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Top 12 weirdest tax rules around the world

Karis Hustad
Friday, 14 Feb 2014 | 2:45 PM ET

When most people think taxes, usually the first word that comes to mind isn't "logical." It appears that is true outside of the United States as well. Countries across the globe have justified deductions, extra percentages and wacky ways of coming up with tax revenue. Here's a countdown of the strangest tax laws around the world.

12. United States: Tethered hot air balloon tax

With the United States it was pretty hard to choose just one weird tax rule—we have lots of them. Between deductions for donating a deer carcass in South Carolina, clarinet lessons, and pet moving (it counts as a personal effect), it would seem one of our crafty, weird deductions would make the global list.

George Rose | Getty Images

Kansas has one tax rule that is strange enough to make it to the world stage: hot air balloons not tethered to the ground get a tax break.

Here's how it works: Kansas taxes sales of admissions for "any place providing amusement, entertainment or recreation services." However under the federal Anti-Head Tax Act, states and local jurisdictions are prohibited from imposing fees and charges on airlines and other airport users. So in 2010, Kansas tackled the question of whether hot air balloons are should be subject to the state or federal law.

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The result? Hot air balloons that are tethered to the ground—and stay there—are taxed, because technically their occupants don't go anywhere. Hot air balloons that are piloted "some distance downwind from the launching point"—i.e: the ones that actually travel—don't have to pay the amusement tax.

So if you want to take a tax-free ride in a hot air balloon, make sure it's actually going somewhere.

11. South Africa: World Cup tax bubble

Soccer may be the world's sport, but it's also one of the world's best bargains when it comes to taxes—at least for Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

(Read more: Some help Uncle Sam by paying extra—voluntarily)

The BBC reported in 2010 that as part of bidding for the World Cup, host countries must agree to exempt FIFA, the organization that puts on the World Cup, and its subsidiaries from paying taxes to the host country. The taxes this applies to depends on the country, but in South Africa in 2010 the taxes exemptions were fairly sweeping.

The BBC reported that the breaks "[relieve] FIFA, its subsidiaries, and foreign football associations which are taking part, of income tax, customs duties, and [value added taxes]. World Cup preparations have cost South Africa an estimated R33 billion—nearly £3 billion [$4.9 billion]. This also applies to the various organizations designated as FIFA's commercial affiliates, licensees, host broadcasters, broadcast rights agencies, merchandise partners, service providers, concession operators and providers of hospitality."

Technically this extends to any country that has hosted a World Cup, but South Africa is the most recent example. Brazil signed a similar tax agreement for hosting the games in 2014. When Germany hosted the games in 2006, FIFA accrued 2.8 billion Swiss Francs (£1.72 billion or $2.8 billion) in the four years up to and including the competition, yet paid only 1 million Swiss Francs (£613,500 or over $1 million) in local taxes.

10. France: Google tax

Europe is relatively more protective of privacy than the US, which has often led to more controls on tech companies. However, compounded with the economic crisis, European countries are more likely than ever to go after big tech companies who they say are making revenue off their citizens without paying due taxes. These taxes are largely known as "Google taxes," though they apply to any large Internet-based company.

(Read more: Hate doing your taxes? Blame Congress)

France has been the most outspoken nation in attempting to tax Internet companies like brick-and-mortar companies. Previously France contemplated a "culture tax" on smart phones and tablets made by Google and other tech companies in hopes of gaining revenue for a cultural fund.

The most recent iteration of the Google tax is France's assertion that the company owes the country $1.35 billion in back taxes for circumventing the tax laws by diverting much of its French revenue to Ireland (where there are lower taxes). Google's Paris offices reported its revenue was $260.53 million in 2011, while analysts believe revenue was more like $1.89 billion.

After revelations of NSA spying, on top of suspicious tax moves, it's likely that France and large Internet companies will be sparring financially for years to come.

9. Switzerland: Tax haven heaven

Swiss bank accounts have become synonymous with wildly wealthy business people who are willing to bend the law. Why? Switzerland has some of the laxest tax regulations in the world, as well as some of the most opaque financial secrecy laws on the books. The Tax Justice Network named Switzerland the best tax haven in the world (beating out strong contenders like Bermuda and the Bahamas) due to level of secrecy and scale of banking operations.

In 1934 Switzerland passed a law making it a criminal offense to reveal a client's identity and, due to this, today Switzerland is estimated to hold 27 percent of the world's offshore wealth, according to Boston Consultancy Group. Bankers have repeatedly dodged US attempts to get names of their American banking clients, despite being blatantly singled out for their methods (which some say include taking a cut of the offshore money for their efforts).

Overall, analysts estimate over $32 trillion of financial assets are hidden in offshore tax havens, which could make up $280 billion in lost income tax revenues.

8. Ireland: Artist exemption

Want to be a starving artist? You'll go a little less hungry if you find your muse in Ireland. In order to boost the arts, income earned by writers, composers, visual artists and sculptors from the sale of their works is not taxed, under certain circumstances.

Artists must file a claim with Revenue Commissioners, who determine whether the work is original, creative, and has cultural or artistic merit. It also must fit within the five following categories: books or other forms of writing, plays, musical compositions, paintings or other similar pictures, and sculptures.

Wondering how tax people judge art? Here is a sampling of the criteria:

A work has cultural merit if: Its contemplation enhances the quality of individual or social life as a result of its intellectual, spiritual or aesthetic form and content.

