SO WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF TRUSTS?

One of the questions that we are most confronted with by our clients is what the future of trusts are in South Africa.  Some questions even point to the misconception that the trust instrument itself as legal form is on the verge of being scrapped in South Africa altogether!

The current debate raging is not at all that dramatic, although the consequences for taxpayers potentially may be.  The “crystal ball” gazing exercise which we are so often requested to undertake stems from repeated warnings (some less subtle than other) by the Minister of Finance that the use of trusts as a tool to minimise tax exposure, be it in the form of income tax or estate duty, is being revisited by National Treasury to try and find a solution to the perceived abuse thereof.  As recently as in the 2016 budget, the following statement is made:

“Some taxpayers use trusts to avoid paying estate duty and donations tax. For example, if the founder of a trust sells his or her assets to the trust, and grants the trust an interest-free loan as payment, donations tax is not triggered and the assets are not included in his or her estate at death. To limit taxpayers’ ability to transfer wealth without being taxed, government proposes to ensure that the assets transferred through a loan to a trust are included in the estate of the founder at death, and to categorise interest-free loans to trusts as donations. Further measures to limit the use of discretionary trusts for income-splitting and other tax benefits will also be considered.”

This alludes both to how trusts are commonly used to minimise tax obligations, as well as how Treasury intends to (what could be considered a more focused) approach to trusts in future, while also hinting at what may be expected going forward.

As a first comment, trusts are popular estate duty planning instruments.  Without going into too much detail, typically an individual will sell his/her assets to a trust on interest free loan account.  In the coming years, the value of the assets will increase in the trust, while the value of the loan account will remain the same in the hands of the individual.

Secondly, trusts are potentially useful for income tax planning purposes as they allow for income to be distributed to individuals that are subject to tax at rates more beneficial than that of the trust (which involves ‘income-splitting’ referred to by Treasury above).  Typically these distributions often contains a fictitious element through distributions made on interest free loan account only (with no real intention that such distributions should vest in the beneficiaries).

It would appear as though Treasury is no longer considering an ‘out-and-out’ onslaught on the taxation of trusts (although this is only speculation).  However, the recent budget perhaps betrays what may be expected and that anti-avoidance legislation is to be introduced that will focus only on abusive practices involving trusts.  For both estate duty and income tax structures involving trusts, it is not farfetched to expect to see provisions introduced into tax legislation which will ensure that loan accounts with trusts all bear interest.  The significance of this?  Interest receipts are subject to income tax.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice.  Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

A NEW TWIST IN THE QUESTION: IS THE BUYER OF AN IMMOVABLE PROPERTY RESPONSIBLE FOR PAYING THE SELLER’S OUTSTANDING MUNICIPAL ACCOUNT?

Municipalities are required to issue rates clearance certificates without which a property cannot be transferred from a seller to a buyer. The rates clearance certificate certifies that outstanding debts owing to a municipality up to the date of transfer have been settled.

Property buyers relied on these certificates as proof that all previous debt on the property have been fully settled and that transfer of the property to the buyer could proceed.

However, in some cases rates clearance certificates are issued while all charges for the period before the transfer date of a property to a new owner are not yet allocated to the municipal accounts of the previous owners. The question then is: can the new owner of the property be held liable for these historic debts incurred before it became owner of the property?

The first court case

In a court case between a municipality and a ratepayer in May 2013, the judgement made by the court was incorrectly interpreted by municipalities. Based on their interpretation, municipalities held new property owners liable for municipal debt incurred by previous owners and refused to issue rates clearance certificates until all such debt were paid.

In addition, municipal services to a property would be cut off and municipalities would refuse to reconnect such services until all debt were fully settled. Buyers who wanted to take transfer of the property had no choice but to settle debt for services not consumed by themselves.

The second court case

A subsequent court case issued judgement on 8 September 2014, stating that the municipalities’ interpretation of the previous judgement was wrong. The following principles were laid down:

  • A municipality’s right to payment, although attached to a specific property, ended when a property was transferred to a new owner. Outstanding municipal debts up to date of transfer had to be recovered from the seller.
  • Payment of debt for services consumed by a previous owner remained the responsibility of that owner. The buyer of a property is not liable for debt incurred for services consumed prior to the transfer of the property.

What happened next?

The second judgement referred to above was the subject of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality v PJ Mitchell (38/2015) [2016] ZASCA 1). The appeal was successful, with obvious serious consequences for property owners.

As a result of the successful appeal, new home owners can in law be liable for municipal debts of their predecessors in title. Consequently, it would now be up to property owners themselves to recover these amounts from previous owners, and no longer the duty of the municipality seeking to recover its debts to do so. The obligation for ensuring that no outstanding municipal debts exist upon transfer has therefore now shifted definitively to property buyers, and away from municipalities in issuing rates clearance certificates (which is different from the position prior to the successful appeal a few months ago).

This is an arduous task, and one which property buyers should take very seriously when purchasing a property to ensure that no unpleasant surprises materialise in the months (or even years) following the transfer of the property in the deeds office to their name.

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Accessed on 21 April 2016:

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice.  Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

WHY SARS REQUESTS SUPPORTING DOCUMENTS

A4_bMost taxpayers know that sinking feeling when SARS requests supporting documents from them. Which supporting documents must I submit? Am I being audited? Did I make a mistake on my income tax return? Will SARS send me to jail?

Why did SARS choose me?

SARS remains secretive about the way they go about selecting tax returns for verification and auditing. Nobody is exactly sure how SARS determines from which taxpayers they will request supporting documents. SARS has only disclosed that they make use of automated systems which randomly selects tax returns for review and/or determines a risk score for taxpayers based on their tax compliance history and third party data that may be in SARS’s possession.

Am I being audited?

A request for supporting documents does not necessarily mean a taxpayer did something wrong and is being audited by SARS. When SARS requests supporting documentation, they usually do a verification of the taxpayer’s income tax return to confirm that the submitted return agrees with the supporting documents. After the verification process is complete, SARS may decide to do a tax audit. The verification process and an audit are two different processes.

Being selected for an audit does not mean that the taxpayer broke any tax laws. SARS will select taxpayers who have not contravened any tax laws but whose behaviour indicates that the taxpayer might perhaps have transgressed one or more tax laws.

Which tax deductions may trigger requests for supporting documents by SARS?

SARS tends to request supporting documents in certain areas where claimable tax deductions can easily be inflated.

  • Repairs and maintenance claimed against rental income

Where a taxpayer claims repairs and maintenance expenses against rental income, SARS may request supporting documents. SARS can go as far as doing site inspections at the rental property to confirm that the repair and maintenance work has indeed been done on the rental property and not on the house of the owner of the rental property.

  • Claim for home office expenses

SARS wants proof of expense items claimed, for example municipal accounts, cleaning expenses and insurance. To be able to deduct home office expenses, the home office and office equipment must be used exclusively for business purposes. SARS has been known to do site inspections to confirm the exclusive use of a home office for business activities.

  • Deductions against fringe benefits like travel allowances and company cars

In order for SARS to allow the travel deduction, the taxpayer must submit a travel logbook showing kilometres travelled for business purposes.

  • Claim for medical expenses

SARS is looking for proof of payment of qualifying medical expenses paid out of the taxpayer’s own pocket during the year of assessment under scrutiny. A medical invoice must be submitted together with some kind of proof of payment in order for SARS to allow the deduction.

What happens if I do not submit supporting documents when SARS requests them?

If a taxpayer cannot submit the relevant documents, SARS will not be able to verify claims on the taxpayer’s tax return and the deductions will not be allowed.

When might SARS decide to audit me?

Some of the reasons why SARS might decide to audit a taxpayer’s tax affairs are:

  • The taxpayer’s behaviour in the past regarding his/her tax affairs.
  • The complexity of a taxpayer’s tax affairs.
  • SARS found material inconsistencies or irregularities while verifying a tax return against supporting documents.

An audit is a more in-depth process than verification and involves an evaluation (as opposed to verification as in the case of a request for supporting documents) of the information that was submitted in a tax return.

Providing SARS with supporting documents when requested to do so places an additional administrative burden on the taxpayer. However, requests by SARS for supporting documents also protect the honest taxpayer by ensuring that more taxpayers pay their dues.

Reference List:

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)