Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “July, 2019”

Hoisted with their own petard

The good old days

In Tudor times it was traditional for condemned gentlemen to pay their own executioner. The equivalent in my world is the statutory requirement to report any of a series of positions taken in a tax return that the tax authorities do not agree with. The tax inspector no longer needs the deductive powers of a gumshoe – he or she can just sit in the comfort of their torture chamber picking their victims off one by one. The good news is that you need to be making quite a packet from your planning to be forced to the block – 5 million shekels in the current year or 10 million shekels over 4 years. The bad news is that there are 57 varieties (or positions) to choose from.

Although the list came out in December last year, the form for reporting – which is just really an index of the December headings, and could have been put together in half one of the many hours saved investigating – finally hit the presses earlier this month, just in time for some to miss the filing date of their  tax returns. What is most interesting is that most of the ‘positions’ could better be described as the ‘law’. The tax authorities seem to have taken a leaf out of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement‘s book: ‘Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?’ Like someone is going to announce they have been evading tax.

Some parents live in obscure faraway lands

However, one that caught my eye concerned the profit to be reported on the sale of trust assets. The pronouncement by the authorities (already back in 2017) was not controversial – the sale of an asset that had started life outside the Israeli tax net was subject to capital gains tax on the full gain – painful, but common international practice (and the clear law). The explanatory notes, however, included an exception relating to ‘Relatives Trusts’.  When the legislature took its last swing of the axe at trust tax planning in 2013 making everything taxable, there was one small sweetener. While distributions to Israeli beneficiaries would face a tax bill, Ma and Pa who had set up trusts in the obscure faraway lands where they still lived, would – together with their trustees – be largely let off the hook from reporting in years when distributions were not made (unless they chose otherwise). The explanatory notes spread the bonhomie further by making clear that relatives trusts set up before 2003 would get a step-up in value for capital gains tax purposes to January 1 of that year. The explantory notes were cross-referenced to the tax authority’s notes on the trust law. The only problem was, they didn’t fit. Where did 2003 come from? In fact, what the blazes did 2003 have to do with trusts at all – It was the one area actively ignored in the great tax reform of that year. The explanatory notes were silent.

They could always try and take it with them

But, if we are already talking about relatives trusts, there is sadly no happy ending. The authorities were nice to Ma and Pa. They even decided not to mess things up until not one, but both, of them were safely tucked up in their faraway graves. Then the fun would start. A relatives trust would become an Israeli resident trust – facing full taxation even of the bits heading to foreign siblings. While there were regulations offering solutions (potentially painful) for trusts to carve out foreign beneficiaries’ income from the Israeli tax system, the wording didn’t comfortably include relatives trusts which started life as something statutorily amorphous.

So, as with so much in Israeli tax law, assessees grieving their parents now find themselves at the mercy of the tax authority. In fairness, the authorities do their best to produce a sharp result from blunt legislation. But it can take a lot longer than a Tudor treason trial.

Relatives trusts need tender loving care if their beneficiaries are to avoid the ignominy of the scaffold.

An actor walks into a Bar

Not all Penguin books made it to court

At Penguin Books’ 1960 obscenity trial in the matter of DH Lawrence’s steamy novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, the prosecuting counsel famously asked the jury of randomly picked men and women, ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ The jury found in favor of the publishers, and both the judge and prosecuting counsel were laughed out of court, as out of touch with the modern world.

The appeal filed last week by supermodel Bar Refaeli’s lawyers against a decision of an Israeli District Court to side with the tax authorities in her disputed claim of  non-Israeli tax residence, appeared to suggest that the judge had also not learnt to move with the times. It argued that, had Refaeli been married to American actor Leonardo DiCaprio, rather than simply living with him in the U.S., there would have been no question that her center of life, and hence tax residence, was outside Israel. His Honor’s failure to recognize her ability to maintain her Israeli connections – while not her residence – in a world of social media, cheap telecommunications and affordable air travel was also seen as archaic.

However, as opposed to the Penguin prosecutor, who really did seem to have fallen out of the Downton Abbey woodwork, the judge was receiving some pretty unfair press here.

Hardly the first actor to walk around in a hat

When he was trying to get to the bottom of the couple’s relationship, the judge heard quite a bit of bizarre stuff from witnesses including Refaeli’s mother and a bosom-friend actress, whose embarrassing incoherence on the obscure subject of DiCaprio’s ubiquitous hat, as well as his lack of intimate communication with the supermodel’s friends, left me wondering whether actors are programmed never to come up with their own lines. (This, of course, was not a problem for Refaeli, who – thanks to the way she is programmed – doesn’t need to communicate verbally at all).

