Tax residence for individuals
According to the South African Revenue Service (SARS), South Africa has a residence-based tax system, which means residents are, subject to certain exclusions, taxed on their worldwide income, irrespective of where their income was earned. By contrast, non-residents are taxed on their income from a South African source.
In an increasingly global society where individuals travel more freely across borders and are able to hold assets in various countries, it becomes important for individuals with ties to South Africa to have certainty whether they are a South African tax resident or not. If they are, their entire income earned from wherever in the world may potentially be taxed in South Africa.
Tax residence is not linked to migration status. In other words, irrespective of which country’s passport one carries, tax residence may still be established in South Africa by virtue of the domestic tests applied by the Income Tax Act. In terms of that Act, an individual will be tax resident in South Africa if either that person meets the criteria of the “physical presence” test, or if that person is “ordinarily resident” in South Africa.
The physical presence test involves a day counting exercise whereby a person will be considered to be a South African tax resident if he/she has been present in the Republic for at least 91 days every year for 6 tax years, and that the days spent in the country in total over this period amounts to at least 915 days in total. If this test is met, the individual will be tax resident from the first day of the last year forming part of the 6-year period referred to.
The question whether a person is “ordinarily resident” in South Africa is a more involved one. The term as used in the Income Tax Act is undefined, but our courts have considered the term to refer to “… the country to which [an individual] would naturally and as a matter of course return from his [or her] wanderings”. The test involves a facts-based and substantive inquiry that in essence involves a person being asked: Where do you consider home to be.
Tax residence is not only relevant for purposes of where a tax liability may arise, but also to understand what tax compliance related obligations may arise for an individual. It is therefore important for individuals not to confuse migration and tax residence status; the two rather have very little to do with one another.