Tag Archives: Federal Court

The odd way disputes over PAYG deducted from salary are resolved

payday

A recent Federal Court case Price v. Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCA 543 demonstrates the divergent way a taxpayer must go about contesting a dispute with the Commissioner of Taxation over pay as you go (PAYG) tax withholding amounts taken from salary or wages received by the taxpayer.

Right to object about PAYG credits not available

Although the credit for PAYG withholding amounts is notified on a notice of assessment of income tax the PAYG credit is not one of the matters that can be disputed by objection, or more specifically, an objection under Part IVC of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 (“TAA”) as discussed on this blog in: Is an objection needed to amend a tax assessment? https://wp.me/p6T4vg-k.

To formally dispute a PAYG credit, especially where the salary and wages from which the withholding is made are not disputed, court action may need to be taken instead. The proceeding that can be taken by a taxpayer is further limited as the Commissioner’s refusal to allow PAYG credits cannot be challenged under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act (C’th) 1977: Perdikaris v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2008] FCAFC 186. So in Price, the taxpayer (Robert) sought a declaration from the Federal Court of his entitlement to credit for PAYG withheld by his employers under section 39B of the Judiciary Act (C’th) 1903.

Price v. Commissioner of Taxation

In paragraphs 6 to 8 of the Federal Court decision in Price, Thawley J. outlined the legislative basis of the PAYG withholding regime including in the context of the predecessor PAYE (pay as you earn) regime which operated until 2000. In paragraph 2 Thawley J. confirmed that the taxpayer’s proceeding under section 39B of the Judiciary Act, rather than under Part IVC of the TAA, was correctly instigated.

Why the taxpayer risked heavy costs in the Federal Court

Action in the Federal Court is expensive, and an unsuccessful litigant in the court is generally liable for the legal costs of the successful litigant. Those legal costs are significantly more than the costs of lodging an objection or appealing against an objection decision with which the objector is dissatisfied in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) which are costs risked in Part IVC of the TAA disputes. The AAT does not award legal costs.

It follows that considerable PAYG credits need to be in dispute before action against the Commissioner in the Federal Court is worth the risk of legal costs at stake.

In Price, Robert was employed as a truck driver by four entities controlled by his brother Jim from the 2001 to the 2016 income years. Robert claimed PAYG credits for the entire period so considerable PAYG credit entitlements were at stake. Robert hadn’t lodged tax returns returning his salary and wages income until 26 September 2016 when all sixteen income tax returns were lodged together. Robert sought all sixteen years’ worth of tax credits then.

The employer and not the Commissioner is tested

One would think that the Commissioner could easily ascertain PAYG credit from amounts remitted by an employer for a recipient of salary and wages. If amounts withheld from salary and wages haven’t been remitted to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) then that would seemingly be conclusive or near conclusive.

But the point of remittance of PAYG credits to the ATO is not the point at which the TAA operates to confer a PAYG credit entitlement to a taxpayer. Sub-section 18-15(1) of Schedule 1 of the TAA allows PAYG credit to a taxpayer where there has been withholding by the party with the withholding obligation, viz. the employer in the case of an employer who pays salary and wages, of the amount withheld. Sub-section 18-15(1) necessitates an enquiry into whether or not the amounts claimed for PAYG credit were “withheld” by the employer whether or not the amounts “withheld” were ever remitted to the Commissioner. In the Federal Court, in its original (non-appellate) jurisdiction, whether amounts have been withheld is a matter of fact to be established to the court on the balance of probabilities.

In another Federal Court decision cited with approval in Price, David Cassaniti v Commissioner of Taxation [2010] FCA 641 at paragraphs 163 to 165 Edmonds J. thus focussed on the actions of the employer. Edmonds J. explained and contrasted the evidential value of an employer’s apparent withholding to a (its own) bank account which, on the one hand, “clearly demonstrates” a withholding and an employer’s apparent withholding by book entry, which may be insufficient to demonstrate withholding by the employer depending on the surrounding circumstances, on the other. It was also relevant in David Cassaniti, as it was in Price, that the employer had been a company enabling Edmonds J to accept the books of account of the company as first instance evidence of what the books of account contained in accordance with section 1305 of the Corporations Act 2001.

