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.