Fixed trust present entitlement – a land tax trap?

Trusts and land tax in NSW

To protect the integrity of land tax:

  • so no advantage is given to trust owned land that can’t be treated as owned by a taxable person viz. an individual or a company; and
  • by means now also similarly adopted in other jurisdictions, notably Victoria (trust surcharge rate applicable mainly to land acquired by a trust after 31 December 2005 Land tax and trusts | State Revenue Office Victoria );

New South Wales taxes a trust that owns NSW land not entitled to concessional tax treatment at an ample land tax rate as a special trust without threshold allowed to an outright individual or a company owner of land viz. not subject to a trust: see section 25A of the Land Tax Management Act (NSW) 1956 (LTMA).

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash 

Fixed trusts

A key concession where the special trust rate will not apply is where a trust is a fixed trust:

the equitable estate in all of the land that is the subject of the trust is owned by a person or persons who are owners of the land for land tax purposes …

and the trust won’t then be a special trust: sub-sections 3A(1) and 3A(2) of the LTMA.

Where a trust is a fixed trust the trustee is not separately taxed for persons, who are owners of the equitable estate in the land:

  • are taken to be owners for land tax purposes;
  • are liable for land tax as if they were the legal owners of the land: section 25 of the LTMA; and
  • unlike the trustee of a special trust who can’t apply threshold, these land tax owners can apply their remaining threshold and thereby access or potentially access a lower land tax rate.

Usually, as this term of art is understood in trust law, a fixed trust will be a fixed trust under section 3A of the LTMA. It doesn’t follow that a unit trust will usually be a fixed trust.

When can a unit trust be a fixed trust?

Whether or not a unit trust is a (section 3A) fixed trust will vary case by case as some unit trusts meet the above formulation of a fixed trust in sub-section 3A(2) and some, likely most, do not.

The demarcation was authoritatively considered by the High Court in CPT Custodian Pty Ltd v Commissioner of State Revenue; Commissioner of State Revenue v Karingal 2 Holdings Pty Ltd [2005] HCA 53. CPT Custodian Pty Ltd was a Victorian land tax case where unit holders of a unit trust where found not to have an equitable estate in the property of the trust. It followed that the unit holders could not be treated as having a fixed interest in the property of the trust and so they could not be treated as owners of the land of the trust for Victorian land tax purposes.

CPT Custodian Pty Ltd distinguished the earlier decision of the High Court in Charles v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1954) HCA 16 where, unlike in CPT Custodian, unit holders were conferred equitable proprietary interests in the property of the unit trust in the proportions in which they held units under the terms of the trust deed of the relevant trust in Charles, the Second Provident Unit Trust.

The LTMA approach

If what is a fixed trust under the LTMA ended with the sub-section 3A(2) formulation as enunciated in CPT Custodian Pty Ltd then a fixed trust under the LTMA would be conceptually clear and land tax integrity aims would be achieved. But sub-section 3A(2) and CPT Custodian Pty Ltd are either:

  • somehow not enough assurance of the integrity of the distinction to the legislator; or
  • unintelligible to or incapable of ready application by Revenue NSW officers;

and so the LTMA proffers additional relevant criteria viz. guidelines for what is a fixed trust viz. when the “relevant” criteria are met, a trust will be taken to be a fixed trust with owners taken to have the required equitable estate in the land of the trust: section 3A(3A) of the LTMA.

Safe harbour?

In other words the relevant criteria are a safe harbour viz. where the relevant criteria are satisfied by a trust then it will be notionally unnecessary to separately apply the principles enunciated in CPT Custodian to ascertain whether the equitable estate in the subject land under the trust is wholly owned by a person or persons who are owners of the land for land tax purposes.

The relevant criteria are:

(a) the trust deed specifically provides that the beneficiaries of the trust–

        (i) are presently entitled to the income of the trust, subject only to payment of proper expenses by and of the trustee relating to the administration of the trust, and

        (ii) are presently entitled to the capital of the trust, and may require the trustee to wind up the trust and distribute the trust property or the net proceeds of the trust property,

    (b) the entitlements referred to in paragraph (a) cannot be removed, restricted or otherwise affected by the exercise of any discretion, or by a failure to exercise any discretion, conferred on a person by the trust deed,

    (c) if the trust is a unit trust–

        (i) there must be only one class of units issued, and

        (ii) the proportion of trust capital to which a unit holder is entitled on a winding up or surrender of units must be fixed and must be the same as the proportion of income of the trust to which the unit holder is entitled.

section 3A(3B) of the LTMA (emphasis added)

But what safety is there in the safe harbour?

