The Italian Supreme Court with its ruling n. 25264 of October 25, 2017 (Cassazione n. 25264 of 10-25-2017) held that actual payment of the corporate income tax in the parent company’s home jurisdiction is required for the parent company to benefit from the dividend withholding tax relief under the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive (the “EU Directive”) or Italy-The Netherlands Double Tax Treaty (the “Treaty)”.
Under the facts of the case, an Italian company controlled by a Dutch company (organized as a “naamloze vennootschap” or N.V., which is a type of entity falling within the scope of Dutch corporate income tax) paid a dividend to its parent and applied the 5 percent reduced dividend withholding tax rate under the Italy-The Netherlands Double Tax Treaty.
The Dutch parent filed a request for refund of the 5 percent withholding tax, pursuant to the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive n. 2003/123/EC of December 22, 2003 amending Directive 90/435/EEC (EUR-Lex – 31990L0435 – EN).
The Italian tax agency assessed the full 27 percent dividend withholding tax under article 27 of Presidential Decree n. 600 of 9/30/1973, on the theory that the Dutch parent company failed to satisfy the requirements for the withholding tax relief, under the EU Directive as well as the Treaty, because (1) it had not been subject to tax in the Netherlands on the dividend it received from its Italian subsidiary, and (2) it did not submit any valid evidence that it was the beneficial owner of the dividend.
According to the Italian tax agency, “subject to tax” requires evidence of the actual accrual of the tax liability and payment for the corporate income tax, as opposed to just a potential tax liability associated with the legal form and general tax status of the entity in its home country.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tax agency on the “subject to tax” issues, thereby denying the benefits of the Directive and the Treaty.
Under the EU Directive, profits distributed by a company of a EU member state to a company of another EU member state which owns at least 10 percent of the capital of the company distributing the profits, are exempt from withholding tax in the distributing company’s member state.
Pursuant to article 2 of the Directive, for the exemption to applies it is required that the recipient of the dividend is subject to corporate income tax in its home country (vennootschapsbelasting in the Netherlands).
Under article 10 of the Treaty (nethe-en), a Dutch company is entitled to a 5 percent reduced withholding tax rate on inter company dividends received from its Italian subsidiary, provided that it a resident of the Netherlands, which, in turn, requires that it is liable to tax there.
ISSUE AND RULING OF THE COURT
The case revolved around the contraction and exact meaning of the terms subject to tax, used in the Directive, and liable to tax used in the Treaty.
According to one interpretation, those terms require solely potential taxation, meaning that, based on its legal form and tax status, an entity is generally treated as a taxpaying entity falling within the scope of the corporate income tax, while the fact that it may not be actually subject or liable to a tax as a result of a participation exemption or similar tax regime applicable in its home country is not relevant.
According to another interpretation, those terms requires the actual rising of a lability for the corporate income tax in connection with the receipt of the dividends, and the actual payment of that tax.
The Supreme Court observed in its ruling that the Dutch company recipient of the dividends had furnished a tax residency certificate issued by the Dutch tax authorities, but failed to demonstrate that it actually met all the requirements for the withholding tax relief, such as the proof of the “actual payment of the corporate income tax, in connection with the distribution of the dividend”.
The ruling is not entirely consistent with the tax administration’s guidance on the issue, which we refer to below.
Circular 26/E of May 21, 2009 provides clarifications on the “liable to tax” requirement that applies for the purposes of the reduced withholding tax on Italian dividends paid to EU companies.
The first clarification reads as follow: “With reference to the second requirement” (the subject to tax requirement) “it must be pointed out that the condition of passive subject of the local corporate income tax must be interpreted as a general liability to tax, which occurs in all those situations in which a company is potentially liable to a corporate income tax, even though in certain circumstances it may benefit from beneficial tax regimes that are compatible with EU legislation”. As a result, all companies or entities to which is assigned general liability for the corporate income tax should qualify for the reduction, including those entities that do not owe the tax by virtue of special tax exemption regimes linked to the type of income they earn (e.g. passive income) or the place where they operate. On the other hand, companies and entities that do not fall within the area of application of the corporate income tax, do not qualify for the reduction.”
Circular 26/E refers to Circular n. 47 of November 2, 2005, which provides clarifications on the liable to tax requirement that applies for the purposes of the exemption from withholding tax for interest and royalties paid to a EU affiliate under the EU interest and royalties directive. Circular 47/E (referred to in Circular 26/E), in the relevant part, reads as follows: “With respect to the last requirement [the liable to tax requirement], it must be interpreted as a general or potential liability to tax. Therefore, according to what is clarified above, the benefit [of the exemption from withholding tax on interest and royalties] must be considered applicable to all those companies that, despite being potentially subject to corporate income tax, in fact benefit from special tax regimes compatible with EU law”.
The tax administration with its Circular 32/E of July 8, 2011 confirmed the above interpretation of the term liable to tax, when providing guidance on the refund of past withholding taxes charged on dividends to EU companies in excess of the new 1.375% rate instated pursuant to the decision of the European Court of Justice that declared the 27% outbound dividend tax in violation of the non discrimination principle of the EU Treaty. In Circular 32/E the administration clarified that EU companies eligible for the refund include all entities that “are passive subject of the local corporate income tax. Such condition must be interpreted as a general subjectivity to the tax, and it is satisfied for all companies potentially liable for the tax, regardless of the fact that they may benefit from special favorable tax regimes compatible with EU law. As a result, the reduced rate can apply to all companies or entities to which a general liability for the corporate income tax is assigned, including those that do not pay the tax due to exemptions linked to the type of income they earn (e.g. exemption of passive income) of the place in which their activity is carried out. On the other end, foreign companies and entities that do not fall per se within the scope of the tax do not qualify.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling is not well explained or thoroughly elaborated. That may very well be a direct result of lack of clarify and comprehensive briefs or a defective discussion of the case on behalf of the taxpayer.
As a result, it may be prudent to wait before reading too much into it going beyond the specific case and the way in which it was litigated and argued in court.
Still, the rather harsh conclusion of the Court, holding that evidence of the actual payment of the corporate income tax in connection with the receipt of the dividends to benefit from the withholding tax relief under the EU Directive (or the Treaty), is troubling, and sufficient to raise the level of awareness on a very sensitive and not entirely settled issue of international tax law.