Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

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.

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