Tag Archives: time limits

Objections and aged tax assessments

Time Limit expires

Challenging conclusive tax assessments

In an earlier blog post we looked at if an objection is needed to amend a tax assessment. We observed that, under the law, an assessment is taken to be correct and conclusive and an objection is the way by which a taxpayer can challenge that concluded correctness under the design of the law.

But, for reasons of convenience, cost and informality, taxpayers and tax agents often seek a request for an amendment of an assessment by the Commissioner of Taxation. But, as stated in our blog post, a request for an amendment is unassertive and the Commissioner has no particular obligation to consider and accede to the request.

Aged tax assessment

If a tax assessment is an aged assessment a taxpayer, who requests an amendment of the assessment, may be prevented by a time limit from obtaining the reduction in tax they seek. The Commissioner can amend an aged assessment of tax, including an amendment to decrease tax sought in a written request for the decrease by a taxpayer, within periods specified in section 170 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936. For individual taxpayers, with simpler income tax affairs, the period allowed is two years from the day on which the taxpayer was given notice of the assessment and, for individuals with more complex affairs, it is four years from that day – see items 1 and 4 in the table under sub-section 170(1).

If the period applicable to the taxpayer has expired then the Commissioner is prevented from making the amendment sought in a request for an amendment of the assessment by the taxpayer unless an exception in section 170 applies.

Amendment of an aged assessment following an objection

Time limits for amendments of assessments in section 170 are subject to:

  • an exception to give effect to a decision on an objection or an appeal – in Item 6 of the table; and
  • an exception where the taxpayer requests an amendment in the approved form before the time limit has been reached even if the Commissioner will not be able to amend the assessment by the time the time limit is reached: sub-section 170(5).

It follows that an objection is the only way to achieve an amendment of an aged assessment of tax if the assessment has aged so far that the applicable section 170 period for amendment has expired and the taxpayer is yet to seek an amendment of the assessment.

That only way, viz. by objection, has its own distinct time limits which match amendment of assessment time limits but with an important difference which has been in place since 1986 (see NT87/1594 and Commissioner of Taxation [1988] AATA 73; (1988) 19 ATR 3336; 88 ATC 381 at paragraph 22). If a taxpayer seeks to object against an aged assessment, where the applicable section 170 period has expired, then the taxpayer can apply for an extension of time to lodge the objection under section 14ZX of the Taxation Administration Act 1953. In the application the taxpayer must make the case why the extension of time to extend the period in which the objection can be lodged should be allowed. We have looked at late objections in our blog – Is there a time limit for putting in an objection.

The vital difference

So the difference between an objection against an aged assessment and a request for an amendment on an aged assessment, where the statutory time limit to amend or object has expired, is that the Commissioner has the power to:

  • allow an application for an extension of time to lodge an objection against an aged assessment;
  • allow the objection lodged out of time; and
  • amend the relevant assessment accordingly;

but an aged assessment can’t be requested and amended out of time if the time period allowed to the Commissioner to amend the aged assessment has expired.

Perils lodging a really late objection against a tax assessment

As mentioned in an earlier post – Is there a time limit for putting in a tax objection?

time limits for lodging objections have been based on sixty days but, for most of the significant federal taxes such as income tax, goods and services tax and fringe benefits tax, among others, extended four year and two year limits apply based on the issue of original assessments. Limits for amended assessments are based on the longer of:

  1. sixty days from the issue of the amended assessment; and
  2. the remaining limit on the original assessment.

Link between limits on time to object and on time to amend assessments

The extended four year and two year limits on lodging objections for these taxes are congruous with limits on the amendment of assessments which restrain both the Commissioner and the taxpayer.

Limit on time to amend an assessment doesn’t apply to an amendment following an objection

The taxpayer has a rare advantage over the Commissioner in the context of income tax because section 170 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1936 provides an exception from these limits on the amendment of assessments for an amendment at any time as a result of an objection made by the taxpayer or pending a review or appeal.

Usually the Commissioner must assert fraud or evasion, or obtain the consent of the taxpayer prior to expiry of the limit, to extend the limit for the amendment of assessments under section 170.

Extension of time when outside limit on time to object

To take that rare advantage that taxpayer must be allowed to object either by right within the time to object or with an extension of time to object after that. If a taxpayer does not lodge an objection within the designated time under section 14ZW of the Taxation Administration Act 1953, then the taxpayer must seek the extension of time from the Commissioner under section 14ZX.

