Director/shareholders of privately owned companies have long been able to reduce their tax and NIC bills by adopting a remuneration structure consisting of a low salary, topped up with dividend payments.
A typical family company might make £50,000 a year in profits. At this level, the combined income tax and NIC bill would exceed £13,300. Running the business as a limited company would cut the tax on business profits to less than £8,500. The saving of over £4,800 could be used to enhance the living standards of the owner’s family, reduce the length of their working week, or provide funds for investment in the business.
So what has changed?
On 13 April 2013, HMRC announced that PA Holdings had abandoned its appeal in a complex tax avoidance case, involving the payment of dividends. It also announced that there was no change in policy towards OMBs and their dividend planning.
So that sounds OK but…..
They can still challenge dividends and treat them as remuneration if they are not voted properly.
The legal background
Dividends can only be voted from distributable reserves. These are measured using the accounting rules. It can be a particular problem in the first year of a business, if no accounts have been drawn up. How can you prove that profits have been earned before you have accounts?
Many of our clients employ us, or other bookkeepers, to keep them up to date. In this case, it is easy to prepare a simple, interim, statement, to show an up to date profit position. In fact, if the previous accounts show insufficient profits accumulated, it is ESSENTIAL to have management accounts drawn up, before a dividend is voted.
If the dividend is deemed illegal, the shareholders can be forced to repay it, and HMRC can treat the payment as a loan on which notional corporation tax (the S455 Liability) and income tax (on a beneficial loan) may be levied.
Interim vs final dividends
Most companies now pay interim dividends, which are proposed by the directors without reference to their shareholders. In private companies, there tend to be the same people, so it isn’t an issue, but it is not always the case. Interim dividends are taxed when they are paid. “Payment” in this case can mean being credited to the directors loan account, transferred to an account as requested by the director/shareholder or otherwise made available to spend (by paying down a personal credit card bill for example).
Final dividends can only be authorised by the shareholders in general meeting. They cannot approve more than is recommended by the directors (who have a duty to ensure that the company is managed prudently and in the interests of various stakeholders). As most private companies no longer hold AGMs, it is increasingly rare for final dividends to be voted. The main implication is that dividends are taxed on the date it is declared, unless a later date is specified on the resolution.
Most reward payments run on a monthly cycle, so you would expect dividends to reflect that. However, it is not always practical, or cost effective, for businesses to prepare the necessary financial reports, and hold a Board meeting to approve dividend payments on such a regular basis. In this case, dividends are usually paid, and later formalised after the company’s year end.
HMRC state (at EIM 42280) that, a payment cannot be earnings if there is an obligation to repay it. Furthermore, they state they “in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, the amounts drawn do not actually belong to the director.” Problems can still arise where the later credit to the DLA is a mixed bag of dividend and/or salary/fees/bonus.
So what should we do?
Do check your Articles of Association to ensure interim (or any) dividends are allowable.
Do ensure that each dividend is properly supported with Board Minutes, vouchers and an appropriate resolution.
As far as possible, make sure you actually pay the dividend by bank transfer, rather than credit to the DLA, as this makes the payment date clear. If necessary, the cash can be reintroduced later.
Avoid dividend waivers, as thee are easily attacked under tax avoidance case law.
Remember, dividends can also be paid by the transfer of assets (“in specie” is the legal term), if cash is not readily available.
A low salary/ dividend top up reward package is still available for owner managers who are not subject to national minimum wage legislation. However, care is still needed to ensure dividends are properly paid and documented. Contact your adviser, or us, if you are unsure you comply. Don’t make yourself an easy target by getting the basics wrong.