Employers were wound up companies

In the Cassaniti line of cases, which also included the Full Federal Court decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Cassaniti [2018] FCAFC 212, relevant company records of the employers were thus sufficient to establish to the Federal Court that amounts had been withheld by the party with the withholding obligation. As in Price, in which the Cassanitis were also involved, the relevant employer companies had been wound up but nevertheless, by virtue of section 1305 of the Corporations Act 2001, the financial records of these companies in the (earlier) Cassaniti cases were sufficient evidence to show that the companies had made the relevant withholdings despite no record of remittance to the ATO. Robert’s case in Price relied on PAYG payment summaries produced from accounting records of the employer companies being accepted as financial records of the companies.

Robert was unsuccessful. The tax returns and PAYG payment summaries were produced from MYOB in September 2016 after the employers were wound up so the court refused to accept the PAYG payment summaries as financial records of the wound up companies. Thus the PAYG payment summaries were not first instance evidence of the PAYG withholdings asserted in them. In paragraph 87 Thawley J. listed findings showing that withholdings were not made for Robert:

  • the absence of any records from the ATO to that effect or supporting inferences of withholding;
  • the absence of any contemporaneous record of any person or entity who paid Robert evidencing withholding;
  • the fact that every year or thereabouts Robert asked for but was not provided any PAYG payment summary;
  • the fact that no superannuation was paid by any of the employer companies for Robert;
  • the fact that Allyma Transport Services did prepare PAYG payment summaries for other employees; and
  • the fact that the bank records suggest a number of different entities paid the weekly amounts into Robert’s account (including NT TPT Pty Ltd, PMG Transport, CJN Transport) and that at least one of those entities (PMG Transport) probably treated the payments to Robert on the basis that he (or a partnership of which he was a partner) was a subcontractor rather than an employee.

The unremitted PAYG no man’s land

Cases such as the Cassaniti cases and Price are relatively rare.  In that context we can observe that it is precarious to be in the position of an employer, or of a director of an employer, obligated to withhold PAYG amounts from employees’ salary and wages where those amounts have not been remitted to the ATO. The employer and, in the case of a company, its directors personally where director penalty notices issue to the directors and trigger personal liability under Division 269 of Schedule 1 of the TAA, are liable to the Commissioner for these amounts. Further failure to remit PAYG withholding on salary and wages is a strict liability offence under Division 16 of Schedule 1 of the TAA.

The pursuit of unremitted salary and wage PAYG withholdings from the Commissioner can potentially be a fraud against the revenue where employers and their directors have overtly arranged their affairs so that they are not exposed to the above liabilities and prosecution for failure to remit. Confinement of salary and wage earner remedy to proceedings under section 39B of the Judiciary Act does operate as a bulwark against that type of fraud.

It is to be hoped that reporting of and liability for PAYG withholding on salary and wages can be reformed and streamlined so that employees can better monitor withholding for them in real time and opportunities for “phoenix” PAYG credit frauds on the revenue can be reduced.

Aussiegolfa SMSF hits sole purpose flag

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

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

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

The sole in sole purpose

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

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

The opening round

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

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

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

The latest play

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

A provisional ball?

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

Facts in Aussiegolfa

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

Investment in an in-house asset?

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

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

Not out of bounds

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

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

… and hitting the sole purpose red flag

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

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

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

A two shot penalty

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

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

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

An uncertain lie in the rough?

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

Checking my card

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

Full Federal Court pinpoints year end trust resolutions that fail

failContractual principles apply to construe trust resolutions

The Full Court of the Federal Court in Lewski v. Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCAFC 145 has given us a roadmap to construing trust resolutions in line with principles for the construction of contracts, from Byrnes v Kendle [2011] HCA 26, and has applied two of those principles of contractual construction to pinpoint invalid trust resolutions as follows:

  • an invalid trust resolution can be severed from another valid resolution or resolutions so that those resolutions can stand, but only if those resolutions are not interdependent with the invalid resolution and it is not artificial for them to stand severed from the invalid resolution; and
  • if there are two open constructions of a trust resolution, one of which results in validity and one of which results in invalidity, the construction that preserves validity is to be preferred.

Trust resolutions to confer a present entitlement to discretionary trust income

An Australian tax resident beneficiary must be presently entitled to the income of a discretionary trust in the income year in which income has earned by the trust before the relevant share of that income can be included in the assessable income of the beneficiary: sub-section 97(1) of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1936. If it cannot be shown that:

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

High Court in Harmer v. Commissioner of Taxation (1991) 173 CLR 264 at p. 271

then the beneficiary is not presently entitled to the relevant share of income with section 99A of the ITAA 1936 applying to tax the trustee on the income to which no beneficiary is presently entitled at the highest individual marginal income tax rate.

