There is a clear-cut difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. One is legally acceptable and the other is an offense. Unfortunately however many consultants even in this country do not understand the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Most of the planning aspects that have been suggested by these consultants often fall into the category of tax evasion (which is illegal) and so tends to put clients into a risky situation and also diminish the value of tax planning.
This may be one of the prime reasons where clients have lost faith in tax planning consultants as most of them have often suggested dubious systems which are clearly under the category of tax evasion.
In this chapter I provide some examples and case studies (including legal cases) of how tax evasion (often suggested by consultants purporting to be specialists in tax planning) is undertaken not only in this country but in many parts of the world. It is true that many people do not like to pay their hard-earned money to the government. However doing this in an illegal manner such as by tax evasion is not the answer. Good tax planning involves tax avoidance or the reduction of the tax incidence. If this is done properly it can save substantial amounts of money in a legally acceptable way. This chapter also highlights some practical examples and case studies (including legal) of tax avoidance.
Why Governments Need Your Taxes (Basic Economic Arguments)
Income tax the biggest source of government funds today in most countries is a comparatively recent invention, probably because the notion of annual income is itself a modern concept. Governments preferred to tax things that were easy to measure and on which it was thus easy to calculate the liability. This is why early taxes concentrated on tangible items such as land and property, physical goods, commodities and ships, as well as things such as the number of windows or fireplaces in a building. In the 20th century, particularly the second half, governments around the world took a growing share of their country’s national income in tax, mainly to pay for increasingly more expensive defense efforts and for a modern welfare state. Indirect tax on consumption, such as value-added tax, has become increasingly important as direct taxation on income and wealth has become increasingly unpopular. But big differences among countries remain. One is the overall level of tax. For example, in United States tax revenue amounts to around one-third of its GDP (gross domestic product), whereas in Sweden it is closer to half.
Others are the preferred methods of collecting it (direct versus indirect), the rates at which it is levied and the definition of the tax base to which these rates are applied. Countries have different attitudes to progressive and regressive taxation. There are also big differences in the way responsibility for taxation is divided among different levels of government. Arguably according to the discipline of economics any tax is a bad tax. But public goods and other government activities have to be paid for somehow, and economists often have strong views on which methods of taxation are more or less efficient. Most economists agree that the best tax is one that has as little impact as possible on people’s decisions about whether to undertake a productive economic activity. High rates of tax on labour may discourage people from working, and so result in lower tax revenue than there would be if the tax rate were lower, an idea captured in the Laffer curve in economics theory.
Certainly, the marginal rate of tax may have a bigger effect on incentives than the overall tax burden. Land tax is regarded as the most efficient by some economists and tax on expenditure by others, as it does all the taking after the wealth creation is done. Some economists favor a neutral tax system that does not influence the sorts of economic activities that take place. Others favor using tax, and tax breaks, to guide economic activity in ways they favor, such as to minimize pollution and to increase the attractiveness of employing people rather than capital. Some economists argue that the tax system should be characterized by both horizontal equity and vertical equity, because this is fair, and because when the tax system is fair people may find it harder to justify tax evasion or avoidance.
However, who ultimately pays (the tax incidence) may be different from who is initially charged, if that person can pass it on, say by adding the tax to the price he charges for his output. Taxes on companies, for example, are always paid in the end by humans, be they workers, customers or shareholders. You should note that taxation and its role in economics is a very wide subject and this book does not address the issues of taxation and economics but rather tax planning to improve your economic position. However if you are interested in understanding the role of taxation in economics you should consult a good book on economics which often talks about the impact of different types of taxation on the economic activities of a nation of society.
Tax Avoidance and Evasion
Tax avoidance can be summed as doing everything possible within the law to reduce your tax bill. Learned Hand, an American judge, once said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible as nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands. On the other hand tax evasion can be defined as paying less tax than you are legally obliged to. There may be a thin line between the two, but as Denis Healey, a former British chancellor, once put it, “The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall.” The courts recognize the fact that no taxpayer is obliged to arrange his/her affairs so as to maximize the tax the government receives. Individuals and businesses are entitled to take all lawful steps to minimize their taxes.
