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New Guidance from the OECD on the Meaning of “Beneficial Owner” for Tax Treaty Purposes

Taxpayers and their advisors should be aware of a significant new development concerning the appropriate withholding tax rate on the payment of cross-border interest, royalties and dividends.

On October 19, 2012, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the “OECD”) released a revised discussion draft concerning the meaning of “beneficial owner” for the purposes of Articles 10, 11 and 12 of the OECD’s model tax convention (the “OECD Model”). The discussion draft builds on the OECD’s prior discussion draft (released on April 29, 2011), which received widespread international criticism for its ambiguity and lack of meaningful guidance on this fundamental issue of international taxation.

Background

Canada’s Income Tax Act (the “Act”) requires that a Canadian company withhold 25 percent of dividends, interest and royalties paid to non-residents and remit this amount to the Canada Revenue Agency (the “CRA”) on behalf of the non-resident. However, Canada has entered into numerous bilateral tax treaties with various countries that reduce or eliminate the withholding tax. To benefit from these reductions or eliminations of Canadian withholding tax, the treaties generally require (among other things) that the recipient qualify as the “beneficial owner” of the amount paid.

Canada’s tax treaties are generally based on the OECD Model, which, together with its commentaries, generally provide that a resident of a contracting state will be the beneficial owner of an amount received from a resident of the other contracting state so long as the recipient was not acting in its capacity as an agent, nominee, fiduciary or administrator on behalf of a person not resident in that state.

However, there is surprisingly little additional insight into the intended meaning or possible interpretations of this term. There is a growing body of Canadian and international jurisprudence on the issue, with the Canadian case of Prevost Car, Inc. v. The Queen (2009 D.T.C. 5053 (F.C.A.), aff’g 2008 D.T.C. 3080 (T.C.C.)) currently serving as the high-water mark.  Nevertheless, inconsistencies remain in the manner in which different states interpret and apply “beneficial owner” (see also the earlier article by FMC’s Matt Peters on Velcro v. The Queen (2012 TCC 57)) .

OECD Guidance

Instead of clarifying the issue, the OECD’s prior discussion draft was roundly criticised for adding further uncertainty to the meaning of “beneficial owner”. In the prior draft, the OECD emphasized the desire to introduce a meaning that could be universally accepted and applied by all countries.  In this respect, the prior draft focused on assessing the recipient’s ability to have the “full right to use and enjoy” dividend, interest or royalty income and stated that a recipient will not be the beneficial owner if its powers are constrained by a contractual or legal obligation to pass the payment received to another person.  Many commentators suggested that this approach was too broad and ambiguous and left taxpayers with little certainty when structuring their affairs.  Moreover, the exact role of a country’s domestic law meaning of “beneficial owner” was left somewhat open.

The new draft attempts to clarify the issue by (i) more strongly abandoning the relevancy of any particular state’s domestic law meaning of “beneficial owner”; and (ii) providing further guidance as to what is meant by the right to use and enjoy an amount unconstrained by contractual or legal obligations.  The revised draft reviews in some detail the comments received by the OECD on it’s prior draft and explains in more detail (and through examples) the rationale behind its approach.

Next Steps

This is a controversial issue and the approach adopted by the OECD in its revised discussion draft will undoubtedly stir debate in the international tax arena.  The OECD has indicated that it will be accepting comments on the revised draft before 15 December, 2012, suggesting that another revised draft will likely be released in 2013.  Tax practitioners and their clients will need to carefully consider the approach that contained in the OECD’s revised draft and assess whether it presents any risks in their particular circumstances.

* Special thanks to Christian Orton, Articling Student, for his valuable contributions to this article. 

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New Guidance from the OECD on the Meaning of “Beneficial Owner” for Tax Treaty Purposes

Federal Court of Appeal: Canada Cannot Tax Treaty Income Twice

It is trite law that one of the main purposes of tax treaties is to prevent double taxation of the same income. In Canada this principle has often been treated with a grain of salt since Canadian domestic rules do not bar double taxation and, in fact, the Canada Revenue Agency often resorts to double taxation where, for example, a shareholder appropriation is disallowed as a corporate expense while fully taxed in the shareholder’s hands.

The recent decision of the Federal Court of Appeal in The Queen v. Sommerer illustrates a refreshing approach to the concept of double taxation, at least in the context of Canada’s network of bilateral tax treaties based on the OECD Model Convention (and, to a lesser extent, the UN Model Convention).

Mr. Sommerer was at all material times a resident of Canada. He was a contingent beneficiary of an Austrian Privatstiftung (the “Sommerer Private Foundation”) created by his father in 1996. The Sommerer Private Foundation was at all material times a resident of Austria for the purposes of the Canada-Austria Tax Treaty. The facts that gave rise to the assessments under appeal are summarized by Sharlow JA as follows:

[30] On October 4, 1996, Peter Sommerer sold to the Sommerer Private Foundation 1,770,000 shares of Vienna Systems Corporation (the “Vienna shares”) for their fair market value of $1,177,050 (66.5¢ per share). The Sommerer Private Foundation paid $117,705 of the purchase price on the date of the agreement and was legally obliged to pay the remainder at a later date, with interest. The sale was unconditional. The cash portion of the purchase price was paid using part of the initial endowment from Herbert Sommerer (paragraphs 67 and 88 of Justice Miller’s reasons).

[31] In December of 1997, the Sommerer Private Foundation sold 216,666 of the Vienna shares for $4.50 per share to three individuals unrelated to the Sommerer family, realizing a capital gain. In December of 1998, the Sommerer Private Foundation sold the remaining Vienna shares to Nokia Corporation for $9.00 per share, realizing a further capital gain.

[32] In April of 1998, Peter Sommerer sold to the Sommerer Private Foundation, unconditionally, 57,143 shares of Cambrian Systems Corporation (the “Cambrian shares”) for $100,000 (approximately $1.75 per share). In December of 1998, the Sommerer Private Foundation sold the Cambrian shares to Northern Telecom Limited for $14.97 (US) per share, plus a further $4.12 (US) per share conditional on certain milestones being met in 1999. That sale resulted in another capital gain for the Sommerer Private Foundation.

CRA assessed Mr. Sommerer on the basis of subsection 75(2) of the Income Tax Act alleging that the proceeds from the sale of the shares by the Foundation could possibly revert to Mr. Sommerer. Both Justice Campbell Miller in the Tax Court of Canada and Justice Sharlow in the Court of Appeal rejected that interpretation holding that subsection 75(2) could not apply on a sale of property at fair market value.

Justice Sharlow did not stop there however. She went on to agree with Miller J. that the position advocated by CRA violated the Treaty’s fundamental principle of avoiding double taxation:

[66] The OECD model conventions, including the Canada-Austria Income Tax Convention, generally have two purposes – the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion. Article XIII (5) of the Canada-Austria Income Tax Convention speaks only to the avoidance of double taxation. “Double taxation” may mean either juridical double taxation (for example, imposing on a person Canadian and foreign tax on the same income) or economic double taxation (for example, imposing Canadian tax on a Canadian taxpayer for the attributed income of a foreign taxpayer, where the economic burden of foreign tax on that income is also borne indirectly by the Canadian taxpayer). By definition, an attribution rule may be expected to result only in economic double taxation.

[67] The Crown’s argument requires the interpretation of a specific income tax convention to be approached on the basis of a premise that excludes, from the outset, the notion that the convention is not intended to avoid economic double taxation. That approach was rejected by Justice Miller, correctly in my view. There is considerable merit in the opinion of Klaus Vogel, who says that the meaning of “double taxation” in a particular income tax convention is a matter that must be determined on the basis of an interpretation of that convention (Klaus Vogel on Double Taxation Conventions: A Commentary to the OECD –, UN –, and US Model Conventions for the Avoidance of Double Taxation on Income and Capital, 3rd ed. (The Hague: Kluweer Law International, 1997)).

[68] I see no error of law or principle in the conclusion of Justice Miller that Article XIII (5) applies to preclude Canada from taxing Peter Sommerer on the capital gains realized by the Sommerer Private Foundation.

Unless this case is reversed by the Supreme Court of Canada (at the date of this comment, no leave application has been filed), it is likely to be a very important precedent for tax practitioners plying their craft in the highly complex area of international tax treaties.

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Federal Court of Appeal: Canada Cannot Tax Treaty Income Twice

“Beneficial Owner” – CRA’s Assessment of Velcro Doesn’t Stick

The Tax Court has once again considered the meaning of the phrase “beneficial owner” for purposes of the tax treaty between Canada and the Netherlands (the “Treaty”).  It has also once again ruled in favour of the taxpayer in determining that a Dutch holding company was the “beneficial owner” of amounts received from a related Canadian company.

On February 24, 2012, the Tax Court of Canada released its eagerly-anticipated decision in Velcro Canada Inc. v. Her Majesty the Queen, which addresses the applicable Canadian withholding tax rate in respect of cross-border royalty payments within a multinational corporate group.  The decision comes almost four years after the Tax Court of Canada released its landmark decision in Prévost Car Inc. v. The Queen, which dealt with the identical treaty interpretational issue in the context of cross-border dividend payments.  The decision of the Tax Court was affirmed by the Federal Court of Appeal.

