g) of the SIS Act but does it follow that the investment is in the circumstances which would not breach the sole purpose test Pagone J. describes? Can we safely infer that an investment that attracts a statutory exclusion from being an in-house asset should be excluded from failing the sole purpose test too?

Checking my card

I have paraphrased particularly in describing how Pagone J. applied the sole purpose test. I also take responsibility for the golfing headings through this post which I appreciate will be vague and wearisome to those lucky enough to be non-golfers.

GST withholding on residential property sales to plug a phoenix hole

The Federal Government, through the Phoenix Task Force involving the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and other government agencies, has been cracking down on invidious “phoenix” activity through this decade.

The phoenix swindle

The idea behind a phoenix entity is that the entity, usually a company, is set up to undertake and undertakes a money-making activity where a considerable portion of the money made is owed to government, usually as taxes such as PAYG withholding or GST, perhaps after a significant claim of GST input tax credits, or to other agencies or creditors. Before the taxes, or money owed, can be collected, the money made by the entity is stripped from the entity by the controllers of the entity. The controllers can then rise from the ashes, phoenix like, with a new entity which can again make money for the controllers in the same way and can again be stripped of money owed to government, agencies and creditors by them.

Proposed GST withholding by purchasers of residential land

The government is addressing a phoenix trouble spot with property developers by the proposed introduction of a GST withholding from 1 July 2018 under which purchasers must retain one eleventh of the price of the property on or before settlement of sale of residential land for remission to the ATO. The Exposure Draft: Treasury Laws Amendment (2017 Measures No. 9) Bill 2017 has now been released in line with an announcement in the 2017/18 Budget. The withholding requirement in the Exposure Draft Bill would be a short circuit to the usual GST regime which obliges a vendor who is registered or required to be registered for the GST to collect GST on a taxable supply to a purchaser and for the vendor to pay it to the ATO via their BAS.

GST withheld 10% – GST owing less?

If the vendor applies the margin scheme then the purchaser will have withheld too much GST. The withholding rules in the Exposure Draft Bill include a mechanism which allow a vendor, who is not a monthly BAS lodger, to seek an early refund of the overpaid GST when too much GST has been withheld for the vendor by the purchaser.

GST withholding will apply to a taxable supply of land by a vendor who is registered or required to be registered for the GST under the Exposure Draft Bill. Both new residential premises and land that is potentially residential land, though not if it is input taxed as existing residential premises, require GST withholding by the purchaser. In other words the withholding obligation is broadly imposed so that the purchaser does not need to inquire about whether the land is new residential premises for GST purposes to the vendor. Broadly, and subject to exceptions, it is understood that the withholding obligation arises on the purchase of land from a vendor who is registered or required to be registered for the GST as follows:

Chart of kinds of supply

Purchaser might need to withhold 22.5% for the ATO!

The proposed introduction of the GST withholding regime follows two years after the introduction of the non-resident capital gains tax withholding tax which requires a purchaser to withhold 12.5% of the price unless the vendor produces a ATO clearance certificate to verify that the vendor is not a non-resident: see Australia is now tracking & surcharging foreign buyers of land. These withholding obligations will require focus in conveyancing with enterprises which sell residential or potential residential land in the course of their operations.

Both measures visit responsibility to collect tax on the purchaser because of the some time difficulty of collecting tax from a vendor who departs with the sale money leaving taxes and creditors owed. Potentially both withholding obligations can apply to a purchaser who would then be withholding 22.5% of the price to pay to the ATO. There is no clearance certificate or other relief to relieve a purchaser from GST withholding, as yet, which may mean that one-eleventh GST withholding will have a broad application to buyers of residential land from GST registered property developers and traders should the Exposure Draft Bill become law.

Commissioner pushed too far to rule on private ruling – Hacon

Efforts by a $35 million pastoral dynasty to get tax certainty over their plans to restructure its farming holdings have come to an end with the Full Federal Court upholding the Commissioner of Taxation’s appeal and allowing the Commissioner to decline to rule on the applicants’ private ruling application.

Must the Commissioner rule on anything?

In theory, with enough information, the Commissioner can provide any private ruling on the way in which the Commissioner considers a tax law applies or would apply to any set of current or future facts and circumstances to a private ruling applicant. Does this afford scope for a determined taxpayer to base an extravagant application for a private ruling on a favourable but not necessarily realistic matrix of circumstances, which are yet to occur, particularly in an anti-avoidance context? Is this matrix really “information” which the private ruling must reflect?

Under the private ruling regime in Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (“Sch 1 TAA”) there are two competing limitations on the issue of private rulings:

  • If the Commissioner finds that further information is needed to make a private ruling then the Commissioner must request the applicant for that information – the Commissioner can only decline to rule if the applicant does not provide the information requested within a reasonable time: section 357-105 of Sch 1 TAA.
  • If correctness of a private ruling depends on an assumptions about a future event or other matter the Commissioner may either decline to rule or make assumptions that the Commissioner considers most appropriate: section 357-110 of Sch 1 TAA.

Info&Assumptions

Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd.

In Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd. [2017] FCAFC 181 the applicants sought a private ruling over whether the general anti-avoidance provisions in Part IVA of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 would apply to a proposed demerger of assets in their farming group which included a routing of the assets, by way of dividends on redeemable preference shares, to a new series of trusts.

The applicants asserted that the matters on which the Commissioner declined to rule, which were expressly listed as assumptions about future events, could have been satiated by information which the Commissioner could and should have sought from the applicants as required by section 357-105. The applicants successfully contended this at first instance in the Federal Court. However the Full Federal Court on appeal by the Commissioner, comprising Robertson, Pagone and Derrington JJ., took a different view. The Court, at paragraph 8 of the joint judgment, observed that:

The word “information” is an ordinary English word apt to cover a large range of facts and circumstances including events yet to occur and assumptions about future events.

and found that the matters set out in the Commissioner’s letter, although satiable by information, did indeed require assumptions about future events or other matters so that declining to rule, without seeking explanation by way of information from the applicant, was an option available to the Commissioner under section 357-110.

Assumptions give scope to the Commissioner to opt out

It follows from the decision of the Full Federal Court in Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd. that, if the Commissioner needs to make assumptions about future events in order to rule in a private ruling application, the Commissioner can opt not to rule rather than being obliged to make assumptions which are not appropriate in the Commissioner’s estimation. That view can be apposite for future events where the information an applicant provides about them may not be convincing.