bilateral tax treaties

In recent months, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Large Business and International Division (LB&I) has issued a variety of international tax practice “units” as part of its process to improve tax compliance from identified groups of business taxpayers. The overall process also includes short descriptions of respective “campaigns” and briefly describes the agency’s designated, tailored treatment or treatments for each campaign.

Most recently, it issued a unit on the mutual agreement procedure (MAP), commonly referred to as the Competent Authority Process under bilateral tax treaties (Doc Control No. ISO/P/01_07_03-01). The purpose of the unit is to provide IRS examiners (for the most part, the unit does not address foreign-initiated adjustments) with clear guidance on their responsibility in situations where proposed adjustments will be made in a context in which the taxpayer could potentially face double taxation, consistent with the most recent revenue procedure (Rev. Proc.) 2015-40. The unit also provides a helpful checklist for taxpayers in such situations.

The unit amplifies the guidance in Rev. Proc. 2015-40 with respect to both issues arising in Advance Pricing and Mutual Agreement (APMA) and Treaty Assistance and Interpretation Team (TAIT) (for non-transfer pricing issues). The discussion is consistent with current practice. Critical issues addressed include the following.
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On August 14, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (DC District Court) decided Starr International Company, Inc. v. United States. In Starr International, the DC District Court held that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was not arbitrary or capricious in finding at least one of the taxpayer’s principal purposes for moving its residency to Switzerland was to obtain tax benefits under the US-Swiss Treaty.

Before discussing the facts and holding in Starr International, it is helpful to set the stage for the dispute. The United States has a bilateral tax treaty with a number of nations to avoid double taxation and encourage cross-border investments. Bilateral tax treaties provide benefits to residents of the two contracting states. The United States has a bilateral tax treaty with Switzerland (the US-Swiss Treaty). Treaty benefits under the US-Swiss Treaty are generally desirable for qualified taxpayers because treaty coverage reduces the tax on certain types of transactions, such as US-source dividend income for Swiss residents.

Article 1 of the US-Swiss Treaty provides, except as otherwise provided, the Treaty shall apply to persons who are residents of Switzerland. A person generally is treated as a resident of Switzerland if that person, under Swiss law, is liable to tax therein by reason of his domicile, residence or other similar criteria. However, Article 22, Limitation on Benefits, provides additional criteria to claim benefits provided for in the US-Swiss Treaty.

The Limitation on Benefits provision of the US-Swiss Treaty contains multiple objective tests to claim benefits provided for in the US-Swiss Treaty. All the tests provided in Article 22 aim to identify entities with legitimate, non-tax purposes for residency in Switzerland. This provision intends to stop taxpayers from “treaty shopping” and establishing residency in Switzerland with the principal purpose of obtaining benefits of the US-Swiss Treaty.


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