A taxpayer may lawfully arrange her affairs to minimize taxes by such steps as deferring income from one year to the next. It is lawful to take all available tax deductions. It is also lawful to avoid taxes by making charitable contributions. Tax evasion, on the other hand, is a crime. Tax evasion typically involves failing to report income, or improperly claiming deductions that are not authorized. Examples of tax evasion include such actions as when a contractor “forgets” to report the LKR 1, 000,000 cash he receives for building a pool, or when a business owner tries to deduct LKR 1, 000,000 of personal expenses from his business taxes, or when a person falsely claims she made charitable contributions, or significantly overestimates the value of property donated to charity.
Similarly, if an estate is worth LKR 5,000,000 and the executor files a false tax return, improperly omitting property and claiming the estate is only worth LKR 100,000, thus owing much less in taxes. Tax evasion has an impact on our tax system. It causes a significant loss of revenue to the community that could be used for funding improvements in health, education, and other government programs. Tax evasion also allows some businesses to gain an unfair advantage in a competitive market and some individuals to not meet their tax obligations. As a result, the burden of tax not paid by those who choose to evade tax falls on other law abiding taxpayers.
Examples of tax evasion are: ï?~ Failing to declare assessable income ï?~ Claiming deductions for expenses that were not incurred or are not legally deductible ï?~ Claiming input credits for goods that Value Added Tax (VAT)has not been paid on ï?~ Failing to pay the PAYE (pay as you earn a form of with holding tax)installments that have been deducted from a payment, for example tax taken out of a worker’s wages ï?~ Failing to lodge tax returns in an attempt to avoid payment. The following are some signs that a person or business may be evading tax: ï?~ Not being registered for VAT despite clearly exceeding the threshold ï?~ Not charging VAT at the correct rate ï?~ Not wanting to issue a receipt ï?~ Providing false invoices ï?~ Using a false business name, address, or taxpayers identification number (TIN) and VAT registration number ï?~ Keeping two sets of accounts, and ï?~ Not providing staff with payment summaries
Legal Aspects of Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion Two general points can be made about tax avoidance and evasion. First, tax avoidance or evasion occurs across the tax spectrum and is not peculiar to any tax type such as import taxes, stamp duties, VAT, PAYE and income tax. Secondly, legislation that addresses avoidance or evasion must necessarily be imprecise. No prescriptive set of rules exists for determining when a particular arrangement amounts to tax avoidance or evasion. This lack of precision creates uncertainty and adds to compliance costs both to the Department of Inland Revenue and the tax payer.
Definitions of Tax Mitigation Avoidance and Evasion It is impossible to express a precise test as to whether taxpayers have avoided, evaded or merely mitigated their tax obligations. As Baragwanath J said in Miller v CIR; McDougall v CIR: What is legitimate ‘mitigation'(meaning avoidance) and what is illegitimate ‘avoidance'(meaning evasion) is in the end to be decided by the Commissioner, the Taxation Review Authority and ultimately the courts, as a matter of judgment. Please note in the above statement the words are precisely as stated in judgment. However there is a mix-up of words which have been clarified by the words in the brackets by me. Tax Mitigation (Avoidance by Planning) Taxpayers are entitled to mitigate their liability to tax and will not be vulnerable to the general anti-avoidance rules in a statute. A description of tax mitigation was given by Lord Templeman in CIR v Challenge Corporate Ltd: Income tax is mitigated by a taxpayer who reduces his income or incurs expenditure in circumstances which reduce his assessable income or entitle him to reduction in his tax liability.
Tax mitigation is, therefore, behavior which, without amounting to tax avoidance (by planning), serves to attract less liability than otherwise might have arisen. Tax Avoidance Tax evasion, as Lord Templeman has pointed out, is not mere mitigation. The term is described directly or indirectly by ï?~ Altering the incidence of any income tax ï?~ Relieving any person from liability to pay income tax ï?~ Avoiding, reducing or postponing any liability to income tax On an excessively literal interpretation, this approach could conceivably apply to mere mitigation, for example, to an individual’s decision not to work overtime, because the additional income would attract a higher rate of tax. However, a better way of approaching tax avoidance is to regard it as an arrangement that, unlike mitigation, yields results that Parliament did not intend.