When will the Commissioner give an extension of time to object?

Generally speaking, the Commissioner is systematically open to granting an extension of time to object however the taxpayer must apply for a section 14ZX extension giving a plausible and acceptable explanation of the reasons and circumstances why the objection is to be lodged late.

In deciding whether to give an extension of time to object the Commissioner will prelimarily consider the merits of the case made out in the objection and whether there may be prejudice to the Commissioner, or to the taxpayer, including due to reliance on views of the professional advisors of the taxpayer, or of the Commissioner, by the taxpayer belatedly found to be incorrect.

Big dollars involved in really late objections

The recent case of Primary Health Care Limited v. Commissioner of Taxation [2017] AATA 393 involved an appeal by an ASX-listed company against a decision of the Commissioner to refuse extensions of time to the company to lodge out of time objections against its income tax assessments. The case is notable because it involved:

  1. total net reduction in taxable income of the taxpayer over five years of income of $155,459,566 at stake in the refused objections; and
  2. extensions of time sought on 23 June 2015 for objections dealing with assessments for five years of income being the years ending 30 June 2003 to 30 June 2007 inclusive. That is, the extensions were sought for objections which were up to seven years late on the time limits to object.

Following an earlier successful tax appeal by the company in relation to the 2010 income year, it had become apparent that significant business activities of the company group, who operated many medical centres, were on income account and not on capital account and so the company group was entitled to significant deductions under section 8-1 of the ITAA 1997 contrary to advice and understandings in earlier tax opinions received by the company from counsel. Importantly the Commissioner had held and communicated corresponding views about the availability of the deductions to the company. In the 2010 case these views proved to be incorrect.

Long delay explainable and no prejudice

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) identified that the company had been misled by these incorrect stances, which explained the long delay in lodging the objections, and that the Commissioner suffered no prejudice due to the delay in lodging the objections. The AAT thus found for the company and allowed the extensions of time to the company to lodge its objections.

The long delay of the company beyond the designated time limits for lodging these objections raised the possibility of prejudice to the Commissioner and the tax system should the company be allowed to contest its case in those long past years of income. The sheer length of the delay contributed to the decision of the Commissioner to refuse the extensions of time.

It was only because:

  1. the company was able to fully explain its delay, as the company justifiably understood that it had no case on which to object based on the law as it then stood, which was a misunderstanding to which the Commissioner had contributed; and
  2. because prejudice to the Commissioner from allowing the extensions of time to the company could not be identified;

that the AAT found in the favour of the company.

 

How might complex issue resolution by the ATO help?

A useful service for tax professionals

A new and useful service from the Australian Taxation Office (“ATO”) is Complex Issue Resolution (“CIR”). An escalation is offered for complex or multiple related tax technical issues and abnormal administrative issues which officers contacted through regular channels into the ATO, or who are acting in a regular ATO compliance role, would not usually be able to address.

The limitations of Complex Issue Resolution

CIR is accessible only by tax professionals including tax agents and legal practitioners.

Guidance from CIR is not binding on the Commissioner of Taxation. It is not a substitute for objecting against an assessment, seeking a private binding ruling or making a complaint about how the ATO is dealing with the taxpayer.

Value proposition

The inherent benefit of restricting CIR to tax professionals is twofold:

  • the restriction is a filter to ensure that issues put by taxpayers to CIR are actually complex better targeting the CIR resource; and
  • it is more likely that a tax professional can pinpoint and explain a complex issue/s. Careful and thorough explanation can be vital to the ATO correctly appreciating the complex issue and to how the ATO may ultimately deal with it. The Tax Objection is a tax professional and we understand how complex issues should be presented to the ATO.

Thus a taxpayer, through his or her tax professional, can drive recognition of complex tax technical issues and abnormal administrative issues including where an officer of the ATO may not grasp the issue and may not be willing to escalate the issue within the ATO to a more senior or experienced officer who is better equipped to deal with the issue. Equally CIR may be limited to where other escalation has not occurred within the ATO such as allocation of the issue to Interpretative Assistance (IA) or comparable ATO officers who decide objections and private ruling applications.