The issue that really needs to be examined is whether superstars should be treated like the rest of us at all when it comes to taxes.

Once upon a time, it was the aristocracy that filled the ranks of superstardom. Monarchs, who until not so long ago were considered to rule by Divine right, have not traditionally paid taxes. The Queen (there are many queens, but only one Queen) has paid some tax VOLUNTARILY since the early nineties, but she could change her mind if the housekeeping bill got out of control. Here in Israel, with a wink to the British Mandate, the president is exempt from tax on his presidential income.

Back in 1923, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway wondered excitedly– along with everyone else in sight – whether the mysterious occupant of a blacked-out limousine was the Prince of Wales, Britain’s future king. Faced with a similar scene in 1999, the Mrs. Dalloway of Michael Cunningham’s tribute novel, ‘The Hours’, hoped it might be Meryl Streep.

Divinity has passed to the superstars. Their irregular conjugal behavior – which the judge found hard to comprehend – is perhaps because they are extra-terrestrial beings, flitting from country to country and not bound by the rules of us mere mortals.

Even the OECD’s  model convention on double taxation singles out sportsmen and entertainers as the only professions with a specific article (17) to deal with their out-of-the-ordinary  international tax issues.

A sensible solution, based in part on Article 17, might be to only tax these gods and godesses in the countries where they work – one day here, one day there etc., without assigning them a tax residence. The downside would be that – thanks to those in my profession – before long, all movies would be made, and sports events held, in countries where there was no income tax.

Where shall we do this scene?

The movies could get over the obvious problem of ‘location, location, location’ with the latest CGI technology. But what about sports? Have you ever thought about zero income tax Qatar for the 2022 Football World Cup?  Not a blade of grass or pint of beer in sight. But, there will be. In abundance.

In the absence of  a foolproof alternative, it is probably wise to treat them like the rest of us. I believe that is what the judge was trying to do.

 

English as a very foreign language

losing-4040744__340

One word would have been a start.

Several years ago, I returned from a quick trip to Paris on El Al Business Class. As everybody knows, El Al’s security measures are peerless, but just before the gate at Orly airport, the French insisted on putting us all through a second metal detector. I buzzed. Now, I am a big believer that there can’t be too much security, and would normally have been happily compliant as they played hide and seek with my belt and shoe heels (this was before shoe heels were a real security item). But this was France. And this was a security officer pulling on white gloves. And he was French. He barked at me in his Gallic tongue, and – despite five wasted years at school doing my bit for the Entente Cordiale – I just looked at him like a gentleman would look at a barking puppy. He barked again – and that was it; I flipped:

‘Speak to me in English! There is only one international language today, and you will speak to me in it!’

He barked again, this time signaling I should turn around. Not likely with those damned white gloves, Pierre!

I then did something rather disingenuous for the first and only time in my life:

‘I am an Israeli. I speak English. Why don’t you?’

At this point, the El Al security officer who had interviewed me earlier, and had suffered my heavily accented Hebrew, together with her two colleagues who were standing nearby, actually burst out laughing.  Suffice to say, not wishing to spend the weekend in the Bastille, I did ultimately comply. I have no idea why he wore the white gloves – he went nowhere near my Maginot Line.

What made me raise this now in a tax blog? A few weeks ago, the OECD uploaded the latest version of Israel’s Transfer Pricing Country Profile. The document involves, in the main, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers with a space for the reference in statute law. So far, so good. But, here and there, a few short sentences are necessary. Aye, and there’s the rub.

lets_eat_grandmaHardly any of it was in grammatical English. I had difficulty even understanding some of the sentences.

This is a disgrace, and I don’t think it is restricted to Israel.

One of the principal reasons the OECD has been able to advance its BEPS international tax agenda so efficiently is that the world has learnt to communicate in a common language. This is not about triumph or ego. It is about efficiency.

And, of course, the advantages go far, far beyond tax. There really is no reason today why the sine qua non for any function in the international sphere should not be relative fluency in English. The only exception would be a prime minister or president who is elected by the people (mind you, the current president of France seems to have a better command of English than the current president of the United States.)

pillory-51540_960_720

My fecund imagination is starting to run away with itself

And, as for the written word, if I were the OECD, I would put red ink all over the Israeli (and any other unacceptable) entry and send it back marked; ‘Not good enough. Try again’. That is how we learnt English in school.  The stick also helped – but I wouldn’t put that in the hands of any organization based in Paris.

The long and winding road

They even had a fab song called ‘Taxman’.