Ownership and present right to demand payment

“Vested in interest” and “vested in possession” are technical concepts which broadly equate to ownership, and the extent of ownership required for present entitlement is ownership of the share of income sufficient to bestow a present legal right to demand payment of the income. The legal right to demand and receive payment of an ascertainable entitlement to a share of income must be present and fully defined in the income year even if the entitlement cannot be numerically ascertained due to accounts not having been taken by the end of the relevant income year. In a discretionary trust the trustee is generally reliant on a valid year end trust resolution to distribute income of the trust to confer a sufficient present entitlement to the income of a discretionary trust on a beneficiary so that section 99A will not be attracted.

After Bamford

We have known, especially since 2011, when the Commissioner of Taxation came to take a harder and more sophisticated line on year end trust resolutions following the High Court decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Bamford [2010] HCA 10 and the Tax Laws Amendment (2011 Measures No. 5) Act 2011 introduced in response to the Bamford decision; that the form of the year end trust income distribution resolution is vital to the taxation of discretionary distributions to beneficiaries.

Construing the Lewski trust resolutions

In Lewski discretionary trust resolutions to distribute income were stress tested for present entitlement, meaning and validity to determine where liabilities to tax lay.

The Commissioner, in amended assessments issued to Ms. Lewski, and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (“AAT”) at first instance, disallowed carry forward tax losses to discretionary trusts and assessed trust income of $10,108,621 and $3,143,199 to Ms. Lewski as a presently entitled beneficiary of each trust under sub-section 97(1). Ms. Lewski sought to reduce or deflect the tax liability on this income by claiming that, alternatively:

  • the carry forward trust losses should have been allowed as deductible to the trusts;
  • her entitlements to the income of the trusts had been disclaimed;
  • the trust distributions were ineffective as they were made in a manner beyond the power of the trustees; and
  • Ms. Lewski was not presently entitled to the trust distributions;

which the Commissioner disputed.

The strategy of Ms. Lewski was to reduce the liability to tax or to deflect liability to tax under the amended assessments elsewhere, whether to the trustees of the trusts on income to which no beneficiary was presently entitled under section 99A or to default beneficiaries of the trusts, companies ACUPL and AISPL respectively (abbreviated), claimed to be entitled to the adjusted income of the trusts under the amended assessments instead of Ms. Lewski. It is supposed that, in both income years, less tax was recoverable by the Commissioner in those cases than if Ms. Lewski was presently entitled as a beneficiary of the trusts to the adjusted income.

Ms. Lewski wins

Before the Full Court of the Federal Court Ms. Lewski successfully challenged the disallowance of the tax losses and thus won her appeal against the imposition of the tax liabilities.

Resolutions under scrutiny

The applicable year end trust resolution documents distributed the income of the trusts:

2006 year:

100% to Ms. Lewski

2007 year:

the first $3.5 million to AISPL and the balance to Ms. Lewski.

In each resolution document, there was also a ‘variation of income’ resolution to the effect that, should the Commissioner disallow any amount claimed as a deduction or include any amount of the deduction in the assessable income of the trust, there would be a “deemed” distribution to the default beneficiaries (in the 2006 year, 100% to ACUPL; in the 2007 year, 100% to AISPL).

The “variation of income” resolutions made the 2006 year and 2007 year distributions contingent on events that could occur after the end of those years of income respectively. The Commissioner contended that the variation of income resolutions, which were of doubtful validity, could be severed from the valid resolutions in the resolution documents distributing the income of the trusts. Applying the principles and authorities relating to the severance of provisions in contracts the court did not accept this approach. The distribution resolutions and the variation of income resolutions where found to be interdependent and so the variation of income resolutions could not be “severed” from the distribution resolutions with the effect that either:

  • each purported income distribution was subject to a live contingency in the variation of income resolutions after the end of the applicable income year – the court’s preferred view; or
  • the distributions failed as the interdependent variation of income resolution was invalid in each case – the court’s alternative view;

defeating the present entitlement of Ms. Lewski to the income of the trusts at the end of the year of income of each trust in either case.

