Tag Archives: stamp duty

Foreign purchaser stamp duty and land tax surcharges – design faults & unit trusts

DesignFault

Advent of the state foreign person property surcharges

Foreign person surcharges have applied on New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia and Australian Capital Territory property taxes following Commonwealth action to have the Foreign Investment Review Board more closely monitor the acquisition and holding of Australian real estate by foreign interests: see our July 2016 blog post:

Australia is now tracking & surcharging foreign buyers of land

https://wp.me/p6T4vg-56

NSW surcharges and current rates

In NSW, surcharges imposed since 2016 are:

(a)          a surcharge purchaser duty (currently 8% of the market value of the property) on the acquisition of residential property in NSW (Chapter 2A of the Duties Act (NSW) 1997 [DA]); and

(b)          a surcharge land tax (currently 2% of the unimproved value of the land) for  residential property in NSW owned as at 31 December each year (section 5A of the Land Tax Act (NSW) 1956).

(Surcharges)

The foreign trusts that aren’t foreign problem

Discretionary trusts with all or predominantly Australian participants and entitled beneficiaries can nevertheless be caught as foreign trusts that must pay the Surcharges. Liability for the Surcharges is based or grounded on sub-section 18(3) of the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (C’th) 1975 (FATA): Sub-section 18(3) provides:

For the purposes of this Act, if, under the terms of a trust, a trustee has a power or discretion to distribute the income or property of the trust to one or more beneficiaries, each beneficiary is taken to hold a beneficial interest in the maximum percentage of income or property of the trust that the trustee may distribute to that beneficiary.

sub-section 18(3) of the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (C’th) 1975

If the income or property (capital) that could be distributed to a foreign beneficiary of a trust is 20% or more of income in a year or property of the trust, the trust is foreign for FATA and Surcharge purposes. An ameliorating aspect of the Surcharges legislation is that:

  • Australian citizens who are non-residents of Australia; and
  • some New Zealand citizens with certain Australian visas;

who are foreign persons under the wide sweep of sub-section 18(3) of the FATA are excluded from being foreign persons for NSW Surcharges purposes: see sub-section 104J(2) of the DA.

The lengthy transition

Even for those not averse to the idea that foreign individual and foreign trust investors should pay higher property dues the implementation of the Surcharges in NSW has been agonising. Even now, in 2020, four years after liabilities for Surcharges were first imposed under the DA and the LTA the State Revenue Legislation Further Amendment Act (NSW) 2020 (“SRLFAA”) is still needed to phase in the Surcharges, and transitional relief from them, as they apply to trusts.

As well as imposing the wide sweep of what the FATA treats as foreign, the SRLFAA:

  • imposes impugnable trust deed requirements on discretionary trusts (see below); and
  • extends transitional arrangements that were set to end on earlier dates in versions of Revenue Ruling G010 from Revenue NSW and the State Revenue Legislation Further Amendment Bill (NSW) 2019.

Trust deed requirements on discretionary trusts

Where a trust is a discretionary trust for Surcharge purposes then the SRLFAA requires that the terms of the trust must be amended by 31 December 2020 so:

(a) no potential beneficiary of the trust is or can be a foreign person [the no foreign beneficiary requirement]; and
(b) the terms of the trust cannot be amended in a manner so a foreign person could become a beneficiary [the no amendment requirement];

and then only does the discretionary trust, even a discretionary trust that:

  • has no foreign participants or beneficiaries; and
  • thus is not foreign after the FATA wide sweep and sub-section 104J(2) of the DA are considered;

(a Local DT) escape treatment as a foreign trust for Surcharge purposes.

Why the no amendment requirement?

The object of the no amendment requirement is to impose the Surcharges based on the contingency or possibility only that a Local DT may come to have a foreign beneficiary in the future. The position of Revenue NSW is understood to be that Revenue NSW does not have the compliance resources to monitor Local DTs for foreign beneficiaries into the future on an ongoing basis.

Although nearly all discretionary trust deeds contain some kind of variation power, a design fault of such resource-saving requirements viz.:

  • the “irrevocable” requirement of Revenue NSW in paragraph 6 of Revenue Ruling DUT 037 concerning sub-section 54(3) of the DA concerning concessional duty on changes of trustee; and
  • the no amendment requirement now in the SRLFAA;

is that the variation power in many or most trust deeds of trusts in NSW may not permit modification of the variation power to satisfy either of these requirements.

