The ATO is a large bureaucracy and produces a lot of guidance material. Generally the ATO feels bound by its published material from an administrative viewpoint. However, only certain publications bind the ATO.
Thus it is important that advisers and taxpayers understand the range of material (or products) published by the ATO and the level of protection that each provides. For example, a tax ruling is generally binding on the ATO. As discussed, the ATO’s general administrative practice is that it feels bound to follow its own written materials but in the event the ATO is wrong, the tax still remains payable but penalties may be remitted.
In particular, only certain documents provide a ‘precedential ATO view’. This is the ATO’s documented view about the application of any of the law administered by the ATO in relation to a particular interpretative issue. The ATO has precedential views to ensure its decisions on interpretative issues are accurate and consistent. PS LA 2003/3 states that Precedential ATO views are set out in the following documents:
- public rulings (including draft public rulings);
- ATO Interpretative Decisions (ATO IDs);
- decision impact statements; and
- documents listed in the Schedule of Documents containing Precedential ATO Views (attached to PS LA 2003/3).
We discuss the main types of ATO publications below and also provide a handy summary at the end of this article.
Public rulings are binding advice that express the ATO’s interpretation of the law. The ATO publish different types of public rulings including:
TR — taxation ruling;
TD — taxation determination (short form ruling);
GSTR — GST ruling;
MT — Miscellaneous taxation ruling;
SGR — Superannuation guarantee ruling;
CR — class ruling; and
PR — product ruling.
Where a taxpayer follows a public, private or oral ruling that applies to them the ATO is bound to assess them as set out in the ruling. If the correct application of the law is less favourable to a taxpayer than the ruling provides, the ruling protects the taxpayer from the law being applied by the ATO in that less favourable way.
A public ruling usually applies to both past and future years and protects a taxpayer from the date of its application, which is usually the date of effect of the relevant legislative provision. In addition, a public ruling that is withdrawn continues to apply to schemes that had begun to be carried out before the withdrawal.
TR 2006/10 is an ATO public ruling that provides details on the protection offered by public rulings, etc.
The ATO’s ‘advice under development program’ tracks the development of rulings, determinations and significant addenda, including topics that have been added or withdrawn, and rulings and determinations that have been finalised.
Administratively binding advice
The ATO provides administratively binding advice to assist taxpayers, in certain limited circumstances. The ATO considers that it is administratively bound by its advice and an early engagement (for advice) request can lodged with the ATO to discuss the matter before applying for such advice.
Generally, the ATO stands by its advice and will not depart from it unless:
- there have been legislative changes since the advice was given;
- a tribunal or court decision has affected the ATO’s interpretation of the law since the advice was given;
- the advice is no longer appropriate for other reasons.
If a taxpayer follows the advice and the ATO later find out that it does not apply the law correctly to you (and none of the points above apply), you will be protected from having to repay amounts of tax that would otherwise be payable, and any penalties and interest on those amounts.
You apply for administratively binding advice via a private ruling application form.
Private binding rulings
A private binding ruling (‘PBR’) on a tax query is binding on the ATO. Note that this is the information provided at the start of most PBRs:
- You cannot rely on the rulings in the register of private binding rulings in your tax affairs. You can only rely on a private ruling that we have given to you or to someone acting on your behalf.
- The Register of private binding rulings is a public record of edited private rulings issued by the ATO. The register is an historical record of rulings, and the ATO does not update it to reflect changes in the law or ATO policies.
- The rulings in the register have been edited and may not contain all the factual details relevant to each decision. Do not use the register to predict ATO policy or decisions.
As you will note, PBRs only provide protection to the particular taxpayer that the PBR is issued to. Thus, those who seek to rely on information in the register of PBRs do so at their own risk.
An example where this may prove risky for self managed superannuation funds (‘SMSF’) is if they relied on a favourable PBR issued to another taxpayer on a nil interest LRBA from a related party since there would be no protection from that PBR (as it only protects the taxpayer covered by that PBR). Note that following several PBRs issued by the ATO in FY2014, numerous other SMSFs entered into LRBAs without a PBR.
The ATO issued PCG 2016/5 in April 2016 that stated that SMSFs with non-arm’s length LRBAs that did not bring them in compliance with arm’s length terms prior to 31 January 2017 would be subject to non-arm’s length income. Fortunately, these SMSFs did not suffer additional tax or penalties for relying on a strategy that had been covered in another taxpayer’s PBR. In contrast, there have been other situations, where taxpayers have suffered extra tax and penalties for relying on another taxpayer’s PBR which did not provide protection to them.
A Tax Determination (‘TD’) provides similar protection to a public ruling. By way of example the protection provided by a TD, as described in TD 2013/22 follows:
- This publication provides you with the following level of protection:
- This publication (excluding appendixes) is a public ruling for the purposes of the Taxation Administration Act 1953.
- A public ruling is an expression of the Commissioner’s opinion about the way in which a relevant provision applies, or would apply, to entities generally or to a class of entities in relation to a particular scheme or a class of schemes.
- If you rely on this ruling, the Commissioner must apply the law to you in the way set out in the ruling (unless the Commissioner is satisfied that the ruling is incorrect and disadvantages you, in which case the law may be applied to you in a way that is more favourable for you — provided the Commissioner is not prevented from doing so by a time limit imposed by the law). You will be protected from having to pay any underpaid tax, penalty or interest in respect of the matters covered by this ruling if it turns out that it does not correctly state how the relevant provision applies to you.
An ATO ID is a summary of a decision on an interpretative issue and is indicative of the ATO’s view on the interpretation of the law on that particular issue. ATO IDs are produced to assist ATO officers to apply the law consistently and accurately to particular factual situations. ATO IDs set out the precedential ATO view that we must apply in resolving interpretative issues. They are not rulingsAn example of the level of protection provided by ATO ID 2012/16:
- This ATO ID provides you with the following level of protection:
- If you reasonably apply this decision in good faith to your own circumstances (which are not materially different from those described in the decision), and the decision is later found to be incorrect you will not be liable to pay any penalty or interest. However, you will be required to pay any underpaid tax (or repay any over-claimed credit, grant or benefit), provided the time limits under the law allow it. If you do intend to apply this decision to your own circumstances, you will need to ensure that the relevant provisions referred to in the decision have not been amended or repealed. You may wish to obtain further advice from the Tax Office or from a professional adviser.For more information refer to PS LA 2001/8 (see immediately below) which is the Law Administration Practice Statement that explains the policy for ATO IDs.
Law Administration Practice Statement
A PS LA provides direction and assistance to ATO staff on the approaches to be taken in performing duties involving the application of the laws administered by the Commissioner. For more information see PS LA 1998/1.
Although PS LAs are published in the interests of open administration, their intended audience is ATO staff and they have a main purpose of providing instructions to ATO staff on the manner of performing law administration duties.
Practical Compliance Guidelines
From 2016, PS LAs will align more closely with their main purpose and Practical Compliance Guidelines (‘PCG’) will be the appropriate communication product providing broad law administration guidance to taxpayers.
Provided a taxpayer follows a PCG, the ATO will administer the law in accordance with the approach reflected in that guideline. PCGs are not binding on the ATO and are used as safe harbours to provide an indication of how the ATO will apply its compliance resources. For example, PCG 2006/5 provide safe harbour terms for related party LRBAs that if satisfied, will not result in the ATO applying resources to review and audit LRBAs prior to FY2016.
Law companion rulings
A law companion rulings (‘LCR’; formerly known as law companion guidelines) provides the ATO view on how recently enacted law applies and is usually developed at the same time as the drafting of the Bill.
An LCR will normally be published:
- in draft form for comment when the Bill is introduced into Parliament and will be finalised soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent. It provides early certainty in relation to the application of the new law; or
- where taxpayers need to take additional action to comply with the law, to provide certainty about what needs to be done.
An LCR will not usually be issued where the new law is straightforward, is limited in its application or does not relate to an obligation to pay tax, penalties or interest.
A range of draft LCRs issued in relation to the mid-2017 superannuation reforms including LCR 2016/8 on Superannuation reform: transfer balance cap and transition-to-retirement reforms: transitional CGT relief for superannuation funds.
An LCR will usually be finalised as a public ruling at the time the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law, unless issues arise during consultation or the Bill is significantly amended in the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
Because LCRs are prepared at such an early time, an LCR will not be informed by experience of the new law operating in practice. Therefore, while they offer the same protection in relation to underpaid tax, penalties or interest as a normal public ruling, this will only apply if a taxpayer relies on an LCR in good faith.
LCR 2015/1 covers the purpose, nature and role in ATO’s public advice and guidance.
SMSF Specific Advice
An SMSF Specific Advice on a SISA or SISR SMSF question is not binding on the ATO. Typically ATO advice can be sought in relation to the following topics:
Investment rules including:
- acquisition of assets from related parties;
- borrowing and charges;
- in-house assets;
- business real property;
In specie contributions/payments; and
Payment of benefits under a condition of release.
In certain cases, if taxpayers request a PBR and SMSF Specific Advice, the ATO generally ask that these be separated into different requests. However, we have noticed a number of PBRs issued where the ATO have combined these two forms of guidance but have been very express in their letter that this is where the PBR starts and finishes and similarly, this is where the SMSF Specific Advice starts and finishes so there is no confusion as to what part is binding and what is not binding on the ATO.
Taxpayer alerts (‘TA’) are intended to be an early warning of the ATO’s concerns about significant and emerging potential aggressive tax planning issues or arrangements that the ATO has under risk assessment. Moreover, the ATO usually develops its views more comprehensively following the issue of a TA on a topic and prior TAs can be superseded shortly after being issued.
The comment at the beginning of a TA is:
- TAs are intended to be an early warning of our concerns about significant or emerging higher risk planning issues or arrangements that the ATO has under risk assessment, or where there are recurrences of arrangements that have been previously risk assessed.
Decision Impact Statements
Decision Impact Statements (‘DIS’) are succinct statements of the ATO’s response to significant cases decided by the courts or tribunals. They provide the details of the case including the implications of the decision and whether any ATO rulings, ATO IDs, etc, need to be amended.
Invariably, the ATO seek to distinguish a decision based on the facts and circumstances of the case where the ATO does not succeed.
Superannuation circulars explain the various legislative requirements which apply to the operation of SMSFs under SISA and SISR.
SMSF Regulatory bulletins
Self-Managed Superannuation Fund Regulator’s Bulletins outline the ATO’sss concerns about new and emerging arrangements that pose potential risks to SMSF trustees and their members from a superannuation regulatory and/or income tax perspective.
These bulletins are specifically designed for the SMSF sector. The ATO’s aim is to share its concerns early to help you make informed decisions about your SMSF.
To the extent that this Bulletin provides guidance to you, and you apply it in good faith to your own circumstances, the Commissioner will administer the law in accordance with the guidance outlined in this Bulletin
For example, SMSFRB 2018/1 examines the ATO’s position on the use of reserves by self-managed superannuation funds.
ATO web page and fact sheets
The ATO web page and fact sheets can be useful but cannot be relied on. The general administrative practice is that the ATO feels bound to follow its own written materials but in the event that the ATO is wrong, the tax is still generally payable but penalties may not be imposed.
PS LA 2008/3 explains that, in the interests of sound administration, the ATO’s practice has been to provide administratively binding advice in a limited range of circumstances.
For example, the ATO provides administratively binding advice on matters under the SGAA. There is no legislative framework for the provision of public, private or oral advice in relation to matters under the SGAA.
Media releases are brief announcements used to deliver ATO messages on newsworthy topics and to communicate the ATO’s intentions in relation to certain issues. A media release reflects the ATO’s position at the time of its publication which may subsequently be updated.
Speeches by senior ATO officers reflect the ATO’s thinking on particular issues and are published for transparency reasons.
Oral rulings –– for individuals
An oral ruling is a form of legally binding advice the ATO gives over the phone to individual in relation to their specific circumstances; typically in relation to personal income tax or the Medicare levy queries.
If an individual relies on an oral ruling, the ATO is bound to assess their liability in accordance with the oral ruling.
If the oral ruling is incorrect and disadvantages an individual, the may apply the law in a way that is more favourable to that person provided there is no time limit in doing so.
Tailored technical assistance
The ATO provides tailored technical assistance in some circumstances, orally or in writing, depending on the nature and complexity of the query.
- A taxpayer may seek tailored technical assistance if they are not able to find an ATO view of how the law applies to a particular technical issue.
- A taxpayer is not certain how the ATO view of the law applies to their circumstances.
- A taxpayer is seeking greater certainty (protection) than what ATO published products provide.
Typically, this is best managed by a tax agent or a tax expert.
Summary of ATO materials
There is a vast array of information issued by the ATO. Advisers should be aware of each type of product and understand how it applies to taxpayers. In particular, different levels of protection apply to taxpayers relying on ATO materials. A summary of numerous ATO products follows.
|Product||Binding on ATO||Comments|
|Public rulings||Yes||Issued by the ATO for all taxpayers to rely on|
|Administratively binding advice||No||Designed to assist taxpayers|
|PBR||Yes||Issued for a specific taxpayer and a register of PBRs is available. A taxpayer cannot rely on another’s PBR.|
|TD||Yes||Similar to a public ruling|
|ATO IDs||No||ATO view on a technical issue|
|PS LA||No||Practical guidance to ATO staff|
|PCG||No||Practical guidance to taxpayers|
|LCR||Yes||Practical guidance on new laws|
|SMSF Specific Advice||No||ATO advice on SISA and SISR queries|
|TA||No||ATO warnings of new or emerging aggressive tax planning concerns|
|DIS||No||Succinct statements of the ATO’s response to significant cases decided by the courts or tribunals|
|Superannuation circulars||No||Explains the legislative requirements that apply to SMSFs under SISA and SISR|
|ATO fact sheets||No||Practical guidance on tax and super matters|
|Media releases/speeches||No||Brief ATO announcements to the media on newsworthy topics and speeches to be transparent|
|Oral rulings –– for individuals||Yes||Oral phone advice on personal income tax and Medicare levy queries for individuals|
|Tailored technical assistance|
|No||To provide an ATO view of how the law applies to a particular technical issue|
We previously issued this article on 3 March 2017; which has been significantly updated in the above article. Click here for our prior article ‘What ATO publications can be relied on?’.
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This article is for general information only and should not be relied upon without first seeking advice from an appropriately qualified professional.
Note: DBA Lawyers hold SMSF CPD training at venues all around. For more details or to register, visit www.dbanetwork.com.au or call 03 9092 9400.