Tax & ATO News Australia

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Freezing Orders and Disputed Debts: The Least of All Evils

Tax is a notoriously perplexing area of law.

However, few things are more perplexing than the inconsistent administration of the ATO’s disputed debt recovery policies.

Strictly speaking, the Commissioner is free to take whatever steps whenever he pleases, regardless of the existence of a dispute – in fact, sections 14ZZM and 14ZZR of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 are explicit that liability to pay assessed tax is not suspended because of pending reviews or appeals. This means, once assessments are issued, the Commissioner is entitled to do what is necessary to recover. This is what makes PS LA 2011/4 so important – taxpayers need certainty on what they can expect when an assessment is issued and have a genuine dispute, because the ATO does get it wrong, often with disastrous results.

The ATO’s practice statement PS LA 2011/4 attempts, with very limited success, to define and clarify the circumstances in which the ATO will seek to collect and recover disputed debts. Relevantly, paragraph 43 of PS LA 2011/4 provides the Commissioner of Taxation will agree to deferral of recovery action where the Commissioner considers that a genuine dispute exists in regard to the assessability of an amount, but it is unclear on what terms the Commissioner will agree to do so. The practice statement talks variously about 50/50 arrangements (payments of 50% of the underlying debt) and security, but does not make clear the circumstances in which these will be considered.

Regrettably, I have been involved in many cases where a taxpayer has a genuine dispute, and is later exonerated at the conclusion of legal proceedings, but the Commissioner nevertheless proceeds with one of the many debt recovery options available to him in the interim. These include, for example:

  • Bankruptcy. This ultimately achieves little in the way of recovering revenue, and can be fatal to a taxpayer’s legal challenge to the assessments the Commissioner relies upon to bankrupt the taxpayer, as the taxpayer’s rights to seek review typically vest with the trustee, or liquidator or administrator of a corporate taxpayer.
  • Garnishee notices. These are issued by the Commissioner to third party debtors of the taxpayer, which require the debtors to make payments directly to the Commissioner in lieu of the taxpayer to discharge the taxpayer’s debt. Notices can be issued to a myriad of third parties, including banks and companies. This can severely impact the taxpayer by diverting business profits, proceeds from the sale of real estate, and any number of other debts a taxpayer may rely on for their business and personal use.
  • Departure Prohibition Orders (or DPOs), which prohibit a tax debtor from leaving Australia, regardless of whether or not they intend to return, and can be issued where the Commissioner holds a belief on reasonable grounds that it is desirable to do so.

Of course, all are inevitably hotly contested by the taxpayers involved. This simply creates ancillary and costly legal proceedings that can cripple a taxpayer without contributing to the resolution of the underlying dispute. Wasting scarce resources on contested debt recovery proceedings is not in the interest of the Commonwealth or taxpayers.

If the ATO’s true concern is that the debt may not be recovered at all, and that objection proceedings are just delaying the inevitable, then surely the ATO must accept that something that preserves the status quo addresses all of their concerns. Freezing orders are a way of achieving this.

In my view, rather than bankruptcy, garnishee notices, DPOs, or other such irreversible actions, freezing orders are a far better way of addressing the ATO’s concerns that assets may be dissipated, while still allowing the taxpayer to prosecute their case. Instead of depleting the taxpayer’s assets and depriving them of their means to contest their tax liabilities, freezing orders simply preserve the status quo for a period defined by the court to mitigate the dissipation of assets pending a final determination and judgment. Such orders were employed in the recent case of Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Greenfield Electrical Services Pty Ltd [2016] FCA 653, as well as a sequence of related proceedings in Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Chemical Trustee Limited (No 4) [2012] FCA 1064 and Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Hua Wang Bank Berhad [2010] FCA 1014.

Ultimately though, within the current scheme of the tax law, we rely on the good graces of the Commissioner in such matters, and much of the way a matter progresses through review and court processes depends on the attitude of the Commissioner of the day.

My view is that PS LA 2011/4 would benefit enormously from a safe harbour approach, and in my respectful suggestion, the taxpayer should always be within that safe harbour wherever there was a genuine dispute. Such an approach would reflect the ATO’s reinvention, as perhaps would an overarching statement that the purpose of debt recovery is to collect the correct amount of revenue - and, more often than not, reasonable minds will differ as to what that correct amount is.

Written in collaboration with Nicholas Dodds.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 08 June 16

Budget Announcements: Super contributions from a small business standpoint.

Super contributions from a small business standpoint.

Scott Morrison’s budget has been received with mixed reactions, but what effect does it have on small business and super?

The small business capital gains concessions in Division 152 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 can be a fruitful tool for those involved in small business that are looking to add a little spice to their super. Whilst these concessions can be a real boon when properly utilized, there is no comment so far on whether their effectiveness will be impeached by Morrison’s new, slightly stingier, super rules.

 A key aspect of the budget was the introduction of a lifetime non-concessional contributions cap of $500,000. The lifetime cap takes into account all non-concessional contributions made on or after 1 July 2007, and will commence at 7:30pm on 3 May 2016. The purpose of this cap, according to the ‘Tax and Super’ Budget overview is to:

“Limit the extent to which the superannuation system can be used for tax minimisation and estate planning. Less than 1% of superannuation fund members have made contributions above this cap since 2007.”

It is important to note that contributions made before commencement cannot result in an excess. However, excess contributions made after commencement will need to be removed or be subject to penalty tax. The cap will be indexed to average weekly ordinary time earnings and is estimated to have a gain to revenue or $550 million over the forward estimates period.

Other relevant Budgetary Measures:

  • From 1 July 2017 a $1.6 million superannuation transfer balance cap on the total amount of superannuation that an individual can transfer into retirement phase accounts will be introduced.
  • Will require those with combines incomes and superannuation contributions greater than $250,000 to pay 30% tax on their concessional contributions, up from 15%.
  • From 1 July 2017, the superannuation concessional contributions cap will be lowered to $25,000 per annum.
  • The government will also introduce catch-up concessional superannuation spending by allowing unused concessional caps to be carried forward on a rolling basis for up to 5 years for those account balances of $500,000 or less. This will allow those with lower contributions, interrupted work patterns or irregular paying capacity to make ‘catch-up’ payments to boost their superannuation savings.
  • From 2016-17, the unincorporated small business tax discount will be available to businesses with an annual turnover of less than $5 million, up from the current threshold of $2 million, and will be increased to 8%.


Do the new budgetary measures alter the effectiveness of div 152 and small business CGT concessions?

S 292.90 (1) ITAA 1997 states that your non-concessional contributions for a financial year are the sum of:

(a) each contribution under subsection (2)

Subsection (2): a contribution is covered under this subsection if:

(c) it is not any of the following:

(iii) a contribution covered under s 292-100 (certain CGT payments), to the extent that it does not exceed your CGT cap amount when it is made.

Therefore, if the small business CGT concessions are included in section 292.100, they are not covered as a non-concessional contribution, as per the rules of 292.90.

S 292.100 (1) states that a contribution is covered under this subsection if:

(b) the requirement under subsection (2) is met

Subsection (2)(a) the requirement of this subsection is met if the contribution is equal to all or part of the *capital proceeds from a * CGT event for which you can disregard and * capital gain under s152 (or would be able to do so, assuming that a capital gain arose from the event.)

As such it is clear that div 152 small business CGT concessions are not included in the definition of a non concessional contribution, and as such it seems unlikely that they will be included in the $500,000 cap.

There is nothing to suggest that the definition for non concessional contributions will be changed to include div 152 small business capital gain exceptions. We think that these SBC continue to present themselves as a valuable method for those hoping to continue to invest in their super.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 18 May 16

The GST Issue With Uber

The ATO recently announced their view that popular ride-sharing facility Uber is a taxi service for GST purposes. For those who are unaware, Uber is a platform by which private individuals can register and make their own vehicles available to the public, drive passengers to their desired location for a commercial fare, all via a simple smartphone application. While it has enjoyed phenomenal success and is available in 200 cities across 55 countries, this GST ruling is only the latest development in a long list of regulatory hurdles faced by the company.

Typically, businesses with a GST turnover of less than $75,000 are not required to be registered for GST. However, the exception to this rule is found in s 144-5 of the GST Act, which states that if you provide “taxi services” as part of an enterprise, you are required to be registered for GST, regardless of turnover. The ATO identifies three key points underpinning this approach:

First, it avoids the confusion that would arise if some taxis had to charge GST, and some did not;
Second, to avoid the issue of a passenger using a taxi on a business trip, which is a creditable acquisition for GST purposes, and wanting to claim an input tax credit against the GST included in the fare, but potentially being prevented from doing so; and
Third, the state authorities regulating traditional taxi services adjusted all meters to reflect GST after 1 July 2000. If only some drivers were registered for GST but all drivers collected this higher rate, it would disadvantage drivers who had to be registered under the ordinary $75,000 threshold but provided the same service.
This extends to taxi drivers, chauffeur-driven limousines, hire cars, and, now, Uber drivers. This means charging GST, lodging Business Activity Statements, and claiming Input Tax Credits for transactions entered into while providing “taxi services”.

While the object of the section is arguably to promote uniformity in the industry, the decision that Uber is part of this industry suddenly presents a huge compliance burden that did not previously exist for the company and its drivers. The company has since argued it is being unfairly targeted, and to find out whether this is the case, it is necessary to have regard to what precisely it is that the ATO considers a ‘taxi service’.

Guidance can be drawn from ATO ID 2002/23, which notes the term ‘taxi’ is not defined in the GST Act, and so the term should take on its ordinary meaning. To this end, the ATO referred to the Macquarie Dictionary 1997 definition, being ‘a motor car for public hire, especially one fitted with a taximeter.’ Applying this definition to Uber’s method of operation, it is certainly possible to consider Uber cars as being for public hire, and thus taxis for the purposes of the GST Act, with all the responsibilities that entails. By registering and providing your availability, any member of the public looking for a lift can simply request one through the Uber app on their smartphone, and the driver will meet them for pickup and drop off – ironically not dissimilar to the apps now available to request conventional taxis here on the Gold Coast.

It seems that while Uber has tried to take a revolutionary approach to travel-for-hire by pioneering the ride-sharing industry, for GST purposes, it’s actually nothing new at all - at least in the view of the ATO. With Uber strongly foreshadowing a legal challenge in reply, it will be interesting to see whether the courts share the ATO’s view, or whether they limit the scope of the term ‘taxi’ to the traditional metered model, and the impact that such a decision will have on this section of the transportation industry. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 May 15

ATO Settlements, Part of the restructure?

 As mentioned in a previous article the Commissioner of Taxation announced major changes to the ATO which include a new focus on early resolution of disputes through settlement as an alternative to stressful litigation.

I have recently been involved in a number of significant settlements with the ATO – all of which achieved great outcomes for my clients and reduced their tax bills enormously. Further, the outcomes have avoided the need for us to take the ATO to court which would have been stressful and time consuming for my clients, even if we won.

I enjoy settling my clients’ tax disputes with the ATO without litigation, as it provides far greater certainty, less cost and is an overall better process.

But one issue that definitely needs to be addressed as part of this new process is the interaction between debt recovery and taxation disputes.

Most people do not realize that the ATO treats the resolution of taxation disputes in a completely different department from debt collection and that the processes are entirely unrelated.

The ATO has not yet worked out that to a taxpayer, knowing whether they can afford the repayment of tax debts is of far more importance to the total amount of the debt. Taxpayers, or at least those who are not fabulously wealthy, need time to pay large debts, and without the imposition of high interest rates.

Taxpayers will have no choice but to fight the assessment of unfair tax if the immediate payment of even a reduced tax bill will cripple them financially anyway.

It is critical to the success of the settlement process that the ATO negotiator be authorized to settle the payment terms of any compromise tax position. This is just common sense and hopefully the ATO will see it. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 24 March 15

Reinventing the ATO

The Commissioner of Taxation, Mr Chris Jordan, announced today at the Tax Institute National Convention, that he wishes to reinvent the ATO. Before you roll your eyes and pass this off as a publicity gimmick, take a look at what he has said.

