RSS feed for this section

Archive | Tax Practice

Foreign income tax offsets and discount capital gains – the Burton effect

HalfDollar

Non-residents* no longer have entitlement to the 50% capital gains tax discount (the Discount) on their Australian capital gains, save grandfathering, but the inverse isn’t true: Residents* can apply the Discount to foreign capital gains that meet the requirements of the Discount in their Australian tax.

The CGT discount

Obtaining the Discount principally requires:

  • the entity who made the gain being an individual either directly or as the beneficiary of a trust [50% discount] or a superannuation fund [33⅓% discount] : section 115-100 of the Income Tax Assessment Act [ITAA] 1997). That is the entity is not a company. Companies are ineligible for the Discount;
  • the CGT asset on which the gain is made was held for at least twelve months: section 115-25; and
  • the gain made is not otherwise treated income under the ITAA 1997. So where a gain is both assessable income and a capital gain under the ITAA 1997 the gain is not taxed as a capital gain and so the Discount cannot apply too: section 118-20.

How taxation of foreign income works

Broadly foreign capital gains are included in the Australian assessable income of a resident just as domestic capital gains are. Resident taxpayers are taxed on income from all worldwide sources: sections 6-5 and 6-10. Notable exceptions are foreign income of companies from:

  • their foreign branches with an permanent establishment in those foreign places: section 23AH of the ITAA 1936; and
  • foreign subsidiaries of Australian resident companies or where a company has non-portfolio (at least 10%) holding in a foreign company: section 768-5 of the ITAA 1997.

Foreign income, including of capital gains, of a resident is separately taxed (or exempted) under Australian tax rules even where the foreign income has been, or is to be, taxed under a foreign regime. To address the prospect of double (foreign and domestic) taxation of foreign income a foreign income tax offset (FITO) is available: Division 770 of the ITAA 1997. Australian tax on foreign income can be offset by a FITO for the foreign tax a resident taxpayer has paid, as a non-resident typically but dual tax residence is possible, in the foreign place the foreign income came from.

Double tax and double tax treaties

Australia has double (bilateral) tax treaties with many countries including all large countries and major trading partners which:

  • mutually allow source taxation of income of non-residents of each country (jurisdiction) at tax rates lower than both non-treaty rates and domestic rates on some forms of foreign income – this reduces foreign tax and, consequently the FITO needed to offset that foreign tax; and
  • provide a structure to alter domestic tax law, if need be, to prevent situations where taxpayers will be taxed in both places (double tax) on the same income.

The tax treaties reserve rights to a treaty partner to tax real estate where a taxpayer is resident in the other jurisdiction and taxation of capital gains made on the realisation of real estate, unlike typically interest, dividends and royalties, is not capped at lower rates in the treaties. Broadly this means Australian residents, as non-resident taxpayers, pay foreign capital gains taxes at rates comparable to, or even higher than, the taxes locals pay on capital gains made on foreign real estate.

It follows that foreign capital gains tax can be significant. Can this foreign tax payment be used as a FITO to offset the CGT on an Australian Discount capital gain? The FITO available to offset Discount capital gains on real estate and other investments was considered by the Full Federal Court in Burton v Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCAFC 141.

Burton v Commissioner of Taxation

In Burton v Commissioner of Taxation it was found that 50% only of US tax paid on a capital gain made on US investments by an Australian resident individual taxpayer was offsettable against the individual’s Australian tax as a FITO.

The reason for this finding is technical but can be understood as follows:

In essence a FITO under section 770-10 of the ITAA 1997 is strictly confined to foreign income that is subject to foreign tax. Under the Discount regime in Division 115 and under section 102-5 of the ITAA 1997 only the net capital gain after applying the Discount, which is 50% in the case of a resident individual, is included in assessable income. It follows that a component of a capital gain taxed as a foreign capital gain is not taxed in Australia where the capital gain is a discount capital gain under Division 115. That is a Discount capital gain to an Australian resident individual taxable on their worldwide income that arises from a capital gain made in the US is made up of:

  • 50% that is taxed in the US which is included in Australia assessable income as net capital gain; and
  • 50% that is taxed in the US but which is not included in assessable income in Australia viz. it is exempt from tax in Australia.

The Full Federal Court confirmed that a FITO is only available in relation to the first of these 50% categories. Logan J. stated at paragraphs 84 and 86:

84. Read in context, the text of s 770-10 is, in my view, fatal to the success of the alternative foundation of Mr Burton’s appeal, grounds 1 to 4 of which challenge the correctness of the conclusion adverse to him reached by the learned primary judge in relation to the allowance of foreign tax offsets under s 770-10 of the 1997 Act. An amount of foreign tax paid only counts towards a tax offset if it was paid “in respect of an amount that is all or part of an amount included in your assessable income for the year”.

….

86. Section 770-10 looks to “an amount that is all or part of an amount included in your assessable income for the year”. The term “assessable income” is defined in s 995-1 of the 1997 Act, which is not the same as “income” as understood for the purposes of the Convention. As defined in the 1997 Act, assessable income includes “ordinary income” (s 6-5) and, materially, what is termed “statutory income” (s 6-10). One form of statutory income included in assessable income is a net capital gain included pursuant to s 102-5(1) of the 1997 Act. As a matter of ordinary language flowing from the text of s 770-10 and, in turn, s 102-5(1), it is only the net capital gain which is, in each instance, included in Mr Burton’s assessable income. Regard to ss 6-5, 6-10 and 102-5 highlights that the phraseology “included in your assessable income” is pervasive in the 1997 Act. There is no contextual warrant for construing “included in” as extending to an amount which is used for computation of an amount that is included in assessable income. The learned primary judge (at [113] – [114]) reached just such a conclusion. That conclusion was correct, for the reasons given by his Honour.

Burton v Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCAFC 141 at paras. 84 and 86

Repercussions

This outcome is quirky and is entirely due to the laboured statutory drafting of the CGT provisions which is in part consequence of laudable efforts to rewrite and improve the Australian legislation with the advent of the ITAA 1997. If, instead, the taxation of discount capital gains had been governed by a rate set in less intelligible and obscure fine print in the Income Tax Rates Act 1986 as say 50% of the rate otherwise applicable, with that net rate to apply to the whole capital gain; then the whole of the US tax paid on the capital gain could have been offsettable as a FITO. In other words a half of the FITO would not have been lost to Mr. Burton due to the clash of legislative style with treaty terms.

But that is not the case. Accordingly Australian residents with Discount capital gains which are foreign capital gains need to ensure FITO claims in their Australian income tax return reduce the foreign tax claimed by the discount percentage to ensure no FITOs are claimed for the non-assessable/exempt component of the foreign capital gain that technically arises under the Australian CGT legislation.

*In this post resident and non-resident respectively mean resident and non-resident for tax purposes: see “resident of Australia” defined in sub-section 6(1) of the ITAA 1936.

Self-represented perils contesting Australian tax residence

alone
Royalty-free 3d generated graphic

Impending change to the individual Australian income tax residence rules

A measure in the Federal Budget 2021–22 is to replace the current individual tax residence rules with residency tripwires for an individuals who are tax resident where an individual is any one of:

  • ordinarily resident in Australia (resides test) – based on legal case precedent;
  • has an Australian domicile (domicile test)  – which can activate unless the Commissioner of Taxation (Commissioner) is satisfied the permanent place of abode of the individual is outside of Australia;
  • present in Australia for more than a half of the year of income (183 day test) – which can activate unless the habitual place of abode of the individual is outside of Australia and the Commissioner is satisfied that the individual does not intend to take up residence in Australia ; or
  • a member of certain government superannuation funds;

in a year of income with an “improved and simplified” individual tax residence test based on:

  • a bright-line test derived from the 183 day test under which an individual who is physically present in Australia for more than 183 days are taken to be resident; and
  • the prospect of still being a resident nonetheless “in more complex cases” where the individual is physically present in Australia for less than 183 days such as where an individual is physically present for 45 days or more and has two or more of these other attributes/triggers of Australian tax residence:
    • a right to reside permanently in Australia;
    • Australian accommodation;
    • Australian family; and
    • Australian economic interests.

