Taxation of a GmbH: Comprehensive Guide

A GmbH is a corporation and is therefore subject to taxation itself with its profit as a legal entity. In contrast, a partnership is not itself subject to taxation but only its shareholders.

In addition to the GmbH, its managing director is personally liable for the fulfilment of the tax obligations. This also applies if he is not a shareholder in the company. This is not only a material liability with the private property of the manager, but also a possible criminal sanction.

Corporate Tax Overview of GmbH

In Germany, GmbHs are subject to a uniform corporate tax rate of 15 percent on their profits, regardless of whether the profits are retained within the company or distributed to shareholders. The taxable income used for assessing corporate tax is determined based on the regulations outlined in the Income Tax Act and specific provisions within the Corporation Tax Act (§ 8 KStG to § 19 KStG). The commercial balance sheet, inclusive of the profit and loss account, serves as the foundation for calculating the taxable profit.

In the event that a GmbH incurs a loss during a fiscal year, and there are no legally designated special circumstances, this loss cannot be offset against the shareholder’s other income to reduce taxes in the originating year. Instead, the loss remains within the GmbH’s tax domain. The GmbH can only offset this loss against its own profits from previous or future years in order to minimize tax liabilities. Since 2004, a tax-free allowance of one million euros has been applied to carried forward losses, with only 60 percent of any excess losses being deductible for tax purposes.

Annual corporate income tax returns, along with the company’s financial statements, must be submitted electronically to the tax office. Quarterly advance payments of corporate tax are due after assessment by the relevant tax authority, with payments typically scheduled for March 10th, June 10th, September 10th, and December 10th of each year. These advance payments are credited towards the annual tax liability.

Profit distributions to shareholders, whether domestic or foreign, who are themselves corporations, are subject to a 5 percent tax on the received remuneration, which is levied at each level. Additionally, under § 8b para. 3 KStG, profits from investment disposals are subject to a fictitious 5 percent non-deductible business expense, even if no actual expenses were incurred. Consequently, only 95 percent of the profit from disposal is tax-exempt.

Overview of Capital Gains Tax

When profits of a limited liability company (GmbH) are distributed to individuals, they are generally required to withhold a capital gains tax of 25% (plus a 5.5% solidarity surcharge) on behalf of the recipient (e.g., shareholders) and remit it to the tax office. This tax deduction is carried out for the benefit of the recipient and does not directly affect the GmbH; only the remaining net amount is disbursed to the shareholder. The GmbH provides the shareholder with a tax certificate according to the prescribed format.

This tax deduction typically serves to fulfill the shareholder’s income tax obligations, acting as a final withholding tax. However, shareholders have the option to apply for taxation at their individual income tax rates, which may be lower. In such cases, the capital gains tax is offset against their income tax liability.

Special provisions apply to capital gains tax for foreign shareholders. In Germany, profits distributed are subject to a form of withholding tax, which may be offset against taxes owed in the shareholder’s home country according to applicable double taxation agreements. Compliance with the provisions outlined in these agreements is essential.

Shares in Private Corporations

When an individual privately holds shares in corporations and receives dividends or payments, they are subject to a withholding tax rate of 25 percent plus a solidarity surcharge. If the taxpayer’s personal income tax rate is lower than 25 percent, they can opt for an assessment corresponding to their rate. However, certain advertising expenses such as custodian fees are no longer deductible even under this circumstance. Individual investors can deduct a lump sum of 801 euros from their taxable income from capital assets.

Shares in Partnership Operating Assets

In cases where shareholders are partnerships themselves, a procedure known as “partial integration” is applied. Under this procedure, 40 percent of received payments are exempt from tax. The remaining 60 percent of dividends are fully taxable and are subject to the individual income tax rate of the respective shareholder. Proportional deductions (i.e., 60 percent) can be made for income-related expenses associated with dividend gains.

Profit distributions occur in two forms: open profit distribution (involving a resolution on profit appropriation by shareholders) and hidden profit distribution (when operating expenses are classified as profit distributions for tax purposes). The latter generates income from capital assets on the shareholder’s side, making it subject to capital gains tax. On the company’s side, it increases retained earnings and consequently its tax base. Capital gains tax is triggered when shareholders receive the profit distribution and must be paid together with a capital gains tax declaration by the 10th of the following month via electronic transmission to the tax office.

Hidden Profit Distributions: Understanding Tax Implications

According to tax court precedents, a “hidden profit distribution” occurs under corporation tax law when a shareholder or closely related individual benefits from inappropriate payments or other advantages, resulting in a reduction in the corporation’s assets. Such payments are considered equivalent to preventing an increase in assets. Another condition for a hidden profit distribution is that this action is prompted by the company’s relationship, such as instructions from the shareholder, affects the income amount, and is not part of an openly decided profit distribution in accordance with statutory provisions.

Typically, tax authorities uncover hidden profit distributions during audits, leading to increased profits and taxes for the company, along with additional tax liabilities. For individual shareholders lacking the lump-sum savings amount for capital income, the hidden profit distribution is taxed upon receipt. However, for shareholder corporations, up to 5 percent of the additional profit distribution is tax-free to avoid double taxation.

Attempts to return the advantage to the company long after the hidden profit distribution occurred are ineffective, even if the company has contractually obliged the shareholder to profit. If the company waives the agreed compensation in such cases, it results in another hidden profit distribution.

Hidden profit estimates fall into two categories:

  1. Transactions that a diligent manager wouldn’t have agreed to under normal market conditions, necessitating an arm’s length comparison for each case.
  2. Situations where clear, legally effective agreements aren’t made in advance between the corporation and its controlling shareholder, and subsequent agreements hold no tax effect.