The trust deeds of each of the trusts contained notably complicated clauses for the ascertainment and distribution of the income of the trusts. Ms. Lewski contended that the distribution of “income” in the trust resolutions, rather than “net income”, was beyond the power of the trustees and so failed as resolutions beyond the power of the trustees given in the trust deeds. The court rejected this contention after applying the contractual principle that where there are two open constructions of a provision, the construction of the provision that preserves validity is to be preferred. From that perspective “income” in the trust resolutions could be treated as meaning “net income”.

Construing income equalisation clauses

Two aspects of the Full Federal Court decision in Lewski are useful in construing income equalisation clauses in discretionary trust deeds.

Generally an income equalisation clause sets the net income of the trust to which sub-section 97(1) applies, being “trust income” or “distributable income” identified in Bamford, equal to the net income of the trust under section 95 of the ITAA 1936. Understanding that the Commissioner can amend the net income of the trust under section 95 by an amended assessment well after the end of the income year, can this contingency affect the “trust income” or “distributable income” by which the shares and proportions of income distributed to beneficiaries are ascertained?

The preferred construction, if available, of an income equalisation clause is that “trust income” is set to the net income of the trust under section 95 of the ITAA 1936 based on understandings that are ascertainable at the end of the year of income when the income distribution is made. In other words the taxable income of the trust that is ascertainable. That follows from Lewski where the court found, in the context of distributions asserted by Ms. Lewski to be beyond the power of the trustees, that where there are two open constructions of a trust distribution resolution, the construction which results in validity is to be preferred to the construction which results in invalidity.

“Trust income” needs to be closed at year end

To sustain a valid construction an income equalisation, effectuated by an income equalisation clause in a discretionary trust deed, needs to be a closed parameter at the end of a year of income. If the parameter is open, that is, if “trust income” or “distributable income” identified in Bamford is not fully ascertainable by the end of the applicable income year using the income equalisation mechanism in a trust deed, then a distribution based on trust income reliant on that mechanism will not confer a present entitlement and section 99A can apply to the income purportedly distributed as income to which no beneficiary is presently entitled.

Only a loan? Impugnable loans, proving them for tax and shams

 

Is a loan just a sum advanced to be repaid by a borrower to a lender? Accountants understand that a loan can be a nimble device to explain and show why money and value is elsewhere even when the relationship between the borrower and the lender is not arms length or clear.

Necessary elements of a loan

So a loan is recognised. It is clearly recorded in the books of account and appears as a liability in the financial statements of the “borrower”, the “lender” or frequently both. The individual, who is the controlling mind of the borrower, says yes, it is a loan, and the apparent lender, who has an established relationship with that individual, doesn’t say it is not. Will that apparent loan be accepted as a loan by all persons interested?

A number of recent tax cases in the aggressive tax planning space show that, in those kinds of cases, the Commissioner of Taxation is prepared to commit significant resource and effort into:

  1. disabusing courts that arrangements with the appearance of loans are loans in fact; and
  2. pursuing high profile tax scheme promoters and their clients using arrangements based on inpugnable loans.

A wide but demarcated construct

There is no doubt that a loan is a wide concept. In Taxation Ruling TR 2010/3 Income tax: Division 7A loans: trust entitlements, the Commissioner took a wide view of what amounts to a loan, or to what amounts to at least one or more of:

(a) an advance of money; and

(b) a provision of credit or any other form of financial accommodation; and

(c) a payment of an amount for, on account of, on behalf of or at the request of, an entity, if there is an express or implied obligation to repay the amount; and

(d) a transaction (whatever its terms or form) which in substance effects a loan of money.

being a loan under section 109D of the Income Tax Assessment Act (“ITAA”) 1936 which triggers a deemed dividend to a shareholder or an associate under Division 7A of that Act. The “loan” regime in Division 7A is an exception though. Generally, if a taxpayer can establish that a sum received is received as an advance of a loan, that receipt can explain why that money or value is not in the nature of income that may be assessable to the taxpayer. That is a vital capability when the schema of Australian income tax recovery is “asset betterment” allowing the Commissioner to assert that money or value received is income unless the taxpayer can prove that it is otherwise.

Hart v Commissioner of Taxation (No 4)

So it was in Hart v Commissioner of Taxation (No 4) [2017] FCA 572, a decision of Bromwich J. of the Federal Court, concerning the personal tax affairs of the senior tax partner of Brisbane-based law firm and tax planning and tax scheme services provider Cleary Hoare. Mr Hart asserted that the amount in dispute in that case was a loan to him by an associated trust clearly recorded as a credit loan in the books of the trust.