(45 day triggers) based on recommendations of the Board of Taxation. The reform of the individual tax residence rules is justified in the announcement on the grounds that the current rules are difficult to apply, create uncertainty and result in high compliance costs, including need to seek “third-party” aka professional advice, despite individuals having otherwise simple tax affairs.

Sanderson v. Commissioner of Taxation

The recent case of Sanderson v. Commissioner of Taxation [2021] AATA 4305 is an instance of an individual unsuccessfully running his tax residence appeal under the current rules without professional representation. Mr. Sanderson may or may not have had simple tax affairs but, in any case, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision reveals he had an income of $494,668 in the 2016 income year in dispute which suggests professional advice and representation might have been accessible to help him resist the adverse outcomes of his tax appeal.

Self-representation – the statistical ugliness

Self-represented taxpayers can run their own tax appeal and, in the Tribunal at least, rules of evidence and other procedural requirements are relaxed so that a person without legal training can so present their case.

In most tax appeals against income tax assessments, brought to either the Tribunal or the Federal Court, the Commissioner succeeds where the appeals progress to full hearing and decision. When the statistics concerning cases where appellants who are professionally represented and appellants who are self-represented are compared the proportion of Commissioner wins becomes even more lop-sided. As someone involved as a representative in, and who follows, these cases I can conclude that tax appeals, where self-represented taxpayers take the Commissioner on and succeed, are rare and reflect that self-represented taxpayers:

  • struggle to comprehend complex tax laws, understand them in context or appreciate how to present contentions about their case in a contested environment; and
  • do not appreciate how facts relevant to their case need to be presented so those facts are accepted or likely accepted as evidence.

Inadequate evidence

As the Budget measures and Board of Taxation suggest, the current individual tax residence rules have amplified challenges for a self-represented appellant to the Tribunal in a tax residence case that made likelihood of success for Mr. Sanderson even more remote. As I have noted in this blog in many places (see the Onus tag) the burden of proof of facts in tax appeals is with the taxpayer but there is more that can go wrong with evidence in tax appeal cases than that. In Sanderson Senior Member Olding of the Tribunal made these findings about the evidence concerning the taxpayer in the case:

29. One is the manner in which Mr Sanderson completed incoming passenger cards when he returned to Australia. He declared that he was a ‘Resident returning to Australia’ and on various cards indicated an intention to stay in Australia for the next 12 months. Mr Sanderson’s response to cross-examination about the passenger cards – ‘I guess I lied on the form’[18] – does not help his credibility, but is probably correct in respect of the latter question since his stays were for less than 12 months.

[18] Transcript of proceedings, P-46, ln 27.

30. Another is a loan application form completed by Mr Sanderson in March 2011. The Benowa property was listed as Mr Sanderson’s residential address with the status box ‘Own home’ selected and the property described as ‘live in’. Again, Mr Sanderson’s response to questioning – ‘Maybe I lied to get the loan I don’t know. I don’t recall.’[19] – was unhelpful. What is clear is that either the statement was not accurate or Mr Sanderson’s evidence that he did not intend to live in the home at the time was not truthful; both statements cannot be correct.

Sanderson v. Commissioner of Taxation [2021] AATA 4305 at paragraphs 29-30

As Senior Member Olding observes, propensity to lie revealed in evidence in a tax appeal depletes credibility of a taxpayer which is generally decisive in a case against the Commissioner whose officers and witnesses are usually thoroughly credible. So the Commissioner’s witnesses will be believed and the taxpayer won’t be believed about contested questions of fact with near inevitable consequences.

Self-serving evidence

Self-represented taxpayers often over-estimate how persuasive their own statements of fact and intent will be in a tax appeal forum. In Sanderson Senior Member Olding reminds us that a taxpayer’s self-serving evidence needs to be approached with caution:

Has Mr Sanderson proved the amounts transferred to his account were repayments of loans?

38. In approaching this issue, I am mindful of two judicial warnings. One is that self-serving evidence of taxpayers should be approach (sic.) with caution. The other is that nevertheless a taxpayer’s evidence should not be regarded as prima facie unacceptable unless corroborated.[24]

[24] Imperial Bottleshops Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation (1991) 22 ATR 148, 155; and generally: Federal Commissioner of Taxation v Cassaniti [2018] FCAFC 212.

Sanderson v. Commissioner of Taxation [2021] AATA 4305 at paragraph 38

The resides test and the weight of facts

So the evidence in Sanderson accepted by the Tribunal diverged from how the taxpayer tried to present it. It transpired that Mr. Sanderson, who had spent 83 days in Australia in the 2016 income year, and was claiming not to be a tax resident of Australia was found by the Tribunal to have:

  • had a home in Benowa on the Gold Coast with his family;
  • business interests in Australia;
  • returned to Australia in the 2016 income year for business purposes where the Sanderson Group maintained a serviced office;
  • held directorships in Australian companies which he had had for some 30 years by 2016;
  • had access, with his wife, to a company car in Australia which he regarded as his own vehicle;
  • been treated by medical professionals in Australia with whom he had longstanding relationships; and
  • maintained Medicare and medical insurance coverage in Australia, although he also had health insurance coverage elsewhere;

in that income year.

From those findings the Tribunal decided that the taxpayer was ordinarily resident in Australia (viz. satisfied the resides test) and, based on that decision, it was unnecessary, according to the Tribunal, for the Tribunal to consider the domicile test. Although the taxpayer was an Australian citizen, thus clearly with Australian domicile, the issue with the domicile test would have been whether the Commissioner should have been satisfied or not that the taxpayer had a permanent place of abode outside of Australia.

What might a professional representative have contributed?

A saving in time and resources may have been achieved if this case had been professionally evaluated at an early juncture. Evidence where the taxpayer eventually admitted to lying could have been considered to understand how detrimental it would be, how it would come across and whether it deprived the taxpayer of realistic prospect of success in the case.

Professional advice could have been taken about the exceptional nature of cases where taxpayers, whose immediate families were living in Australia, had successfully established that they were not tax residents of Australia. A notable instance of an exceptional case is Pike v. Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCA 2185 which I considered in my December 2019 blog – Tax residence – is it administrable after Pike? https://wp.me/p6T4vg-gW. In Pike the taxpayer was accepted as a credible witness able to establish that he was residing in Thailand while his family lived in Australia at the times in dispute. Mr. Pike’s connections to Australia were comparatively more tenuous to Australia than Mr. Sanderson’s.

In the conduct of Sanderson, the self-represented taxpayer appears not to have raised or agitated the question of residence under the relevant double tax agreement (DTA) which was a key matter in Pike. Despite the long list of factors on which the Tribunal could find that Mr. Sanderson was ordinarily resident in Australia, a taxpayer can still assert that a “tie-breaker” provision in an applicable DTA, where the taxpayer is ordinarily resident in both places (a dual resident), applies to make the taxpayer not ordinarily resident in Australia by virtue of the DTA. Perhaps the taxpayer in Sanderson could have contended that he was a resident of Malaysia who had been lodging income tax returns in Malaysia and that he should have been treated as a resident of Malaysia under the Australia Malaysia DTA?

