Claiming foreign tax credits on capital gains made from overseas investments

Matthew Marcarian   |   3 Mar 2020   |   4 min read

Burton’s case [Burton v Commissioner of Taxation [2019] FCAFC 141] has set an interesting precedent for claiming foreign tax credits on capital gains made from the sale of overseas investments in the United States.

In simple terms, if you own a capital asset in the USA, and you are taxed in the US the capital gain, then you may not be able to claim all the US tax paid as credit in Australia.

The reason for this is because the ATO will only allow you to claim the foreign tax offset that relates to the portion of taxable discounted capital gain being declared in your Australian tax return. The Australia-US Double Taxation Agreement will not assist you in this regard.

Since Burton’s application to appeal the decision was denied on 14 February 2020, the position under the law has been clarified in a situation where an Australian taxpayer makes a capital gains on US real estate (or other assets which are considered effectively connected with the USA).

While some articles claim that this case means the ATO is clawing back the 50% discount on Australian residents with foreign held assets, this isn’t strictly true. It’s actually that not all of the US tax paid would be creditable here.

Example – Comparing the net tax effect on an Australian tax resident selling capital assets owned under different tax regimes. 

To understand the situation let’s consider the example of Jack, an Australian taxpayer who sells a long-term capital asset held in the US, NZ and Australia.

The US taxes capital gains in full, however they tax the capital gain at a different tax rate. NZ does not tax capital gains. Including NZ as a comparison makes it clear that the ruling from Burton does not claw back the discounted 50% capital gain.

For our purposes Jack is an Australian tax resident.

Let’s assume:

  • For ease of calculations Jack makes a capital gain of $1,000,000 on the sale of each of the following assets.
  • Jack’s first $1,000,000 capital gain is on an asset that he held in the US for more than 12 months. While the US taxes capital gains, it applies a concessional tax rate for assets held over 12 months. For ease of calculations we will assume the top concessional rate of 20% applies.
  • The second $1,000,000 gain is on an investment that was held in NZ for more than 12 months. NZ does not tax domestic capital gains.
  • Finally, Jack also sells $1,000,000 investment in Australia, which he has also held for over 12 months. Accordingly, Jack will only be taxed on 50% of the Australian capital gain. For ease of calculations we will assume the flat top marginal rate and Medicare levy applies, 47%.
  • Jack sells all 3 investments in the same financial year for a capital gain of AUD$1,000,000 each.
  • For ease of calculations Jack has no capital losses to apply and he is able to apply the 50% CGT discount in full when preparing his Australian tax return. 
    US owned Asset (AUD$) NZ owned Asset (AUD$)Australian owned Asset (AUD$)
 Capital Gain $1,000,000$1,000,000$1,000,000
a.Foreign Taxable gain after applying any discounts for assessing tax on capital gains$1,000,000 0
b.Foreign tax paid
US 20%
NZ NA on capital gains
$200,000 0
c.Australian Capital Gain$1,000,000$1,000,000$1,000,000
d.Portion of capital gain eligible for discount in Australian assessment$500,000$500,000$500,000
e.Net taxable Australian gain to be taxed (c – d)$500,000$500,000$500,000
f.Australian tax at $47% (including Medicare levy)$235,000$235,000$235,000
g.Net foreign tax paid that is eligible to be claimed as an offset against the Australian taxable portion of the capital gain US: b x 50%
All others: b
$100,0000
h.Australian net tax payable (f – g)$135,000$235,000$235,000
Total foreign & Australian tax (b + h)$335,000$235,000$235,000
Global Tax Paid33.5%23.5%23.5%

As you can see from this example, Jack ends up paying more tax on the US asset. This is because the US taxes the full gain at a discounted rate. Australia then taxes half of the gain at the Australian tax rate and only allows the 50% portion of the foreign income tax credits to be applied.

Conclusion

The net impact of applying this precedent is that Australian taxpayers will end up paying up to 33.5% income tax on capital gains made on US investments that are held for more than 12 months. This is in contrast to the 23.5% income tax that they will pay on capital gains that are limited to only paying Australian income tax.

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