Changing the scope or amending the terms of a trust amendment power

In Jenkins v. Ellett, Douglas J. of the Queensland Supreme Court stated the relevant law and learning about changing the variation power in a trust deed:

[15] The scope of powers of amendment of a trust deed is discussed in an illuminating fashion in Thomas on Powers (1st ed., 1998) at pp. 585-586, paras 14-31 to 14-32 in these terms:

“In all cases, the scope of the relevant power is determined by the construction of the words in which it is couched, in accordance with the surrounding context and also of such extrinsic evidence (if any) as may be properly admissible. A power of amendment or variation in a trust instrument ought not to be construed in a narrow or unreal way. It will have been created in order to provide flexibility, whether in relation to specific matters or more generally. Such a power ought, therefore, to be construed liberally so as to permit any amendment which is not prohibited by an express direction to the contrary or by some necessary implication, provided always that any such amendment does not derogate from the fundamental purposes for which the power was created ….It does not follow, of course, that the power of amendment itself can be amended in this way. Indeed, it is probably the case that there is an implied (albeit rebuttable) presumption, in the absence of an express direction to that effect, that a power of amendment (like any other kind of power) cannot be used to extend its own scope or amend its own terms. Moreover, a power of amendment is not likely to be held to extend to varying the trust in a way which would destroy its ‘substratum’. The underlying purpose for the furtherance of which the power was initially created or conferred will obviously be paramount.”

Jenkins v. Ellett [2007] QSC 154

In our experience a small minority of trusts in NSW have a variation power which expressly permits extension of its own scope or amendment of its own terms. That kind of extended power can raise its own set of difficulties which explains why these extended variation powers are not especially popular. It follows, as stated, that a substantial number of variations of the terms of discretionary trust deeds which the no amendment requirement imposes are prone, or likely, to be beyond the power conferred by the variation power of the trust and thus ineffective on a trust by trust reckoning.

discretionary trust for Surcharges purposes

In section 1 in the dictionary of the DA a discretionary trust is defined for DA and Surcharges purposes:

“discretionary trust” means a trust under which the vesting of the whole or any part of the capital of the trust estate, or the whole or any part of the income from that capital, or both–
(a) is required to be determined by a person either in respect of the identity of the beneficiaries, or the quantum of interest to be taken, or both, or
(b) will occur if a discretion conferred under the trust is not exercised, or
(c) has occurred but under which the whole or any part of that capital or the whole or any part of that income, or both, will be divested from the person or persons in whom it is vested if a discretion conferred under the trust is exercised.

section 1 of the dictionary of the Duties Act (NSW) 1997

More time to check for unexpected foreign trust treatment

With time extended to 31 December 2020 by the SRLFAA to amend trust deeds so a discretionary trust won’t be treated as a foreign person it is timely during the remainder of 2020 to also check the terms of residential land holding trusts that may not ordinarily be thought of as a discretionary trust.

A trust, including a unit trust, that contains powers in its terms which:

  • allow for a beneficiary to be selected by someone to take income or capital;
  • allow for the amount of income or capital a beneficiary is to take to be set by someone;
  • which can change the income or capital a beneficiary will take if the discretion is not exercised; or
  • which can divest a beneficiary of an interest in income or capital which they otherwise would take;

that brings the trust within a discretionary trust in section 1 of the dictionary of the DA needs to meet the no foreign beneficiary requirement and the no amendment requirement in the SRLFAA.

Hybrid trusts and other unit trusts

This definition brings in trusts known as hybrid trusts within this construct of discretionary trust. Shortly stated a hybrid trust is a tax aggressive structure where unit or interest holders have standing vested interests in income or capital of the trust but where, usually, the trustee has a supervening power or powers to divest those interests in income, capital or both in favour of other beneficiaries such as family or related companies or trusts controlled by the unit or interest holder with the standing interest.

Other unit trust arrangements can be treated as a DA discretionary trust even where the discretion is historical, redundant and income tax benign. For instance an older style standard unit trust may be set up by way of initial units and the trustee may be given a discretion in the trust deed not to distribute income or capital to initial unitholders once ordinary units in the trust are issued.