In his words:

"We’re looking to reinvent the ATO, to transform how we go about our cure business, and make the ATO a contemporary and service-oriented organization – to be a leading agency, relevant and response to the expectations of the community and the government.”

Although this sounds like fairly bland, bureaucrat-ese, I have been given the opportunity of some insider perspective through my interactions with the ATO at recent round-table consultations, which has led me to believe that there is a genuine attempt to change the culture, at least at the higher levels of the ATO. Whether (and when) this filters to the level of ATO officers that most commonly deals with my SME and affluent family group clients remains to be seen.

 

The Commissioner, however, must be applauded for these mooted changes, and if it comes off, text books about organizational cultural change will be written on this for years to come.

 

"Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."
— Peter Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century 

 

In the meantime, however, the most we can safely say is that there has at least been a recognition that the culture at the moment is perceived as:

• Hierarchical
• Siloed
• Bureaucratic
• Risk adverse

Sound familiar? Anyone who has had any interaction with the ATO over the last fifteen years will be nodding in agreement. That the ATO has recognized this is, by itself, a fantastic step in the right direction.

One practical issue that the ATO seems to be firmly embracing is the need for a better settlement process. In the past the ATO has allowed positions to become entrenched resulting in costly and stressful litigation. As our experience shows, the ATO has often got it wrong in the past and we have taken them to court on behalf of our clients on many occasions to prove it.

 

While beating the ATO in court is satisfying at one level, I personally prefer getting practical and worthwhile outcomes for my clients through early settlement. Fortunately the ATO now appears to be recognizing the value in this and has embraced early settlement – at least in principle. I have been involved in many recent settlements with the ATO (one recent one went until 11.00pm at night) and have achieved fantastic results for my clients, without the need to go to Court. Perhaps the ATO is capable of the change it so obviously needs within its cultural mindset, only time will tell but I certainly hope this proposed change in the ATO is genuine and that we can look forward to a lot more early settlements.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 20 March 15

Section 264 notices

I have blogged previously about the ATO’s powers to force taxpayers to hand over documents and give evidence*. Recently I have applied the very narrow limitations imposed by the ANZ case in a number of s264 notices.

 

The powers of the ATO to issue these notices are very wide, but the ATO must get the wording of the notices right.  If the notice is vague, or uncertain, or in the words of the Full Federal Court if the notice “leaves too much of its meaning and application to be worked out by [the recipient]” then the notice will be invalid.
 
Objecting to a s264 notice on these grounds is not a final remedy.  The ATO can always re-issue a notice, even assuming that they agree with your argument that the notice is too unclear.  Furthermore, you must have very strong grounds because if you are wrong the ATO has the option to prosecute you for failing to comply.  Multiple offences can lead to imprisonment.
 
The broader issue is one of a recurring nature. The government has handed the ATO with an extremely large stick for investigating taxpayers, and for that matter, their advisers and service providers such as banks. The ATO can, and often does, use s264 notices for fishing expeditions. They are specifically allowed to do so. Because of their virtually unfettered power, in some cases the ATO officers are sloppy and lazy when drafting s264 notices.  The ANZ case makes it clear that because of the seriousness of the consequences of failing to comply with a s264 notice (ie jail time) the ATO must make the notices clear.  If the recipient has to guess at the ATO’s meaning, this is not good enough.
 
This is particularly so where the ATO is asking information of an accountant or lawyer with respect to their clients. If the adviser has to guess at the meaning of the s264, and guesses wrong (i.e. gives more information than the notice intended to the client’s detriment), it is likely the client would have a claim against the adviser for breach of express or implied duties of confidentiality.
 
If you receive a s264 notice and you are concerned as to its meaning and your duty to respond to it, please feel free to get in contact with me to discuss it.

* under section 264 of the Income Tax Assessment 1936 and section 353-10 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 22 March 13

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Author: David Hughes

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