Or maybe these inferences shouldn’t be drawn from the Tribunal’s decision? We’ll never know, of course, because the taxpayer opted to self-represent.

And what would have happened under the reform had it been the individual tax residence regime?

The taxpayer in Sanderson would not have been a resident under the “bright-line” 183 day test having spent 83 days in Australia in the relevant income year. However, as the taxpayer spent more than 45 days in Australia and these 45 day triggers are enlivened as the taxpayer had:

  • a right to reside permanently in Australia;
  • Australian accommodation; and
  • Australian economic interests,

two of the 45 day triggers are enough to cause the taxpayer to be hypothetically treated as a tax resident of Australia under the reform.

Some other thoughts on the 45 day triggers

This deceptively simple outcome expected in future under the reform is in tension with DTAs and international taxing norms where other countries will generally be looking to tax individuals, present in their country for up to around 320 days (365 – 45) in the country’s fiscal year, as tax resident in their country. Situations were individuals are taxed as resident in both Australia and other countries will abound as the reform, unlike the current rules, is not closely aligned to DTAs and international taxing norms when a 45 day benchmark for residence is used in “complex” cases where the 45 day triggers apply.

45 days is meagre especially in an era where travel plans of expatriate Australian citizens, who return to Australia for a visit planned as short, can be disrupted by border closures. Many such expatriates are eager to avoid, and the reform should be adjusted to prevent, structural impact to their tax affairs on being made Australian tax resident due to a visit which exceeds 45 days for reasons beyond his or her control.

The onus of proof on taxpayers and the common good

As I mention in my 2015 blog post on the onus of proof:

BurglarBag$

The burden of proof in a tax objection

the onus on a taxpayer is an outlier and “reversed” when compared to the onus in other kinds of legal disputes.

Even when compared to the civil case onus, where disputes are also resolved on a balance of probabilities, the tax onus of proof is unusual. It is unlike the civil case standard which generally requires a litigant taking civil action to prove their case. That differs from disputes over Australian tax assessments where it is the taxpayer who must prove their position taken in their tax filings.

Beginnings of onus on the taxpayer

This has long been the case with Australian income tax even before the introduction of the self-assessment system in the late 1980s. Paragraph 190(b) of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1936, which imposed the burden of proof on taxpayers on objections and appeals over tax assessments, was in the original 1936 legislation.

Advent of self-assessment

In a sense tax legislation caught up with paragraph 190(b) with the onset of self-assessment in the late 1980s. The self-assessment system moved responsibility to assess one’s tax viz. to get tax filings right, wholly onto the taxpayer. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) website explains how self-assessment works:

we accept the information you give us is complete and accurate. We will review the information you provide if we have reason to think otherwise

Self-assessment and the taxpayer

Mutual reliance

It is a corollary of reliance on the taxpayer to get their tax filings right that a taxpayer can also demonstrate the completeness and accuracy of those filings when called on to do so by an ATO review, audit or investigation.

This proposition is made clearer when considered in the wider context of the body of Australian taxpayers meeting their tax obligations. Taxpayers, who can demonstrate accuracy and justify their tax filings, expect, or might be entitled to mutually expect, that other taxpayers, under the same obligations and contributing to the same pool of revenue; are also able to so demonstrate.

How the tax burden of proof can work

Let us say:

  1. a taxpayer T returns no income in an income year;
  2. the ATO reveals that T has received $1m in that period;
  3. T asserts that the $1m was a gift given to T by an overseas relative, and that is why T believes T’s income tax return was correct; and
  4. the ATO see a possibility that the $1m could have been income of T and T’s claim of a gift may not be true.

With the onus of proof on T, T must produce the information which supports T’s claim of a gift and T’s return of no income. That seems reasonable in the context of the $1m receipt being T’s own affair with which T is familiar enough to have excluded from T’s income in T’s income tax return. Having omitted to return $1m that way it follows that it should be up to T to demonstrate that the $1m is not T’s income on review.

If the onus of proof were the other way, and on the Commissioner, then where the Commissioner has scant information to demonstrate that the $1m or some part of it was income and the Commissioner may then be unable to positively prove the $1m was income of T so:

  • T would avoid tax liability on the $1m even though the $1m may have been T’s income; and
  • it would be in T’s interests to conceal information, including information about the possible income character of the $1m from the Commissioner, which is then unavailable to the Commissioner or costly to the ATO to establish with other means or from other sources, rather than to disclose information to positively show that the $1m was not T’s income which T would be compelled to do if the onus of proof is on T.

Parliamentary inquiry

A House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue (Committee) inquiry into tax administration has made recommendations on 26 October 2021 including for:

  • increase in transparency of and communication by the ATO of ATO compliance activities;
  • reversal of the onus of proof (from the taxpayer to the Commissioner) after a certain period where the Commissioner asserts there has been fraud or evasion;
  • introduction of a 10 year time limit on the Commissioner for amendment of assessments where there has been fraud or evasion; and
  • a moratorium on collection of tax debts by the Commissioner until a taxpayer has had the opportunity to dispute the debt.

The complexity issue

The long understood weakness with the self-assessment system, particularly with income tax collection in Australia, is the complexity of tax laws: see https://go.ly/x0MIU from the Australian Parliamentary website. This was not a significantly lesser weakness under the predecessor system where ATO resources in the ATO assessment process where sparse especially to assess activity where compliance with complex laws was in issue. Since self-assessment began income tax laws have only increased in complexity and, demonstrably, in volume. Yet, over the same period there has been:

  • improvement in the drafting, clarity and usability of tax laws epitomised by the ITAA 1997 and its style;
  • a release and expansion of public and private rulings, determinations and guidance on tax laws and guidance on the completion of tax returns; and
  • access to them over the internet.

Role of professional tax advisers

Even before these advancements under self-assessment, 97% of corporate taxpayers and 74% of individual taxpayers used tax agents to assist them with meeting their tax obligations. Clearly tax agents and other professional tax advisers continue as a vital resource to taxpayers, especially business taxpayers, albeit at cost; to help them ensure obligations to comply with tax laws, especially complex laws, are met.

When the ATO overreaches

A difficulty I have faced in tax disputes is where a client does have information or proof which adequately does demonstrate the position taken in a tax filing but the ATO does not accept that information as sufficient proof. A related difficulty is where complex law is involved leading to protracted difference with the ATO over how tax law applies to what a taxpayer has done.

Taxpayers, especially business taxpayers reliant on professional tax advisers, are up for significant inconvenience, costs and expenses while a dispute with the Commissioner continues including where disputes arise when the taxpayer has made little or no mistake. The use of extensive debt collection powers by the Commissioner before disputes resolve is rightly a matter of controversy in tax disputes where:

  • it can be established that the tax dispute is genuine; and
  • deferral of the disputed tax debt poses no or minimal risk of permanent loss to the revenue and the community.

It could well be that there needs to be greater control and oversight of the Commissioner’s use of collection powers in these cases as there appears to be unconstrained and disproportionate use of them by the ATO when risks of loss to the revenue may have been low. The recommendation for checks and further transparency about ATO use of its compliance powers thus makes sense. Unfortunately debt collection in Australia, including collection from business, frequently involves unscrupulous and globally mobile debtors and even the Commissioner is not always well placed to judge risks of loss to the revenue or not of using the range of collection powers available to the Commissioner. It seems inevitable that some uses of collection powers by the Commissioner are not always going to appear proportionate when considered in retrospect.

