Dividends are paid out of profits which have already been subject to Australian company tax which is currently 30% (or 27.5% for small business at time of writing). This means that shareholders receive a rebate for the tax paid by the company on profits distributed as dividends.
These dividends are described as being 'franked'. Franked dividends have a franking credit attached to them which represents the amount of tax the company has already paid. Franking credits are also known as imputation credits.
You are entitled to receive a credit for any tax the company has paid. If your top tax rate is less than the company's tax rate, the Australian Tax Office (ATO) will refund you the difference.
Case study: Jerome receives a tax refund
Jerome owns shares in a company. The company pays him a fully franked dividend of $700. His dividend statement says there is a franking credit of $300. This represents the tax the company has already paid. This means the dividend, before company tax was deducted, would have been $1,000 ($700 + $300).
Come tax time, Jerome must declare $1,000 (the $700 dividend plus the $300 franking credit) in his taxable income. If his marginal tax rate was 15%, he would have paid $150 tax on the dividend. Because the company has already paid $300 in tax, Jerome will receive a refund of the difference, which is $150.
If Jerome was in a higher tax bracket he may not have been entitled to a refund of any of the franking credit, he may even have to pay additional tax. However, if he is a low income earner, it is possible to be refunded the full amount of the franking credit.
Refunding of excess imputation credits
The refund applies when your total imputation credits that are attached to your franked dividends paid exceeds your basic income tax liability for the year.
A cash amount can be refunded to you reflecting the amount of excess imputation credits, after applying them and any other tax offsets to which you are entitled to. This will in turn reduce your basic income tax liability to zero.
If you are required to lodge an income tax return, you can use it to claim a refund of excess imputation credits. If you are not required to lodge a tax return, the refund is available on application.