In all M&A operations one of the issues that deserves special attention as regards its analysis, ascertainment and negotiation is the tax liabilities. Even though the parties could agree on the amount of such contingencies, to negotiate the possible guarantees that the seller should grant in order to protect the buyer from a possible claim by the tax authorities, the term during which the guarantees should be in force, and to agree on the communication mechanisms between the parties (buyer and seller) and the legal defense strategies if such claim from the tax authorities arises, requires substantial negotiation efforts.
When the acquisition operation is formalized not through the purchase of shares, but through the purchase of the assets that form a business unit, the Spanish General Tax Law (“Ley General Tributaria” or “LGT”) provides a mechanism which implies an exception to the general principle provided by article 42 of the same law. Article 42 of LGT establishes the joint liability of the purchaser of a business unit for the tax liabilities of the selling company (“tax liability derived from company’s succession”). That is, in principle, according to article 42 of the LGT “the persons or entities that continue by any mean in the ownership or exercise of economic activities (the buyers) will be jointly liable with the previous owner for the tax liabilities derived from the exercise of such economic activities incurred by such previous owner”.
However, the joint tax liability of the buyer could be limited through the application before the tax authorities of the tax certificate regulated by article 175.2 of the LGT. This certificate should be applied for by the prospective buyer, with the authorization of the present owner (the seller), and, once issued, the tax liability of the buyer becomes limited to the debts, penalties and liabilities mentioned in the certificate. If the certificate is issued without mentioning any amount, or if the tax authorities do not issue it within a three months term from the application’s date, the applicant (the buyer) will be released from any tax liability derived from company’s succession.
The tax certificate for succession purposes includes the main taxes, as Value Added Tax and Corporate Income Tax, and can include as well debts derived from the withholding taxes on employees’ payroll, which in case of companies with a big number of employees could be of an outstanding amount. However, the buyer’s joint liability for salaries, related payroll amounts and social security contributions cannot be limited by such certificate, and such liability will always be joint with the business unit seller’s liability.
The application for the tax certificate should be filed before the acquisition of the business unit is completed, even if the issuance of the certificate takes place later tan the closing date (but of course, it is wiser to not close the acquisition before having the certificate). The certificate’s validity lasts for one year, as regards periodical tax obligations (for example, Value Added Tax, Corporate Income Tax and withholding taxes on salaries) and for three months as regards non periodical tax obligations.
It is very important to apply for the right tax certificate (“certificate for succession purposes according to article 175.2 of LGT”), and to not make a mistake and apply, for example, for the certificate regarding having fulfilled all tax obligations (“certificado de estar al corriente de las obligaciones fiscales”). Case law is plenty of judgments where a buyer applied for the wrong certificate, which showed no liabilities, and later on such buyer has been sentenced to pay the tax liabilities incurred by the previous owner of the business unit.