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The work Christmas party

It’s not quite Christmas time yet, but most businesses will be in the process of thinking ahead to the yuletide festivities, if not already into well-advanced planning. One of the perennial questions is if and how fringe benefits tax applies to these activities.

There is no separate fringe benefits tax (FBT) category for Christmas parties and you may encounter many different circumstances when providing these events to your staff. Fringe benefits provided by you, an associate, or under an arrangement with a third party to any current employees, past and future employees and their associates (spouses and children), may attract FBT.

While such social functions may result in FBT, income tax and GST outcomes, these are covered under the existing relevant legislation. The provision of “entertainment” at Christmas therefore mirrors the tax treatment such benefits will receive at other times of the year.

The cost of providing a Christmas party is income tax deductible only to the extent that it is subject to FBT. Therefore, any costs that are exempt from FBT — that is, exempt minor benefits and exempt property benefits (more below) — cannot be claimed as an income tax deduction. Note that the costs of entertaining clients are not subject to FBT and provide no income tax deductions nor GST credits.

There is what is known as a property benefit exemption where costs (such as food and drink) associated with Christmas parties are exempt from FBT if they are provided on a working day on your business premises and consumed by employees. The property benefit exemption is only available for employees, not associates.

There is also the minor benefits exemption. Broadly, a minor benefit is one where it:

  • has a notional taxable value of less than $300 (inclusive of GST)
  • is provided on an “infrequent” or “irregular” basis, and
  • is not a reward for services.

Note that other benefits (such as gifts) provided at a Christmas party may be considered as separate minor benefits in addition to meals provided (referred to as an “associated benefit”). In such cases, the $300 threshold generally applies separately to each benefit provided.

Entertainment benefits

Say for example a company holds a Christmas lunch on its business premises on a working day. Employees, their partners and clients attend. Food and drink is provided at the party and the company provides taxi travel home from the party. The cost per head is $125.

Providing a party for employees, associates and clients is entertainment, because the purpose of the function is for people attending to enjoy themselves. There can be exemptions for this, but these may vary according to the recipient.

Employees: Does an exemption apply?

  • Food and drink: The food or drink provided to employees is exempt from FBT because it is provided and consumed on a working day on the business premises.
  • Taxi travel: The taxi travel is exempt from FBT because there is a specific FBT exemption for taxi travel provided to an employee directly to or from the workplace.

Associates/clients: Does an exemption apply?

  • Food, drink and taxi travel: The food, drink and taxi travel provided to the employees’ partners (associates) is exempt from FBT because of the minor benefits exemption.
  • Clients food drink and taxi travel: There is no FBT on benefits provided to clients

Note that the employer could not claim an income tax deduction or GST credits for the food, drink or taxi travel provided for employees, associates or clients (although there is some scope using the “50/50 split method” — ask TNR about this possibility). For taxi travel to or from a Christmas function, employers should be mindful that:

  • where the employer pays for an employee’s taxi travel home from the Christmas party and the party is held on the business premises, no FBT will apply.
  • where the party is held off premises and the employer pays for a taxi to the venue and then also pays for the employee to take a taxi home, only the first trip will be FBT exempt. The second trip may be exempt under the minor benefits exemption if the employer has adopted to value its meal entertainment on an actual basis.
  • the exemption does not apply to taxi travel provided to “associates” of employees (for example family members).

If other forms of transportation are provided to or from the venue, such as bus travel, then such costs will form part of the total entertainment expenditure and be subject to FBT. A minor benefit exemption for this benefit may be available if the threshold is not breached.

What’s under the tree?

Gifts provided to employees or their associates will typically constitute a property fringe benefit and therefore are subject to FBT unless the minor benefit exemption applies. Gifts, and indeed all benefits associated with the Christmas function, should be considered separately to the Christmas party in light of the minor benefits exemption.

For example, the cost of gifts such as bottles of wine and hampers given at the function should be looked at separately to determine if the minor benefits exemption applies to these benefits. Gifts provided to clients are outside of the FBT rules (but may be deductible, see below — also note that deductibility may still apply even if the gift is a “minor benefit”).

The income tax deductibility and entitlement to input tax credits (ITC) for the cost of the gifts depends on whether they are considered to be “entertainment”. For example, an unopened bottle of spirits is deemed to be a property benefit (the entertainment starts after the cap is unscrewed). Again, in most cases the entitlement to an ITC for expenses incurred for the employer mirrors the income tax implications — so an ITC is only available to the extent that the expense incurred is deductible.

Regarding a business providing a gift a client, even a former client, the ATO confirms that such outgoings are generally deductible as they are being made for the purposes of producing future assessable income. However, the outgoing is not deductible where it is of a capital nature, relates to the gaining of exempt or nonassessable non-exempt income, or some other provision of the income tax law prevents it from being deductible.

 Note that an employer cannot claim an income tax deduction or GST credits for the food, drink or taxi travel provided for employees, associates or clients.

Please contact TNR if you have any queries from above information or if you have other queries regarding tax and the work Christmas party.