Both the Prévost Car Inc. and Velcro decisions are relevant to any multinational enterprise using a foreign holding company as an investment/financing vehicle and provide considerable comfort concerning the tax effectiveness of such structures.

The issue in Velcro was whether a Dutch holding company was the “beneficial owner” of royalties paid by a related Canadian company, and therefore entitled to a reduced rate of Canadian withholding tax under the Treaty in respect of the royalties.  Pursuant to the “beneficial owner test” described in Prévost Car Inc., this required that the Tax Court consider the following issues:

  • Did the Dutch holding company enjoy possession, use, risk and control of the amounts it received from the Canadian corporation?
  • Did the Dutch holding company act as a “conduit”, an agent or a nominee in respect of the amounts it received from the Canadian corporation?

The CRA’s position was that Dutchco was not the beneficial owner of the royalties generally because Dutchco was contractually required to remit a specific percentage of all amounts received from the Canadian corporation to its parent company located in the Netherlands-Antilles (which does not have a comprehensive tax treaty with Canada).  If the Canadian company had paid royalties directly to the Netherlands-Antilles company the royalty payments would have been subject to a 25% Canadian withholding tax.  In the CRA’s view, Dutchco was merely a collection agent for the Netherlands-Antilles company.

The Court rejected the CRA’s arguments and concluded that Dutcho was indeed the beneficial owner of the royalties.  The basis for the Court’s conclusion was that, even though Dutchco may have been contractually required to pay money onward to the Netherlands-Antilles company, it retained some discretion as to the use of the royalties while in its possession. Dutchco therefore possessed sufficient indicia of beneficial ownership while it held the royalties and could not be considered a conduit based on the “beneficial ownership test” outlined in Prévost Car Inc., which requires a lack of all discretion.

It is unclear at this time whether the CRA will appeal the Tax Court’s decision in Velcro to the Federal Court of Appeal. The tax community will continue to watch the progress of this case (if any) with great interest.

Please open the attached PDF for further information about the Velcro case.

Please visit the FMC website for prior coverage of Prévost Car Inc.

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“Beneficial Owner” – CRA’s Assessment of Velcro Doesn’t Stick

Tax Court Denies Deduction in Tower Financing Structure

Taxpayers that have implemented cross-border tower financing structures and that have claimed a Canadian tax deduction for any U.S. taxes paid should revisit their structures carefully in light of the Tax Court of Canada’s recent decision in FLSMIDTH Ltd. v. The Queen (2012 TCC 3), which is the Court’s first decision concerning tower structures.

For a more detailed review of this case, please click here.

The primary tax benefit of the typical tower structure is an interest deduction in both Canada and U.S. in respect of the same borrowing.  However, in certain tower structures, a spread is earned by a U.S. entity based on the amount of interest that is received by that entity from lower-tier entities in the structure and the amount of interest that is paid by the entity on external bank financing.  This spread is typically subject to U.S. federal income tax.

In FLSMIDTH Ltd. v. The Queen, the viability of the double interest deductions was not at issue; rather, the issue was whether an additional deduction under subsection 20(12) of the Income Tax Act (Canada) (the “Act”) was available under the Act with respect to the U.S. income tax that was paid on the spread.

Generally, the taxpayer would be entitled to the deduction under subsection 20(12) of the Act for the U.S. tax paid if two conditions were met:

1. the tax must have been paid in respect of a source of income under the Act; and

2. the U.S. tax must not reasonably be regarded as having been paid in respect of income from the share of a capital stock of a foreign affiliate of the taxpayer.

The Tax Court agreed that the U.S. tax was paid in respect of a source of income for purposes of the Act, even though that specific source of income (i.e., income that was characterized as interest for U.S. tax purposes) was not itself subject to tax under the Act; however, the Tax Court denied the deduction on the basis that the tax was in respect of income from the share of a foreign affiliate of the taxpayer.  Central to the Court’s decision was the broad interpretation that is to be given to the term “in respect of” for purposes of the Act.

Taxpayers that have implemented tower structures and that have claimed a subsection 20(12) deduction on any U.S. tax paid should reconsider their structures and contact a tax advisor to discuss the potential implications of this case in their particular circumstances.

At this time it is unclear whether the taxpayer will appeal this decision to the Federal Court of Appeal.

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Tax Court Denies Deduction in Tower Financing Structure