The Italian Supreme Court with its ruling n. 10792 of May 25, 2016 held that the 5 percent reduced dividend withholding tax provided for under article 10 of UK-Italy Tax Treaty does not apply, when the company that receives the dividends does not prove that it is the "beneficial owner" of the dividend as required under the relevant provision of the applicable tax treaty. For that purpose, according to the Court, the recipient of the dividends must prove that it has the legal and economic control of the dividend. As a result, in the absence of such proof, the Court held that the dividend was subject to the full 27 percent withholding tax rate provided for under Italy’s internal tax legislation.
Under the facts of the case, an Italian company distributed dividends to a UK company, which was ultimately owned or controlled by a US corporation. At the time of the distribution of the dividend, the Italian company applied the 27 percent withholding tax provided for under article 27 of Presidential Decree n. 600 of 1973. The UK company then filed a request of refund of the difference between the 27 percent dividend withholding tax applied by the payer of the dividend, and the 5 percent reduced dividend withholding tax provided for under article 10 of UK-Italy tax Treaty.
In support of its request of refund, the taxpayer submitted a certificate of tax residency issued by UK taxing authorities, and evidence that the UK company that received the dividends duly reported the dividends as its own income on its income tax returns filed in the UK.
The Tax Court ruled in favor of the taxpayer, and the Regional Tax Court affirmed the Tax Court’s ruling. According to the lower courts, "beneficial owner" means the person to whom the payment is attributed for tax purposes, and which reports the payment on its income tax return in its country of residence.
The Supreme Court disagreed, and held that "beneficial ownership" requires that the recipient of the income demonstrate that it has the economic and legal control of the dividend, namely that it receives the dividend for its own economic benefit, and without any legal obligation to pass it on to another person.
According to the Court, the beneficial ownership provision of tax treaties, as it evolved since it first appeared in the 1977 OECD Model Tax Convention, constitutes a general anti treaty shopping clause, which must be given a substantial meaning independent from and going beyond the tax residency requirement, based on an analysis of the facts and circumstances of each case showing that the recipient of the income derives a direct economic benefit from, and has the full dominion and control of, the income subject to withholding tax.
In contrast, the term "beneficial ownership" cannot be interpreted in a formalistic way, according to which beneficial owner is the person who receives the income and reflects it on its income tax return, because in that case it would just overlap with the tax residency requirement and would no longer serve its purpose of stopping treaty abuse.
The decision is consistent with Italian Supreme Court’s case law and provides additional certainty in a complex area of international tax law.