The latest annual nation budget presented in Parliament proposed the dividends tax rate to be increased with almost immediate effect from 15% to 20%. The increased rate brings into renewed focus what anti-avoidance measures exist in the Income Tax Act that seeks to ensure that the dividends tax is not avoided. Most commonly, the dividends tax is levied on dividends paid by a company to individuals or trusts that are shareholders of that company. To the extent that the shareholder is a South African tax resident company, no dividends tax is levied on payments to such shareholders. In other words, non-corporate shareholders (such as trusts or individuals) may want to structure their affairs in such a manner so as to avoid the dividends tax being levied, yet still have access to the cash and profit reserves contained in the company for their own use.
Getting access to these funds by way of a dividend declaration will give rise to such dividends being taxed (now) at 20%. An alternative scenario would be for the shareholder to rather borrow the cash from the company on interest free loan account. In this manner factually no dividend would be declared (and which would suffer dividends tax), no interest accrues to the company on the loan account created (and which would have been taxable in the company) and most importantly, the shareholder is able to access the cash of the company commercially. Moreover, since the shareholder is in a controlling position in relation to the company, it can ensure that the company will in future never call upon the loan to be repaid.
Treasury has for long been aware of the use of interest free loans to shareholders (or “connected persons”) as a means first to avoid the erstwhile STC, and now the dividends tax. There exists anti-avoidance legislation; in place exactly to ensure that shareholders do not extract a company’s resources in the guise of something else (such as an interest free loan account) without incurring some tax cost as a result.
Section 64E (4) of the Income Tax Act provides that any loan provided by a company to a non-company tax resident that is:
- a connected person in relation to that company; or
- ii) a connected person of the above person
Will be deemed to have paid a dividend if that debt arises by virtue of any share held in that company by a person contemplated in subparagraph (i).” (Own emphasis)
The amount of such a deemed dividend (that will be subject to dividends tax) is considered to be effectively equal to the amount of interest that would have been charged at prime less 2.5%, less so much of interest that has been actually charged on the loan account. It is important to also appreciate that the interest free loan capital is not subject to tax, but which would also have amounted to a once-off tax only. By taxing the interest component not charged, the very real possibility exists for the deemed dividend to arise annually, and for as long as the loan remains in place on an interest free basis.