(Read more: How to get help on your taxes for free)

A work has artistic merit when: Its combined form and content enhances or intensifies the aesthetic apprehension of those who experience or contemplate it.

The maximum exempt is €40,000.

7. Britain: Culturally British film tax break

Britain wants to keep its culture alive in films—so much so that it has created a tax rule that gives tax deductions to films deemed "culturally British."

The process is more complex than flying a British flag or setting your movie in London. All films that would like to claim this deduction have to register their production where it is rated through a mathematical "culture test" weighted as follows:

Cultural content (up to 16 points).

Cultural contribution (up to 4 points).

Cultural hubs (up to 3 points).

Cultural practitioners (up to 8 points).

Films must score at least 16 out of 31 points to get up to a 25 percent tax break. Here are some examples of film characteristics that qualify: film set in the UK (four points), film represents/reflects a diverse British culture, British heritage or British creativity (four points), and original dialogue recorded mainly in English language (four points).

(Read more: Denied: IRS can't regulate tax preparers)

6. Denmark: Cow flatulence tax

Most people think of congested Los Angeles highways or black-smoke-belching factories as the cause of greenhouse gasses. But the European Union has found another culprit: cow gas.

Studies have found that the methane released once cows slowly digest greens may account for up to 18 percent of Europe's greenhouse gasses. The issue is compounded by slaughterhouses, which concentrate large quantities of methane gas in one area. In order to curb the cow fueled greenhouse gas epidemic, several EU countries have adopted taxes on each cow. The highest rate? Denmark, where each cow will cost you up to $110.

5. Sweden: Baby names need tax agency approval

Choosing a name for your new son or daughter is a difficult decision, one that requires at least the mother and father to be in agreement. In Sweden there is one more necessary party: the Swedish tax agency.

Swedish people are required to have their child's name approved by the Swedish tax agency before the child turns five. If parents fail to do so, they can be fined up to 5,000 kroner (or $770). The law originally was put in place in 1982, reportedly to prevent citizens from using royal names, but the law states the rationale is that by approving the name the tax agency can protect a child from an offensive or confusing name.

What kind of names are unacceptable? The tax agency has rejected "Ikea" (due to potential confusion) and "Allah" (due to potential religious offense), as well as "Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116", which one child's parents attempted to name their child in protest of the law. However, "Google" and "Lego" were recently allowed.

Though this may sound a bit "Big Brother" to some, Swedes overwhelmingly have a positive view of their tax agency: a 2013 survey found that among government agencies, the tax agency had the second-best reputation in the country with an 83 percent approval rating, second only to the Swedish Consumer Agency.

4. Canada: Tax break on cereal toys

As a kid, finding a toy in the bottom of your cereal box is usually the best part about breakfast.

In Canada, it's also fun for the cereal company, which gets a tax break for putting a toy in your cereal.

Cereals sold in our northern neighbor that include toys in the box are exempt from an extra tax. The catch is that the toys can't qualify as "beer, liquor, or wine."

3. Russia: Beard tax

Peter the Great, born 1672, was one of the most famous czars of Russia for many reasons. He had a penchant for torture, murder, and power, even exiling his own half-sister and killing one of his sons to prevent any sort of family coup. He also is credited for modernizing Russia—and that's where the beard tax comes in.

Though today we associate beards more with hipsters and Red Sox fans than courtiers, in the 1700s beards were pretty typical fare for most of the population in chilly Russia. However, when Peter the Great toured Western Europe, he found many modern European courts were filled with clean-shaven men. So how to bring this barber culture to his barbarian population?

(Read more: 10 new tax traps to watch out for in 2014)

Tax the beards. In order to have a beard, one had to carry around a token showing they had paid their beard tax. Though the grizzlier men may have taken issue with the law, Peter the Great prevailed: he ruled Russia for 43 years.

2. Germany: Tax deduction on bribes

Under certain circumstances, bribery was legal in Germany up until 2002.

That isn't the weirdest part. Bribes were also tax-deductible, according to a 1995 Businessweek editorial. It was a rarely used rule, says Businessweek—you had to name the parties involved.

There were also certain stipulations, including: "deductions for bribes were not allowed if either the briber or the recipient had been subject to criminal penalties or criminal proceedings which were discontinued on the basis of a discretionary decision by the prosecution," according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Businessweek recommended the country end this practice, as it added 20 to 30 percent to public contracts, but it took Germany until 1999 to end tax deductions for bribery altogether.

1. China: Pro-cigarette smoking tax revenue

Though many smokers around the world are used to paying a high tax premium on cigarettes to dissuade smoking, in 2009 citizens of the central-Chinese Hubei province found themselves in the opposite situation: smoke cigarettes or face a fine.

At the time, China was facing a tough economic crisis, and the majority of local taxes were gleaned from cigarette sales. So officials in the Hubei province decided the best way to boost tax revenue was to set quotas for cigarette pack sales.

(Read more: Tax refunds could face debt ceiling delays)

The Telegraph reports that local teachers were stuck with a smoking quota and "one village was ordered to purchase 400 cartons of cigarettes a year for its officials." The goal was to both gain revenue from cigarette taxes and encourage financial prosperity for China's local cigarette makers.

Though China is now doing better financially, there may have been some unintended consequences from this strange tax strategy: cigarette sales still account for a large chunk of tax revenue in the country, and the World Health Organization estimates China smokes one out of every three cigarettes in the world. However, China is hoping to stomp out the habit by making smoking in public illegal this year.

—By Karis Hustad of The Christian Science Monitor

Contact World Economy

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