GST Withholding Tax
We have now had the best part of 5 months to ‘wrap our minds’ around the new GST withholding law in action. The new law broadly means that when new residential premises or potential residential land is sold, it is now the buyer who must account to the ATO for any GST payable. With the exception of the withholding notice that is to be provided to the buyer, the administration of GST in respect of the sale of second-hand residential property has not changed (in most cases), it is still GST exempt as an input-taxed supply.
The result of this law change is nothing new- GST has always been payable on sales of new residential premises and potential residential land. The change means that instead of asking the seller to make sure the GST is paid to the ATO upon the sale of the property, the buyer is now tasked with the job. This change effectively means that the buyer gets to play the role of both compliance officer and tax collector (which, let’s face it, is a bonus for all those buyers out there). But we shouldn’t ‘scoff’; according to the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill that introduces the change, the GST debt in respect of insolvent entities was at almost $2 billion as of November 2017.
Obligations of Note
The obligations initiated by the changes are not overly onerous but they are important for anyone looking to either sell or buy one of the qualifying properties. Primarily, the reason for this is the penalties that can be imposed. For instance, if a buyer forgets or fails to withhold and pay to the ATO the required GST amount, then the buyer can be liable for a penalty that matches the GST amount that they should have remitted. Similarly, if the seller forgets or fails to notify the buyer of the need to withhold GST, harsh financial penalties can also be imposed on them as well ($21,000 for individuals and $105,000 for companies). With this in mind, we urge anyone looking to buy or sell to seek advice in relation to these obligations prior to exchanging contracts.
Issues of Interest
The ACT and NSW Law Societies have adjusted the standard legal provisions used within contracts of sale to reflect these changes; however, we have found that many legal firms are including their own specific clauses to deal directly with the changes. It is important that any potential buyer or seller ensures that they understand these provisions as they won’t always be uniform from firm to firm. If these clauses are drafted incorrectly and do not mirror the law’s requirements they can potentially expose both parties to the onerous penalties outlined above.
Something else to keep in mind here is the actual payment of the GST. For instance, many sellers require that the GST amount is provided to them at settlement to ensure expediency of payment and to allow them to claim the requisite credits in their correct BAS. Buyers on the other hand, need to be wary of this arrangement as it does not (arguably) extinguish their obligations under the law, potentially opening them up to the penalties mentioned above.
Arguably one of the more confusing aspects of the new regime for sellers relates to which entity is actually responsible for the payment of GST. Under the new regime the seller is required to notify the buyer of certain information so that the buyer can make the appropriate payment to the ATO. This information includes the supplier’s name (and other details like ABN etc.). Normally, the supplier is the seller, however in practice this is not always the case. This could be due to the seller acting as trustee of a trust- in this situation the trust itself may be the entity liable for the GST, or there may be a number of sellers which make up a partnership and that partnership may be the entity registered for GST and liable for the GST on the sale. The seller could also belong to a closely held group of entities and another member of that group is in fact the one responsible for the GST.
What this all means is that if the incorrect entity is noted as the supplier and therefore liable for the GST, the associated input tax credits will not be assigned to the correct entity (that is, the one actually registered for GST and liable for it).
On its face this law seems relatively simple to grasp and in most respects it is. The administrative obligations of the new regime (some of which are identified above) are ‘necessary evils’ to facilitate compliance with the law. They are important and both sellers and buyers alike need to be aware of them and the consequences associated with failure to comply.
If you require assistance with GST withholding issues, please contact Richard Cook.
 Treasury Laws Amendment (2018 Measures No. 1) Bill 2018
 Paragraph 5.42 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill