Monday, April 6, 2009

Holding Company: What Is It and How Does it Work?

Here is a great article written by Rolland Vaive, CA, TEP, CPA - an excellent accountant based in Ottawa (Orleans) and specializing in complicated tax matters.


Speak to any tax accountant for more than a minute and they'll surely be talking about holding companies, or HoldCo's for short.

A holding company is not a term which is defined in the Income Tax Act. It is a term which is used to define a corporation which holds assets, most often income generating investment assets. It does not typically carry on any active business operations.

A HoldCo can arise for a variety of reasons. In the early 1990's, the personal marginal tax rate in Ontario was slightly higher than 53%, while the corporate rate of tax was considerably lower than that. High income individuals who had significant investment assets could realize a tax deferral by transferring their investment assets to a HoldCo, particularly in situations where they did not need the income which was being generated by the investments. This breakdown between the corporate rate of tax and the personal rate of tax lead to many HoldCo's being formed.

HoldCo's may also come about as an effective means of creditor proofing profitable operating companies, as a result of Canadian estate planning, or as a means of avoiding U.S. estate tax and Ontario probate fees.

Regardless of their origins, the investment income generating HoldCo is taxed in an unusual manner, which I will attempt to explain.

The underlying concept of HoldCo taxation is called "integration". In general terms, integration means that an individual should pay the same amount of tax on investment income if they earned it personally or if they earned it through a corporation and withdrew the after-tax income in the form of dividends. When we look at some real numbers, you will see that this in fact generally holds true. However, it is possible to exploit some breakdowns in integration, at which time it may become quite beneficial to earn your investment income through a HoldCo.

Let's look at the theory. We often hear about how corporations are taxed at low tax rates. In situations where a private company is earning income from active business operations carried on in Canada, that is quite true. In these situations, the rate of tax would be a flat tax rate of 18.620% if the company was resident in Ontario. The other provinces have similarly low rates of tax on "active business income". The low rate of tax does not apply to investment income, which is what the HoldCo would be generating.

For an Ontario resident private company generating investment income, the combined Federal and Provincial rate of tax would be a flat 49.7867% on all forms of investment income, other than dividends from other Canadian corporations. Bear in mind that only 1/2 of capital gains are included in income, so the effective corporate rate of tax on capital gains would be 24.8934%.

A portion of the tax that HoldCo pays each year on its' investment income goes into a notional pool called the RDTOH pool. This is an acronym for "refundable dividend tax on hand". Of the 49% rate of tax that is paid by the corporation, 26.67% will go into the RDTOH pool each year and is tracked on the corporation's Federal tax return. If HoldCo pays a taxable dividend to its' shareholders in a particular year, it gets back part of its RDTOH pool. More specifically, the company will get back $1 for every $3 of dividends that it pays. This RDTOH recovery is called a dividend refund, and would be a direct reduction of the corporation's tax liability for the year. If the corporation pays a large dividend to a shareholder, the dividend refund would also be large and may result in the company actually getting money back from the Canada Revenue Agency. In short, the HoldCo will pay a large tax liability on its investment income up front, but it can get a large portion of it back at a later date if it pays out dividends. The dividend refund is an attempt to compensate for the fact that the dividend will attract tax in the hands of the shareholder. Without this mechanism, the 48% rate of tax on investment income combined with the tax paid by the shareholder on the dividend that they receive would result in an onerous rate of tax.

It is possible that a second notional tax pool may arise in HoldCo if it is generating capital gains on its' investment assets. You will recall that only 1/2 of capital gains are included in income. The other 1/2 portion of the capital gain which is not included in income will get added to the capital dividend account, or "CDA", of HoldCo. The CDA balance is something which needs to get tracked by the company on a regular basis, since it does not appear anywhere on the company's financial statements or tax returns. The CDA is important because it is possible for HoldCo to pay a dividend to a shareholder and elect to pay it out of the CDA balance, making the dividend tax-free to the shareholder. If a company realizes a capital gain of $10,000 , only $5,000 will be included in taxable income, with the remaining $5,000 being added to the company's CDA balance. The company could then pay a $5,000 dividend to the shareholder. By electing to do so out of the CDA balance, the shareholder would not be taxed on the dividend.

Lets look at this in conjunction with the RDTOH balance. If the company pas a dividend to a shareholder out of the CDA balance, it is tax free to the shareholder, but it is not going to generate a dividend refund to HoldCo. HoldCo only gets a dividend refund if the dividend is a taxable dividend to the shareholder.

Armed with this theory, we can look at a live example of how this would work. Lets consider the example of an Ontario resident individual who is holding shares that have an adjusted cost base (i.e. tax cost) of $1,000. These shares have experienced a dramatic increase in value, and are now worth $100,000. The individual is going to sell these shares and would like to know if there is any advantage to doing so through a HoldCo. The individual is in the highest marginal tax rate (currently 31.310 % on Canadian source dividends and 46.410 % on everything else). The individual wants the after tax money, so they would withdraw everything from the HoldCo once the shares are sold. If they were to go the HoldCo route, they would elect to transfer their shares to HoldCo at their $1,000 tax cost prior to the sale (to transfer them at fair market value would defeat the purpose), and would have the capital gain realized within HoldCo. In the process of transferring the shares to HoldCo, they could arrange to have HoldCo issue a note payable to them equal to their original $1,000 tax cost.

Integration tells us that selling the shares through a HoldCo should give us the same result as selling the shares personally. If the individual wants to get the money out of the HoldCo following the sale of the shares, they would elect to take part of the proceeds from the share sale out of HoldCo as a non-taxable repayment of their $1,000 note and as a non-taxable payment our of the CDA balance. The remaining cash would be withdrawn from the company as a taxable dividend, leading to a dividend refund in HoldCo.

As this example illustrates, there is no advantage to using the HoldCo to sell the shares even without considering the professional fees associated with the HoldCo. So why do it?

Well, there may be some good reasons for doing it. Firstly, the example assumes that the individual withdraws all of the cash from HoldCo in the year of the share sale, and at a time when they are in the highest marginal tax rate. If the cash from the sale was left in the corporation and withdrawn as a dividend a year or two later when the individual was not in the highest marginal tax rate, then the results may be quite good. The HoldCo would get the dividend refund at a rate of $1 for every $3 of dividends in that later year when the dividend is paid, and the shareholder may not incur a significant tax liability on the dividend that he or she receives.

Alternatively, it may be possible to transfer the shares to HoldCo well before a sale is to happen. In this way, future growth in the value of the shares could be shifted to other family members. When the shares are sold, the growth in value since the time of the transfer could be paid as a dividend to these other family members. If these family members are in a low marginal tax rate, they would not incur much tax on the dividend, and the results could be quite good when compared to the alternative where the shares continue to be held by the individual and sold by him or her personally.

There are a host of issues to be considered before embarking on such an exercise, including the corporate attribution rules and the tax on split income to name but a few.

As always, seek professional advice before undertaking any steps.

1 comment:

Doug Cumpson said...

ike this post from 2009 as it still speaks to issues and matters of Business Owner today in Ontario.

I would like to meet with you to determine if there is merit in working together in the future on mutual clients files from time to time.


Doug Cumpson

GB Taxes & Accounting

905 667-8880