The firm of Cleary Hoare was operated by a practice trust (“the Practice Trust”) in which discretionary trusts of the partners owned units in the Practice Trust which, it transpired, was not structured in accord with Queensland legal professional practice rules. The discretionary trust of Mr Hart owning units in the Practice Trust was referred to in the decision as the Outlook Trust.

Loan or benefit or both to the taxpayer (“borrower”)?

During the 1997 income year, the Outlook Trust included $220,398 in its assessable income as a distribution to it as a unitholder in the Practice Trust under section 97 of the ITAA 1936. The distribution was routed by a series of on-distributions through a network of interposed trust entities associated with Cleary Hoare, or its associates, to a company carrying significant tax losses, Retail Technology Pty. Ltd. and by the making of gifts by way of promissory notes to and through entities that were associated with Cleary Hoare or its associates, including Mr Hart. The Commissioner took issue with the last flow of the money through the arrangement back to Mr Hart. The Commissioner viewed that last flow as a distribution to Mr Hart for the benefit of Mr Hart. For his part, Mr Hart contended that the payment was a loan to him from the Outlook Trust, or alternatively from the Practice Trust, and that the payment was so recorded in the books of account of the Outlook Trust.

The Commissioner also pressed a number of alternative cases including a case that, even if the payments were not trust distributions, the application of general anti-avoidance provision in Part IVA of the ITAA 1936 meant that, in the absence of the scheme, the money would still have been paid to Mr Hart and instead been taxable, to which Mr Hart, for his part, contended that such payments would not have taken place in the absence of the scheme.

Present entitlement by benefiting trust beneficiaries

One of the alternative cases run by the Commissioner was that payments benefiting Mr Hart of at least $84,615.52 of the $220,398 were assessable directly to Mr Hart who was also a special unitholder, as trust distributions to him by the Practice Trust. In the absence of a sustainable case that the $220,398 or any part of it was a loan, the court could find that sections 95A and 101 of the ITAA 1936, which have the effect of deeming payments to or for the benefit of a beneficiary to be payments to which the beneficiary is presently entitled, applied to bring the $84,615.52 into the special unitholder’s assessable income for the 1997 income year.

Although this finding did not directly inform the character of the remaining $135,782, this application of sections 97, 95A and 101 of the ITAA 1936 to at least $84,615.52 of the amount in dispute, which the court accepted, did not assist Mr Hart to prove that the assessment of the greater $220,398 was excessive.

How Mr Hart’s loan contention failed

The court deduced from the submissions of the parties that whether the 1997 assessments of Mr. Hart were excessive or not turned on whether Mr Hart received the $220,398 as a loan. Mr Hart’s counsel contended that the evidence of Mr Hart, including the accounts of the Outlook Trust which showed the borrowing to Mr Hart, was sufficient to show that the funds had been loaned to Mr Hart. However other evidence caused this contention to unravel, viz.:

  1. there was nothing in writing to record or otherwise evidence a loan;
  2. there was no interest paid or payable under the purported loan;
  3. there were no repayments required or made under the purported loan, despite more than 19 years having elapsed since the advance of money under the purported loan (and the “creditor” trust had not traded for 15 years); and
  4. there were records of contemporaneous bank statements showing “pay” or “sol[icitor] pay” which were made on a fortnightly basis to a bank account of Mr and Mrs Hart between at least 5 July 1996 and 23 April 1997.

In addition to this evidence, which the court found, of itself, compelling, was the coup de grâce of a credit approval request by Mr. Hart to Suncorp Bank for two loans in 1999 in which Mr Hart, as an applicant providing personal details, appeared to state he had income of precisely $220,398 in 1997. The court observed that stating this, if it was nothing more than antecedent indebtedness, was hardly going to assist in securing a further loan, so it didn’t make sense as a loan.

Was the loan a sham?

Mr Hart’s counsel asserted that, as the Commissioner had not demonstrated that the purported loan was a sham, the court was obliged to accept the evidence lead by Mr Hart viz. his testimony and the accounts of the Outlook Trust, that there had been a loan. The court observed that a sham requires there to be a purported transaction which is falsely presented as being genuine. The court agreed with the Commissioner that, in this case, there was thus no sham loan, but that no loan had been proven to exist with the burden of proving that there was a loan on the taxpayer.

Loan terms in writing?

In Hart v Commissioner of Taxation (No 4), the taxpayer relied on an undocumented related party loan recorded only in the accounts of a related trust which gave the Commissioner leeway to run a case based on there being no loan at all. That leeway is reduced, of course, if the loan is reduced to writing in a loan agreement. However if that writing does not present the real arrangement then the loan can still be impugned by the Commissioner and the issue of sham will more likely arise with that false presentation.

Commissioner of Taxation v Normandy Finance and Investments Asia Pty Ltd

The taxpayer in Commissioner of Taxation v Normandy Finance and Investments Asia Pty Ltd [2016] FCAFC 180 faced that predicament.

Mr. Townsing was a client of Vanda Gould, a Sydney accountant and offshore tax scheme promoter. The taxpayer and two other companies were controlled by Mr Townsing. The taxpayer asserted that these companies were borrowers under loans from three companies controlled by Mr Gould recorded in written loan arrangements with those companies.

The Townsing controlled companies received substantial advances from the Gould controlled companies. The Commissioner asserted that payments to the Townsing controlled companies were sham borrowings used by Mr Townsing to bring assets held for his benefit into Australia and that they were thus assessable income of the companies.

The judges in this case noted the excessive length of the submissions of more than 1000 pages of submission material, ostensibly in support of oral argument at trial, to the primary judge by the taxpayer and the Commissioner.

Edmonds J. of the Federal Court, (Normandy Finance Pty Ltd v FCT [2015] FCA 1420) found for the taxpayer at first instance but did so on what was to prove a precarious basis. Edmonds J. found that the loans were not shams, even though the loan documents revealed disguises and pretences directed to demonstrating that the loans were at arms length, when the evidence was that the advances under the purported loans happened differently, and not at arm’s length. Still Edmonds J. found that, despite these irregularities, elements of the loans, including commitments to repay the loans, could be indentified in the evidence and so the loans were allowed to stand.

Appeals

The Commissioner appealed to the Full Federal Court. All three judges of the Full Federal Court closely considered the evidence that was before Edmonds J., and the majority, Jagot and Davies JJ., found that the basis on which Edmonds J. had recognised the loan arrangements as loans, distinct from the impugned purported written loan agreements, was expressly negated by the evidence of Mr Townsing under cross-examination by senior counsel for the Commissioner. The majority concluded that, in his evidence, Mr Townsing had rebuffed the facts upon which Edmonds J. had relied to find that there were loans not shams. Logan J., in the minority, disagreed with the majority and agreed with the trial judge’s approach to the evidence.

The taxpayer sought special leave to appeal from the Full Federal Court to the High Court but leave was refused by the High Court on the basis that the taxpayer did not have sufficient prospects of success of reversing the Full Federal Court majority’s findings.

Take-outs

Documenting a loan in writing reduces the scope of the Commissioner to assert there is no loan leaving the taxpayer, carrying the burden of the onus of proof, to prove the loan.

However documenting the loan may be a two-edged sword in contentious situations. Forcing the Commissioner to assert a sham will not necessarily give a taxpayer, who must disprove a sham in Part IVC of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 tax appeal proceedings, an advantage. Costs in litigation with the Commissioner to redress the consequences of a loan inadequately documented, can be significant. Poor documenting may have the adverse effect of revealing aspects of the arrangement that are not real or genuine. In other words, the pretences in the document and later compromising admissions by a taxpayer asserting the loan may irretrievably taint the believable in an asserted loan document and cause a loan to fail as a construct for a payment.

Loans not at arms length are the most likely to be challenged by the Commissioner. Trust beneficiary loan accounts may be held up to particular scrutiny. If a purported trust beneficiary loan is impugned sections 95A and 101 can trigger present entitlement to payments/advances to the beneficiary under the “loan” as assessable income.

These cases and the earlier Full Federal Court case of Millar v FCT [2016] FCAFC 94:

  1. which again involved an impugned loan devised by the Sydney accountant Vanda Gould for other clients; and
  2. where the taxpayers opted not to admit evidence from Mr Gould but relied on evidence of the relevant loan only from the lay taxpayer parties to the purported loan;

show that the Federal Court will not readily allow an appeal based on such restricted evidence as sufficient to prove the existence of a loan or to disprove a sham in the process of determining whether an assessment is excessive and that the High Court is reluctant to allow appeals to disturb these Federal Court decisions.

