|Late last month, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) released a package of new guidance material that directly targets how trusts distribute income. Many family groups will pay higher taxes (now and potentially retrospectively) as a result of the ATO’s more aggressive approach.
Family trust beneficiaries at risk
The tax legislation contains an integrity rule, section 100A, which is aimed at situations where income of a trust is appointed in favour of a beneficiary but the economic benefit of the distribution is provided to another individual or entity. If trust distributions are caught by section 100A, then this generally results in the trustee being taxed at penalty rates rather than the beneficiary being taxed at their own marginal tax rates.
The latest guidance suggests that the ATO will be looking to apply section 100A to some arrangements that are commonly used for tax planning purposes by family groups. The result is a much smaller boundary on what is acceptable to the ATO which means that some family trusts are at risk of higher tax liabilities and penalties.
ATO redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable
There are some important exceptions to section 100A, including where income is appointed to minor beneficiaries and where the arrangement is part of an ordinary family or commercial dealing. Much of the ATO’s recent guidance focuses on whether arrangements form part of an ordinary family or commercial dealing. The ATO notes that this exclusion won’t necessarily apply simply because arrangements are commonplace or they involve members of a family group. For example, the ATO suggests that section 100A could apply to some situations where a child gifts money that is attributable to a family trust distribution to their parents.
Who is likely to be impacted?
The ATO’s updated guidance focuses primarily on distributions made to adult children, corporate beneficiaries, and entities with losses. Depending on how arrangements are structured, there is potentially a significant level of risk. However, it is important to remember that section 100A is not confined to these situations.
Distributions to beneficiaries who are under a legal disability (e.g., children under 18) are excluded from these rules.
For those with discretionary trusts it is important to ensure that all trust distribution arrangements are reviewed in light of the ATO’s latest guidance to determine the level of risk associated with the arrangements. It is also vital to ensure that appropriate documentation is in place to demonstrate how funds relating to trust distributions are being used or applied for the benefit of beneficiaries.
Companies entitled to trust income
As part of the broader package of updated guidance targeting trusts and trust distributions, the ATO has also released a draft determination dealing specifically with unpaid distributions owed by trusts to corporate beneficiaries. If the amount owed by the trust is deemed to be a loan then it can potentially fall within the scope of another integrity provision in the tax law, Division 7A.
Division 7A captures situations where shareholders or their related parties access company profits in the form of loans, payments or forgiven debts. If certain steps are not taken, such as placing the loan under a complying loan agreement, these amounts can be treated as deemed unfranked dividends for tax purposes and taxable at the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate.
The ATO’s views on “sub-trust arrangements” has also been updated. Basically, the ATO is suggesting that sub-trust arrangements will no longer be effective in preventing an unpaid trust distribution from being treated as a loan for Division 7A purposes if the funds are used by the trust, shareholder of the company or any of their related parties.
The new guidance represents a significant departure from the ATO’s previous position in some ways. The upshot is that in some circumstances, the management of unpaid entitlements will need to change. But, unlike the guidance on section 100A, these changes will only apply to trust entitlements arising on or after 1 July 2022.