Examples of hidden payouts include:

Hidden profit distributions primarily concern remuneration regulations, such as directors’ fees, pensions, bonuses, and company car usage. It’s crucial to assess the enforceability of planned regulations from both tax and legal standpoints before implementation.

Hidden profit distributions not only affect companies and shareholders but can also implicate managing directors, potentially leading to personal liability for tax liabilities and criminal consequences for tax evasion.

To mitigate these risks, legal representatives and shareholders should proactively identify hidden profit distribution risks, take appropriate action to avoid negative consequences, and stay informed about legal developments in this area.

Trade Tax: Understanding the Burden on Limited Liability Companies

Regardless of its operational activities, a limited liability company (GmbH) is classified as a business entity by its legal structure and is thus subject to trade tax. Unlike sole proprietorships or partnerships, GmbHs have broader options for deducting operating expenses, such as managerial salaries. However, they do not benefit from trade tax relief, such as exemptions or offsets against income tax liability.

Trade tax is imposed on the “trade income” (derived from profit) of the GmbH. However, trade tax burden is not deductible as a business expense when determining profits, following the corporate tax reform of 2008.

To calculate “trade income,” taxable profit or loss under corporation tax or income tax law is considered. Additions (e.g., 25 percent of interest on long-term debt) and reductions (e.g., 1.2 percent of the standard value of real estate used for business purposes and not exempt from property tax) are applied according to the Trade Tax Act. Trade losses from previous years can be deducted, but cannot be offset against other income and can only be carried forward within the same company, with certain limitations.

The trade income is then multiplied by a basic tax rate, typically 3.5 percent, resulting in the tax base. This base is further multiplied by the local tax rate of the municipality where the GmbH is registered. If the municipality hasn’t set a rate, it defaults to at least 200 percent since 2004.

The formula for trade tax burden is:

Trade income × basic tax rate × assessment rate = Trade tax liability

For example: 100 × 3.5 percent × 490 percent = 17.15 percent

For a GmbH with multiple locations, each municipality’s share in the trade tax measurement amount is determined by legally defined criteria, and each municipality applies its assessment rate accordingly. Generally, wage totals incurred for respective operating hours are used as the basis for distribution.

GmbHs must submit annual trade tax returns to the relevant tax office. Quarterly advance payments are based on the last assessment and are offset against the annual tax liability.

Trade tax payments are made to the municipalities, which assess them based on the trade tax measurement certificate issued by the responsible tax office.

Solidarity Surcharge:

The solidarity surcharge is applicable to both legal entities, such as GmbHs, and natural persons, including employees and managers of GmbHs. Currently set at 5.5 percent of corporation tax, capital gains tax, and wage tax, this surcharge must be paid alongside these taxes.

Wage Tax:

GmbHs, like any employer, are responsible for withholding income tax and other deductions (including the solidarity surcharge and church tax) from employees’ salaries as per their employment contracts and tax regulations. These withheld deductions are then offset against the employee’s income tax liability.

Value Added Tax (VAT):

VAT is applicable to every transaction involving goods and services, as well as the import and withdrawal of goods and services for non-entrepreneurial purposes, unless specific exemption provisions apply. The standard tax rate currently stands at 19 percent, calculated on the net invoice amount, while a reduced rate of 7 percent applies to certain goods and services like food, agricultural products, newspapers, and art objects.

Invoicing for VAT transactions must include specific information such as full names and addresses of both the service provider and recipient, tax numbers, date of issue, invoice number, details of the goods or services provided, and the corresponding tax amounts.

Entrepreneurs can deduct VAT amounts invoiced by other entrepreneurs, known as input tax, from their own VAT liability, provided they meet the necessary requirements for input tax deduction. VAT declarations and payments are typically due monthly or quarterly, with an annual declaration required at the end of the calendar year. Small entrepreneurs with turnovers below certain thresholds may be exempt from VAT but are also ineligible for input tax deduction.

Special regulations apply to trade in goods and services with EU and non-EU countries, including export documents and delivery thresholds. A VAT identification number (VAT number) is necessary for trading within the EU, which can be obtained from the Federal Central Tax Office.

Small entrepreneurs with turnovers below specified thresholds may opt for VAT exemption, though this decision is binding for at least five years and affects their ability to claim input tax deductions. This waiver may be advantageous depending on customer profiles and investment strategies.

Property Tax:

If a limited liability company owns real estate, such as developed or undeveloped land, it becomes subject to property tax. This tax is imposed by the municipality where the land is situated. The property tax is calculated based on the standard value of the land, multiplied by a rate of 3.5 per thousand. The resulting amount is then multiplied by the municipal property tax rate to determine the property tax liability. Typically, municipalities establish quarterly advance payments for property tax, with rates varying depending on the location. However, property tax burden is generally lower than that of trade tax. Quarterly payments, typically a quarter of the total property tax, are due on February 15th, May 15th, August 15th, and November 15th each year. Alternatively, upon request, the entire amount can be paid in one installment on July 1st of the year.

Land Transfer Tax:

When a limited liability company purchases real estate, it incurs land transfer tax as a one-time charge. The assessment is based on the purchase price or consideration paid, multiplied by a rate of 6.5 percent (applicable in North Rhine-Westphalia).

In cases involving acquisition, transformation, merger, or division of companies with real estate, careful consideration should be given to the imposition of land transfer tax. Seeking advice from a tax advisor is recommended to navigate these situations effectively.

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