Italian Taxation of Companies and Businesses

With its ruling n. 25219 of October 11, 2018, the Italian Supreme Court held that the capital gain realized by a German company from the sale of its shares of stock of an Italian company is exempt from corporate income tax in Italy, pursuant to Article 13, paragraph 4 of the Tax Treaty between Italy and Germany, except in the case the German holding company has engaged in tax evasion by way of abuse of the Treaty.

Law

Under articles 23 and 151 of the Italian Tax Code, the gain from the sale of stock of an Italian company is Italian source income, and is subject to corporate income tax in Italy to the foreign corporate seller.

However, Article 13, paragraph 4 of the Tax Treaty between Germany and Italy exempts such gain from tax, and allocates the power to tax the gain to the contracting State of which the seller is a resident.

Facts

A German company owning all of the stock of an Italian company sold the stock and realized a gain. Pursuant to an exchange of information request to the German tax authority, the Italian tax agency ascertained that the gain had not been reported on the German company’s financial statement or corporate tax return in Germany and had not been subject to tax there. As a consequence, in the absence of any actual double taxation, the Italian tax agency asserted a tax on the gain due in Italy. The Tax Court in the first instance and the Appellate Court on appeal ruled in favor of the Tax Agency.

Supreme Court’s Holding

Based on the ruling, the fact that the German company is a resident of Germany and qualifies for the benefits of the German-Italy Tax Treaty is not in dispute. According to the Court, the absence of tax on the gain in Germany does not, in and on itself, and without further evidence of abuse, authorize Italy to apply its own tax, considering that the German-Italy Tax Treaty (at paragraphed 4 of Article 13) reserves the taxing power on the gain to the country of residence of the seller.

However, the Court added that the conclusion might be different (and Italy may have a case in asserting its own taxing power on the gain) if, pursuant also to the exchange of information between the taxing authorities of the two Contracting States, it appears that the German company is an artificial arrangement that engaged in tax evasion by abusing the benefits of the Treaty.

Unfortunately, the ruling is extremely brief and does not provide any further detail. Most likely, the Italian Tax Agency did not advance the tax evasion or treaty abuse argument and based its claim solely on the absence of double taxation due to the non taxation of the gain in Germany.

Conclusion

A reasonable takeaway from the ruling is that the exemption of the gain from tax in the country of residence is not sufficient to prevent the application of the Treaty and allow the taxation of the income in the country of source (Italy), unless the stock holding company in the country of residence is abusive and set up solely for the purpose of getting the benefit of the tax exemption under the Treaty.

The ruling is not entirely consistent with two other rulings from the Supreme Court, which – in a different legal context – held that the withholding tax exemption for EU inter company dividends does not apply when the dividends are not tax in the country of residence of the recipient.

With its ruling n. 32255 issued on December 13, 2018 (“Ruling 32255”), the Italian Supreme Court, Fifth Department (Tax) held that a dividend paid by an Italian subsidiary to a parent company established in a EU Member State is not eligible for the dividend withholding tax exemption granted under the provisions of Directive 90/435/EC (the “EU Parent Subsidiary Directive”, transposed into Italian domestic tax law by way of article 27-bis of Italy’s Presidential Decree n. 600 of September 29, 1973), unless the dividend is actually subject to corporate income tax in the parent company’s home country.

Ruling n. 32255 is consistent with a previous decision of the Supreme Court (n. 25264 of October 25, 2017), which we commented on this blog.

By requiring that the dividend is actuality taxed in the parent company’s home country, Ruling 32255 adds a requirement for the application of the dividend withholding tax exemption (the “double taxation requirement”), which is not part of the literal language of the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive, and – especially if adopted by national tax courts in other jurisdictions – may have far reaching implications on taxation of EU cross-border dividends.

Summary of the Law

Under Italian domestic tax law (article 27 of presidential decree n. 600 of September 29, 1973), outbound dividends are subject to withholding tax at the rate of 27 percent. The withholding tax can be reduced pursuant to a tax treaty between Italy and the recipient the dividend (provided that all treaty’s requirements for the withholding tax relief are satisfied).

However, outbound dividends are exempt from the 27 percent withholding tax, under the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive, provided that certain requirements are met, namely, that the recipient of the dividend, at the time the dividend is declared, is an entity that:

(i) is organized in one of the forms specifically set forth in an Annex to the Directive (the “legal form requirement”),

(ii) is resident of a EU Member State, under the domestic tax laws of that State, and is not treated as a nonresident entity pursuant to a tax treaty between that State and any third (non-EU) country (the “tax residency requirement”),

(iii) is subject to corporate income tax, in its own jurisdiction, and does not benefit from a general tax exemption or tax exclusion regime which is not geographically or temporarily limited (the “subject to tax requirement”), and

(iv) has been owning, directly and for an interrupted period of at least one year, 10 percent (15 percent, prior to 1/1/2009, or 20 percent prior to 1/1/2007) or more of the stock of the company that distributes the dividends (the “stock ownership requirement”).

Under the provision of article 27, paragraph 3-ter of the Presidential Decree n. 600 of September 29, 1973, dividends paid to a company which does not qualify for the exemption under the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive, but:

(i) is organized in the form of a corporation or other equivalent legal form,

(ii) is resident in a EU Member State, and

(iii) is subject to corporate income tax in its State of residence,

are subject to a reduced withholding tax of 1.20 percent. The reduced withholding tax rate is aimed at equating the taxation of outbound dividends to that of domestic inter company dividends, whereby dividends are not subject to withholding and are partially exempt, under Italy’s participation exemption regime, resulting in an effective tax rate of 1.20% in the hands of the corporate shareholder (in compliance with the non discrimination principle and free movement of capital provision of the EC Treaty).

Facts of the Case

Under the facts of the case, an Italian corporation paid a dividend to its Luxemburg parent, charging a 27 percent withholding tax of euro 1,059,921.45 upon distribution. The Luxemburg company filed a claim for refund of the withholding tax with the Italian tax agency, pursuant to the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive’s withholding tax exemption. The Italian tax agency failed to respond within the statutory deadline (90 days). Under the applicable statute, the lack of timely response to the refund claim which is treated as a deemed rejection of the claim. As a result, the Luxembourg company filed a petition with the tax court, challenging the rejection of the refund claim. The tax court ruled in favor of the taxpayer. The tax agency appealed, and the regional (appellate) tax court ruled in favor of the tax agency, reversing the trial court judgement and validating the withholding tax. The Luxembourg company then filed a petition with the Supreme Court.

Analysis

In light of the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s judgement, it is apparent that the Luxemburg company satisfied all the statutory requirements for the withholding tax exemption under the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive. Specifically, it parers to be stipulated (or undisputed) that the Luxembourg company is a corporation resident in Luxembourg and subject to corporate income tax there.

