The summer break is a time for reflection on the year that has been. For business owners, this break is an opportunity to evaluate their future strategy and consider whether it is time to exit, or conversely, grow by purchasing someone else’s business. Whether buying or selling, it is a demanding exercise.
A business sale can either be in the form of a share sale, where the shares in the company that owns the business are transferred, or an asset sale, where the underlying assets of the business are transferred. If the transaction is by share sale, the purchaser takes on the past risks and obligations of the target company. It is therefore important to understand if there are any ‘skeletons in the closet’. This risk is mitigated by undertaking ‘due diligence’. This same risk does not arise in an asset sale, because the vendor’s ‘history’ is not transferred to the purchaser.
For the vendor, due diligence might subject the business to a level of scrutiny not experienced before. For the purchaser, a large volume of information may be presented and it will be important to remain focused on information that is material and relevant.
From a tax perspective, due diligence is aimed at confirming whether the target company has satisfied its historic tax obligations and therefore no risks exist that a tax liability might arise in relation to a period prior to the change of ownership. There is both a qualitative and quantitative element to this process.
The tax return filing history will be reviewed to confirm that there are no outstanding returns and to what extent past returns have been filed on time. Not just income tax returns, but also GST, FBT, PAYE, etc. Past tax advice will be requested and reviewed to determine whether the positions taken are correct and reasonable. The general business profile will be reviewed to identify what tax adjustments need to be made and this will be cross-checked against the tax position taken to ensure there is alignment.
Common risk areas will be reviewed, for example, a business that engages contractors may be scrutinised to ensure these individuals are not actually employees. The treatment of Covid subsidies could also be reviewed. Has non-deductible capital expenditure been identified and adjusted. Does the target have a large number of vehicles on its fixed asset register, if yes, how have they been treated for FBT purposes… the list goes on.
Generally, Inland Revenue is able to reassess a tax return if it was filed in the past four to five years (the time bar period). Hence, due diligence is typically undertaken on the four most recently filed tax return periods.
Finally, the qualitative element comes into play. The team performing the due diligence will form a view of the target company’s approach to tax compliance based on what they have seen. For example, if a company files its income tax returns late, does not use an external accountant, and does not seek advice on material transactions, a negative view will form.
This, along with other issues identified, may ultimately lead to more comprehensive warranties and indemnities, a portion of the sales price being placed in escrow or, at the extreme, a reduced price for the business.