The 2019/20 Australian bushfires have prompted an outpouring of support throughout Australia and around the world. It’s easy to see why, considering the extent of the economic, environmental and personal devastation they have caused.

The federal, Victorian and New South Wales governments have now announced a raft of tax relief measures to ease the pressure on individuals, families and businesses affected by the bushfires. These measures are outlined below.

We also discuss the Australian framework for the tax deductibility of donations to certain organisations and the position internationally.

Providing support - it’s not taxing

Victorian measures

In Victoria, affected communities will be given access to the following concessional measures, similar to those provided in response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires:

  • If your property was destroyed or substantially damaged, you may seek ‘ex gratia’ relief (ie a waiver of your debt) from your 2020 land tax bill in relation to those properties.
  • Your land tax bill will also be waived if you own an ‘eligible property’ that is being used to provide free accommodation for those directly impacted by the bushfires.
  • If your property was destroyed and you decide not to rebuild in your community, you can apply to have your stamp duty bill reduced by up to $55,000 when buying a home elsewhere.
  • If you lost motor vehicles in the fires and you replace them, you can seek to have the motor vehicle duty on up to two vehicles reduced by up to $2,100.
  • The Victorian State Revenue Office has temporarily suspended the issuing of land tax assessments in affected areas.

These measures should be available immediately as they are being provided in the form of ex gratia relief and do not require legislative changes to take effect. However, you should be aware that these waivers may not be applied to you automatically. Please contact Rachel O’Donnell or the Victorian State Revenue Office.

New South Wales measures

In New South Wales, people affected by the bushfires will be given access to the following concessional measures:

  • Lodgment dates and payment deadlines for NSW taxes, duties, grants and royalties may be extended. This may include time limits for lodging objections.
  • Interest may not be charged on taxes, duties and royalties that are due and payable and arrangements can be made for payment of debts by instalments.
  • The collection of fines and debts payable by people in bushfire affected areas will be temporarily halted and payment deadlines may be extended.
  • If your motor vehicle was written off in a declared natural disaster, you may apply for a refund of motor vehicle duty paid on a replacement vehicle.
  • Wages may be exempt from payroll tax if they are paid to an employee while they are absent from work and unable to perform work duties as they are carrying out emergency operations related to the bushfires. Revenue NSW has indicated outlining involvement with a letter to either the Rural Fire Services NSW or the NSW State Emergency Service which can serve as evidence for the exemption. Payments should be recorded as ‘emergency services leave’.
  • Driving sanctions and Work and Development Orders may be lifted or placed on hold if you contact Revenue NSW or your Work and Development sponsor.

Again, these measures should be available immediately but may not be applied automatically. Please contact Jim Koutsokostas or the Revenue NSW.

Other states and territories

Similar announcements have not yet been made in other states and territories. Despite this, if you have been impacted by the bushfires in other states, you may be able to seek an extension of your lodgment or payment due dates, or ex gratia relief in relation to existing debts.

National measures

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has announced it is granting automatic deferrals for tax lodgements and the payment of tax debts by persons living in postcodes identified as being impacted by the bushfires (read the announcement for a full list of affected postcodes). The ATO’s Emergency Support line is also available for those impacted by the bushfires, regardless of whether they reside in one of the unlisted postcodes.

Importantly, these deferrals do not exempt taxpayers from paying their debts or making required lodgements, they simply defer these obligations to a later time.

It was also announced last week that Australian Government Disaster Recovery payments made to individuals and businesses impacted by the bushfires and payments made by the Government to Rural Fire Service Volunteers will be tax exempt. Legislation will be required to give effect to these changes and is scheduled to be introduced in the next sitting of Parliament.

Claiming a tax deduction in Australia

Australians can claim a tax deduction for a donation of cash of $2 or more made to an organisation that is endorsed by the ATO as a ‘Deductible Gift Recipient’ (DGR). There are many different types of DGRs including Public Benevolent Institutions like the Australian Red Cross Society, or organisations established to prevent or relieve the suffering of animals like Wildlife Victoria Inc.

You can search the Australian Business Number register to check whether an organisation has DGR status and the date at which they obtained this status. Importantly, if the organisation does not have DGR status when you make the donation, you cannot claim a tax deduction (unless they subsequently obtain DGR status and have the endorsement apply from an earlier date).

A common complaint of donors is that they don’t know how donations will be applied and indeed, to what degree those donations are depleted by the DGR’s administrative expenses. It is important to note that DGRs are subject to oversight by the ATO and (usually) the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). They are restricted to applying their assets and income toward the approved purpose or purposes for which the organisation was established and is maintained, and all expenses must be consistent with that.

While many charities publicly share the stories of their charitable works, if you want a more detailed view of how a charity manages the donations it receives, you can look them up on the ACNC Charity Register. Registered charities are required to lodge an annual information statement and, depending on their size, may also be required to lodge audited financial statements. These documents are made publicly available on the ACNC Charity Register.

…but what about our friends across the globe?

It is important to note that the above rules only apply to provide Australian taxpayers with a deduction that may be claimed to reduce their Australian tax. If you pay tax in an overseas jurisdiction, keep in mind that whether or not you can claim a tax deduction will depend on the entity to whom the donation is being made and the laws of the country in which you pay tax.

Ordinarily, if you reside and are taxed in a foreign jurisdiction, you will likely not be able to claim a tax deduction for a donation made to an Australian DGR. This will depend on the tax laws of that particular jurisdiction and you should seek advice before attempting to claim such a deduction.

Alternatively, you may be able to make a donation to a charity established in your local jurisdiction that provided financial or non-financial support to an Australian-based organisation. For example, the approach in the USA is similar to that in Australia. A donation will be deductible in the USA if the organisation receiving the donation has been granted tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

There are of course restrictions on a USA-based organisation’s ability to distribute funds or provide goods and services to Australian-based organisations for the purpose of assisting with natural disasters like the 2019/20 bushfires. This reflects the Australian position, whereby the organisation will be restricted to applying their assets and income toward the approved tax exempt purpose or purposes for which the organisation was established and is maintained.

If a tax exempt organisation established in the USA intends to make a distribution to an organisation in Australia, then the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) must be notified of the Australian organisation’s details and the intention to distribute funds to them. The USA-based organisation must also satisfy the IRS that distributions to those Australian organisations do not compromise their ability to achieve their approved purpose, and they must notify the IRS of any procedures put in place to ensure that distributions are applied properly and responsibly.