However, the Supreme Court held that the dividend withholding tax exemption cannot apply, because the Luxembourg company benefitted from a dividend tax exemption under a participation exemption regime provided for under Luxemburg law. According to the Supreme Court, the fact that the Luxemburg company is a taxable entity and is subject to Luxemburg corporate income tax does alter that conclusion, because the exemption from tax on the dividends in Luxemburg is sufficient to avoid any double taxation of the dividends which would otherwise result from the application of the Italian withholding tax.

The Supreme Court argues that the ratio of the EU Directive’s dividend withholding tax exemption is that of preventing a double taxation of the dividends (first, by way of a withholding tax charged in the country of source, at the time of the distribution of the dividends, and then by way of the income tax charged in the shareholder’s country of residence upon receipt of the dividends). According to the Court, when there is no double taxation of the dividends as a result of the dividend exemption in the shareholder’s country of residence, the withholding exemption has no reason to apply, considering that the Directive’s withholding exemption cannot result in a double non taxation of the dividends.

The Supreme Court does not directly discuss the meaning of the term “subject to tax” used in the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive. That term, in the Directive, is used in reference to the recipient of the dividend, which must be a taxable entity liable to tax in its country of residence. Generally, two alternative interpretations of the term have been debated, one interpretation requiring that the entity itself be “liable to tax”, that is, be classified as a taxable entity and falling within the scope of a corporate income tax, in its own jurisdiction (regardless of the fact that it actually pays a tax, on the income it receives and for which it claims a tax relief), and another interpretation requiring that the entity be “subject to tax”, that is, it actually pay a tax, on the specific item of income it receives and for which the tax relief is claimed.

Rather, the Court seems to inject an additional, overarching requirement for the application of the Directive’s dividend withholding exemption, namely, that the dividend be subject to double taxation (in the country of source and in the country of residence), while exemption should not apply when it would result in a double non taxation of the dividend.

Previous Case Law

Ruling 32255 is directly in line with The Italian Supreme Court’s ruling n. 25264 of October 25, 2017, also from the Fifth Department (Tax), in which the Supreme Court held that the 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, and that no exemption applies to a dividend paid by an Italian company to its Dutch parent which benefits from a participation exemption regime resulting in the exemption of the dividend from corporate income tax in the Netherlands.

Possible Developments and Open Questions

The Italian Supreme Court did not discuss the possible application of the reduced 1.20 percent withholding tax. Indeed, the dividend in question was distributed in 2003, prior to the enactment of the reduced withholding tax rate. As discussed in the summary of the law paragraph, above, also for the purpose of the application of the reduced withholding tax rate, it is required that the corporate recipient be subject to corporate income tax in its EU Member State of residence (indeed, the language of the statute, on that particular requirement is very similar to – and drawn from – the language of the Directive). The reduced withholding rate is aimed at equating the Italian taxation of an outbound dividend to the taxation of a domestic dividend, whereby the company which receives the dividend is exempt on 95 percent of the amount of the dividend, and is taxed on 5 percent of the amount of the dividend, at the corporate tax rate of 24 percent, resulting in an effective tax rate of 1.2 percent. It is not clear whether the Court would reach a similar conclusion, under similar facts, when the issue is that of the application of the reduced withholding tax.

Another legitimate question is whether the Court would reach the same conclusion, with respect to the application of the Directive’s full exemption, when the EU parent company is at least partially taxed on the dividend, under a partial exemption regime.

Furthermore, it is interesting to see whether the Italian Supreme Court’s novel interpretation of the EU Parent Subsidiary Directive, as requiring a double taxation of the dividend for the withholding exemption to apply, is followed by other courts, in other EU jurisdictions, leading to more far reaching challenges to the tax treatment of inter company dividends throughout the EU, and further challenging tax planning structures for EU inbound investments, based on the use of EU holding companies located in favorable taxing jurisdictions.

Finally, readers should note that Italian Supreme Court’s decisions are not binding precedents, and that the Court can rule differently on the same issue arising in separate cases. If contrasting decisions on the same issue emerge within the Court, a case can be referred to the full bench for a decision resolving the contracts and establishing a uniform interpretation of the law on that particular matter.

With the Budget Law for 2018 (Law n. 205 of December 27, 2017), Italy amended the definition of the term “permanent establishment” set forth in article 162 of the Italian Tax Code.

The term permanent establishment now covers situations in which a foreign enterprise does not have a physical nexus with Italy, but it has a regular and continuous economic presence in the country; engages in ancillary activities that are an essential component of its corse business, or operates through commissioners or other agents who do not enter into contracts in the name of the enterprise, but procure the conclusion of contracts that are eventually signed by the principal with no material modifications.

As a result of the amendments enacted with the Budget Law, the scope of the term permanent establishment as defined under domestic law is significantly expanded, creating more situations in which a foreign enterprise may be subject to tax in Italy.

The domestic law definition of the term permanent establishment does not overrule that of article 5 of Italy’s tax treaties. Under Italian constitution law, tax treaties are international law and prevail over domestic law. To the extent that a tax treaty contains a narrower definition of the term permanent establishment, the tax treaty definition applies.

The first change concerns the enactment of the economic nexus rule, pursuant to which a permanent establishment of a foreign enterprise in Italy exists whenever the foreign enterprise’s activities result in a “regular, continuous and significant economic presence within the territory of the country”. Physical presence is no longer required for the existence of a permanent establishment and the consequent taxation of a foreign enterprise in Italy. Simultaneously, the tax code provision that excluded the presence of a permanent establishment for the sole reason of the location in Italy of electronic equipment used for the collection and transmission of data relating to the sale of goods and services has been repealed.

The new provision on the economic nexus would seem to originate from and be consistent with the OECD final report on the tax challenges of the digital economy (Action 1), released under OECD’s Action Plan on Base Erosion and profit Shifting (BEPS) on October 15, 2015.

The second change concerns the enactment of an additional requirement to the negative list of activities which are excluded from the definition of permanent establishment. For the exclusions to apply, it is required that each of those activities be preparatory or auxiliary in nature. A preparatory activity precedes the enterprise’s core business activities, while an auxiliary activity supports, but is not an essential and significant part of, the activity of the enterprise as a whole.

The new provision is consistent with clarifications provided in the Commentary to Article 5 of the 2017 OECD Model Income Tax Convention, at paragraph 60(“2017 OECD Model Treaty”), and with option A of Article 13 of the Multilateral Convention to Implement Tax Treaty Related Measures to Prevent Base erosion and Profits Shifting, signed on June 7, 2017 (“Multilateral Tax Convention”)

The third change concerns the enactment of the anti fragmentation rule pursuant to which the preparatory or auxiliary exception does not apply whenever the combination or aggregation of auxiliary or preparatory activities, together with other activities performed by the same or a closely related enterprise, in the same space or fixed place of business, constitute a permanent establishment. For the purpose of the anti fragmentation rule, two enterprises are closely related if one directly or indirectly controls the other or the two are directly or indirectly controlled by the same enterprise.

The anti fragmentation rule seems to be consistent with article 13 of the Multilateral Convention and reflects the clarifications provided in the Commentary to Article 5 of the 2017 OECD Model Treaty, at paragraph 79.

The fourth change concerns the definition of "dependent agent" permanent establishment. A permanent establishment now includes a dependent agent who habitually plays the principal role leading to the conclusion of contracts that are routinely concluded without material modification by the enterprise, and these contracts are: a) in the name of the enterprise; or b) for the transfer of the ownership of, or for the granting of the right to use, property owned by that enterprise or that the enterprise has the right to use; or c) for the provision of services by that enterprise. The new provision covers commissionare arrangements, whereby the agent does not sign contracts in the name of the enterprise, but promote the conclusions of contracts that are entered into by the enterprise without material modifications.

The new rule reflects the provisions of article 12 of the Multilateral Tax Convention, and implements the Action 7 of BEPS.

Although the new definition of the term permanent establishment in the Italian Tax Code does not overrule article 5 of Italy's existing tax treaties, Italy will move towards a renegotiation of its tax treaties pursuant to the Multilateral Tax Convention, ultimately enforcing the same concept and achieving consistency between international tax law of treaties and domestic tax law.

In the meantime, the Italian tax administration may be tempted to interpret and apply the permanent establishment provisions in Italy's current tax treaties taking into account the new rules, pursuant to a general anti abuse principle, to expand the potential taxation of foreign enterprises in Italy.

As a result of the significant reduction of U.S. corporate income tax rates pursuant to the tax reform of the TCJA enacted on December 22, 2017, the Unites States now has a lower corporate tax rate than many of its trading partners, meaning that, in many instances, the profits of foreign owned or controlled-U.S. subsidiaries shall be taxed more favorably than the profits of their foreign parent companies or affiliates in their home jurisdictions. That creates an incentive for foreign companies to channel more profits through their U.S. subsidiaries, in order to benefit from lower U.S. income taxation compared to that applicable in the parent company’s home country.

Starting in 2018, the U.S. taxes the profits of its corporations at the generally applicable corporate tax rate of 21 percent, with a preferential effective tax rate of 13.125 percent applicable on certain income deriving from foreign sales of goods and services (“foreign derived intangible income”). Those rates compare to the Italian combined corporate tax rate of 27.9 percent.

Italian companies with U.S. and international sales may benefit from a significant tax reduction by increasing their workforce and activities in the U.S. and handling more of their U.S. and internationals sales through their U.S. subsidiaries. Once the U.S. subsidiary has been taxed on its profits in the United States, it can repatriate those profits to its Italian parent virtually tax free, thanks to a substantial reduction of the inter company withholding tax rate under the U.S.-Italy income tax treaty (5 percent) and an almost complete exemption of the dividends from Italian tax in the hands of the Italian parent, pursuant to Italy’s participation exemption rules.

Under the new scenario described above, renewed attention should be given to Italy’s corporate “anti-inversion” rules. Under Italian income tax code, a company incorporated or organized in a foreign country is treated as an Italian resident company, for Italian corporate income tax purposes, and is subject to tax in Italy on its worldwide income, if it maintains its place of administration or its principle place of business in Italy. Also, a company owned or controlled by Italian shareholders, and owning or controlling a foreign company, is presumed to be an Italian resident company, unless the taxpayer proves that it is effectively managed and controlled in its own country of organization.

A company’s place of administration is the place where the company’s day to day management activities are carried out. According to the general guidelines issued by the Italian tax administration on this matter (see Protocol n. 2010/39678 of 3/19/2010 and 2010/157346 of 12/20/2010), several factors are looked at to determine a company’s place of administration, including:

– the place where the company’s directors and officers meet and vote upon company’s affairs;
– the place where the company’s directors and officers actually and regularly carry out their administration and management functions and duties for the company;
– the place where the company’s day to day legal, administrative, accounting and tax management functions are performed.

Italy’s Supreme Court ruled that a company’s place of administration is the place of effective management of the company, namely, the place where the day to day administrative activities for the company take place, shareholders’ and directors’ meetings are held, and company’s business activities are carried out, putting the company is connection with customers, business partners and third parties (see Supreme Court’s ruling n. 2869 of 2/7/2013).

The company’s place of administration should be distinguished from the place where the supervision, coordination and direction of a company’s business is performed, typically, at the headquarter of the parent or holding company. The sole fact that a company’s is wholly owned or controlled by another company, does not, in an on itself, produce the automatic effect of locating the company’s place of management at the same place as its parent’s headquarter, and day to day managements activities should not be confused with key direction, supervision and coordination activities that fall within the parent or holding’s company’s duties and functions (see ruling n. 61 of 1/18/2008 of Regional Tax Commission of Tuscany, Section XV).

A company’s principal place of business is the place where the company’s main business activities are performed. For example, a manufacturing company has its place of business where it perform most of its manufacturing activities; a marketing or selling company has its principale place of business where its principal sales office conducting most of its sales is located, and a services company has its principally place of business in the place where it performs most of its services to its customers.

Italy’s tax administration has been enforcing the place of management or principal place of business rules in situations involving U.S. companies owned of controlled by Italian companies, despite the fact that those U.S. companies were subject to a 35 percent corporate tax rate on their profits taxable in the United States, and no apparent tax saving was involved. Typically, those U.S. companies never file any income tax return in Italy. As a result, Italy’s tax administration assesses failure to file penalties, equal to minimum 120 percent and maximum 240 percent of any Italian tax due, on top of the Italian corporate income tax on all of the profits of the U.S. company. Furthermore, since no foreign tax credit is allowed under the Italian tax code when no Italian income tax return has been filed, the claim for a credit for the U.S. taxes paid by the U.S. company on its U.S. taxable profits is denied, leading to complete double taxation.

It is reasonable to expect increased enforcement activity of the place of administration rule, from the Italian tax administration, now that the corporate rate differential between Italy and the United States create a clear incentive to concentrate more profits in the United States, achieving a potentially significant tax saving.

Many small and mid size U.S. subsidiaries owned or controlled by Italian companies share their Italian directors and officers with those of their parent company, have a very limited governance structure and actual administrative activities carried out in the U.S., and perform accounting and administrative functions for their U.S. companies from Italy. Those companies should establish a more robust corporate governance, which includes local directors or officers; set up and carry out local administrative, legal, accounting and tax functions through local professionals reporting to local management; have the proper set of contracts with their parent or holding company, governing any inter company supporting administrative or commercial services they receive from their parent or other affiliates in the same group, and maintain accurate records of all functions and activities pertaining to the company’s administration performed in the United States, to rely upon in a possible audit.

