Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ten ways to beat tax hang-ups

If you're terrified by the tax demand that lands on your doorstep, you are not alone. Millions of us are waking up to a brown letter from the taxman, who is dealing with a vast backlog of cases.
What's more, it is getting ever more difficult to get hold of someone at Revenue & Customs (HMRC) who can sort out any mistakes. HMRC announced this week that its helpline would be shut on Sundays from November 29, and will open only until 4pm, instead of 8pm, on Saturdays.
Even though you may end up hanging on the telephone, the taxman has made systemic errors in so many cases that you really need to check whether their calculations are right before you pay up. We asked accountants for tips to help taxpayers cope with tax letters.

Don't be afraid to demand

Roy-Chowdhury of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants said: "Check all the items and amounts carefully in any letter you receive, and do not be scared to challenge HMRC. For example, do you agree that you had a company car of a specific value and with the carbon dioxide emissions as stated? Did you have private medical insurance?"

Act promptly and keep records

Geoff Everett, tax director at accountants Smith & Williamson, said: "If you get a tax statement – formally called HMRC form P800 – which you believe is incorrect, bring the discrepancies to the attention of the tax office immediately. Don't wait until the tax is being demanded. If you disagree with the authorities, make your point in writing and be able to provide proof, ideally copies of the supporting paperwork. Be sure to keep a copy of all correspondence."

Be prepared to come up with the evidence to back your claim

You may need to produce payslips, evidence of pension contributions and other documents from as long ago as 2004. George Bull of accountants Baker Tilly said: "HMRC has only checked for the tax years 2008/09 and 2009/10 but if you've overpaid tax you can claim back at least as far as 2006/07 and may be able to claim back as far as 2004/05 in certain circumstances. Four years is now the normal time limit for reclaiming overpaid tax but people who were not sent tax returns for 2004/05 or 2005/06 may claim back tax overpaid in those years as well."

Don't panic!

John Whiting, a director of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, said: "Anyone receiving a P800 from HMRC needs to bear in mind the Dad's Army maxim. You can get free information from the Low Income Tax Reform Group at or, if a pensioner, call 0845 601 3321.''

Be aware that some groups are more at risk of tax bungles

Mr Everett said: "If you have retired in the past few years, changed jobs, receive benefits–in-kind or have more than one job, you are more likely to be at risk from overpaying or underpaying tax. You are also at risk if you have made additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) to your pension or donated to charity via the Gift Aid system. Another category at risk includes those typically with relatively small investment income, perhaps from dividends or property rental, but which varies year-on-year."

You might not need to pay long overdue tax

Mr Bull said: "HMRC will only write off tax if it had information relevant to your tax liability and failed to make proper use of that information within 12 months after the end of the tax year in which the information was received. That is likely to mean that most people whose tax 'arrears' only relate to 2009-10 will have to pay the tax unless HMRC agrees to write off the debt on hardship grounds. If the error was made in 2008/09, the one-year condition may be satisfied and, if tax was also unpaid in 2009/10 due to the same error, that year's tax should be written off too."

Small errors should also be exempt

Mr Everett said: "The authorities have confirmed that where the tax underpayment for a tax year is less than £300, HMRC will write off the amount rather than collect it."

Apply the 'common sense' test

Mr Whiting pointed out: "People who are getting what seems to be a tax demand may take comfort from the fact that this isn't a formal demand – but it is an indication of what HMRC thinks you owe it. There are some simple steps you should take, such as check the basic data; does it make sense? Has HMRC included a company car you gave up years ago, for example? Do the figures look right? Pensioners, for example, often find HMRC has used the wrong amount for the basic state pension."

It's the squeaky wheel that gets oiled

Mr Bull urged people expecting a refund not to just sit back and hope. "If you have overpaid tax and want it back now, you need to claim it," he said.

Beware of fraudsters

Mr Everett pointed out: "HMRC will send tax demands only in writing. If you get an email or phone call saying that you owe additional tax, but get nothing in writing from HMRC, then don't pay it."


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