A self managed superannuation fund (SMSF) is generally a low tax entity, particularly when in pension phase where a nil rate can apply and a low 15% rate can apply when not. Still the taxable income of a complying superannuation fund (SF) can be split into a non-arm’s length component and a low tax component under section 295-545 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997. The non-arm’s length component is taxed at the highest individual marginal rate which is 45% in the 2019-20 income year.
Non-arm’s length income
The non-arm’s length component for an income year is the complying SF’s “non-arm’s length income” (NALI) for that year less any deductions to the extent that they are attributable to that income.
NALI picked up on audit – even higher tax
The recent case in GYBW v. Commissioner of Taxation  AATA 4262 (GYBW) is a cogent reminder of how NALI taxed at the highest marginal rate can arise in a SMSF. In GYBW a tax shortfall arose as the NALI not returned by the SMSF was detected in an audit by the Commissioner of Taxation. Hence even higher taxes applied including shortfall interest and penalties. There was a reduction in penalties on appeal to the AAT from “reckless” to “failure to take reasonable care” level.
Section 295-550 is one of a number of superannuation rules designed to protect the integrity of the low tax complying SF regime by combatting income shifting arrangements where income, that might be taxed elsewhere to another type of taxpayer at higher rates, is non-commercially shifted to a complying SF that attracts a low rate of tax.
Section 295-550 is directed at non-arm’s length dealings where complying SFs (and other superannuation entities) earn income from an arrangement which exceeds the income that the complying SF might have been expected to derive from the arrangement if the parties to the arrangement had been dealing with each other at arm’s length.
Where section 295-550 is enlivened all of the income from the arrangement is NALI taxed at the highest rate.
Private companies dividends prone to be NALI
At the forefront of NALI is dividend income from investment by complying SFs in private companies.
In GYBW Senior Member McCabe identified an objective test in sub-section 295-550(2) which looks at a question of fact: is a dividend paid by a private company to a complying SF consistent with an arm’s length dealing? A private company dividend paid to a SMSF is NALI to the SMSF if it is not. This objective test replaced the former provisions in Part IX of the ITAA 1936 under which private company dividends were treated as special income (the forerunner to NALI) as a matter of course. That is, unless the Commissioner exercised a discretion that it was unreasonable to treat the private company dividend as special income where the Commissioner became satisfied that the income was earned at arm’s length.
Sub-section 295-550(3) sets out factors to be considered in applying the objective test.
The facts and findings in GYBW
In GYBW, the SMSF was the SMSF of a partner in an accounting practice with the pseudonym D. His client and connection pseudonym K had volatile and valuable business interests which could earn significant income from Department of Defence contracts.
D retired from his accounting practice to become the chief financial officer of the B Group.
The various partnership and corporate dealings of K are complex and supporting evidence of them before the AAT was “difficult” and incomplete. The AAT did not accept:
- that the evidence, though involving non-related parties D, K, K’s trust and the other partners and former partners of K; and
- that legal advice received before the SMSF invested in B Holdings;
supported a finding that the shares in pseudonym B Holdings acquired by D’s SMSF were acquired on terms where dividends would be earned from the shares consistently with an arm’s length dealing.
Senior Member McCabe observed how parties at arm’s length from each other can engage in an non-arm’s length dealing just as non-arm’s length parties can engage in an arm’s length dealing. For instance, in the latter case, a family member of the seller acquiring stock exchange listed shares of the seller on a stock exchange. Section 295-550 is directed to the dealing viz. how the SMSF came to earn the private company dividends it earned, not to the relationship of the parties to the arrangement. The AAT was therefore sceptical about the acquisition by D’s SMSF of ordinary shares in B Holdings on its formation for a nominal sum where B Holdings was also able to obtain and exploit K’s business interests a day later which D contended had negligible value then.
That AAT observed that “Fortune shined on the business” of B Holdings and B Holdings earned more than $10 million over four years which likely explains why it was picked up for an audit by the Commissioner.
After looking at the Explanatory Memorandum with which section 295-550 was introduced Senior Member McCabe concluded that the purpose of the section did not change nor was there any change to the factors to which regard was to be had. Therefore the Full Federal Court decision in Darrelen Pty Ltd v Federal Commissioner of Taxation (2010) 183 FCR 237, which concerned the former provisions in Part IX of the ITAA 1936, remained authoritative in Senior Member McCabe’s view. In Darrelen the court had held that dividends paid by a private company were special income. In the case the SMSF had acquired its four shares in that company for a cost far less than their market value in an earlier year of income notwithstanding that the same dividend amount was paid on all 100 shares in the income year it was paid.
The cost to the SMSF of the shares on which the dividend was paid
The cost to the SMSF of the shares on which dividends were paid is a specific factor that can be taken into account under paragraph 295-550(3)(b) in determining whether their payment is consistent with an arm’s length dealing. In applying the objective test Senior Member McCabe referred to Commissioner of Succession Duties (SA) v Executor Trustee and Agency Co of South Australia Ltd (Clifford’s Case) where the High Court set out its views on how to value shares in a company:
The main items to be taken into account in estimating the value of shares are the earning power of the company and the value of the capital assets in which the shareholder’s money is invested. But a prudent purchaser does not buy shares in a company which is a going concern with a view to winding it up, so that the more important item is the determination of the probable profit which the company may be reasonably expected to make in the future, because dividends can only be paid out of profits and a prudent purchaser would be interested mainly in the future dividends which he could reasonably expect to receive on his investment. Further, a prudent purchaser would reasonably expect to receive dividends which would be commensurate with the risk, so that the more speculative the class of business in which the company is engaged the greater the rate of dividend he would reasonably require. In order to estimate the probable future profits of a company it is necessary to examine its past history, particularly the accounts of those years which are most likely to afford a guide for this purpose. In order to estimate the rate of dividend that a prudent purchaser could reasonably require on his investment it is necessary to examine the nature of the business and the risks involved and to seek the evidence of business men, particularly members of the stock exchange and experienced accountants, who can testify to the appropriate rate from the prices paid for shares in companies carrying on a similar business listed on the stock exchange or from private sales of shares in such companies or from their general business experience. HCA 10; (1947) 74 CLR 358 at p.362
and with the benefit of hindsight, and omissions in the evidence supporting D’s SMSF’s case about how the SMSF and B Holdings came to benefit in K’s business interests, the AAT found that dividends were not consistent with arm’s length dealing as they arose from shares acquired for less than their value so evaluated. The AAT found that the dividends received by D’s SMSF from B Holdings were NALI.
NALI rules extended to expenses
The NALI rules have extended to losses, outgoing or expenditures that are less than expected to the complying SF by the Treasury Laws Amendment (2018 Superannuation Measures No. 1) Act 2019 in Schedule 2.
Unless GYBW is overturned on appeal SMSF investment in a private company of a related party or in a private company of the connections of the SMSF seem destined for NALI high tax treatment. So SMSFs should be wary of investment in private companies generally: SMSF investment in a private company carries the suspicion that the investment is an opportunity to shift income from a higher taxed entity to a concessionally taxed SMSF.
It follows that the trustee of a SMSF looking to sustain concessional tax treatment needs to adequately document its dealings with and investment in private companies so the arm’s length character of the investment can be verified and, where need be, independent valuation supporting consistency with arm’s length dealing should be sought.