So if you are establishing a unit trust to hold NSW land that is to be treated as a fixed trust, or you are the lawyer acting for prospective NSW land owners setting up a unit trust what do you do? Should you simply include the relevant criteria so a Revenue NSW officer can give the trust a sign off on the safe harbour for a fixed trust under section 3A(3A) so the trustee won’t be taxed on the land on a special trust basis?

Discretions and classes of units

Section 3A(3A)’s relevant criteria concerning discretions shouldn’t present a difficulty. A unit trust that meets the  principles in CPT Custodian and is comparable to the Second Provident Unit Trust in Charles doesn’t give discretions to any person to distribute, redirect or accumulate income or to distribute or redirect capital to beneficiaries other to the unit holder who holds the so fixed proportion of the equitable estate of the trust. Similarly there would be no point to more than one class of units, as prescribed by the relevant criteria, when designing a trust with fixed proportions of the equitable estate in property of the trust referable to each unit as in Charles.

However present entitlements proposed by Section 3A(3A)’s relevant criteria for a fixed trust are a different matter:

Present entitlements are inapt

Present entitlement as a measure in the relevant criteria is drawn from sub-section 97(1) of the Income Tax Assessment Act (C’th) 1936 (C’th ITAA 36) which speaks of “a beneficiary of a trust estate” who is “presently entitled to a share of the income of the trust estate” and is understood to have a corresponding meaning in the relevant criteria.

Under Division 6 of Part III of the C’th ITAA 36 (Division 6) a beneficiary is presently entitled if, and only if:

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

[Federal Commissioner of Taxation v. Whiting (1943) 68 CLR 199, at pp 215-216, 219-220; Taylor v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1970) 119 CLR 444, at pp 450-452; Harmer v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation [1991] HCA 51 at para. 8 and Commissioner of Taxation v. Bamford & Ors, Bamford & Ors v. Commissioner of Taxation [2010] HCA 10 at para. 37.]

Present entitlement is an evaluative state at a particular point of time which is applied under Division 6 to retrospectively determine income tax liability at the end of either an income year or some other period of a trust in practice. In that context present entitlement is not used as a means to define estates or interests in trusts in succession prospectively by a preparer of a trust deed. It is instead used as a determinant of tax liability turning on whether a person is presently entitled to income of a trust. Despite that the relevant criteria in sub-section 3A(3B) agitate specific trust deed provisions that beneficiaries of a trust “are presently entitled” to income and capital of a fixed trust to attract the safe harbour.

Temporal fail

This doesn’t work as even a fixed trust with fixed correlation between the income and capital of the unit holders as holders of the equitable estate in the property of the trust can’t always achieve present entitlement in a time continuum, and certainly not at the outset of the trust when a trust deed of a trust may likely be drafted to potentially include the relevant criteria and executed, and the trust is yet to acquire property to which the beneficiaries may become presently entitled to income and capital but not “are” yet.

The relevant criteria oblige that beneficiaries are presently entitled seemingly to all income and capital of the trust through its existence. Beneficiaries can’t be presently entitled to income and capital in property of a trust that the trust is yet to acquire or to income of future periods or to capital on dates in the future of the trust. Beneficiaries are not presently entitled to income and capital from property that is yet to be property of the trust and a provision to the contrary in a trust deed to the effect that they are makes no sense.

Senseless provisions in a trust deeds unhinge the effectiveness of their other provisions and the trust itself.

Present entitlement when a unit holder dies?

Further Division 6 contains failsafes that apply where no beneficiary is presently entitled viz. sections 99 and 99A. Section 99 dealing with deceased estate cases is of particular significance as it could be that a unit holder in a unit trust with provisions in its trust deed to comply with the relevant criteria and to gain the safe harbour dies. From the moments after death until full administration of the deceased estate of the deceased unit holder, if that occurs, there is no owner of an equitable estate in the property of the trust reflecting the interest of the deceased who is presently entitled to the income of the property such as the fixed trust interest in the deceased estate: see Taxation Ruling IT 2622 Income tax: present entitlement during the stages of administration of deceased estates.