CIR in a tax dispute/objection strategy

In our post “I’m objecting – do I need freedom of information (FOI)?” we looked at the kinds of tax disputes where seeking freedom of information before, or concurrently while, objecting to a tax assessment is advantageous. It is all about understanding what the ATO position is, or is likely to be, before committing time, effort and resources to a tax objection and dispute.

 

CIRorFOI

Applying for CIR may have a number of advantages over applying for FOI in the process of readying to object against a tax assessment:

  • it looks like obtaining CIR guidance will generally be quicker than obtaining FOI although this is not yet certain as CIR is so new. Where time is running out against the time limit to object to an assessment it may be invaluable to receive guidance from CIR before finalising a notice of objection; and
  • applying for CIR may resolve the matter entirely. The escalation of a complex issue to a senior and experienced officer may lead to CIR guidance which puts a view either:
    • which the taxpayer is inclined to accept for one reason or another; or
    • which shows that the ATO has sufficiently adopted the view contended for by the tax professional in the application for CIR.

Either way the problem can be resolved before an objection or application for private ruling is completed saving costs and effort.

Although non-binding, CIR guidance is likely to firm either as the position, or as one of the positions, of the Commissioner on the complex issues on which the dispute turns. This gives a taxpayer objecting to an assessment who has CIR guidance the opportunity to make nimble inclusions in the notice of objection and to revise or abandon arguments to raise prospects of success in the dispute.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) options

A request for an amendment to the Australian Taxation Office (“ATO”) can be to resolve a disagreement about an assessment with alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”). The ATO offers ADR services including:

  • by an ATO in-house facilitator (mediator); or
  • for large and complex disputes only, appointment of an expert external mediator.

What does a mediator in ADR do?

The role of the mediator is to assist the ATO and the taxpayer to identify the real matters in dispute in the assessment and to assist the parties to find a way they can work through to an outcome on which they can agree to end the dispute over the assessment.

When does ADR work?

ADR can be useful for isolating matters in dispute, identifying prospects of success in the dispute and working towards resolution of the dispute with the ATO at lower cost. However this usefulness will depend on the type and the scope of the dispute over the assessment.

The ATO and the taxpayer will not necessarily have common ground on which resolution can be reached with the aid of mediator. The success of the mediation will turn on how far apart the ATO and the taxpayer are over the facts, their collection and how the tax law should be applied to those facts.

ADR surely preferable as an adjunct strategy

If the ADR does not track towards an acceptable outcome for the taxpayer with the aid of the mediator, to where does the taxpayer then turn? The taxpayer will have no leverage in ADR with the ATO should the ATO understand that the taxpayer’s rights to contest the assessment have expired or will expire during the course of the ADR. It is thus up to the taxpayer to ensure that an objection is either made or will be made on a timely basis so the ATO can foresee that the taxpayer has or may exercise rights to contest or even appeal the disagreement should the dispute not resolve through ADR.

Just an ADR request to the ATO is as problematic as other isolated forms of request for an amendment as a request alone does not give the taxpayer a fall back position. An ADR arrangement with the ATO makes more sense as an adjunct to a submitted or proposed objection on time.

ATO In-House Facilitation

The ATO have released an informative video explaining the in house ATO facilitation service in simple terms:

 

The Tax Objection can act is a representative in in-house facilitation by the ATO or in other ADR with commissioners of taxation.

I’m objecting – do I need freedom of information (FOI)?

A taxpayer has a right to freedom of information (“FOI”) to access tax office records about the taxpayer a commissioner of taxation has used to raise, or prepared in raising, a tax assessment.

Will FOI be useful in this case?

This inexpensive right to FOI is worth using if the information that can be obtained is useful. That said, useful information or evidence is not to be had with FOI about every unwelcome assessment. Of itself, applying for FOI doesn’t offer any tactical advantage in succeeding on a tax objection. Do not always expect that the commissioner has made some mistake by identifying tax owing which the taxpayer did not expect and, even if there is a mistake by a tax officer apparent in the documents released on a FOI initiative, that mistake might not aid the case of the taxpayer.

Has the assessment been poorly or inadequately explained?

FOI is most likely to be useful in exceptional cases where the assessment has been poorly or inadequately explained to the taxpayer. An explanation may be:

  • in what is said or given to the taxpayer and his or her tax agent;
  • in the notice of assessment or in the paperwork with it; or
  • made during the course of a tax investigation.