Limitation periods

The limitation periods imposed under section 170 of the ITAA 1936 are already a departure from the taxpayer expectation, related to the expectation described above, that other taxpayers will pay tax based on the way they have filed or demonstrably should have filed their taxes. Amendments are restricted after expiry of limitation periods which also means the expectation can no longer be met by assessment amendment. The limitation periods, or periods of review, are there to ensure that the Commissioner and taxpayers properly finalise tax liabilities broadly not only within the expectation but also expeditiously without the prejudice to the other party of delay. Veracity of tax filings get harder to prove after a longer period of time especially once records are archived or lost beyond the expiry of record-keeping obligations to keep those records. Belated moves to amend can thus be unfair on the other party for that reason and for others.

Fraud and evasion

The reversal of the onus of proof proposed by the Committee seems limited and justifiable as a narrow exception. It would only apply where the Commissioner alleges fraud or evasion and only after a “certain” period has elapsed. In other words the onus of proof would remain on the taxpayer to disprove fraud or evasion if the Commissioner makes the allegation (which the Committee proposes must be signed off by a senior executive service (SES) officer of the ATO) within that period. But after that period it is only then proposed that the onus is to move to the Commissioner to prove fraud or evasion.

Alleging it for the right reasons

I have been involved in tax disputes where the Commissioner has alleged fraud or evasion even though available facts are just as much explainable by taxpayer inadvertance without there having been fraud of evasion. It was apparent in those disputes that the Commissioner was alleging fraud or evasion because the period for amendment of assessments, which can be as little as two years under section 170, in the absence of fraud or evasion, had expired. The difficulty for a taxpayer, with the onus of proof on the taxpayer, is that if the Commissioner makes a fraud or evasion allegation it is then up to the taxpayer to disprove it under current law: Binetter v FC of T; FC of T v BAI [2016] FCAFC 163 and, it follows, to disprove it at a time which may be remote from when the taxpayer may have had access to or opportunity to obtain evidence to disprove it.

It is perverse that, under current rules, the Commissioner can use unsubstantiated fraud and evasion claims against taxpayers to overcome a limitation period bar that would otherwise block the Commissioner from amending a tax assessment. That may well justify the Committee’s recommendations that the onus of proof of fraud or evasion in these delayed cases should move to the Commissioner but that the onus of proof remain on the taxpayer with respect to disproving other aspects of an assessment.

10 year limitation period for fraud and evasion cases?

But is it also necessary to impose a 10 year limitation period where there has been fraud or evasion by a taxpayer once:

  • SES officer sign-off is required for making a fraud or evasion allegation; and
  • the onus of proof of fraud or evasion is imposed on the Commissioner;

as also recommended?

Why would or should a taxpayer whose filing is tainted by demonstrable fraud or evasion, and is thus improper, be entitled to expect that the Commissioner must move to finalise taxes within a limited period of time, especially if there has been delay in the Commissioner getting information indicating shortfall of tax due to fraud or evasion by the taxpayer?

ZBFF v. C. of T. – AAT finds no loophole at the heart of capital gains tax

… must be one of Wilde’s …

OscarWilde

Oscar Wilde’s quip “no good deed goes unpunished” opened Deputy President McCabe’s decision in the 2 February 2021 Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) case of ZBFF v. Commissioner of Taxation [2021] AATA 275. It prefaced his introduction to the matter at hand in ZBFF: whether a good deed will go untaxed. ZBFF is an insight into the possibility of loophole, or lack of symmetry between assessable proceeds and tax allowable costs, at the heart of the capital gains tax (CGT) provisions of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997. Lawyers for the taxpayer endeavoured to find what turned out to be elusive before this AAT.

A good deed for an old friend going through a divorce

The good deed for an old friend, whom the AAT referred to by the pseudonym of Mr. Green, was done by the taxpayer (the appellant), a wealthy businessman, who was willing and able to help out Mr. Green on his divorce in 2006. Rather than see Mr. Green lose his home in a divorce settlement, the taxpayer arranged for the taxpayer’s family trust (TFT):

  1. to purchase Mr. Green’s home from Mr. Green for its (2006) value; and
  2. to allow Mr. Green a right of occupancy so he could continue to occupy the home after the TFT’s purchase.

2016 sale of the home for a profit

The TFT sold the home in 2016 and the net proceeds of sale, being the sale price less the TFT’s cost of acquisition and its holding costs, were all paid over to Mr. Green.

The taxpayer and the TFT took nothing and sought to take nothing for their beneficence to Mr. Green.

Mr. Green not taxed on his windfall?

The decision doesn’t say as much, as the case did not concern Mr. Green’s affairs, but it might be presumed that Mr. Green wasn’t taxable or taxed on the proceeds of the 2016 sale (the Net Proceeds) paid over by the TFT to Mr. Green: going untaxed by virtue of the good deed:

Why might Mr. Green escape tax on the Net Proceeds he received? Mr. Green had no property interest or CGT asset in the home from 2006, and it would seem (presumption again) that the Commissioner sought not to assess Mr. Green on a capital gain based on the Net Proceeds he received from the TFT from the standpoint of either or both of CGT event D1 or CGT event H2 occurring. If there had been a capital gain the CGT main residence exemption could not have been applied by Mr. Green in the absence of his ownership interest in the home made out under section 118-130 of the ITAA 1997 from that time.

Instead the taxpayer, as the beneficiary of the TFT entitled, was assessed on an assessable capital gain on the 2016 sale.

In the dispute over this assessment of the taxpayer before the AAT the taxpayer was required to establish the terms of the arrangement with Mr. Green:

  1. which was only partly in writing, having been put to writing sometime after the arrangement was entered into, and otherwise oral; and
  2. the terms of which were contested by the Commissioner.

The AAT accepted that there was an agreement between the taxpayer and Mr. Green as contended for by the taxpayer.

Downside of leaving Mr. Green without rights to the Net Proceeds

Still the absence of a clear term in the arrangement as to what the TFT would do with the Net Proceeds (if any), after already paying the purchase price to Mr. Green back in 2006, a term that may enable the Commissioner to tax Mr. Green on his receipt of the gain; prejudiced the taxpayer who was left with a hard road to establish that the taxpayer, as a beneficiary of the TFT, wasn’t taxable on the Net Proceeds to the TFT unreduced.

The evidence before the AAT was that Mr. Green was willing to let the TFT retain the profits on a later sale, viz. retain the Net Proceeds, but, in the event in 2016, the TFT opted not to retain them. It could be inferred that the payment over of the Net Proceeds to Mr. Green following the sale in due course was a gift to Mr. Green of an amount the TFT was otherwise entitled to keep.

The hard road

Still the taxpayer contended before the AAT that the payment of the Net Proceeds to Mr. Green was a cost to the TFT which:

  • increased the TFT’s cost base of the home;
  • reduced the capital proceeds to the TFT from the 2016 sale; and/or
  • caused the TFT to make an off-setting capital loss;

or, alternatively was a cost to which a deduction under section 40-880 of the ITAA 1997 could be applied by the TFT.

The taxpayer asserted that the payment of the Net Proceeds was fifth element expenditure “to preserve or defend your ownership of, or rights to” the CGT asset which could be included in the CGT asset’s cost base in accord with sub-section 110-25(6) of the ITAA 1997. A difficulty for the taxpayer with his fifth element argument was that the danger identified, supposedly necessitating that the TFT defend its title to the CGT asset, was the equitable interest in the CGT asset Mr. Green might have or assert under his arrangement/agreement with the taxpayer. The AAT rejected this argument as the taxpayer could not establish any interest in the home that Mr. Green might plausibly have.

The AAT disposed of the taxpayer’s other technical arguments that somehow the payment of the Net Proceeds should be allowed to/offset by the TFT to reduce the net capital gain. Some arguments of the taxpayer relied on the taxpayer’s questionable position, given the context of the good deed, that the taxpayer was dealing with Mr. Green at arm’s length.

