So the return is in, and we can breathe a sigh of relief, but is it all over?
We are often being asked this question “What chance is there that I get investigated by HMRC?” The truth is that you cannot entirely eliminate the risk of getting investigated, but you can minimise it.
First we need to tidy up the terminology! The word “investigation” is emotive. It suggests that the person selected is guilty of some misdemeanour, or even a crime!
HMRC use various words on their website, and in their literature to describe the same thing. You might have a “check”, an “enquiry” or a “review”. All of these simply mean HMRC want to check that you are paying the correct amount of tax, and at the correct time.
Generally, HMRC have 12 months from the date the return is filed to open an investigation into your return. The deadline can be extended if you file your return late, amend a previous return, or they can prove that you have deliberately misled them.
So I could get a random check, but how do I minimise the risk?
Submit your returns on time
Some people may be tempted to submit returns late, particularly if they have liabilities that they cannot afford to pay. It is much better to submit the return on time, and ask for time to pay. While the response can vary, you are much less likely to get a positive response if you have a history of filing later returns. This applies not only to tax returns, but VAT, PAYE and corporation tax returns as well.
Use the “white space” or attach additional documents (where possible)
Many investigations are raised simply so HMRC can understand figures that fall outside the “norm” expected. Using the white space to explain significant variations from previous years, or from industry averages, can help HMRC to accept the figures without opening an enquiry. If they still open an enquiry, it can help to minimise any penalties if you can show “that we have already told you about….”
Don’t fall out with your staff, spouse or lover!
Many investigations start with a simple tip off to HMRC, usually from someone with a grudge against the taxpayer. The people closest to you often know more than you care to think, and know “where the skeletons are”. While HMRC don’t always take up these leads, they can tip the balance. The worst case we handled was where a landlord fell out with his girlfriend who happened to be his boss’s daughter! He lost his relationship, his job and got a tax investigation all in one week!
Use a good accountant
HMRC will never admit it, but they do know which accountants are professional, and which ones are, shall we say, less than competent. Using a reputable firm should ensure that your return is correct (assuming you’ve told the accountant everything). Even if it’s not, you may not have to pay a penalty, as using a good accountant demonstrated that you took “reasonable care” over the return, which is one of the main grounds for appealing against a penalty.
Most accountants also offer insurance against their fees if your return is selected for a “check”. Like most policies, they are always conditions, but generally claims are met.
Some accountant’s policies also give them access to free advice lines, so they can clear any difficult or contentious points before your return is submitted.
The policies are not expensive, and can often be part of a membership (e.g. FSB) or as part of your general business insurance.
It helps avoid that irritating position where you have to accept HMRC’s opinion, even though it’s wrong, because “it’s cheaper to pay the tax.”
You cannot eliminate the risk, but using a good accountant, and paying a small insurance premium, can put you in the best position to defend yourself.
Don’t be frightened by the prospect of an HMRC investigation, be prepared!