Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Did Bumper $539m Death Tax Come From Them?

Source : The Straits Times, Sep 10, 2008

WHILE the Government has read the last rites over the estate duty, the levy has not given up the ghost without delivering the taxman one last bumper haul.

A whopping $539 million was assessed in the 12 months to March 31, more than five times the $105 million assessed in the 2007 tax year.

Estate duty assessed basically means the taxman bills on an estate, but the payment may not be immediate, as wills and so forth can take many months to settle.

Out of the $29 billion that went into the Government's tax coffers over the last year, $153 million were estate duties collected, said the annual report from Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) released on Monday.

Speculation is rife as to which wealthy individuals caused the dramatic appreciation of estate duties assessed.

Two candidates spring immediately to the minds of tax experts: well-known banker and philanthropist Tan Chin Tuan and Chemoil boss Robert Chandran.

Mr Tan, who died in November 2005 at the age of 98, was said to own or control large blocks of shares in listed companies, including OCBC Bank, Great Eastern Life and Straits Trading.

While Mr Tan - known as Mr OCBC - died well before the latest estate duties were assessed, tax experts do not rule out that it was this levy on his assets that has generated the Iras windfall.

'It takes time for estates to be settled, and only the taxman knows,' said Mr Ivan Png, Lim Kim San professor of business policy at the National University of Singapore.

An Iras spokesman said: 'We can't tell you which estates contributed to the increase due to the secrecy provisions of the tax acts.'

In an earlier analysis, Prof Png cast some doubt about Mr Tan being behind the tax windfall. He said there were 'no obvious spikes' in estate duty collection around the time of his death.

'The closest was $29.7 million in May 2006, which seems trivial relative to the late banker's wealth. So, probably, the famously meticulous Mr Tan had undertaken very careful estate planning,' wrote Prof Png.

Mr Chandran, who died in a helicopter crash in Indonesia in January, is the other most likely candidate.

The Indian-born entrepreneur founded Chemoil Energy and amassed personal wealth estimated at US$490 million (S$702 million) before his death at 57.

Ms Paula Eastwood, head of corporate tax at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said some cases may take longer due to delays in the submission of forms to the taxman or perhaps various disagreements over an estate's value.

Estate duty had to be paid within six months of a person's death or penalties and interest apply.

The duty is a legacy of the British colonial administration and is in effect a levy on a person's assets after death.

The first $9 million of residential property and the first $600,000 of all other assets, including CPF savings, were exempt. Amounts above those levels were taxed at 5 per cent for the first $12 million and 10 per cent for anything above that.

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam axed the levy in last February's Budget.

Tax experts said the move will cost the Government some money but it will not be a huge loss.

The biggest contributors to Iras coffers is from income and corporate taxes, stamp duty and the goods and services tax (GST). GST contributions jumped from $4 billion to $6.2 billion.

Meanwhile, the number of people here with assessable income over the magic million-dollar mark shot up by nearly 30 per cent to 2,751 in 2007, the Iras report showed.

KPMG tax services executive director Ooi Boon Jin said strong economic growth meant fatter pay packets, which in turn meant more income tax. Also, people with more money in their pockets spent more, so GST and other revenue rose, he said.

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