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    Thomas' case - Commissioner successful in the High Court

    In brief:    In a unanimous decision from all 7 Justices of the High Court yesterday, the Commissioner has ultimately succeeded on the main, substantive issues in Thomas’ case. The trustee of a discretionary trust had purported to distribute franking credits to beneficiaries independently from, and in different proportions to, the relevant franked dividends. It is a complex case, but the controversies for the purposes of the appeal were mainly whether the court was bound by directions from the Supreme Court of Queensland to the trustee of the trust under s 96 of the Trusts Act 1973 (Qld) about the effect of the trust distributions and, if the court was not so bound, the proper application of the imputation provisions to the distributions. It was held that the directions from the Supreme Court did not bind the court (nor the Commissioner) in the proper application of tax laws.

    More:    The decision makes it plain ‘that the statutory notional allocation of franking credits to beneficiaries follows the proportions which have been established with respect to their notional sharing in franked distributions’ [para 16] – that is, franking credits cannot be distributed separately from the franked dividends to which they are attached.

    The High Court appears also to have finally laid to rest the notion that franking credits represent a species of property able to be dealt with as such by a trustee. The trust deed in this case did not have provisions attempting to facilitate separate dealings in franking credits but, in statements apparently intended to be of general principle, the members of the Court said that ‘… franking credits – exist[s] neither in nature nor under the general law’ (Gageler J [97]) and ‘The [assumption that franking credits can be dealt with separately] involves the notion that franking credits are discrete items of income that may be dealt with or disposed of as if they were property under the general law. That notion is contrary to the proper understanding of [the imputation provisions]. Franking credits are a creature of its provisions; their existence and significance depend on those provisions.’ (joint reasons of the other 6 Justices [9])

    The Commissioner will no doubt regard those statements as supporting his views in Draft Ruling TR 2012/D1 relating to ‘notional amounts’ of trust income (see, particularly, para 112-115 in relation to franking credits). If franking credits do not constitute property under the general law, then they cannot form part of a trust fund and nor can a trustee be liable to account to beneficiaries for franking credits (although trustees in a sense do have indirect obligations, needing to take into account the impact of distributions on franking credit entitlements under the tax law). This makes income equalisation clauses in trust deeds even more problematic (those clauses will in many cases not work effectively anyway). And practitioners who include franking credits in the financial statements of trusts need to think carefully about the risks that doing so potentially create for getting the numbers wrong in the proper recording of the distributable income of the trust, beneficiaries’ entitlements to that income and consequent proportional franking credit implications. (FC of T v Thomas [2018] HCA 31)

    09 Aug 2018

    Topic: Income tax/Trusts

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