Several years ago I wrote a newspaper article about a fresh addition to the Israeli Income Tax Ordinance that included four subparagraphs. Or, at least, there should have been four subparagraphs. The fact that there were only three made the whole thing toothless. My tongue-in-cheek piece suggested a scenario where the Knesset Finance Committee was working late into the night, and the person with the most tax knowledge received a phone call that they had to relieve the babysitter – so they all went home. Joke – right? The following day I received a call from a senior tax official asking me how I knew. You couldn’t make it up.
The drafting of tax legislation in this country is often notoriously slapdash. But, that doesn’t explain all the problems with tax statute. For a start, there is the pain of keeping up with changing business environments – just look at the mess the international tax system is in over taxation of the digital economy. And then there is accounting. Corporate taxation is based on accounting profits. Once upon a time, thanks to the ancient simple art of double entry bookkeeping, the profit and loss account was a fairly close reflection of the dollars and cents performance of a company give or take capital expenditure, debts, liabilities, inventory, and the odd accrual . A few additions and deductions and the taxman could take his toll. An explosion of accounting standards plus that thing they call IFRS led, in recent years, to more adjustments to the accounting profit than fairy lights on a Christmas tree – but as long as tax departments kept their heads, it could be handled. Almost.
For reasons best known to the British Mandatory Authorities that planted the seeds of our tax law, dividends – while mentioned freely throughout the Ordinance – are not defined for tax purposes. The upshot is that they go according to company law and are ultimately calculated in line with the latest whim of the accounting wonks in their ivory towers. That means that a company can distribute either more or less than its taxed profits. It’s the ‘more’ that bothers us here – or more precisely the parties to a court appeal that was heard this month.
Israel adheres broadly to the classical system of taxation – corporate profits are taxed twice, first at the company level, and then in the hands of the individual on dividend. In order to avoid taxation mushrooming to three, four or heaven knows how many times, if there are several layers of companies passing dividends up the chain, Israel generally exempts intercompany dividends on which Israeli corporation tax has been paid. The second level of tax waits for distribution to the individuals right at the top.
That last paragraph probably sounds logical to anyone reading this – but it demanded a 39 page, beautifully reasoned ruling by the judge to put it to bed. The appellant company had received accounting profits from a subsidiary manufactured from the revaluation of certain real estate on which tax had, correctly, not been paid as the real estate had not been sold. The tax authorities and a judge had already told the appellant that the intercompany exemption didn’t apply. The company decided to try its luck on an appeal using a combination of sophistry (the wording – but not the intention – of the law was, indeed, pitiful), a real concern for future double taxation (the subsidiary would be liable to tax on sale of the real estate even though tax was being paid now by its parent), and a childlike plea that, if all else failed, could the nice judge please treat the whole thing as a nightmare and pretend the dividend didn’t happen.
The judge wasn’t having any of it. He countered their sophistry with his own, and treated the request to reverse the transaction like a parent explaining to a 6 year old that Santa doesn’t really exist. That was all reasonable and fine – but, it was the double tax issue that restored my faith in a system that so often seems broken.
The judge analyzed the concept of avoiding double taxation in Israeli law. He noted that, while the double taxation issue is an important principle underpinning the law, there are situations where double tax applies – predominantly where there is a change of ownership in-between certain transactions. Had the appellant sold the shares to a third party, its representatives would not have been in court arguing that – because the subsidiary company would have to pay tax again in the future on sale of the real estate (the value of the shares sold now would already have taken into account the increased value once), it should be relieved from the resulting double tax.
So, armed with that logic, the judge rejected the appeal and insisted that tax was payable on receipt of the dividend. However, he literally ‘commanded’ the tax authorities to relieve any subsequent sale of the property from double tax, as long as there was no change of ownership in the meantime. That produced a result in parallel with normative Israeli law, as opposed to a narrow, literal interpretation that could have caused unnecessary hardship.
All too often, tax rulings rely on logic as much as a fish relies on a bicycle. Not this time.
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all those celebrating.