In Challenge Corporation Ltd v CIR, Cooke J described the effect of the general anti-avoidance rules in these terms: [It] nullifies against the Commissioner for income tax purposes any arrangement to the extent that it has a purpose or effect of tax avoidance, unless that purpose or effect is merely incidental. Where an arrangement is void the Commissioner is given power to adjust the assessable income of any person affected by it, so as to counteract any tax advantage obtained by that person. Woodhouse J commented on the breadth of the general anti-avoidance rule in the Challenge Corporation case, noting that Parliament had taken: The deliberate decision that because the problem of definition in this elusive field cannot be met by expressly spelling out a series of detailed specifications in the statute itself, the interstices must be left for attention by the judges.
Tax Evasion Mitigation and avoidance are concepts concerned with whether or not a tax liability has arisen. With evasion, the starting point is always that a liability has arisen. The question is whether that liability has been illegitimately, even criminally been left unsatisfied. In CIR v Challenge Corporation Ltd, Lord Templeman said: Evasion occurs when the Commissioner is not informed of all the facts relevant to an assessment of tax. Innocent evasion may lead to a re-assessment. Fraudulent evasion may lead to a criminal prosecution as well as re-assessment.
The elements which can attract the criminal label to evasion were elaborated by Dickson J in Denver Chemical Manufacturing v Commissioner of Taxation (New South Wales): An intention to withhold information lest the Commissioner should consider the taxpayer liable to a greater extent than the taxpayer is prepared to concede, is conduct which if the result is to avoid tax would justify finding evasion. Not all evasion is fraudulent. It becomes fraudulent if it involves a deliberate attempt to cheat the revenue. On the other hand, evasion may exist, but may not be fraudulent, if it is the result of a genuine mistake. In order to prove the offence of evasion, the Commissioner must show intent to evade by the taxpayer. As with other offences, this intent may be inferred from the circumstances of the particular case. Tax avoidance and tax mitigation are mutually exclusive. Tax avoidance and tax evasion are not: They may both arise out of the same situation. For example, a taxpayer files a tax return based on the effectiveness of a transaction which is known to be void against the Commissioner as a tax avoidance arrangement.
A senior United Kingdom tax official recently referred to this issue: If an ‘avoidance’ scheme relies on misrepresentation, deception and concealment of the full facts, then avoidance is a misnomer; the scheme would be more accurately described as fraud, and would fall to be dealt with as such. Where fraud is involved, it cannot be re-characterized as avoidance by cloaking the behavior with artificial structures, contrived transactions and esoteric arguments as to how the tax law should be applied to the structures and transactions. Tax Avoidance in a Policy Framework We now turn from the existing legal framework in the context of income tax to a possible policy framework for considering issues relating to tax avoidance generally. The questions considered relevant to a policy analysis of tax avoidance are: What is tax avoidance? Under what conditions is tax avoidance possible? When is tax avoidance a ‘policy problem? What is a sensible policy response to tax avoidance?
What is the value of, and what are the limitations of, general anti-avoidance rules? The first two questions are discussed below What is Tax Avoidance? Finance literature may offer some guidance to what is meant by tax avoidance in its definition of ‘arbitrage’. Arbitrage is a means of profiting from a mismatch in prices. An example is finding and exploiting price differences between New Zealand and Australia in shares in the same listed company. A real value can be found in such arbitrage activity, since it spreads information about prices. Demand for the low-priced goods increases and demand for the high-priced goods decreases, ensuring that goods and resources are put to their best use. Tax arbitrage is, therefore, a form of tax planning. It is an activity directed towards the reduction of tax. It is this concept of tax arbitrage that seems to constitute generally accepted notions of what is tax avoidance. Activities such as giving money to charity or investing in tax-preferred sectors, would not fall into this definition of tax arbitrage, and thus would not be tax avoidance even if the action were motivated by tax considerations. It has been noted that financial arbitrage can have a useful economic function. The same may be true of tax arbitrage, presuming that differences in taxation are deliberate government policy furthering economic efficiency.