Decision impact statement
Burton v Commissioner of Taxation
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 FCAFC 141
2019 ATC 20-709
Venue: Federal Court of Australia
Venue Reference No: WAD 600 of 2018 (Full Federal Court)
P44 of 2019 (High Court - special leave application)
Judge Name: Full Federal Court - Justices Logan, Steward and Jackson
Judgment date: Full Federal Court - 22 August 2019
High Court - refusal of special leave - 13 February 2020
Appeals on foot: No
Decision Outcome: Favourable to the Commissioner
Impacted AdviceRelevant Rulings/Determinations:
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This Decision impact statement outlines the ATO's response to this case which concerns entitlement to foreign income tax offsets (FITOs) under subsection 770-10(1) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 where an Australian resident pays tax in the United States of America (US) on a capital gain that is only partly assessable in Australia.
Brief summary of facts
The taxpayer was an Australian resident for income tax purposes. As the beneficiary of a trust estate, section 115-215 treated him as a taxpayer who had derived capital gains and those gains were eligible for discount.
The taxpayer paid the income tax assessed by the US on the whole of those gains, but at a discounted rate compared to that payable on ordinary income subject to US income tax.
Pursuant to the ITAA 1997, only part of the US capital gains was included in his Australian assessable income. This was because in one of the relevant years of income he had unrecouped capital losses which, pursuant to the method statement contained in subsection 102-5(1), reduced his assessable capital gain by the amount of those losses. His US capital gains were also further reduced, pursuant to that subsection, by the 50% discount applicable to capital gains resulting from the disposal of assets held for more than 12 months.
The taxpayer claimed FITOs in his Australian tax returns in respect of the US-sourced gains that were equal to the whole of the assessed US income tax that he had paid. The Commissioner issued amended income tax assessments to the taxpayer that reduced those FITOs to amounts equal to the US income tax paid in respect of the amount of the gains which were included in the taxpayer's assessable income in Australia. This is consistent with the Commissioner's view as expressed in ATO Interpretative Decision ATO ID 2010/175 Foreign income tax offset: entitlement where foreign capital gain is only partly assessable in Australia.
The taxpayer's objections to these amended assessments were disallowed. An appeal to the Federal Court (McKerracher J) against that decision was dismissed. A further appeal to the Full Federal Court (Logan, Steward and Jackson JJ) was also dismissed (by a majority - Logan J dissenting). A subsequent application to the High Court of Australia for special leave to appeal the Full Federal Court's decision was refused.
Issues decided by the Court
Per Steward, Jackson J agreeing, Logan J dissenting - the reference in Article 22(2) of the tax treaty between the Australia and the US to 'the income' (that is, in respect of which Australian tax was payable by an Australian resident on income derived from sources in the US') should be read as a concept independent of, but not divorced from, the domestic income tax regimes of each sovereign power. There was no reason to read that expression, as contended by the taxpayer, as referring to one indivisible gain that was the subject matter against which the competing States sought to impose tax. Because the purpose of Article 22(2) was the allowance by Australia of a credit against tax payable, the starting point was the identification of what Australia taxed. Due to the operation of subsection 102-5(1), Australia did not tax all of the gain; it taxed 50% of it (or less if capital losses were offset). That was 'the income' for the purposes of Article 22(2), in respect of which Australian tax was payable. For that reason only half (or less if capital losses were offset) of the US tax paid could be said to be in respect of income taxed in Australia
Per the whole Court - the reference in subsection 770-10(1) to foreign tax paid 'in respect of ... an amount included in your assessable income' was a reference only to the proportion of the foreign tax paid on the net capital gain that was included in assessable income, as determined by subsection 102-5(1).
Per Steward, Jackson J agreeing, Logan J dissenting - even if the Court were to accept the taxpayer's interpretation of Article 22(2), but not his interpretation of subsection 770-10(1), Article 22(2) did not, of its own force, oblige the Commissioner to allow a credit but instead only imposed an obligation on the Commonwealth of Australia as a sovereign state to enact suitable legislation to give effect to the Article. In addition, there was no legislative mechanism, despite the existence of sections 4, 5, and 16 of the International Tax Agreements Act 1953 and section 4-10 of the ITAA 1997, by which such a credit could be allowed.
ATO view of decision
The decision of the majority of the Full Federal Court reflects the Commissioner's view of the law and has no impact for the ATO.
The Court's interpretation of subsection 770-10(1) confirms the correctness of the Commissioner's view expressed in ATO ID 2010/175 - that is, that where a resident of Australia pays foreign income tax on the whole of a foreign capital gain which is only partly assessable in Australia, only a proportionate share of the foreign income tax counts towards the foreign income tax offset under subsection 770-10(1).
It also reflects the Commissioner's view that subsection 770-10(1) is not inconsistent with Article 22(2) of the Treaty and that in any event Article 22(2) does not directly, of its own force, create an entitlement for a taxpayer to a credit for foreign income tax paid.
Implications for impacted advice or guidance
The decision confirms the correctness of the Commissioner's view expressed in ATO ID 2010/175.
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All legislative references in this Decision impact statement are to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 unless otherwise indicated.
Convention between the Government of Australia and the Government of the United States of America for the Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion with respect to Taxes on Income 1983 ATS 16 (the Treaty).