The Penny and Hooper decision is a landmark tax avoidance case that has implications for small businesses operating through a company or trust. Essentially, the Supreme Court decided in favour of Inland Revenue, concluding that setting artificially low salaries amounted to tax avoidance.
Penny and Hooper were two orthopaedic surgeons, each earning taxable income of between $600k and $850k a year. They restructured their businesses into companies with a family trust owning most of the shares. They provided their services to the companies in return for salaries of $100k – $120k each year. The balance of the company’s income was declared as dividends to the family trust which the surgeons drew from regularly.
Each year tax of between $20k and $30k was saved by having the profits after salaries taxed at the trustee rate rather than at the surgeons’ individual top personal tax rates. The court found these savings a ‘more than merely incidental’ reason for their low salaries.
The IRD has put businesses on alert and is actively reviewing those operating through a company or trust where the income is generated from services provided by an individual, and the individual’s salary is unreasonably low. Although there may be good reasons for setting the salary low in a particular year, e.g. adverse business conditions, or a planned expansion of the business, in some cases the sole reason for the salary level is to take advantage of the lower tax rate that applies to companies.
The IRD is entitled to go back four years into a business’ records, but have publicly confirmed that where a ‘voluntary disclosure’ is made, only the last two income tax returns will be reassessed. A voluntary disclosure might significantly reduce IRD penalties or avoid them entirely.
Whenever we’re discussing your business we’ll look at this for you. In the meantime, if you are concerned and would like to discuss this with us, please do contact us.