This discretion in the terms of a trust is enough for the unit trust to be treated as a discretionary trust so it would be prudent for the terms of the unit trust to be amended to remove the discretion if that can be done:

  • without resettling the trust; and
  • less onerously than amending the trust deed to comply with the no foreign beneficiary requirement and the no amendment requirement.

Changing the trustee of a trust – some elements for success

It is sometimes wrongly assumed that a minute of the current trustee is sufficient to change the trustee of:

  • a family discretionary trust (FDT); or
  • a self managed superannuation fund (SMSF) (which must be a trust with a trustee too – see sub-section 19(2) of the Superannuation Industry (Superannuation) Act (C’th) 1993 (SIS Act));

and that a change of trustee will have no serious tax consequences. The second proposition is more likely to be true, but not always.

FDTs and SMSFs invariably commence with a deed which contains the terms (the trust terms or governing rules – TTOGRs) on which the trust commences. That, in itself, is a reason why I contended in 2009 in Redoing the deed that an instrument or resolution less than a deed to change the trustee is prone to be ineffective even where change by less than or other than a deed is stated to be permitted by the TTOGRs in the trust deed.

Changing trustee relying on ability to change in the trust deed

It is thus to the trust deed that one needs to look to find:

  1. whether there is a power in the TTOGRs to appoint a new trustee or to otherwise change the trustee; and
  2. if, so, what the procedure or formalities are for doing so.

Changing trustee relying on the Trustee Acts

If ability to change trustee is not present, or is derelict, in the TTOGRs then the Trustee Acts in states (and territories) provide options for appointing a new or additional trustee which vary state to state.

Trustee Act – New South Wales

In New South Wales: section 6 of the Trustee Act (NSW) 1925 allows a person nominated for the purpose of appointing trustees in the TTOGRs, a surviving trustee or a continuing trustee to appoint a new trustee in certain specified situations such as where a trustee:

  • has died;
  • is incapable of acting as trustee; or
  • is absent for a specified period out of the state.

However an appointment of a new trustee in these situations must be effected by registered deed: sub-section 6(1) That is the deed of appointment must be registered with the general registry kept by the NSW Registrar-General, which is publicly searchable, and the applicable fee to so register the deed must be paid to NSW Land Registry Services for the appointment to take effect.

It is apparent from sub-section 6(13) that registration of a deed of appointment is not required where ability to appoint a new trustee is in the TTOGRs where the TTOGRs express a contrary intention; that is: where the TTOGRs expressly and effectively allow an appointment to be effected without a registered deed.

Trustee Act – Victoria

In Victoria there is a comparable capability for a person nominated for the purpose of appointing trustees in the TTOGRs, a surviving trustee or a continuing trustee to appoint a new trustee in writing in certain specified situations such as where a trustee:

  • has died;
  • is incapable of acting as trustee; or
  • is absent for a specified period out of the state;

under section 41 of the Trustee Act (Vic.) 1958. However this Victorian law does not impose any requirement that the required instrument of appointment in writing must be registered.

Changing trustee by obtaining a court order

The supreme courts of the states and territories are also given a residual statutory capability to appoint trustees under the respective Trustee Acts. However applying to a supreme court for an order to change a trustee of a FDT or a SMSF with sufficient supporting grounds is an option of last resort given likely significant costs and uncertainties of obtaining the order.

Changing trustee by deed

The TTOGRs in a trust deed of a FDT or a SMSF will frequently require that an appointment of a new trustee may or must be effected by a deed. It is desirable that it should do so to ensure the appointment of a new trustee does not become of a matter of uncertainty and difficulty for the reasons I have described in Redoing the deed.

Tax consequences of a change of trustee

As a change of trustee without more generally does not change beneficial entitlements under a trust, the tax consequences are usually benign:

For capital gains tax (CGT), assurance that changing trustee does not give rise to a CGT event for all of the CGT assets held in a trust is diffuse under the Income Tax Assessment Act (C’th) (ITAA) 1997:

Sub-section 104-10(2) concerning CGT event A1 states:

(2) You dispose of a * CGT asset if a change of ownership occurs from you to another entity, whether because of some act or event or by operation of law. However, a change of ownership does not occur if you stop being the legal owner of the asset but continue to be its beneficial owner.