Pursuant to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“TCJA”) passed on Dec. 22, 2017, the U.S. will tax U.S. corporations with the following tax rates:

– 21 percent general corporate income tax rate,
– 13.125 effective tax rate on U.S. corporation’s foreign derived intangible income (“FDII”), for taxable years from 2018 through 2025;
– 10.5 percent effective tax rate on the U.S. corporation’s pro rata share of global intangible low taxed income (“GILTI”) of a controlled foreign corporation (“CFC”).

FDII is the portion of U.S. corporation’s net income (other than GILTI and certain other income) that exceeds a deemed rate of return of the U.S. corporation’s tangible depreciable business property and is attributable to foreign sales (i.e., property sold to a non-U.S. person for foreign use) and foreign services (i.e., services provided to any person outside of the U.S.). The U.S. corporation is entitled to a deduction equal to 37.5 percent of its FDII. The application of the 21 corporate tax rate on the 62.5 percent taxable portion of FDII results in an effective tax rate of 13.125 per cent (for taxable years after 2025, the deduction is reduced to 21.875 percent, equal to an effective tax rate of 16.406 percent).

GILTI is the portion of a CFC’s net income (not otherwise taxed currently to its U.S. shareholders) that exceeds a deemed rate of return of the CFC’s’s tangible depreciable business property. GILTI is included in the taxable income of U.S. corporate shareholders of the CFC and taxed at an effective tax rate of 10.5 percent. The U.S. corporation is entitled to a deduction equal to 50 percent of the amount of GILTI. The application of the corporate tax rate of 21 percent to the 50 percent taxable portion of GILTI results in an effective tax rate of 10.5 percent. The profits of the CFC that have been included into the taxable income of the U.S. corporation and taxed as GILTI can be paid as dividends without any additional U.S. tax.

A potential implication, in Italy, of the new corporate income tax rates applicable in the U.S. is the classification of United States corporations as “black listed” controlled foreign corporations subject to Italy’s anti deferral rules.

Until 2015, Italy operated its CFC rules by limiting their application to foreign corporations controlled by Italian shareholders and organized in one of the countries included in a specific list of tax favorable foreign jurisdictions, usually referred to as “black list”.

Starting with tax year 2016, the “black list” has been replaced by a general test based on a comparison between Italy’s and foreign countries’ corporate income tax rates.

The general test provides that a foreign country is considered a black-list jurisdiction, for purposes of Italy’s CFC rules, whenever its nominal corporate income tax rate is less than half of Italy’s corporate tax rates. For this purpose, reference is made to Italy’s 24 percent corporate tax (IRES) rate and 3.9 percent regional tax (IRAP) rate, which combine for a total rate of 27.9 percent.

A special test requires to take into account any special corporate tax regime applicable in a foreign country with respect to taxation of corporate profits. The term “special tax regime” is defined to include any favorable tax provision that results in a lower effective corporate income tax rate, due to exemptions or deductions that reduce the tax base for the application of the general corporate income tax rate. Exemptions or deductions with respect to profits deriving from foreign activities falls within the definition of “special tax regime”.

When a foreign country operates a corporate tax system that provides for a different tax treatment of different categories of income, such as, for example, a system in which foreign income is taxed more favorably than domestic income, an “all or nothing rule” applies pursuant to which, if more than 50 percent of the foreign corporation’s income is subject to an effective tax rate which is lower than the foreign country’s general corporate tax tax rate and less than half of Italy’s nominal corporate income tax rates, the foreign corporation is deemed to be organized in a black listed country and all of its income is treated as income of a controlled foreign corporation taxable to its Italian shareholders on a current basis. For the purpose of the all or nothing rule, a determination is required to be made on a company by company and tax year by tax year basis.

The U.S. general corporate tax rate of 21 percent does not fall below the “less than half of the Italian corporate income tax rates” standard for the general CFC test. However, the 13.125 percent effective tax rate on FDII clearly does (13.125 is less than half of the 27.9 combined Italian tax rates). As a result, when more than 50 percent of the taxable income of a U.S. corporation directly or indirectly controlled by Italian shareholders is FDII and is subject to an effective tax rate of 13.125 percent in the U.S., then all of that U.S. corporation’s income is treated as income of a CFC taxable currently to its Italian shareholders. The fact that the income derives form genuine business transactions carried out with unrelated parties does not matter.

Italian shareholders are entitled to prove that a U.S. corporation is engaged in an active trade or business, representing its principal business activity, within the United States, and exclude the application of the CFC rules. A tax ruling may (but need not) be filed and a positive response would be binding upon the tax administration.

Now that the corporate tax rate differential between Italy and the United Sates makes it advantageous, for Italian taxpayers, to conduct international business activities through their U.S. subsidiaries or affiliates, and allocate more profits to the U.S. where they would be taxed at lower rates, it is reasonable to expect increased enforcement of Italy’s CFC rules by the Italian tax administration.

Italian taxpayers should review their U.S. controlled companies and take the proper steps to make sure they do not run afoul of Italian CFC rules.

Italian taxation of foreign investments in Italian real estate is complex.

Transfer taxes charged upon the acquisition of the real estate (alternatively, registration tax or VAT) vary depending on the nature and tax status of the buyer (foreign private individual, foreign company purchasing and owning the real estate directly, or foreign individual or corporate investor purchasing and owning the real estate through an Italian controlled entity), as well as the nature and tax status of the seller (private individual vs. unincorporated business or commercial company registered as a VAT taxpayer).

Income taxes charged on rental income derived from the operation of the real estate vary depending on the character of the real estate (residential vs. commercial).

Income taxes charged upon the sale of the real estate vary depending on whether the real estate is owned directly by a foreign individual or a foreign company without a permanent establishment in Italy, or by a foreign company with a permanent establishment in Italy through which the real estate is operated in the active conduct of a business or an Italian owned or controlled entity.

Finally, taxation on distribution of profits derived from the operation of the real estate vary depending on whether the real estate investment is held through an Italian corporate vehicle owned or controlled by an EU vs a non-EU holding company, an Italian partnership, or directly by a foreign company without permanent establishment in Italy.

I. Transfer Taxes Charged Upon the Acquisition of the Real Estate.

A. General Considerations.

The purchase of real estate in Italy may subject to, alternatively, registration tax or VAT and, in addition, cadastral and mortgage taxes.The buyer normally pays the transfer taxes, although the buyer and seller are jointly and severally liable for the payment of the taxes and for any assessment by the tax authorities. VAT is also paid by the buyer, but an Italian VAT registered entity that is subject to VAT on its sales to customers, can reclaim the VAT paid on the purchase of the real estate by offsetting it with the VAT due to the tax authorities against its output operations. In some circumstances, it can claim the amount of VAT as a refund. EU-resident entities may request a refund of VAT paid if certain conditions are met. A non-EU resident entity must register for VAT and appoints an Italian VAT representative in order to recover any VAT incurred on the purchase.