The arm’s length obstacle

The AAT preferred the Commissioner’s contention that the parties were not dealing at arm’s length, with paragraph 112-20(1)(c) of the ITAA 1997 applicable to include market value, rather than amounts actually paid to Mr. Green, in the TFT’s cost base of the home.

The taxpayer’s contention that section 40-880 applied failed as the taxpayer could not establish, from evidence put to the AAT, that the TFT was carrying on a business and that there was any nexus between the payment of the Net Proceeds and that business.

Symmetry prevails

The taxpayer was hopeful for a mismatch or lack of symmetry between:

  1. those provisions relating to CGT events in the ITAA 1997 that bring capital proceeds into net capital gains and into assessable income in section 102-5 of the ITAA 1997 and then to tax that presumably did not apply to Mr. Green’s receipt of the Net Proceeds on the one hand; and
  2. the provisions which would reduce the assessable capital gain to the TFT on the other hand;

in pursuit of a reduction in the amount of the Net Proceeds assessable to him as a net capital gain by the amount of the TFT’s payment of the Net Proceeds.

According to the AAT in ZBFF the symmetry holds. The payment of the Net Proceeds by the TFT was indistinguishable from a gift by the TFT to Mr. Green in the tax law analysis. Mr. Green may not have been assessable on the gain reflected by the Net Proceeds but the taxpayer/TFT was.

Will the taxpayer, a wealthy businessman who can afford to appeal, appeal to the Full Federal Court?

Determining the AAT fee on a tax appeal to the AAT

The applicable fees to appeal

Unless a taxpayer is disadvantaged and qualifies for a concessional $100 fee – see our blog post: Small business now has its own dedicated taxation division of the AAT at https://wp.me/p6T4vg-dx, fees for review of the Commissioner of Taxation’s decisions reviewable by the AAT are now:

  • $952 for review by the Taxation & Commercial Division; and
  • $511 for for review by the Small Business Taxation Division (SBTD).

These fees have gone up since our blog post in March 2019.

Who can appeal to the SBDT?

As explained in our earlier blog post, appeal to the SBTD is available where the appellant is a small business entity under section 328-110 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) (C’th) 1997.  A small business entity is an entity (see section 960-100 of the ITAA 1997) carrying on business with an aggregated turnover of less than $10 million in an income year.

Multiple decisions – single fee on an applicant

Where the appeal is against more than one decision that relates to the appellant, the AAT can allow appeals to be dealt with together so only one fee applies. For instance, if a taxpayer is appealing against decisions to disallow a series of objections against multiple assessments of tax across multiple tax periods then the AAT can apply a single fee.

The AAT also allows for a single fee to be imposed on an “organisation” rather than separately on each of the members of the organisation applying to appeal.

Partnership CGT SBDT appeal

We have a client seeking review of objections against multiple assessments of income tax in the SBTD. The client is a partnership under State law (viz. a general law partnership carrying on business) and is a section 328-110 small business entity eligible to appeal to the SBTD.

The appeal concerns decisions by the Commissioner to disallow objections by the partners against income tax assessments seeking reduction in amounts included as assessable net capital gains to the partners in a series of income years.

Net capital gains made on partnership assets are assessed as income to the partners individually in a partnership. That is capital gains on partnership assets are not included in partnership income nor are they included in a partnership’s income tax return.

Soon after the introduction of capital gains tax (CGT) in September 1985 to include capital gains in assessable income it became apparent that it was impractical to assess partnership capital gains as partnership income to partnerships. Not only is a partnership not a legal owner of partnership property, and thus not apparent as the entity against which to assess a gain on a CGT asset, partnership property is often not owned by partners in the same names or proportions as partners share in the income and losses of the partnership.

Should a single fee have applied to the partnership?

The treatment of a partnership as an entity for some purposes, but not for others, can be confusing. It is via the small business entity regime that our client, a partnership, qualifies as a small business entity and this also impacts how the capital gains on partnership assets in dispute are assessed to the partners. The partnership is an “organisation”. Should a single fee apply to appeals by all of the partners of the partnership relating to the partnership asset CGT issues which are in common to all of the partners?

For the moment the AAT Registry say no. The AAT Registry has sought the $511 fee from each of the partners and has raised the appeals as separate cases (at odds with how the Australian Taxation Office dealt with binding private ruling applications and objections from the client in substance). The AAT Registry have raised the prospect that partners can seek to have their cases combined into one case and can seek a refund of the further instances of the $511 fee at a later point in the proceedings.

If the client is successful in obtaining a refund of the additional $511 fees we will update this story with a comment below.

Small business now has its own dedicated taxation division of the AAT

To give effect to a bi-partisan initiative, changes aimed at making it easier, cheaper and quicker for small businesses to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) against decisions by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) commenced on 1 March 2019. Small business taxpayers contemplating a tax appeal to the AAT with scant legal knowledge or representation will benefit most from the changes. Represented small business taxpayers too can benefit from the easier, cheaper and quicker AAT tax appeals and may improve their prospects of obtaining funding by the ATO of legal representation costs of their appeal.

Under the changes small business taxpayers can appeal adverse tax objection decisions to the new Small Business Taxation Division (SBTD) of the AAT. The Small Business Concierge Service (SBCS) within the office of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) also commenced on 1 March 2019 to assist small business taxpayers with appeals to the SBTD.

Tax and related review by the AAT

The AAT can review decisions on objections against tax assessments and other specified decisions made by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in the ATO domain on appeal under the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 viz decisions on:

  1. Commonwealth taxes: income tax, goods and services tax, excise, fringe benefits tax, luxury car tax, resource rent taxes (petroleum and minerals) and wine equalisation tax;
  2. Australian Business Numbers, fuel schemes, fuel tax credits, the ATO’s superannuation administration; and
  3. penalties and interest relating to a. and b.

The SBTD can review these decisions where the taxpayer/applicant is a small business entity under section 328-110 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (C’th) 1997.  A small business entity is an entity carrying on business with an aggregated turnover of less than $10 million in the current income year.

Cheaper – fees for AAT review

The ordinary filing fee for review of (appeal against) a reviewable decision by the ATO in the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT is $920 as at 1 March 2019. A single fee can apply if there are related multiple decisions in relation to the same appellant. A concessional fee of $91 applies for disadvantaged appellants: https://is.gd/1s5Vtt

The ordinary filing fee for review by the SBTD is a reduced $500. AAT regulations apply so that a SBTD taxpayer/applicant who the AAT finds is not a small business entity must pay an uplift to the ordinary $920 fee and their appeal will transfer to the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT.

Easier – Small Business Concierge Service

The SBCS of the ASBFEO assists a small business taxpayer with the SBTD appeal process and with advice about the appeal or prospective appeal to the SBTD the small business taxpayer plans. Although the SBCS is within the office of the ASBFEO and does not itself give legal advice, the SBCS:

  • offers a one hour consultation with an experienced small business tax lawyer to an unrepresented small business taxpayer prior to the appeal so the lawyer can review the facts pertaining to the ATO decision and provide advice on prospects of success of the appeal. In arranging a pre-appeal consultation the taxpayer needs to be aware of the 60 day time limit that generally applies for making appeals to the AAT on these decisions. A co-payment of $100 for the consultation is required from the small business taxpayer and the balance of the small business tax lawyer’s fee for the consultation is paid by ASBFEO;
  • assigns an ASBFEO case manager (not to be confused with the AAT case manager who will manage the appeals for the AAT) to help the small business to compile the relevant documents to maximise the benefit of the one hour pre-appeal legal consultation;
  • assists with the appeal to the SBTD if the small business chooses to go ahead with the appeal. The ASBFEO case manager assists with the applications and submissions to the SBTD and with engagement by the small business taxpayer with the AAT process; and
  • offers a second one hour consultation with an experienced small business tax lawyer to an unrepresented small business taxpayer after the appeal commences with the cost of the second consultation met by the ASBFEO without a co-payment.

Even if an unrepresented small business taxpayer utilises both hours of consultation with the assistance of the ASBFEO case manager it is still cheaper for the small business taxpayer to commence their appeal to the AAT for $600 in the SBTD, including the $100 co-payment, than to commence for $920 in the Taxation & Commercial Division.

Quicker – 28 day turnaround of reasons for decision

Decisions of the SBTD are to be “fast tracked” so that reasons for decisions will be given to the small business taxpayer usually within twenty-eight days of the hearing where the appeal goes that far. Where practicable an oral decision is to be given at the end of SBTD hearings.

Cheaper – further support for legal costs for SBTD appellants

Although the AAT, and the SBTD and the Taxation & Commercial Division in particular:

  • is not a court;
  • does not make cost orders;
  • isn’t bound by the legal rules of evidence; and
  • of itself, imposes no imperative to have legal representation;

the reality is that, where significant tax is in dispute in an appeal to the AAT, most informed appellants are legally represented and present their case in conformity with rules of evidence as if the AAT was a court. The ATO, too, selectively attends the AAT with external legal representation and, if not, ATO officers who conduct cases and appear at the AAT for the ATO are likely to have legal skills and experience. AAT decisions are reported/published and are used as legal precedent. Appellants can, though, more readily request and obtain anonymity from the AAT in tax cases than they can in courts which operate on the principle that justice is to be done in public.

The SBTD initiative partly synchronises the legal representation choice of a small business taxpayer and the ATO in a SBTD case. The ATO has transparent policy positions on when the ATO will use external legal representation in the AAT. The ATO’s position generally is that the ATO will use external legal representation where the case has high legal or factual complexity or where the case has implications for other taxpayers. Where the ATO is to engage legal representation in the SBTD then the ATO:

  • must inform the appellant that it proposes to engage external legal representation; and;
  • may meet the legal costs of the legal representation of the small business appellant that do not exceed the ATO’s legal costs of its own external legal representation. That is a possibly contentious integer as the ATO has and uses its leverage, which a small business doesn’t have, to negotiate lower fees from legal counsel with expectation of more ATO briefs.

Cheaper – greater opportunity for ATO litigation funding

This opportunity for a small business taxpayer to obtain the assistance of the ATO with their costs of legal representation in the SBTD dovetails with the test case funding policy of the ATO. Like under that policy the decision to assist a small business taxpayer with its legal costs of a SBTD appeal is with the ATO. Where the case has implications for other taxpayers then it is more likely that the ATO will both seek its own external representation and will fund the small business taxpayer’s legal costs up to the same level. Although time will tell, a small business taxpayer appears to be in an enhanced position to obtain ATO assistance with their legal representation costs in the SBTD as compared to taxpayers generally who appeal to the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT or who appeal directly to the Federal Court which involves significantly greater costs.

Unlike the Federal Court, the AAT does not order costs. That means that the legal fees and costs of a small business taxpayer running an appeal in the SBTD will only come from the ATO SBDT case funding or ATO test case funding, if not self funded, as legal costs won’t be awarded by the AAT even where the small business taxpayer is successful in a tax appeal case.

ASBFEO already acts as a gateway and assists small businesses to access funding for small business disputes. It is understood that the SBCS will be similarly resourced to act as a gateway to assist small businesses to obtain legal representation funding under both SBTD or ATO test case funding guidelines.

$3,000 deduction cap for managing personal tax affairs – non-millionaires caught in the cross-fire?

Labor’s Fairer Tax System plan

The ALP’s Andrew Leigh and Chris Bowen announced their A Fairer Tax System for Millions, Not Millionaires plan on 13 May 2017. The plan is comprised of a number of laudable and progressive policy announcements including transparency improvements that will impede tax avoidance by wealthy taxpayers and multinationals.

These policies are:

  1. $3,000 cap on deductions for managing their tax affairs for individuals.
  2. Public reporting of country-by-country reports.
  3. Whistleblower protection and rewards.
  4. Mandatory shareholder reporting of tax haven exposure.
  5. Public reporting of Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) data.
  6. Government tenderers must disclose their country of tax domicile.
  7. Develop guidelines for tax haven investment by superannuation funds.
  8. Publicly accessible registry of the beneficial ownership of Australian listed companies.
  9. Australian Taxation Office disclosure of settlements and reporting of aggressive tax minimisation.

The first measure, which this blog post concerns, is a proposed cap of $3,000 on the income tax deduction for managing personal tax affairs. There is no doubt this cap will restrict tax deductibility, which is substantially the funding by other taxpayers, of wealthy taxpayers’ tax professional costs of devising ways to avoid paying Australian tax.

Why an arbitrary $3,000 cap?

Still the $3,000 cap is arbitrary and there is, somehow, a disconnect in the announcement between the proposed cap and the millionaires against whom it is targeted. Why is the cap $3,000 rather than $30,000? My point is that it is not so unusual for ordinary taxpayers, particularly property owners who are not millionaires at whom the Fairer Tax System proposals are directed, to rack up tax professional costs of more than $3,000 for managing their tax affairs in an income year. The $3,000 cap includes tax agent costs for annual tax return preparation and lodgment so the remaining cap to deal with remaining tax difficulties or obligations will be something less than $3,000. So, although the measure will achieve its aim to curb deductibility of these costs to millionaires, there will be taxpayers who are not millionaires who will be collaterally caught with non-deductible tax professional costs in excess of the cap.

It is not so clear that the cap has been designed by someone who has real experience of seriously high individual tax professional costs and of situations where they may happen. Sure, all being well, a salary earner who owns real estate and who engages a tax agent, who charges moderately, will have tax professional costs in an income year comfortably under the cap. However, the salary earner with tax difficulties out of the ordinary may find himself or herself with a need to take a considered custom professional tax advice or to have his or her tax advisor non-prejudicially apply for a binding private ruling to protect himself or herself under the self assessment system.

The self assessment system

Out of the ordinary doesn’t mean tax avoidance is going on. Under the self assessment system a taxpayer is responsible for correct reporting and filing of tax information and severe penalties and interest apply if the taxpayer makes an error and a tax shortfall is assessed. If the taxpayer has an activity or activities where the tax treatment is unclear then it is the taxpayer who must ensure his or her return or other statements to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) complies with tax law adopting, in the least, a reasonably arguable position on items in the return or statements that are contentious.

Something over $2,000 is not a big budget for obtaining a tax advice letter or a position paper or for professional preparation of an application for a private binding ruling or a complex objection. Often issues an individual can face can take a tax professional a couple of days or more to do thoroughly.

It can be costly just to understand obligations imposed by government

Not so long ago I was briefed to give tax advice to an owner of a heritage building about to enter into a sale of “transferable floor space” in compliance with local government heritage laws. The interaction of the relevant capital gains tax (CGT) and goods and service tax (GST) laws with property, environment and local government laws, cases and public rulings took considerable time to work through even in the absence of any live dispute about these matters with the ATO. $2,000 would have been a fraction of fees for the time needed to give advice so that the client understood the client’s CGT and GST obligations on the sale . The correct application of CGT events and tax rules that apply in this client’s situation are notably unclear and difficult and, in its rulings, the ATO takes positions which some may view as confused and ambiguous. A withering array of laws applied to this heritage building owner.

Each of these laws, considered separately, benefit or aim to benefit government, society and thus other taxpayers by the contribution of taxes, the stimulation of commerce and the preservation of heritage buildings. But is it fair for society to impose such a multitude of obligations on a not necessarily wealthy building owner yet severely reduce society’s contribution to the owner’s costs of compliance with them?

You see much of my work, and the work of many other tax advisors who act for clients who are not necessarily wealthy, is just to advise or explain how the tax law applies to them and what their position is. Generally, as the tax laws have been tweaked and greatly expanded over time, the tax laws do not present exploitative opportunities to ordinary taxpayers for avoidance. There are, of course, exceptions.

The CGT provisions are a good example of tax laws that are necessarily intricate and complex. $2,000 in professional advice costs just to understand a CGT position in an advice from a CGT expert won’t go far. The CGT rules can apply, and severely, to taxpayers who own property, securities and other valuables. If the owner dies or is a non-resident the complexity can ratchet up. Not all of the aforementioned are millionaires.

It can be costly to get a ruling or guidance from the Australian Taxation Office

It is frequently the case that an ordinary taxpayer is unable to articulate, or would be disadvantaged having to personally articulate, a technical capital gains tax problem to the ATO without professional assistance in order to obtain guidance or a binding private ruling from the ATO. So an ordinary taxpayer can be justified in seeking substantial tax professional help applying for a private binding ruling from the ATO. If a binding private ruling adverse to the taxpayer is issued by the ATO the taxpayer may seek to dispute the ruling and still further tax professional help is needed. The taxpayer’s professional tax advisor may need to attend the ATO or prepare an objection or appeal.

The intractability of many tax problems, notably capital gains tax problems, is usually not the fault of the taxpayer but is a feature of complex tax law seeking to impose tax obligations in a wide diversity of situations fairly on the tax paying community.

Costly tax problems not of concern to wealthy taxpayers

A taxpayer of modest means suffers an injury at work and receives an ongoing insurance payout. This taxpayer is the opposite of a millionaire. Still the taxation of the insurance payout gives rise to the income versus capital conundrum on which the Australian income tax system continues to rely. The payouts fall through the cracks of types of insurance payout that are afforded tax exempt status under the Income Assessment Acts 1936 and 1997. If the payouts are capital then capital gains on personal injury payouts are exempt from CGT so there is a lot of tax at stake if the payouts should be treated as capital rather than as assessable income.

Pursuing capital treatment of the payouts is not tax avoidance by the wealthy. Inevitably ruling, objection and appeal costs of disputing that the payouts are not assessable income are likely to be way in excess of $3,000.

These kinds of cases appear often enough in published Administrative Appeals Tribunal reports, and there are plenty below the visible tip of that iceberg to show that they still remain a frequent and expensive kind of tax dispute for injury victims. To deprive injury victims of tax deductibility for costs of their tax dispute to target other less deserving taxpayers is tough indeed on taxpayers affected. It is of no consolation to an ordinary taxpayer who can’t claim most of their seriously high tax professional costs that he or she is one of a number of less than 90,000 taxpayers who incur more than $3,000 in tax professional costs each income year.

Australia’s tax system abounds in these kinds of structural challenges. Whether or not an activity of a taxpayer amounts to “an adventure in the nature of trade” and consequently an enterprise carried on by a taxpayer attracting a GST obligation, is another good example of a tax uncertainty a taxpayer who is not a millionaire may find costly to solve in their case and may not solve without taking valuable professional assistance.

The cap binary and alternatives to better target the cap

So if $3,000 might not be enough of a cap to ensure fair operation of the cap, why impose a binary limitation with such a confidence in the announcement that its impact will be on millionaires?

The small business capital gains tax measures themselves show that the demarcation between “small” and bigger business is not necessarily easily achieved as shown by the unwieldy $6 million net asset test. A demarcation between ordinary and “millionaire” taxpayers to qualify for exemption under the cap may be similarly difficult. But might it be possible to devise a targeted cap which looks at the character of the professional tax costs of a taxpayer of managing their personal tax affairs so that the cap operates more equitably?

For instance could costs of professional tax work just directed at establishing the position of a taxpayer under certain tax laws on non-contrived circumstances be exempted from the cap? Most capital gains tax rules could be within that exemption. If the professional work addressed specific anti-avoidance measures, the general anti-avoidance provisions or exploitative tax planning the professional work could be “tainted” by that consideration and so fall outside of the exemption. One difficulty is that some sort of “chinese wall” solution may be needed so privileged thus confidential tax advice could be considered to verify whether the costs of the professional tax law assistance is exempt from a targeted cap on costs of managing tax affairs.

It may be possible to conveniently go through all of the (many) tax laws and classify those where issues and disputes arising from them are benign, in an avoidance context, as exempt from the cap. Often wealthy taxpayers and their advisers have little interaction with these laws and so exempting them would not give wealthy taxpayers any advantage. That would better achieve the aim of the Fairer Tax System plan.

Getting tax advice to take the 50% recklessness penalty out of play

cogs

Self-assessment

Under Australia’s self-assessment system taxes including, notably, income tax and the goods and services tax, are based on returns by each taxpayer where responsibility is on the taxpayer to ensure statements and representations made to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) reflected in those returns are true and correct.

Penalties when returns are not true and correct

When a taxpayer departs from true and correct disclosure to the ATO, penalties, including base penalties, for false and misleading statements to the ATO, unarguable tax positions and tax schemes are imposed by Division 284 of Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953.

To understand the base penalty regime in Division 284 it is helpful to consider simplified categories of a taxpayer’s disclosures relevant to their return viz:

  1. those items that are straight forward where the taxpayer understands how the item should be returned and its impact on the taxpayer’s tax liability, and
  2. those items which are more complex or difficult where the taxpayer does not fully understand how the item should be returned and its impact on the taxpayer’s tax liability.

It is expected, or at least hoped, that matters in the first category will greatly outnumber matters in the second category. Still an item in the second category may involve a large liability and there may be a need for the taxpayer to resolve the complexity or difficulty, by taking tax advice or perhaps by obtaining a binding private ruling from the Commissioner of Taxation about that item to ensure the item is correctly returned.

As a general proposition it can be said that, unless other mitigating factors apply, failure to correctly return an item in the first category attracts the 75% “intentional disregard” base penalty and that failure to correctly return an item in the second category attracts the 50% “recklessness” base penalty based on the reasoning below:  

Deceptively understating assessable income or overstating allowable deductions etc.

If a taxpayer omits an item in the first category from an income tax return which understates true and correct taxable income then the highest base penalty of 75% for intentional disregard of a taxation law under the table in section 284-90 can be imposed. This isn’t the only liability that follows from a tax review, audit or investigation of a tax return. In addition to section 284-90 base penalties, the taxpayer will be held separately liable for the tax on the taxable income that should have been returned, medicare levy, and, to reflect the time value of taxes outstanding to the ATO, the shortfall interest charge and the general interest charge, etc when an amended assessment is raised to amend the original assessment which was not true and correct.

Base penalties, including the 75% intentional disregard base penalty, are imposed on a case by case basis. Thus the ATO will infer from the way the return was completed and surrounding facts whether there was intentional disregard of taxation law justifying imposition of a 75% intentional disregard base penalty. Similar considerations as arise as to whether there was fraud or evasion (which impacts on when an amended assessment can be raised) including whether the conduct giving rise to the omission of assessable income or the overstatement of allowable deductions or offsets etc. was deceptive or calculated, or whether the conduct could be explained as some sort of mistake, which attracts a lesser penalty, are relevant.