Note: A change in the trustee of a trust does not constitute a change in the entity that is the trustee of the trust (see subsection 960-100(2)). This means that CGT event A1 will not happen merely because of a change in the trustee.

Sub-section 960-100(2) with the Notes below it in fact say:

(2) The trustee of a trust, of a superannuation fund or of an approved deposit fund is taken to be an entity consisting of the person who is the trustee, or the persons who are the trustees, at any given time.

Note 1: This is because a right or obligation cannot be conferred or imposed on an entity that is not a legal person.

Note 2: The entity that is the trustee of a trust or fund does not change merely because of a change in the person who is the trustee of the trust or fund, or persons who are the trustees of the trust or fund.

Similarly sections 104-55 and 104-60 of the ITAA 1997 which concern:

• Creating a trust over a CGT asset: CGT event E1

• Transferring a CGT asset to a trust: CGT event E2

each restate the above Note: viz.

Note: A change in the trustee of a trust does not constitute a change in the entity that is the trustee of the trust (see subsection 960-100(2)). This means that CGT event E… will not happen merely because of a change in the trustee.

Stamp duty

A change of trustee can have stamp duty consequences where the trust holds dutiable property such as real estate.

Duty – NSW

Concessional stamp duty on the transfer of the dutiable property of the trust to the new trustee can be denied in NSW to a FDT unless the trust deed of the trust limits who can be a beneficiary, for anti-avoidance reasons: see sub-section 54(3) of the Duties Act (NSW) 1997.

Indeed Revenue NSW withholds the requisite satisfaction in sub-section 54(3) unless the TTOGRs provide or have been varied in such a way so that an appointed new trustee or a continuing trustee irrevocably cannot participate as a beneficiary of the trust. Contentiously satisfaction is withheld by Revenue NSW unless a variation to a FDT to so limit the beneficiaries is “irrevocable“ : see paragraph 6 of Revenue Ruling DUT 037, even though that variation may not be plausible or permissible under the TTOGRs of the FDT.

This hard line is taken by Revenue NSW to defeat schemes where someone, who might otherwise be a purchaser of dutiable property who would pay full duty on purchase of the property from the trust, becomes both a trustee and beneficiary able to control and beneficially own the property who is thus able to contrive liability only for concessional duty and avoid full duty,

Duty – Victoria

Although the Duties Act (Vic.) 2000 contains anti-avoidance provisions addressed at this kind of anti-avoidance arrangement, there is no comparable hard line to that in NSW in sub-section 33(3) of the Duties Act (Vic.) 2000 so that the transfer of dutiable property, including real estate, on changing trustee is more readily exempt from stamp duty.

Other requirements

A prominent requirement on changing trustee of a SMSF is notification to the Australian Taxation Office, as the regulator of SMSFs, within twenty-eight days of the change: see Changes to your SMSF at the ATO website.

Where changing trustee involves a corporate trustee then there may also be an obligation to inform the Australian Securities and Investments Commission of changes to details of directors of the corporate trustee, if any. There may be further matters to be addressed if any new or continuing directors are or will become non-residents of Australia and, with SMSFs, the general requirement in section 17A of the SIS Act that the parity between members of the fund on the one hand and trustees, or directors of the corporate trustee on the other, needs to borne in mind and, if need be, addressed.

Declarations of trust and stamp duty on disguised conveyances

declare

Each of the state and territory duty jurisdictions include declarations of trust over dutiable property (typically real estate) as dutiable transactions in one form or another. Without a declaration of trust head of duty, or an apt anti-avoidance provision, conveyancing duties that would by paid on a transfer of the dutiable property to B can be avoided by A declaring that property is held on trust for B though still held legally (on title) by A. Duty on a declaration of trust generally applies at full rates chargeable against the value of the dutiable property and differs from the head of duty which applies to declarations of trust which are not made over dutiable property to which a concessional duty or, in some states and territories, no duty will apply.

Duty eagerly assessed on the mention of a trust

So the Commissioners of State Revenues Australia wide are eager to assess any document to duty which purports to contain a declaration of trust over dutiable property which could be viewed as either:

  • a transfer of beneficial interest in the property in substance; or
  • a disguised transfer.

Integrity of the state revenues

That zeal can be understood in the context of the integrity of state revenues. In New South Wales, where a “declaration of trust” is a dutiable transaction under section 8 of the Duties Act 1997, Revenue NSW will treat documents which foreshadow or even just mention a trust over dutiable property as dutiable. Hence those who have an eye to the duty implications of deeds and documents that impact dutiable property are justifiably cautious about using the expression “on trust” in a deed or document where dutiable conveyance of the beneficial ownership of dutiable property by that document is not intended.

Ambit declaration duty rejected in W.A.

A recent case in Western Australia shows that duty on documents that state that dutiable property is held on trust can be too readily assessed as a declaration of trust by state revenue. The W.A. Court of Appeal in In Rojoda Pty Ltd v. Commissioner of State Revenue (WA) [2018] WASCA 224 decided against the Commissioner where two deeds of dissolution of partnership in that case explicitly stated that a partner, the surviving registered owner of land, held dutiable property on trust for other surviving partners of the partnerships. The Court of Appeal found that the dissolution of two partnerships involving family members, whose business included property ownership and investment, were not declarations of trust and were not dutiable as declarations of trust over dutiable property.

It was determinative in Rojoda that the trusts recited in the deeds were confirmatory of trusts that already existed. It was significant that the Court of Appeal, in overturning a decision by the State Administrative Tribunal, was prepared to examine the equitable implications and the relevant legal and beneficial interests of the partners just before and on the execution of the deeds of dissolution of the partnerships. The Court of Appeal found that the legal and beneficial interests of the partners, just before the deeds were executed, were sufficiently comparable to the interests set out to be on trust in the deeds and thus held the deeds established no new trusts and thus did not declarations of trust in the context of the W.A. head of duty.

Identifiable new trust needed for a dutiable declaration of trust

The land had been used as partnership property of the partnerships. The Court of Appeal found that the wife, who was the surviving registered proprietor of the land, already held the land for the partners, which included the children of the wife and the husband, or their representatives. They thus had specific and fixed beneficial or equitable interests in the partnership properties before the deeds prepared for the dissolution of the partnerships were executed. These interests, reflecting their respective proportionate share of partnership property, were comparable interests to those said to be held on trust in the deeds. Thus the Court of Appeal found the trusts set out in the deeds were not new trusts declared over property dutiable in W.A.

The High Court has granted the Commissioner of State Revenue special leave to appeal in Rojoda. This case will likely inform what amounts to a declaration of trust dutiable in state and territory stamp jury jurisdictions.

Preparing to change land ownership from a company to a trust

A company controlled by X owns land. X would prefer it if the land was held by a trust or in an individual name such as X or Y, X’s spouse.

X_diag

Significant capital gains tax (“CGT”) on the transfer of the land is not expected by X and Y. Is a transfer of the land to a trust or to X or Y or both worthwhile? Here are some tax implications X may want to think about:

Capital gains tax

If the land has increased in value X will want to consider CGT more closely:

If the land is not an active asset, or if the small business CGT concessions or the new small business restructure roll-over, can’t apply for some other reason, the value of the land, when disposed of, will be taken into account in determining CGT. i.e. the market value substitution rule will apply in the event of an undervalue transfer of the land.  An undervalue transfer of the land is rarely likely to be effective under tax rules.

The small business CGT concessions and the new small business restructure roll-over don’t apply if the asset is not an active asset. The land won’t be an active asset if it is mainly used by the company, and related parties of the company, to earn rent. As the land is held in a company, the 50% CGT discount is not available to the company on the transfer of the land.

Problems with a gift or an undervalue transfer

If full value is not payable to the company for the land then, without more, a transfer of the land could be treated as a dividend taxable in full to the transferee as a shareholder of the company, as a deemed dividend taxable to the transferee as an associate of the shareholders of the company, or may possibly be taxable to the company as a fringe benefit.  Further if the company has taken the approach of gift there may be difficulties establishing that the company was legally entitled to give the land away to the transferee if that is what is done. Indications of a gift might give a creditor of the company additional rights to pursue the transferee for the value of the land that belonged to the company especially if the stance of the company is that the transfer was not any sort of dividend or remuneration to X or Y.

A sale of the land by the company for full value is more defensible. The sale can be on terms rather than for cash payable on settlement. If the transferee doesn’t follow through, and pay the value in cash or on the agreed terms, then the sale for value can be treated as a sham and the consequences of undervalue transfer can then follow.

So defensible transfers of the land include:

  1. sales at full value on (genuine) terms; and
  2. distribution of the value of the land to the shareholders of the company (not in the form of cash) on the voluntary liquidation of the company.

CGT event A1 – but watch out for CGT event E2 if a transfer to a trust

Usually CGT event A1 is attracted when land is transferred from one beneficial owner to another. CGT event A1 is taken to occur at the time of (in the income year of) the disposal, that is, the time of the transfer unless the transfer is made under a contract. If the transfer occurs under a contract and CGT event A1 applies, CGT event A1 is taken to occur at the time of making of the contract.

This can be significant where a contract and settlement straddle the end of an income year, with the time of the contract bringing forward the capital gain into the earlier income year if CGT event A1 applies. If the transferee is a related trust of the vendor then CGT event E2 can apply rather than CGT event A1.  CGT event E2 though, unlike CGT event A1, does not bring forward the time of the CGT event to the time of the contract so, if CGT event E2 applies, the capital gain will be made in the later income year.

Stamp duty on a transfer

Stamp duty varies from state to state but generally applies to acquisitions of land based on the market value of the land, not the price to the transferee/purchaser. Very generally speaking it is usually charged at around 5% of the land value. The states offer limited stamp duty relief when acquisitions occur without a change in ultimate beneficial or economic ownership of the land. For instance, in New South Wales and Victoria relief exists in the form of corporate reconstruction concessions. These concessions are generally not available where the acquisition is by a trust or an individual. Thus stamp duty would need to be budgeted for by X as a further cost of transferring the land.

Goods and services tax

If the company is registered or ought to be registered for the goods and service tax and the land in used in an enterprise carried on by the company then the company may be obliged to charge 10% GST to the transferee on the transfer (taxable supply) of the land. If the transferee is also registered for GST, and will use the land in the transferee’s enterprise, then the transferee can obtain an input tax credit/refund of the GST charged to the transferee. The company and the transferee, if registered for GST, may also:

  1. be able to claim the GST going concern exemption if they take the necessary steps for the exemption; or
  2. be members of a GST group;

which would relieve the company of the obligation to charge GST to the transferee.

Australia is now tracking & surcharging foreign buyers of land

Turning missing demographics into tax revenue

Hats off to Australian governments who have turned an imperative into a revenue opportunity. The Australian federal government regulator, the Foreign Investment Review Board  (the FIRB), has not been well placed to track foreign purchases of real estate to date. The FIRB has been reliant on disclosure, and if prospective foreign buyers didn’t voluntarily disclose their planned land acquisitions, the FIRB has been none the wiser. There has been no register of (foreign) beneficial ownership of buyer entities which the FIRB can go and check even in the case of foreign real estate acquisitions completely prohibited under the foreign acquisitions law: the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act (C’th) 1975.

That has all changed. Buyers now need to demonstrate that they are not foreign to avoid hiked stamp duty in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Foreigners who buy and sell Australian real estate are now under great scrutiny at both the buyer and seller ends of the land sale especially if the sale is for more than $750,000.

Big city real estate markets are buoyant, prices are high and foreign buyers are not exactly welcome by those looking to buy the same city real estate. The community has been surprised to learn that foreign purchases of Australian land have not been closely monitored. So, politically, it has been an opportune time to introduce these changes. Time will tell if they will be successful. They may well be. They will be a boon to the FIRB, but Australian buyers too will get caught up in the ramp up of imposts on foreign buyers. Why?

Buyers of Australian land

This is the bit for the FIRB. The New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland governments have just introduced hefty stamp duty and land tax surcharges on foreigners. From 21 June, 2016 a sworn Purchaser Declaration (“PD”) is now required from buyers, whether foreign or not, buying real estate in New South Wales. The PD is required along with stamp duty at the band the PD establishes that the buyer should pay to complete the conveyancing of a land sale. If the buyer of land in New South Wales is a foreign person (entity):

  • a 8% SURCHARGE (for the 2018 tax year, it was 4% for the 2017 tax year) on the stamp duty (i.e. extra) applies (it’s a 7% surcharge in Victoria);
  • the buyer is not entitled to the 12 month deferral for the payment of stamp duty for off-the-plan purchases of residential property; and
  • the buyer faces 2% SURCHARGE (for the 2018 tax year, it was 0.75% for the 2017 tax year)  on land tax (i.e. extra).