Has a tax officer acted strangely?

In some cases there may be a suggestion or suspicion that a tax officer may have acted oddly in relation to the tax affairs of the taxpayer. It may be useful to know more about that from FOI.

Adequacy of information given about the disputed assessment

More often the taxpayer and the tax agent will have been given enough before and with the assessment to understand the commissioner’s reasoning behind the increase in tax owing by the taxpayer in the assessment (even if they do not appreciate it).

If there has simply been an omission in documents received with the assessment, a “copies of tax documents” request (which is quicker and less confrontational that a FOI request) may suffice.

Careful review of these communications and analysis of the assessment will usually be sufficient to reveal the broad reasoning of the commissioner and the nub of the dispute with the commissioner without recourse to FOI.

Objecting within time is generally more important

Objecting on time, rather than including revelations from FOI in the notice of objection, will be the greater imperative. Useful information, if any, from a FOI request may not become available for a number of months following an application for FOI so, if a FOI application is to be made, it may need to be made early if it is be used to help formulate a tax objection before it is due.

Identify when more information is really needed from the commissioner of taxation

FOI could be needed in the case of a default assessment of income tax to understand the conclusions behind the notional “return” of income which the commissioner has prepared instead of or in addition to a copies of tax documents request.

How is a tax objection form done?

An objection:

Be convincing

The grounds on which the taxpayer relies, i.e. the contentions and arguments, should be robust and conclusive to convince the commissioner to allow the objection. In most cases, contentions and arguments alone will not be convincing and the objection submission should show:

  • the facts supporting the grounds; and
  • the evidence which supports the facts.

GroundFactsEvidence

Presentation of grounds, facts and evidence

How grounds, facts and evidence should be presented varies case by case. Where facts or evidence are open to dispute then they need to be presented in the objection in a considered and rigorous way.

We advocate systematic organisation of grounds, facts and evidence in cases where facts and evidence supporting grounds are voluminous or complex.

If facts and evidence are presented wrongly then the credibility of the taxpayer and the contentions are undermined. It is also possible that:

  • the taxpayer may make unnecessary or unhelpful admissions;
  • the commissioner will:
    • draw adverse inferences;
    • further investigate the facts; or
    • impose a penalty tax for a false or misleading statement; or
  • in the event of an appeal, the taxpayer and witnesses could be cross-examined about matters contained in the objection.

The not so helpful ATO objection forms

The Australian Taxation Office (“ATO”) has a generic and a “Professionals” version of its objection form to complete and send as paper or online. However:

a form of objection that does not mimic the ATO forms can be prepared for a taxpayer and submitted to the ATO in a number of ways including:

  • using the tax agent portal – although a “correspondence” rather than an “objection” gateway must be used so that the objection is not corralled to the ATO form and style of objection;
  • by post;
  • by delivery of the objection in person to an ATO shopfront – this way can be useful if the taxpayer needs to ensure and prove submission within the time limit.

Is there a time limit for putting in a tax objection?

Yes.

Objections need to be made within a specified time following issue of a tax assessment by a commissioner.

Will a late objection be accepted by the commissioner of taxation?

Late objections are permitted but only for a good reason which the taxpayer must establish. That is, to be certain the objection will be accepted, the objection needs to made within time.

60 days or four years from the assessment?

The good news, at least with objections against income tax assessments which are the most common, is that a taxpayer is allowed two years or four years from the issue of an original assessment to object and, in the case of an amended assessment (that is, an assessment altering an earlier assessment say following an ATO audit) the taxpayer has the later of the two or four year period from the issue of the original assessment or sixty days from the issue of the amended assessment to object.

The ATO has a useful aide memoir of objection time limits on their website. Unfortunately they frequently alter the url due to their frequent site makeovers and they do not use auto redirects so don’t rely totally on this link.

60 day time limit common for state tax assessment types

With state taxes specified times for objecting are largely unreformed which typically means that a sixty day time limit for submitting an objection applies to these types of assessments.

Extended time limits applying after an original income tax assessment

The two or four year time limit measured from the time of original income tax assessment varies with the type of taxpayer. In a nutshell a time limit of four years applies to taxpayers who run or participate as partners or beneficiaries of entities that are not small business entities.