Watch out for income tax traps on restraint of trade payments

Restrictive covenants or agreements are often agreements entered into between the employers and top echelon, e.g. chief executives, directors, executive managers etc whereupon the employer pays an employee an amount in return for the latter agreeing not to compete with the employer on termination of employment.  The agreement may also take the form of a legal contract between a buyer and a seller of a business. Whichever form it takes the seller or the employee is restrained from engaging in a similar business or taking up employment within a specified geographical area and/or within a specified period of time. Of concern is how these payments are treated for income tax purposes from both the payer and the recipient perspectives.

To the payer of restraint of trade, the test for the deductibility is embodied in s15 (2) (a) of the Income Tax Act. The section stipulates that expenditure or losses are deducted if they are incurred in the production of income or for the purposes of trade of the taxpayer, except to the extent to which they are expenditure or losses of a capital nature. Of relevance to our discussion is whether a payment of restraint of trade is capital in nature or not, because as it fully appears the expenditure is incurred in the pursuance of trade or in the production of income. There is no definitive definition of capital nature expenditure. However it is widely accepted in the accounting profession that capital nature expenditure includes the cost of acquiring fixed assets, share capital or capital employed in business, an income-producing unit, goodwill, intellectual property (software, patents, trademarks etc.), and cost of improving or enhancing any of these items plus related expenses. By accepting a restraint of trade contract the payee (seller or employee) agrees to impair his/her future income production capacity, whilst the buyer or employer will be protecting his/her future business or income from being diminished. In other words the contract is meant to protect the future downsize risk of the buyer or employer, alternatively it impairs the employee or seller’s future income. For these reasons restraint of trade payments are viewed as capital nature. This is further confirmed by the decision in Tuck v CIR 1988 (3) SA 819 (A) which stated that a payment in consideration for agreeing to a restraint of trade is a receipt of a capital nature.  The payer of restraint of trade is therefore barred from deducting it in his/her income tax return, only recurrent or revenue expenditure is tax deductible.    

To the recipient, the concept of gross income excludes capital nature income. As alluded above a restraint of trade payment is capital in nature. It is therefore non-taxable to the recipient. In other words, where a person’s right to freely trade is restricted and the person is paid for that restriction, the payment is akin to compensation for loss or sterilization of a fixed asset. The recipient by means of such covenant surrenders a portion of his/her income-earning capacity in return for a payment of money. He is parting with a capital asset and the payment is of a capital nature which is excluded from gross income as propounded in the case of Taeuber & Corssen (Pty) Ltd v SIR, 1975 (3) SA 649 (A) (37 SATC 129).

Meanwhile, the ZIMRA may seek to discredit a contract in restraint of trade on the basis that it is a disguised agreement “to compensate the employee for services rendered/to be rendered and to retain such services of the employee”, that is, it is not a genuine restraint of trade contract.  In testing whether the restraint of trade is genuine or not the courts have applied some tests, among them; whether the recipient in fact surrendered a right of a capital nature i.e. there must be the sterilization of the recipient’s right to freely trade in some manner. Additionally, the recipient must be in a position to cause a loss to the payer’s business in the event that the restraint acts are not observed. The threat should emanate from the nature and scope of the recipient’s involvement with the payer. If no danger of such prejudice exists, the payment may be considered for tax purposes as additional income for services rendered or for services which are to be rendered and will be subject to tax.  The employer must be able to prove that it has a legitimate interest in imposing a restraint, and that the restraint is no wider than reasonably necessary. For example a restraint of trade cannot be as to the whole world or for an indefinite period. It must be reasonable geographically (in radius) and in duration. For example a restraint of trade in respect of a business in Harare cannot be regarded as genuine where it restrains the opening of business of a similar nature for instance in Lusaka. It was alluded to in Automotive Tooling Systems (Pty) Ltd v SJ Wilkens [2006] 128 (RSA) that a restraint of trade agreement is not legally enforceable unless it intends to protect an employer’s proprietary interests and that an agreement that merely seeks to prevent an erstwhile employee from utilising the skills and knowledge learned on the job in the service of someone else is not legally enforceable. In CSARS vs. McRae 64 SATC 1, 2001, lump sum payments were made by employer to employee in terms of certain Stock Unit Plan aimed at providing employees who make an important contribution to the company’s success before their retirement. The plan also restrained employees from going into competition with their employer on retirement or termination of employment. In deciding whether the payments were made in respect of services rendered or in respect of restraint, or both, the court held that the agreement contained element of both service and restraint and apportioned on the basis of 50% each.

In conclusion, the contracting parties should carefully examine the contracts they enter into. Clear words have to be used in the crafting of contracts. This will enable ease of characterisation of payments that will be made in terms of such contracts on whether it will be a payment for service or restraint of trade. This is critical due to the different tax implications they present to both the payer and the recipient. The fact that an amount is not a genuine restraint of trade (thus taxable to the employee) does not automatically follow that it will then be allowed as a deduction to the payer. In other words, the treatment of restraint of trade payment for employees’ tax does influence the revenue authority’s treatment of expenditure for income tax purposes in the hands of the payer (employer). It may be prudent to have your consultant look at the tax implications of your contract before signing.

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