Note: this is the third part in a series of posts on Tax and, more specifically, the draft Zimbabwean Income Tax bill. The preceding posts:

Right, so, when one is reforming a tax code, the first step in expanding the tax base…means that we have to take a step back.

Step 0: Basic Principles

Unless you’re a member of the “taxes are just legalised expropriation – how dare anyone use their authority to steal my money in exchange for providing services that I may not want?” school of thought, taxes are the effective rent you pay for using a country’s public goods (I’ve written about this before: “Multinational Tax: I Find The Argument Well Taxing“).

Here’s the old school theory:

  1. I am a king. This is my chair. I am a king in my chair.
  2. Behold that yonder knave that hast besmirched my good wife’s honour.
  3. Attack him with an army.
  4. “Good people, I am set out to defend thee from those yonder wicked dudes. Give me your gold.”
  5. “Tax collectors – go get the gold.”
  6. *pays for war*

This is the modern equivalent:

  1. If the free market was left to provide public goods (like street-lighting, cheap water, defence, an objective police force, etc), it wouldn’t. Or it would do it unethically. Or badly.
  2. So let the government provide those goods.
  3. But they need money in order to do that.
  4. So each person should pay some tax according to his/her means in exchange for the government’s undertaking to provide those services.
Of course, today we’ve taken tax and added in “wealth transfers”, which is the government saying “and let us also be Robin Hood”. But that’s a side issue.
Given that principle/philosophy/economic policy, the very next question on the agenda is:
Who, then, should pay income tax?

Before you even look at types of income or tax rates or glaring loopholes, you have to decide to whom those rules will apply.

Defining The Term “Resident”

When we use the word “resident”, we usually think of immigration, having a passport and where you’re entitled to live.

But that is only the smallest part of the story – because your homeland residency per se is determined by a single government department (the Department of Home Affairs, or something similar). And government departments can and do disagree about most things. Meaning that, for example, the Department of Finance will undoubtedly have its own definition of “resident” that it’ll use for tax purposes (your “tax residency”), which will make only a passing tip of the hat to the rulings of Home Affairs. It might, in addition, have separate sets of rules for exchange control – so you may have “exchange control residency” as well.

The point is: just be aware, if you’re work/study/travel extensively outside of your home country, that tax and exchange control don’t necessarily follow your passport!

But in this case, I’m concerned with tax residency. So based on the principles above (in Step 0), here’s what you might expect:

  1. If you’re a resident of the country (as an individual, or as a company), you get the full benefits of whatever your country can provide, so you should definitely be a taxpayer.
  2. If you’re a non-resident of a particular country, but you live/work there all year round (as, say, a foreign temporary resident), then you’re also getting some benefits (defence, etc), so you should also be a taxpayer.
  3. If you’re not a resident of a particular country, but you live off your trust fund and visit it for most of the year (say: more than half), then you too should be part of the tax base.
  4. If a company is not formed in a particular country, but all the important decisions and basic day-to-day operations are run from there, then it sounds like you’re effectively a resident, and you’re probably protected by some of that country’s laws, so you’re also on the list.

I think that about sums it up. Basically, if you’re in any position to benefit significantly from a country’s public goods, then you’re a bit obligated to pay for them.

Who’s not included:

  1. People/companies that don’t have anything to do with said country.
  2. People that only visit briefly.
  3. Tourists.
  4. Residents that live and work in other countries.

Which makes sense. I mean – tourists are bringing their already-taxed income and spending it in the country on trinkets that would never be bought by said country’s residents. They’re already doing enough.

And in general, what you expect is exactly what you get. Most tax codes will work on that general principle (not all – but certainly the ones that are considered “best practice”).

Which brings me back to the Zimbabwean Income Tax bill…

Step 1: Let’s Redefine The Term “Tax Resident”

Here’s the proposal (with the exciting parts in red):

  1. A Resident Individual Taxpayer
    1. Any individual that has a normal place of abode in Zimbabwe and is present in Zimbabwe at any time during the year. OR
    2. Any individual that is in Zimbabwe for more than 183 days (ie. more than half the year). OR
    3. A government official posted overseas.
  2. A Resident Company
    1. Any company incorporated in Zimbabwe. OR
    2. Any company that has its effective management and control exercised in Zimbabwe at any point during the year. OR
    3. Any company that undertakes the majority of its operations in Zimbabwe during the year.
  3. A Resident Trust
    1. Any trust established in Zimbabwe. OR
    2. Any trust that has a trustee who was a resident in Zimbabwe at any time during the year. OR
    3. Any trust that has its management and control exercised in Zimbabwe at any point during the year.

The main problem is the timing.

One New Year’s Kariba trip for an individual that owns a property* in Zimbabwe – and they’re liable for tax. One business trip for the CEO of a foreign company where he/she sends an email back with an executive instruction – and that foreign company is deemed a Zimbabwean tax resident. A trustee resolution via Skype – and that trust is now meant to be submitting a Zimbabwean tax return.
*that seems to be the general consensus on what “a normal place of abode” means. You don’t have to live in it, it doesn’t even need to be residential property – you just have to have a title deed in your name.

Of course, I’m not sure how easy it will be to enforce these definitions across the board (this is the other important side of taxation – principle is great, but ease of enforcement is key). I mean – will the Revenue Authorities monitor your skype conference calls? And your travel plans? Oh – and on the plus side, there are concessionary tax credits available if you are already paying tax in another country (that is, you get told how much tax is owed to the Zimbabwean Revenue Authorities, and then you reduce it by the amount of tax you’ve paid in that other country).

But it does mean that anyone of significant means targeted by a ZIMRA agent is 100% certain to have done something wrong in ZIMRA’s eyes. And even if these definitions get challenged in court, and are ruled to be unconstitutional or wrongly interpreted, we all know how tax appeals/objections work…

“Object if you want – but there’s a process. You pay the assessment as it stands, and we’ll refund you if you win.”

But here’s the real crux: tax credits are wonderful, but only if all countries calculate taxable income in the same way…

Just wait until I get to the post on allowable deductions.