B. Residential Real Estate.

Sales of residential real estate are normally exempt from VAT. Residential sales are only subject to VAT if the seller is a construction company that has constructed or renovated the property less than five years before the sale, or after five years but has elected to in the deed of sale to subject there sale to VAT. VAT is charged at the rate of 10 percent (22 percent is the property is classified as a luxury dwelling on the real estate register).

The registration tax is charged at the rate of 9 percent on the assessed value of the property, if the buyer is a private individual, or on the actual amount of the purchase price as shown on the purchase deed, if the buyer is a unincorporated business or a (foreign or domestic) commercial entity.

C. Commercial Real Estate.

The sale of commercial real estate (i.e., offices, retail properties and hotels sold separately from any associated business) is subject to VAT at the rate of 22 percent (reduced to 10 percent in case of renovated properties) if the seller is a construction company that constructed or renovated the property less than five years before the sale, or (in any event) the seller is a construction company that elected to subject the sale to VAT in the deed of sale. The sale of commercial property, whether it is exempt from VAT or not, is also subject to cadastral tax at the rate of 1 percent and mortgage tax at the rate fo 3 percent.

D. Going Concern.

The sale of commercial property part of a business is subject to registration tax at the rate of 9 percent applied to the next value of the real estate and 3 percent applied on the net value of all other assets of the business.

E. Stock of an Italian Real Estate Company.

When real estate is acquired by way of purchase of the shares of the company owning it, the transaction is VAT exempt and subject tor registration tax at the fixed amount of 200 euros.

II. Taxation of Rental Income.

A. Operation Through an Italian Corporate Vehicle.

If the real estate is leased to tenants, the rental income generated from the leases is subject to corporate income tax (IRES) at the rate of 24 percent and regional tax (IRAP) at the rate of 3.9 percent.

Taxable income for IRES purposes is the net revenue after the deductions of costs as shown in the company’s annual profit and loss account. In general, all costs relating to the activities of the company can be deducted, including net interest expenses, meaning interest payable minus interest receivable, up to an amount equal to 30 percent of EBITDA. Any excess interest expense can be carried over and deducted in any future year in which the EBITDA exceeds the net interest expense for the year. Interest due on loans secured by a mortgage over the rental property is not subject to the 30 percent limitation and is therefore fully deductible. Depreciation of property is deductible to the extent allowed by tax law. Property tax (IMU) is not deductible for IRES purposes. 10 percent of IRAP paid and IRAP due on cost of employees is deductible for IRES purposes.

In case of lease of residential real estate, gross rents are taxed without any deduction for costs, except for ordinary maintenance expenses not exceeding 15 percent of the amount of gross rents. Interest due on loans used to finance the acquisition of the real estate is deductible within the limit of 30 percent of EBITDA, while interest due on loans secured by a mortgage on the residential rental property is not subject to the 30 percent limitation and therefore is fully deductible.

The taxable income subject to IRAP is the amount of revenue after the deduction of costs as shown in the annual profit and loss account. However, not all costs relating to the company’s activities can be deducted. In particular, interest payments, cost of employees, IMU and IRES payments are not deductible.

B. Operation Through an Italian Partnership.

An Italian partnership is a transparent entity for incomer tax purposes. As a result, its income is taxed directly to its partners. In case of foreign partners, the income is taxed at the corporate rate of 24 percent plus IRAP rate of 3.9 percent. Interest is entirely deductible for purpose of computing the taxable income of the partnership, taxable to its partners, without the 30 percent EBITDA limitation.

C. Direct Operation By A Foreign Entity Without a Permanent Establishment in Italy.

Renting real estate does not automatically arise to an active trade or business, When a foreign entity operates an Italian rental property outside of the conduct of an active trade of business, gross rental income derived from the rental of the property is subject to corporate tax at the rate fo 24 percent, with no deduction of depreciation or other costs incurred in connection with the rebate of the property, expect for ordinary maintenance expenses not exceeding 15 percent of the amount of gross rents. Interest on loans obtained to finance the acquisition of the property for secured by a mortgage on the property is not deductible for corporate tax purposes.

III. Taxation of Profit Distributions.

A. Investment Through an Italian Corporate Vehicle.

Generally, distribution of profits to foreign shareholders is subject to a 26 perdent withholding tax. However, dividends paid to EU-based corporate shareholders are subject to a reduced 1.20 percent withholding tax. Dividends distributed to EU-based parent companies which qualify for the benefits of the EU parent-subsidiary directive are totally exempt from withholding tax. Italian dividend withholding tax may also be reduced by way of a tax treaty between Italy and the investor’s home country.

B. Investment Through an Italian Partnership.

Non-resident partners are subject to tax in Italy on their share of the partnership’s income, and not withholding tax applies on distributions of profits from the partnership to its partners.

C. Direct Investment By A Foreign Entity With No Permanent Establishment in Italy.

Once rental income has been taxed in Italy it can be repatriated to the foreign company without any further Italian tax.

IV. Taxation At Exit.

A. Investment Through an Italian Corporate Vehicle.

Gains derived from the sale of the real estate are subject to corporate tax (IRES) at the rate of 24 percent regardless of how much time has elapsed since its acquisition. The taxable gain is the difference between the adjusted tax basis of the property at the time of the sale (i.e., purchase price minus the depreciation deductions) and the sale price.The gain is also generally subject to IRAP at thew rate of 3.9 percent. However, if the property is sold as part of a going concern, IRAP does not apply.

Any gain derived from the sale of the stock of the Italian corporate vehicle would be fully taxable. The taxable amount of the gain would be the difference between the adjusted tax basis of the shares in the Italian vehicle and the sale price. Participation exemption rules do not apply.

In case of liquidation of the Italian vehicle owning the real estate, the Italian company would recognized a gain equal to the difference between its adjusted tax basis in the property (equal to the purchase price minus depreciation deductions) and the fair market value of the property at the time of the liquidation. Then, distributions to shareholders upon liquidation would be treated as dividends, to the extent that they come out of the profits of the Italian corporate vehicle, subject to dividend withholding tax. The execs would be taxable as a gain.

B. Direct Investment By A Foreign Entity With No Permanent Establishment in Italy.

Gains derived from the sale of the real estate are not subject to corporate tax (IRES) of the property is sold more than five years after its acquisition. If the property is sold within five years of its acquisition, IRES applies at the rate of 24 percent. Sicne decoration is not deductible, the amount of taxable gain is the difference between the purchase price and the sale price.

C. Investment Through a Partnership.

Gains derived from the sale of the real estate owned through an Italian partnership are taxed at the level of partners.

In a future post we will deal with the tax planning aspects of investing in Italian real estate through an Italian real estate investment fund or an Italian real estate investment company (RE SICAV).

With its Ruling n. 4091 of June 12, 2017, the Eighth Department of Tax Commission (District Tax Court) of Milan, Italy ruled that upon the cancellation of an inter company loan from a Dutch parent company to its Italian subsidiary, the interest accrued on the loan and deducted by the Italian subsidiary on an accrual basis, during the course of the loan, is deemed “constructively received” by the foreign parent, and is potentially subject to the Italian interest withholding tax (at the rate of 20 percent, pursuant to article 26, paragraph 5 of Presidential Decree n. 600 of 1973, recently increased to 26 percent).

However, the Tax Court also ruled that the Dutch parent company qualified as “beneficial owner” of the interest, and was eligible for the withholding tax exemption granted under article 26-quater of Presidential Decree n. 600 of 1973, which implemented the EU Directive n. 2003/49/CE (so called interest and royalties directive).

Under the facts of the case, a Dutch company extended a loan to its Italian subsidiary, after taking a loan from a Dutch subsidiary, which in turned had obtained a loan from a third party bank. After a number of years, the Dutch parent decided to unilaterally cancel the loan to its Italian subsidiary. Under Italian law, the cancellation of a shareholder’s loan does not give rise to taxable income in the hands of the borrower; rather, it is treated as a contribution to the capital of the borrower, thereby increasing the adjusted tax basis of the shareholder in its stock of the borrowing company.

The Italian Tax Agency took the position that, upon the cancellation of the loan, the interest from the loan, which had accrued and had been deducted by the Italian subsidiary during the course of the loan, was constructively received by Dutch parent and reinvested into the subsidiary, with the consequence that it was subject to the Italian interest withholding tax.

The theory of the constructive receipt of the interest, in the hands of the lender, upon cancellation of a shareholder loan, is based on a circular of the Ministry of Finance issued on May 27, 1994 with number 73/E.

Furthermore, the Tax Agency denied the benefit of the exemption from the withholding tax for interest paid between affiliated companies established in a EU jurisdiction, granted under the EU interest and royalties directive (Directive 2003/49/CE), as implemented in Italy by way of article 26-quater of Presidential Decree n. 600 of 1973. According to the Tax Agency, the strict interconnection and similarity of the terms of the back-to-back loans from the Dutch subsidiary to its Dutch parent and from the Dutch parent to its Italian subsidiary, and the lack of organizational structure at the level of the Dutch parent, excluded that the Dutch parent could qualify as beneficial owner of the interest for the purpose of the exemption.

The Tax Court sided with the Italian Tax Agency on the first issue, concerning the application of the withholding tax, and ruled that the interest was “constructively received” by the Dutch parent at the time of the cancellation of the loan, and thereby it was subject to the Italian withholding tax. The rational of the ruling is that the deduction of the interest in the hands of the Italian subsidiary, at the time of the accrual of the interest during the life of the inter company loan, must necessarily correspond to the actual receipt of the interest, in the hands of the shareholder-lender, either at the time of the actual payment of the interest, or at the time of the cancellation of the loan, whichever is earlier. Otherwise, there would be “loss” of tax along way, with the benefit of the deduction of the interest reducing the Italian tax on the subsidiary, upon accrual of the interest, on one side, without the Italian withholding tax on the interest at the time of the cancellation of the loan, on the other side.

It is worth noting that the new paragraph 4-bis of article 88 of the Italian Tax Code, enacted by way of the Legislative Decree n. n.147 of September 14, 2015, the cancellation of an inter company loan is treated as taxable income, in the hands of the borrower, to the extent that the amount of cancelled debt exceeds the adjusted tax basis of the debt (i.e. the principal amount of the loan). The result is that the borrower recognizes taxable income for the amount of of interest accrued, and not paid, under the loan. Under this new provision, the rational for the application of the outbound interest withholding tax on cancellation of an inter-company loan seems to lose value.

Instead, the Tax Court sided with the taxpayer on the issue of the Dutch parent’s eligibility for the interest withholding tax exemption under the EU interest directive. According to the Tax Court, the terms of the two back-to-back loans where sufficiently different, and the Dutch parent had the legal and economic dominion and control over the interest from the loan, thereby qualifying as beneficial owner of the interest for the purposes of the withholding tax exemption. The Tax Court noted that the interest rate under the Dutch subsidiary loan was different from the interest rate under the Italian subsidiary loan, living a margin of profits in the hands of the Dutch subsidiary, that the Italian subsidiary loan did not contain any provision requiring the Italian subsidiary to repay the loan, in the event the Dutch parent had to repay the loan to the Dutch subsidiary, and that the Dutch parent had the unconditioned right to waive its credit for the principal and interest of the loan towards the Italian subsidiary, as it actually did.

For the interpretation of the meaning of the term beneficial owner, the Tax Court referred to the OECD Commentary to the OECD Model Income Tax Treaty. Curiously, the Court did not refer to the definition of the term beneficial owner which is set forth in the EU Directive (at article 1, paragraph 4), according to which beneficial owner of the interest is the person which has the legal dominion and control over the interest and derives a direct economic benefit from it.

The decision provides some useful guidance on the tax treatment of interest arising from related party back-to-back loans, and illustrates some of the features of those loans that may be relevant in order to recognize the status of beneficial owner to the immediate recipient of the interest, to the extent that it is required to preserve certain tax benefits such as an interest withholding reduction or exemption.

With ist ruling n. 27113/2016 issued on December 28, 2016, the Italian Supreme Court interpreted and applied the beneficial ownership provision of article 10 of the tax treaty between Italy and France, for the purpose of determining whether a French holding company, wholly owned by a U.S. corporation, was entitled to the imputed credit granted under that treaty in respect of dividends received from an Italian subsidiary.

The Italian Supreme Court held that the beneficial ownership provision of the Italy-France treaty requires that the recipient of the dividends has full dominion and control over the dividend, meaning, that it enjoys the right to receive and keep dividends, unconstrained by any legal or contractual obligation to pass the dividends on to its parent, and actually enjoys the economic benefit of the dividend, which it treats and reports as its own income on its accounting books and can dispose of without legal or contractual constraints. 

According to the Supreme Court, the fact that the French holding company did not have staff, offices and other significant sources of income, except for the dividends it received from time to time from its subsidiaries, and did not engage in any other activities except for holding the legal title to the shares of its subsidiaries, is consistent with a holding company’s typical functions and role, and does not negate the status of beneficial owner and eligibility to the tax treaty benefits.

The ruling is consistent with a previous decision of the Supreme Court, which we reported in the past on our blog, holding that beneficial owner is the person who has the legal control and economic enjoyment of the dividend (we refer to the Supreme Court’s ruling n. 10792  issued on May 25, 2016).

The interpretation of the term ‘beneficial owner’ as the person having the legal and economic dominion and control over the dividend, followed by the Supreme Court in ruling n. 27113/2016,  is also consistent with the clarification set forth at paragraph 12.4 of the 2014 Commentary to article 10 of the  OECD Model Income Tax Convention, according to which ‘beneficial owner’ is the person who has the full right to use and enjoy the dividend, unconstrained by a contractual or legal obligation to pass on the payment received to another person.

 The Supreme Court expressly rejected the notion that, in order to qualify as a beneficial owner of the dividend, the holding company is required to have a minimum level of organization, including employees and offices, and to engage in business activities generating operating receivables, aside from holding the legal title to the shares of its subsidiaries and receiving dividends therefrom.     

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading Italian Supreme Court Rules on Beneficial Ownership and Holding Companies

The EU Directive n. 2015/849 (the “IV Directive”) on anti money laundering sets forth new provisions requiring financial institutions and professional individuals to verify their customers or clients by identifying the ultimate “beneficial owner” of an entity, legal arrangement or financial transaction; obtaining and conserving information about their customers and the ultimate beneficial owners, as defined in the Directive, and reporting an extensive amount of information about trusts, foundations and other similar arrangements in a central register held by each Member State. EU Member States have time until June 26, 2017 to traspose the provisions of the Directive into their national laws.

Unlike EU Regulations that are enacted by the EU Council of Ministers, which have automatically the full force and effect of EU prevail over any non conforming national law regulating the same area, EU Directives proposed by the EU Commission are not self executing. EU Members States are left with some leeway to decide which provisions are to be adopted. EU Directives are usually adopted through a number of legislative procedures depending on the different subject matters. As a result, while the deadline to implement the Directive is still pending, and until a country enacts domestic legislation actually implementing the Directive, the Directive has no immediate effect and cannot be directly applied. 

In Italy, the Italian Parliament by way of Act n. 170 of August 12, 2016 granted legislative authority to the Italian Government to implement the provisions of the IV Directive. Now the Government is working at adopting one or more legislative decrees containing the specific provisions that will traspose the IV Directive into Italy’s national law. The legislative decrees to be issued pursuant to the grant of authority provided by the Parliament need not be approved by the Parliament. Rather, they become law as soon as they are adopted by the Government. 

In light of the above, we can safely say that Italy is well on track to implement the Directive within the June 26, 2017 deadline. If that should not be the case, at that point the Directive would become self executing and could still be applied, for those provisions that are sufficiently detailed and need not be specified or modified by way of national implementing legislation.     

Law n. 170 refers to the definition of beneficial owner that is set forth in the IV Directive. 

The definition of “beneficial owner” in the IV Directive, for corporate entities, is the following (article 3, paragraph 6, letter a)):

(6) ‘beneficial owner’ means any natural person(s) who ultimately owns or controls the customer and/or the natural person(s) on whose behalf a transaction or activity is being conducted and includes at least:

(a) in the case of corporate entities:

(i) the natural person(s) who ultimately owns or controls a legal entity through direct or indirect ownership of a sufficient percentage of the shares or voting rights or ownership interest in that entity, including through bearer shareholdings, or through control via other means, other than a company listed on a regulated market that is subject to disclosure requirements consistent with Union law or subject to equivalent international standards which ensure adequate transparency of ownership information. A shareholding of 25 % plus one share or an ownership interest of more than 25 % in the customer held by a natural person shall be an indication of direct ownershipA shareholding of 25 % plus one share or an ownership interest of more than 25 % in the customer held by a corporate entity, which is under the control of a natural person(s), or by multiple corporate entities, which are under the control of the same natural person(s), shall be an indication of indirect ownership. This applies without prejudice to the right of Member States to decide that a lower percentage may be an indication of ownership or control. Control through other means may be determined, inter alia, in accordance with the criteria in Article 22(1) to (5) of Directive 2013/34/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council (3);

(ii) if, after having exhausted all possible means and provided there are no grounds for suspicion, no person under point (i) is identified, or if there is any doubt that the person(s) identified are the beneficial owner(s), the natural person(s) who hold the position of senior managing official(s), the obliged entities shall keep records of the actions taken in order to identify the beneficial ownership under point (i) and this point.  

Under the definition set forth here above, the beneficial owner is the natural person who ultimately owns or control the tested corporate entity (defined as “customer” in the Directive). 

For the purpose of identifying the natural person who ultimately owns or controls the tested corporate entity, the Directive adopts the “more than 25% shareholding or ownership interest” test, as an indication or presumption of beneficial ownership, and uses both a direct and indirect ownership test. 

Under the direct ownership test, if a natural person directly owns more than 25% of a shareholding or ownership interest in the “tested” corporate entity, that person is presumed to be the beneficial owners of that entity. In case of direct ownership, the analysis stops at the natural person who owns the relevant shareholding interest in the tested corporate entity. Under the indirect ownership rule, a shareholding or ownership interest (of any size) in the “tested” corporate entity, owned by another legal entity (such as another corporate entity, trust, foundation, etc.), is attributed to the beneficial owner(s) of such other legal entity, to determine the ultimate beneficial owner of the “tested” corporate entity.

In case of trust or other similar legal arrangements, “beneficial owner” is defined as follows (article 3, paragraph 6, letter b)):

(6) ‘beneficial owner’ means any natural person(s) who ultimately owns or controls the customer and/or the natural person(s) on whose behalf a transaction or activity is being conducted and includes at least:

(b) in the case of trusts:

(i) the settlor;

(ii) the trustee(s);

(iii) the protector, if any;

(iv) the beneficiaries, or where the individuals benefiting from the legal arrangement or entity have yet to be determined, the class of persons in whose main interest the legal arrangement or entity is set up or operates;

(v) any other natural person exercising ultimate control over the trust by means of direct or indirect ownership or by other means.  

If interpreted literally, the definition of “beneficial owner” in case of trusts, foundations and other similar fiduciary arrangements is extremely broad, and would automatically require to verify and disclose each one of the settlor, trustees, beneficiaries or protectors of a trust, regardless of whether any one of them  actually owns an interest in the trust’s income or property or has any meaningful power with respect to the administration of the trust. Also, the literal definition of “beneficial owner” used in the IV Directive in case of trusts does not make any distinction between an interest in the income of the trust, as opposed to an interest in the corpus of the trust, and does not refer to any minimum ownership requirement such as the 25 percent ownership threshold that applies in case of corporate entities.  

An over broad interpretation of the term “beneficial owner” in case of trusts would put banks, financial institutions, professional individuals and their customers under extreme pressure, potentially dramatically extending the amount of information to collect and creating a friction between the need of a thorough verification of the customer for anti money laundering purposes, and the right to privacy for all individuals involved who do not own any ownership interest of power of administration with respect to the trust.

It would seem more reasonable to limit the definition of “beneficial owner” of a trust, to those individuals or entities, among the settlor, trustee(s) or beneficiaries, who actually have a meaningful interest in corpus of the trust or real powers with respect to the administration of the trust.   

Arguably, sub paragraphs 6(a) and 6(b) of article 3 should apply separately, depending on whether the “customer” to be tested is a corporate entity (in which case, the test of sub paragraph a) should apply) or a trust or other similar arrangement (in which case the test of sub paragraph b) should apply).

However, there is a potential argument for a concurrent application of the two sets of rules, whenever a shareholding or ownership interests in a corporate entity is held through a trust, foundation or other similar legal arrangement. In that case, under the “indirect ownership” rule requiring to find the natural person that ultimately owns the corporate entity, it may be reasonably be argued that the “beneficial owner” of the trust should be verified under the separate rules of sub paragraph b), and he or she would be deemed to indirectly and ultimately own the shareholding or ownership interest which the trust owns in the tested corporate entity.

Under a different interpretation, in the event that a shareholding or ownership interest in a corporate entity is owned through a trust, the analysis should stop at the person or persons who control the entity, under the rules of sub paragraph a), thereby limiting the know your customer verification to the person or persons who act as trustee or trustees for the trust.

In light of all the potential interpretative challenges, briefly mentioned above, it is important to see how the provisions of the IV Directive are going to be incorporated into the national legislation that will be enacted to transpose the Directive into Italy’s internal law. 

As for the scope of the disclosure mandated by the Directive, it is carried out at two levels. At one level, a bank, financial institution or professional individual that does business with an Italian entity or trust is required to conduct proper customer due diligence, which under article 13, paragraph 1, letter (b) of the Directive, including the following:

(b) identifying the beneficial owner and taking reasonable measures to verify that person’s identity so that the obliged entity is satisfied that it knows who the beneficial owner is, including, as regards legal persons, trusts, companies, foundations and similar legal arrangements, taking reasonable measures to understand the ownership and control structure of the customer;

At another level, under article 30, paragraph 1 of the Directive, the companies themselves are required to obtain and hold  adequate, accurate and current information on their beneficial ownership, including the details of the beneficial interests held.

Article 30, paragraph 2 requires that the information of the companies’ beneficial ownership and beneficial interests be held in a way that it is accessible in a timely manner to the tax and financial authorities. 

In addition to the above, article 30, paragraph 4 of the Directive provides that the information on the companies’ beneficial ownership and beneficial interests shall also be held in a central register accessible in all cases to the tax and financial authorities, banks and financial institutions and any other person or organization that can demonstrate a legitimate interest to 

Finally, under the Directive, a separate and independent disclosure regime may apply to trusts. Indeed, article 31, paragraph 1 provides that:

1.Member States shall require that trustees of any express trust governed under their law obtain and hold adequate, accurate and up-to-date information on beneficial ownership regarding the trust. That information shall include the identity of: (a) the settlor; (b) the trustee(s); (c) the protector (if any); (d) the beneficiaries or class of beneficiaries; and (e) any other natural person exercising effective control over the trust.    

Italy does not have any law governing trusts (except that it applies its owns tax rules for the taxation of trusts both for income and gist and estate tax purposes). Trusts are usually established under foreign law, and recognized and enforced in Italy, if necessary, under the Hague Convention on Trusts which has been ratified in Italy by way of Law n. 364 of 1989. Law n. 171 refers is to “trusts governed under law n. 364 of October 16, 1089”, which includes any trust established under foreign law, which is recognized and enforced in Italy pursuant to the Trust Convention.

Furthermore, article 31, paragraph 4 of the Directive provides that

4.Member States shall require that the information referred to in paragraph 1 is held in a central register when the trust generates tax consequences. The central register shall ensure timely and unrestricted access by competent authorities and FIUs, without alerting the parties to the trust concerned. It may also allow timely access by obliged entities, within the framework of customer due diligence in accordance with Chapter II. Member States shall notify to the Commission the characteristics of those national mechanisms.

The separate disclosure for trusts seems to be triggered whenever a trust is recognized and made effective in Italy pursuant Law n. 389 and the Hague Convention, and when the trust generates tax consequences in Italy.

Finally, it should be noted that on July 5, 2016, the European Commission adopted a proposal to amend the IV Directive on anti money laundering, which would reduce the shareholding test from 25% to 10%. 

Until the IV Directive is actually transposed into Italian law,  the provisions of legislative decree n. 231 of November 21, 2007 still apply.  

Legislative Decree n. 231 treats as “beneficial owner” the natural person or persons who ultimately own or control an entity, by directly or indirectly owing or controlling an adequate shareholding, voting or ownership interest in the entity, with the understanding that a (direct or indirect) shareholding or ownership interest of more than 25% of the entity is sufficient to satisfy the definition of beneficial owner. 

In case of trusts, beneficial owner is any identified beneficiary of the trust, who owns a qualified interest in more than 25% of the trust’s assets. 

The disclosure under Legislative Decree n. 231 is much more limited and restricted, given the narrower definition of beneficial owner that applies when a corporate entity is owned indirectly through a trust. Unlike the IV Directive, which mentions each of the trust’s settler, trustees and beneficiaries as beneficial owners of the trust, and as owning indirectly indirectly any shareholding or ownership interest that the trust holds in the tested entry, the legislative decree n. 231 refers solely to the trust’s identified beneficiaries owning an interest in at least 25% of the trust’s assets. 

In the course of our practice, we have been involved in situations in which banks and other financial  institutions or professional firms adopt a stricter and more balanced approach, by referring to the 25 percent ownership test and, for trusts, by limiting their investigations to beneficiaries holding an interest on more than 25 percent of trust’s assets and trustees holding effective power of administration of the trust. In other situations, however, we noted that other banks may want to anticipate the application for the new provisions of the IV Directive, even before its entry into force, and conduct a 360 degree investigation on trusts, requesting information about all of the trust’s settlor, trustees and beneficiaries (both actual and contingent) of wither income or corpus of the trust, regardless of the existence of an actual interest in, or power of administration with respect to, the assets of the trust.
In those cases, we have experienced that clients are willing to discuss the matter with their banks to make sure that their legitimate privacy rights are respected, and that anti money laundering, know your client verifications do not go beyond their legitimate, reasonable needs and become unmanageable or drain excessive resources.
In anticipation of the implementation of the IV Directive, clients should make the effort to review their structures, and put together a standard package that should be used with all of the banks, financial intermediaries and professional firms with whom they do business, and who will require information pursuant to anti money laundering legislation, to achieve efficiency and stay in compliance in such a challenging area clearly destined to draw more scrutiny and attention.

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.