Managing the GIC in settling an income tax dispute – Caratti

A general interest charge (GIC), which accrues and compounds daily, applies to compensate the revenue for the time value of unpaid tax debts. That is where a taxpayer has the use and enjoyment of money which should have been paid in tax for a period of time.

Opportunity to dispute GIC

The GIC is imposed on and follows a tax debt and, for a taxpayer, it is difficult to establish a basis in the objection and appeal process upon which the GIC applicable to a tax debt should be dealt with separately and reduced and remitted.

Resolution of a tax dispute by agreement with the Australian Taxation Office is one opportunity where the GIC can be revisited and reduced so long as the Australian Taxation Office is agreeable. By the time this point is reached significant GIC can have accrued if the taxpayer has not opted to provisionally pay a tax debt that is contention.

Dealing with GIC in an agreement with the ATO

So it was, in the Federal Court in Caratti v Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 70, where $1,145,639.03 had accrued since 7 August 2015 on a tax debt of $10,948,507.45 which included GIC up to 10 February 2017.

On 23 September 2015 the taxpayer had entered into a deed of agreement with the Commissioner of Taxation under which the Commissioner refrained to recover the “Taxation Debt” defined in the deed as:

the amount of $10,948,507.45, which is comprised of Tax-Related Liability and applicable GIC due and payable by the Taxpayer as at 7 August 2015, subject to any adjustment to those amounts by virtue of the Determination of the Objection Process

However the deed also stated that:

The Taxation Debt will continue to accrue GIC daily from the due date for payment in accordance with and at the rate as may be applied from time to time under the TAA 1953.

So the taxpayer could assert that the “Taxation Debt” was a variable and, further, that that interpretation is sensible as the GIC that accrued after 7 August 2015 related to the same underlying debt or “Tax-Related Liability” which the deed made irrecoverable. Although the deed stated that the “Taxation Debt” will continue to accrue GIC the taxpayer asserted that, as the GIC was a part of the “Taxation Debt”, the deed also made that accrual irrecoverable. The Commissioner contended that the Taxation Debt was $10,948,507.45, as the Taxation Debt was expressly stated to be, and that this figure was the irrecoverable total or ceiling and not just a snapshot in time of the figure.

There were other provisions and context in the deed which supported the position of the Commissioner hence Robertson J. found for the Commissioner in the Federal Court.

Equivocal term in the deed gave the ATO a GIC recovery problem

Moving liabilities like the GIC cause difficulties. $1,145,639.03 was put at stake due to the inadvertent and equivocal use of Taxation Debt (capitalised as a defined term) in the formulation of the term in the deed dealing with the further accrual of GIC. A Federal Court challenge to the ATO might have been avoided by the Commissioner if it had been clear in the deed that the amount of the Taxation Debt (as at 7 August 2015) would continue to accrue GIC as a taxation debt which, in turn, was not part of the Taxation Debt made unrecoverable by the deed.

Pleading grounds in a tax objection

We have mentioned how facts and evidence in dispute should be systematically presented in an objection in a considered and rigorous way.

Restriction on grounds that can be argued in a tax case

If an income tax objection is disallowed by the commissioner of taxation then the taxpayer is generally restricted to the grounds set out in the objection on appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or to the Federal Court. The grounds so set out become the equivalent of “pleadings” in a court claim or writ commencing litigation.

The law changed in 1986, to allow a limited discretion to the tribunal or the court, to alter the grounds of an objection on which an appeal could be based. The Treasurer then stated in the explanatory memorandum to the changes:

It is expected that, in exercising the discretion, the general principles on which courts have permitted amendments of pleadings in other areas of the law will generally be applied. For example, the discretion is likely to be exercised where the need for an amendment of the grounds of objection arises as a result of the Commissioner relying on arguments in defence of an assessment where the particular basis was not adverted to in the adjustment sheet accompanying the notice of assessment.

Lawyer-prepared pleading can be worthwhile

So we recommend legal input in to the preparation of a tax case at the objection stage:

  • where the case is of importance to the taxpayer; or
  • particularly where the taxpayer wants to be able to appeal the case if the objection is disallowed by the commissioner of taxation.

If a taxpayer has used a simple objection letter that does not adequately plead the taxpayer’s case, prospects of success on grounds not pleaded are diminished. Trained tax lawyers like The Tax Objection can prepare or review an objection with legal “pleadings” method to prevent loss of prospects of success on appeal like that.