Given the plot of the recently released movie ‘Yesterday’, it is ironic that I can’t get the Beatles out of my mind. A ruling published by the Israeli tax authority around the time the latest blockbuster hit the screens sent me on my own magical mystery tour.

What, I hear you ask, could tax have to do with ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’, or anything anybody ever associates with ‘interesting’? Hold onto your seats.

The ruling was basic to the point of bland – in other words, the sort of thing you knew all along, you wondered why it was published, and you self-flagellated for wasting the time reading it twice to try and find the catch.

An Israeli resident individual set up a foreign company in 2000 which held all of the shares of an Israeli company. He now requested a tax-free transfer of the Israeli company from under the foreign company to a new Israeli company fully owned by him. There is a provision in the law that allows such transfer, subject to a request to the tax commissioner and a myriad conditions to ensure the Israeli tax authority is not deprived of tax. Big deal (Google translate: no big deal).

The dividends boomeranged back to Israel

Then, all of a sudden, it hit me between the ears. The big deal was in what was not written. There was no mention of the tax saving on the ‘circular’ dividend. Until the reorganization, dividends paid by the Israeli company to the foreign company would have been liable to withholding tax.  Leaving aside any foreign tax, when the foreign company distributed dividends to the Israeli resident individual – according to statute law – he would have been liable to tax on receipt of the dividend without credit for the tax previously withheld to the foreign company. The reorganization meant that, going forward, he would receive dividends direct from the new  Israeli company, tax being paid once on the dividend (no tax would apply on the  dividend between the old  Israeli company and the new one according to Israeli law).

The fact that the tax authority did not even mention it as a back-patting gesture signaled that – in keeping with a long tradition, and despite the deficiencies of the law – they appear to take it for granted that a ‘circular’ dividend should not be liable to double tax, giving a credit to the individual receiving a dividend from the foreign company for the tax withheld originally by the Israeli company.

The history of this is quite remarkable.

Since the beginning of time – 1 YTO (Year of our Tax Ordinance), corresponding to 1961 CE – there has been a clause (s163) that solved the problem of double taxation on ‘circular’ dividends in the manner described above. The only problem is that it deals with a tax that, since 32YTO, no longer exists. For reasons possibly best known to somebody, it was never knocked out of the Ordinance. Indeed, at the time of the Great Reforming Flood in 43 YTO (2003 CE), when so much was destroyed and replaced, I discussed the matter with a senior tax official who couldn’t explain its survival.

Arks were a bit passe by the third millennium

Meanwhile, in 42YTO (2002CE), when the rising water of the reform was already at the door and Israelis investing abroad were praying for salvation, the tax authority surprisingly issued a non-legally binding  circular dealing with foreign tax credits under the soon to be drowned system (they even stated clearly that another circular would be issued dealing with the postdiluvian  situation). That circular included a reference to s163 implying, in circular fashion, that credit on a circular dividend could be claimed. There was no reference to the fact that s163 clearly no longer applied. Somebody was sleeping in the biblical Land of Nod. Interestingly, when the new circular was finally issued in 44 YTO, there was no mention of s163. We were back on dry land.

As the years passed, the tax authority was known to give private rulings solving the double dividend tax on the basis that it just wasn’t fair in a two-tier system (corporate tax plus tax on dividend) to hit people with a triple-tax. But, as advisors we were always reticent – one never knew when the spring would go in a tax official’s head.

Then, in 54 YTO (corresponding to 2014 CE) a case concerning a sister provision in s163 came before the courts in the form of an appeal against the tax authority’s decision. The judge threw the appellant out on his ear – and that was what was widely reported at the time. But,  there was incredibly important ‘obiter’ in the case. Part of the appellant’s argument had been that the tax authority should be consistent in allowing a credit according to the  semi-relevant circular mentioned above from before the Flood. His honour made a few things clear. Firstly, despite the language of the law clearly not applying any longer, the intention of the original law was to avoid triple-tax in a two-tier tax system. Hence, interpreting the current law widely in that vein, was appropriate. Furthermore, even if the authorities were working ‘beyond the letter of the law’ in their circular it would only apply where there was triple tax – which was not the case before the court.

Unpredictable

So, where does that leave the matter? The tax authorities appear consistent in their approach, and there is obiter in a District Court case. But, that does not mean that the situation is closed  hermetically. There could always be an official  who wakes up one morning and conveniently forgets ‘Yesterday’. So, it appears that anybody contemplating circular dividends still needs to work it out with a little help from their friend the professional tax advisor. The advisor, hopefully, won’t let them down.

Post Navigation