In Zhang v. Canada (A.G.) (2015 BSCS 1256), the British Columbia Supreme Court refused to grant rectification of a transaction in respect of which the taxpayers had no common intention to avoid capital gains tax on a share transfer.
The taxpayer was resident in British Columbia. He carried on a business of manufacturing and distributing laser equipment. In 2002, the taxpayer incorporated LABest Optronics Co. Ltd. (“LABest”) in China to carry on the business.
In 2003, the taxpayer met with his accountant to discuss his 2002 Canadian tax return. In the course of this discussion, the taxpayer asked about the distribution of income from LABest, and the accountant suggested that income earned in the company could be taxed in China and distributed to a Canadian corporate shareholder as exempt surplus dividends without further Canadian tax being imposed, and then later paid to the taxpayer.
Subsequently, the taxpayer incorporated Beamtech Optronics Co. Ltd. (“Beamtech”), a B.C. company. The accountant suggested that the shares of LABest be transferred to Beamtech. The taxpayer sought and obtained regulatory approval for the share transfer from the Chinese government, and such approval included a transfer value (determined by the government) of $150,000 USD. Beamtech paid $150,000 USD cash to the taxpayer, and no section 85 rollover of the shares was undertaken.
The CRA subsequently reviewed and assessed the transaction on the basis that the fair market value of the LABest shares was $661,164 CDN, resulting in a capital gain of $221,950 for the taxpayer in 2003.
The taxpayer sought rectification of the share transfer to substitute a section 85 rollover of the LABest shares to Beamtech.
The Court stated that the “proper approach” to rectification under B.C. law is as follows:
- The focus of the analysis in tax cases is on the intention of the related parties when they entered the transaction. This is because the “mistake” in the written instrument is usually a mistake as to the tax consequences of the transaction. It matters not if the mistake was caused by misinformation from the taxpayer to his advisors, or mistaken advice provided by a professional advisor to the taxpayer.
- There is nothing objectionable about taxpayers attempting to avoid tax.
- The real question which must be considered is whether the taxpayer is able to establish a specific continuing intention to avoid the particular tax in question. A general intention to avoid taxes is not sufficient. The determination of what constitutes sufficient specificity of intention will depend on the context and the circumstances of each case.
- Where rectification is aimed at a wholly distinct kind of tax avoidance, which was not specifically contemplated at the time the written instrument was formed, rectification will not be granted.
- A common specific intention is one which existed before the formation of the instrument in question and continued since that time. It must be a “precise” and “clearly-defined object” before rectification will be granted.
In the present case, the Court was concerned that there were significant inconsistencies in the evidence of the taxpayer and his accountant. Further, the evidence established only that the taxpayer intended to implement a corporate structure (i) for the tax-efficient movement of funds from LABest to Beamtech, and (ii) that was acceptable to the Chinese government. The taxpayer had only consulted his accountant about discrete tax issues, but never retained his accountant to provide a comprehensive review of all tax issues that may arise in respect of the transaction. The Court held that the taxpayer had no specific intention to avoid capital gains tax on the share transfer.
The Court dismissed the taxpayer’s application.
The more challenging aspect of Zhang is the Court’s discussion of the requirements for rectification – i.e., whether a specific or general intention to avoid tax must exist for rectification to be granted. The B.C. Court referred to the leading tax rectification case, Juliar v. A.G. (Canada) ((2000), 50 O.R. (3d) 728 (Ont. C.A.), leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed (File No. 28304)) (Dentons was counsel for the successful taxpayer), and the B.C. cases that have interpreted Juliar (see, for example, McPeake v. Canada (A.G.) (2012 BCSC 132)). The Court stated that, in B.C., “Rectification will not be granted where there is only a general intention to avoid taxes.”
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench reached a similar conclusion in Graymar Equipment (2008) Inc. v A.G. (Canada) (2014 ABQB 154) and Harvest Operations Corp. v. A.G. (Canada) (2015 ABQB 237)).
This may conflict with the reasoning in Juliar and other Ontario cases (see TCR Holding Corporation v. Ontario (2010 ONCA 233) and Fairmont Hotels Inc. v. A.G. (Canada)(2015 ONCA 441) in which the Ontario Court of Appeal has clearly stated that rectification was available where the taxpayers had a general intent to carry out their transactions on a tax-efficient (or tax-neutral) basis and had no expectation as to the specific manner in which the transaction would be carried out.
However, Zhang raises the question as to whether the distinction between specific and general intent is meaningful at all. On any rectification application, a court’s focus will always be on the nature of the mistake, the circumstances of the error, and the evidence of the taxpayer’s intent. Whether their intent is described as “specific” or “general”, taxpayers who are careless or cavalier about the Canadian tax implications of a transaction likely cannot establish that they intended to minimize or avoid taxes and cannot expect to obtain relief from the courts.
As of the time of the writing of this post, the taxpayer had not appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal.