Obtaining a no objection certificate or prior permission under section 281 of Income Tax Act, 1961 (Section 281 Certificate) is a mandatory ‘conditions precedent’ in a merger, acquisition or a secondary transaction. A general disdain is the time it takes to obtain the permission. Without the permission, the transaction could risk being voided by the tax department.
This article analyses the significance of the Section 281 Certificate, when should it be procured and implications if not procured.
Breaking down Section 281
As per Section 281 of the Income Tax Act (“Act”), in the event an assessee creates a charge or parts with the possession (by way of sale, mortgage, gift, exchange or any other mode of transfer whatsoever) of, any of his assets in favour of any other person, during the pendency of any proceeding under the Act or after the completion thereof, but before the service of notice under Rule 2 of the Second Schedule of the Act, such charge or transfer shall be void as against any claim in respect of any tax or any other sum payable by the assessee as a result of the completion of the said proceeding or otherwise. As per the explanation to the section, ‘asset’ includes shares and securities as well.
The section has the following exceptions in which case, such charge or transfer is not void:
if it is made for adequate consideration and without notice of the pendency of such proceeding or, as the case may be, without notice of such tax or other sum payable by the assessee; or
if it is made with the previous permission of the assessing officer.
It may also be noted that this section applies to cases where the amount of tax or other sum payable or likely to be payable exceeds Rs.5000 and the assets charged or transferred exceed Rs.10,000 in value.
In a nutshell, section 281 of the IT Act requires an assessee to obtain the permission of the assessing officer before creating a charge on certain assets or transfer of certain assets in the event there are ongoing tax proceedings or pending claims/demands against such assessee. The main objective of section 281 is to safeguard the interests of the revenue against assessees who may fraudulently part with their assets to avoid payment of taxes.
Process for obtaining Section 281 Certificate
The Central Board of Direct Taxes through its Circular No. 4/2011 [F. NO. 402/69/2010-ITCC], dated 19-7-2011 (“Section 281 Circular”), has issued certain guidelines for obtaining the Section 281 Certificate. The format of the application (which also mentions the documents and other information to be provided) is also provided in the said Circular. The assessing officer may, at his discretion, ask for additional documents. The application is to be filed at least 30 (Thirty) days prior to the proposed transaction. The Section 281 Circular also contains the circumstances under which Section 281 Certificate could be granted by the assessing officer, the timelines within which the assessing officer has to grant/refuse the permission under section 281 and the validity of the certificate granted. It is interesting to note that the Circular provides for an approval timeline of 10-15 days.
It may also be noted that the assessing officer would require the approval from the Range Head for granting permission if the value of assets being transferred or on which charge is being created, or the amount of charge being created is Rupees Ten crores (Rupees Hundred Million) or more.
Analysis of Section 281
Going by the strict interpretation of section 281, the Certificate is required only when an assessee creates a charge or parts with possession of any asset, under the following circumstances:
If the transfer is made during the pendency of any proceeding under the Act, or
After the completion of any proceeding under the Act but before the service of notice under rule 2 of the Second Schedule of the Act.
It appears that strict interpretation seems narrow.
In most cases, in a M & A or in a secondary sale of securities, the purchaser insists on Section 281 Certificate to de-risk a possibility of a tax claim which in turn would impact the purchase consideration. As an extension to that, the purchaser also wants to apriori know of the possibility of tax claims, before releasing the purchase consideration. Hence, Section 281 Certificate is almost always a Conditions Precedent to the transaction. In cases where it takes a long time to obtain the Section 281 Certificate, the purchaser reluctantly moves it as a “conditions subsequent” but with a personal guarantee or specific indemnities from the seller/s to de-risk the possibility of the transaction being considered void by the tax authority.