Until a legal personal representative obtains probate or letters of administration no equitable owner has standing to require the trustee of the fixed trust to require the trustee to transfer the property reflecting the interest of the deceased over to them.

But that is contrary to and in breach of a trust deed that obliges continual present entitlement, viz. that beneficiaries remain “are” presently entitled to the income and capital in land in succession.

Present entitlement when a unit holder is an infant or lacks legal capacity?

It could be that units in a unitised fixed trust that has adopted the relevant criteria come be to owned by an infant or a beneficiary subject to a disability who cannot be presently entitled to income or capital of the trust. In Taylor v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1970) 119 CLR 444, at pp 450-452 Kitto. J was able to deal with how section 98 can apply to these beneficiaries at para. 11 as follows:

Notwithstanding a passage in the joint judgment of Latham C.J. and Williams J. (Federal Commissioner of Taxation v. Whiting (1943) 68 CLR, at pp 214-215 ) which I must own I do not altogether understand in view of the recognition by s. 98 that a beneficiary may be “presently entitled” to income notwithstanding that by reason of a legal disability he has no right to obtain immediate payment, the tenor of the judgments is, I think, that “presently entitled” refers to an interest in possession in an amount of income that is legally ready for distribution so that the beneficiary would have a right to obtain payment of it if he were not under a disability.

(at p452)

but sub-section 3A(3B)(a) of the LTMA, unlike section 98 in Division 6, is neither qualified nor focused on application to a beneficiary under a legal disability who has no right to immediate payment of the amount such that the beneficiary can be considered presently entitled to income and capital of the trust so there is no reason why present entitlement of an infant unit holder, who can’t demand payment of trust income to him or her, for instance, should be inferred under sub-section 3A(3B)(a) of the LTMA based on Taylor.

Companies that “are” presently entitled – more likely to work

Unlike individuals, companies have perpetual succession and so, when they are beneficiaries of a fixed trust they can likely sustain continual present entitlement to the income and capital of a trust.

Is the inference thus to be drawn that a trust deed of a trust that includes the “are” presently entitled conditions to meet the relevant criteria and attract the safe harbour precludes individuals from becoming beneficiaries because an individual cannot necessarily sustain continual present entitlement such that they always are presently entitled because they may die, lose or never have legal capacity?

Lawyer’s quandary

How is a drafter of a deed for a fixed trust to deal with sub-section 3A(3A)’s relevant criteria in sub-section 3A(3B) then? I can’t follow what legitimate concern it is of the NSW legislature in a taxation statute or Revenue NSW to dictate trust terms to lawyers tasked with defining fixed interests in estates in succession but clearly blind adoption of the relevant criteria gives a tempting assurance to a drafter of a trust deed that a trust will be a fixed trust not land taxed as a special trust.

But inclusion of the relevant criteria which shouldn’t be strictly necessary has unintended consequences. A lawyer drafting a trust deed for a client is obliged to ensure that the drafting of a trust:

  • does not have adverse implications for the client such as precluding individuals who can be taxable owners for land tax from being unit holders; and
  • needs be wary of including trust deed terms that make no sense for which the lawyer, and not the legislator, is professionally responsible to the client.

Of further concern is that, despite the primary notion of the definition of fixed trust in section 3A(2), my recent experience is that Revenue NSW is obliging trustees to meet section 3A(3A)’s relevant criteria as if it is on those criteria, rather than the actual definition of fixed trust in section 3A(2), on which a fixed trust characterisation under the LTMA will turn. Without express inclusion of the are presently entitled stipulations of beneficiary interests in the trust deed of the trust Revenue NSW is treating a fixed trust that meets the CPT Custodian principles and so makes out as a fixed trust under section 3A(2) as a special trust. Officers at Revenue NSW don’t appear to follow or recognise that sub-sections 3A(3A) and (3B) are a safe harbor for the fixed trust notion specifically defined in sub-section 3A(2) of the LTMA.

Land tax assessments arising due to this approach by Revenue NSW should be challenged and disputed.

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