Natural love and affection: commercial debt forgiveness
The ATO has recently finalised its stance on the issue of commercial debt forgiveness – in particular, the “natural love and affection” exclusion.
A commercial debt is any debt where interest payable is deductible, or would be deductible if interest were payable, but for certain statutory restrictions. Under this definition, investments that are securities and equity for debt swaps could be included.
Under the commercial debt forgiveness provisions, if a taxpayer’s obligation to pay the debt is released, waived, or otherwise extinguished (ie by agreement, parking of debt, repurchase, redemption etc), the amount forgiven will be deducted from the taxpayer’s current and future tax deductions. Specifically, the amount forgiven will reduce prior-year revenue losses, prior-year net capital losses, undeducted balances of other expenditure being carried forward for deduction, and the CGT cost base of other assets held, in that order.
Given that commercial debts forgiven may mean a business will have to pay more tax, it can be advantageous if debts the business has forgiven are not captured under the commercial debt forgiveness provisions. The exclusions available include forgiveness of a debt that is effected under an Act relating to bankruptcy or by will, and a natural person’s forgiveness of a debt for reasons of natural love and affection for the debtor.
Before 6 February 2019, the natural love and affection exclusion to commercial debt forgiveness didn’t require the creditor who forgave a debt to be a “natural person”. This meant that a company, through its directors, could forgive the debts of an individual, giving the reason of natural love and affection for the individual, and this would not have been considered a commercial debt forgiveness, meaning a lower tax bill for the company.
Then, the ATO released a draft determination on 6 February 2019 which explicitly stated that the exclusion for debts forgiven for reasons of natural love and affection requires the creditor to be a natural person. This view has been confirmed in the finalised determination, which the ATO recently released.
Delving a little deeper into the final determination: while the ATO states that a debt-forgiving creditor must be a natural person and the object of their love and affection must be one or more other natural persons, where the conditions for the exclusion are otherwise satisfied, there is no requirement that the debtor must also be a natural person. For example, this means that the natural love and affection exclusion can apply in circumstances where the debtor is a company, such as where a parent (a natural person) forgives a debt they are owed by a company that is 100% owned by their child or children.
The natural love and affection exclusion to commercial debt forgiveness may also apply in instances where a natural person forgives a debt owed to a trust or partnership, in their capacity as a trustee of the trust or as a partner in the partnership, respectively. The ATO’s determination points out that cases where this could happen would be limited, given limitations that arise under trust and partnership law principles, statute and terms of any trust deed or partnership agreement.
According to the ATO, whether a creditor’s decision to forgive a debt is motivated by natural love and affection for a person needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In addition, while the ATO will not devote compliance resources in relation to debts forgiven before 6 February 2019, if required to state a view in a private ruling or litigation the Commissioner of Taxation will do so consistently with the views set out in the final determination.
If you would like to know more please contact one of our accountants on 07 4639 1099 or come in and see us at 4 Bowen Street Toowoomba.