50% “recklessness” base penalty applied in PSI cases

The recent personal services income (PSI) cases of Douglass v. Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 3729 (3 October 2018) and Fortunatow v. Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 4621 (14 December 2018) illustrate how the 50% “recklessness” base penalty under the table in section 284-90, one rung down from the highest 75% intentional disregard base penalty, can be applied to a taxpayer who fails to correctly apply taxation law to matters in the second category.

Both cases involved the application of the personal services income measures in Part 2-42 of Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997 to the income of professionals (an engineer and a business analyst respectively) which was alienated from the respective individual professionals by arrangements using related companies reducing their overall income tax liabilities.

Complex or difficult?

The personal services income measures in Part 2-42 are relatively complex involving multi-tiered considerations of various tests even though the Commissioner of Taxation expressed this view in the objection decision in Douglass (from para 110 of the AAT decision):

The attribution rule of the PSI is not an overly complex area of the relevant law. There was readily available information on the operation of the PSI rules set out on the ATO website. It was also explained in the Partnership tax return instruction and in the Personal Services income schedule instruction that accompanied the tax return guide for company, partnerships and trusts. You did not make further enquiries to check the correct tax treatment of your PSI.

In both cases, the taxpayers primarily relied on the “results test” in section 87-18 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to establish that, in each case, a personal service business was being carried on so that alienated income for the personal services of the individuals would not be attributed to the individuals under Part 2-42. On the facts of each case, each AAT found that the individual was not engaged to produce a result in accord with section 87-18 and so could not satisfy the “results test”.

Recklessness

Also, in both cases, the AAT was critical of the way in which each taxpayer tried to ascertain their respective liabilities under the personal services income measures. In Douglass the taxpayer did not take a cogent advice on how the PSI measures can apply. In Fortunatow the taxpayer had received an advice on asset protection considerations from a tax lawyer which inferred that PSI advice should be taken. But that PSI tax advice was not taken by the taxpayer in Fortunatow.

In each case the AAT referred to BRK (Bris) Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation (2001) ATC 4111 where Cooper J. at p.4129 considered “recklessness”:

Recklessness in this context means to include in a tax statement material upon which the Act or regulations are to operate, knowing that there is a real, as opposed to a fanciful risk, that the material may be incorrect, or be grossly indifferent as to whether or not the material is true and correct, and that a reasonable person in the position of the statement-maker would see there was a real risk that the Act and regulations may not operate correctly to lead to the assessment of the proper tax payable because of the content of the tax statement. So understood, the proscribed conduct is more than mere negligence and must amount to gross carelessness.

It was unhelpful to the case of the taxpayer in Fortunatow that the taxpayer had been made aware by his tax advice that the PSI measures had potential application to him and that there was a real risk that he was not correctly complying with tax laws. The tax advice he received went no further than saying that income would not be attributed under the PSI measures if there was a personal services business but the taxpayer could not show that he had been advised that he had been carrying on a personal services business.

Obligation on the taxpayer to be correct

These AAT decisions leave little doubt that the responsibility on a taxpayer to correctly address and resolve complex or difficult tax questions in completing their tax returns is serious and far reaching. Ordinarily this means that a taxpayer will need a cogent tax advice or will need to take other steps to demonstrate that the taxpayer has adequately addressed each question to mitigate the “real risk” that the taxpayer’s position on a complex question in a tax return is incorrect to avoid “recklessness”.

Interaction with other base penalties and where taking cogent tax advice is desirable

This removes the opportunity to shirk a complex question or issue in a tax return and to rely on the difficulty or character of the question or issue to assert that some lesser base penalty, such as the 25% base penalties under Division 284 either for failure:

  1. to take reasonable care; or
  2. to take a reasonably arguable position;

is applicable.

Base penalties under Division 284 of Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 apply on the basis that the highest base penalty applies to the exclusion of the other applicable base penalties.

Complex PSI cases demonstrate how self-assessment works

The above personal service income cases provide good case studies of how base penalties under Division 284 are likely to apply in cases where a category 2 complex issue arises and a taxpayer fails to adequately address the issue in their return to the ATO.

Although the ATO cannot apply a 75% intentional disregard base penalty where the taxpayer was without intent to disregard taxation law which was or may have been too complex for the taxpayer to appreciate; the 50% recklessness base penalty, on the next rung down, can nevertheless be applied because of the taxpayer’s failure to deal with that complexity. Complexity is dealt with by taking cogent tax advice from a professional tax adviser for example. It can be seen that the 50% recklessness base penalty is thus integral to taxpayers taking responsibility for true and correct disclosure to the ATO under the self-assessment system.

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.

ATO in house facilitation – alternative dispute resolution with them?

Following a pilot program and formative adoption of the in house facilitation process, the ATO has introduced specific guidelines including:

  • a precise IHF process template; and
  • a statement of expectations from the IHF;

for in house facilitation (IHF) of tax disputes with the ATO. The ATO offers IHF as a general means of mediation of tax disputes where the facilitator (mediator) is an ATO officer.

ATO in house facilitation video

ATO in house facilitation video

Getting serious about dispute resolution with in house facilitation

IHF can be a valuable alternative to a taxpayer with a dispute with the ATO. So the move to entrench a correct structure of the facilitation process is to be welcomed. This should overcome the reluctance and non-adherence by some ATO officers who have come less than well prepared and committed to altenative dispute resolution in the formative IHF processes experienced by some taxpayers so far.

Honing the facts and issues in a dispute and saving costs

Indeed one significant benefit to a taxpayer of using IHF should be to normalize how an ATO case officer is dealing with their problem. A case officer may be fixated on a matter or series of matters which are divergent with a taxpayer’s understandings or divergent with the facts understood to be relevant to the taxpayer. IHF can be a real opportunity to engage with and even press the case officer and maybe his or her leadership. That engagement is with the aid of a somewhat detached ATO facilitator in an effort to reach a common or improved understanding of the relevant facts and issues. Even if that facilitation doesn’t result in a final determination of the dispute, it can, at least, lead to a narrowing of issues in dispute. A big reduction in the ultimate cost and effort of resolving the dispute can follow.

Contrast with position paper exchange

IHF is aimed at, and available only to, individual and small business taxpayers. Not all disputes are complex enough, or have tax at stake, which justify the ATO committing resources to preparing a paper setting out their position. With IHF generally available the opportunity is there for both sides to put their positions without going through a time-consuming sequence of preparing and exchanging position papers and responses. If a taxpayer and the ATO observe the entrenched IHF process and the statement of expectations, and are both well prepared at an IHF session, both parties should leave the IHF with a better understanding and honing of the matters in dispute, if not a resolution.

IHF – an open-ended offering

That is not to say that a taxpayer should not pursue IHF and exchange position papers with the ATO too. The ATO offers IHF during and following audit, after audit and after an assessment is raised, before and after an objection is lodged and before or and after an appeal to a tribunal or court is sought. In the latter cases a facilitation may have limited use to a taxpayer because of its interaction with time limits for objections and appeals and the availability of mediation facilities outside of the ATO offered once the matter reaches a tribunal or a court.

Like with a position paper, the best time to pursue IHF will usually be before an assessment is raised, if that is possible. That is the best chance of being before the ATO has a view it wishes to entrench and defend.

Timing of engagement

IHF thus offers a taxpayer some opportunity to control the timing of engagement with ATO case officers. The ATO understands that this can afford both taxpayers and the ATO with opportunities to reach common ground and to resolve tax disputes sooner. That is in everybody’s interests. Even where little progress is made in an IHF due to the nature of dispute, objection and appeal rights are preserved and the IHF process can still be of strategic value to a taxpayer on the long haul to resolving a protracted tax dispute with the ATO.