It’s plain on the PD that the information is going to the ATO – it asks for the FIRB application number for the purchase. This will let the Australian Taxation Office (“ATO”) and the FIRB gather comprehensive data on foreign land acquisitions. Coupled with significantly increased penalties for breach of the foreign acquisitions rules, the availability of this information to the ATO and to the FIRB will give the federal government real capability to penalise unlawful real property acquisitions by foreigners.

Where an Australian buyer will be caught out too – example of a buyer that is an Australian-based family discretionary trust

It is notable that the PD doesn’t seek the confidential tax file number (understandable as the ATO can’t get the States to collect those) or the Australian Business Number (if any) of a buyer trust. It relies on the name of the buyer trust and a copy of the trust deed of the buyer trust with all amendments must be included with the PD.

If a foreign individual, company or trust is a potential beneficiary of the usual style of Australian family discretionary trust that is a New South Wales land buyer then, usually, the trustee can distribute 20% or more  (Victoria – more than 50%) of the income and capital to that foreign person. That gives the foreign person a “significant interest” in the trust enough to cause the trust to be a foreign trust under these rules to whom the foreign stamp duty and land tax surcharges apply.

So if the copy trust deed supplied with the PD indicates that a remoter family member,  who is not an Australian citizen or an Australian permanent resident, but is a foreigner who is a potential beneficiary of an (otherwise) Australian family discretionary trust ABLE to receive 20% of income or capital (more than 50% in Victoria), even if that remoter family member/foreigner may not have:

  • any current or past entitlement to income or capital of the trust; nor
  • any strong likelihood of participating in income or capital of the trust;

his or her eligibility under the trust deed exposes the trust to foreign trust/person status and liability for the stamp duty and land tax surcharges under these rules accordingly.

Sellers of Australian land

The ATO has had a problem collecting capital gains tax from sellers who are offshore after the sale of Australian land. Under tax treaties worldwide rights to tax interests in land are almost universally reserved to the governments where the land is. As other forms of assets and activity are moveable and relocatable taxation based on place is not so reserved because it is less effective than taxation based on residence and/or makes less sense.

So, frequently, when a non-resident sells land and makes a capital gain taxable in Australia, the ATO has no interaction with the non-resident, aside from due to their Australian landholding. This has often left the ATO with little leverage to assist them to collect tax debts arising from CGT on disposals of Australian land by non-residents ceasing investment in land in Australia.

The solution is the tried and trusted withholding tax model. From 1 July, 2016, the non-resident capital gains tax withholding tax (“NCGTWHT”) is an obligation on the buyer (statistically likely to be a resident) to pay a non-final withholding tax to cover capital gains tax (likely to be) owing by the non-resident seller.

The NCGTWHT broadly applies as a non-final tax on sales of land worth more than $750,000 (from 1 July 2017, was $2m from 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017). If the buyer does not receive an ATO clearance certificate from the seller then the buyer must withhold 12.5% (from 1 July 2017, was 10% from 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017) of the value of the property (so 12.5% of the price for the land if it is an arms length sale, 12.5% of the “first element of the cost base” of the land to the acquirer if a CGT market value substitution rule applies in a non-arms length transaction).

Where an Australian seller will be caught out too – a non-final 12.5% tax

It is of no consequence that the seller is, or might be, an Australian resident/tax resident and the buyer is assured of this. There is no “reason to believe the seller is an Australian resident” exception for sales of freehold interests in land. Even the seller could be wrong – tax residence can a vexed question which is frequently litigated in tax cases.

The liability to the ATO is on the buyer unless the seller can obtain and provide a clearance certificate from the ATO to the buyer no later than settlement of the land sale so, if the seller does not return and pay the CGT on the seller for the sale, the NCGTWHT paid by the buyer on the seller’s behalf won’t be refunded.

Template contracts for the sale of land across Australia have been hastily adjusted to include conditions confirming that, where the land is worth more than $750,000:

  • the buyer can contractually withhold the NCGTWHT from the price if the clearance certificate is not provided; and
  • the seller can be assured that the NCGTWHT will be paid immediately by the buyer to the ATO to the credit of the seller.

NCGTWHT