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Last chance to avoid a £1,600 tax fine

Image: PA/PA Wire

Thanks to tougher penalties introduced last year, missing the tax return deadline can be an expensive mistake. There’s an immediate fine of £100 if you file on or after February 1st.

Then you pay extra penalties depending on whether you file after three, six or 12 months, meaning a potential extra bill of £1,600 in fines – and that’s not counting the interest charges.

I’ve been filling out tax returns for years, that means that this time of year I get inundated with emails and calls from desperate friends who’ve left it to the last moment and are stuck. Quite often there is no actual problem; it’s simply their first tax return and they’ve panicked.

If you’ve been putting it off until the last minute, then this really is the last chance. So here are my answers to common questions, as well as tips for filling it out correctly and on time.

What if you don’t owe anything?

Under the new penalty system, you could be fined for not filing your return on time even if you don’t owe anything.

Don’t panic, that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to complete a self-assessment return. However, if you know that you’re meant to, then file it on time - even if you’ve already paid off the balance.

How to register to file your tax return online

Are you registered for online self-assessment? You need to register to use HMRC Online Services and the bad news is that you should have done so by January 21st to make sure you received your activation code in time.

However, even if you’re likely to be late it’s still a good idea to register as soon as possible. The sooner you file your return, the less likely you are to incur an even higher fine – it rises to £10 a day after three months.

If you’re planning to appeal against a late fine (there’s some more information on that later) then registering as soon as you’re able to shows willing.
Don’t forget to pay (!)

This might seem obvious but it does catch an alarming number of people out. Remember that you need to pay any outstanding money by the 31st as well as fill out your tax return!

About to start your tax return? Read these top tips

Give yourself some time: By leaving it this late, you haven’t given yourself much time for things to go wrong. But you can still make it easier on yourself by making time to pay.

Clear your desk, get someone to take the kids out of the house, take the phone off the hook and get on with it. You’ll probably be surprised at how quickly you finish the form, especially if your filing is up to date. It’s also not a good idea to leave this job until late at night, when you’re tired and more easily frustrated.

Gather your papers: Assemble all your receipts, HMRC letters, bank statements and any payslips before you start trying to fill out your return. If you have to keep leaving your desk to hunt down another slip of paper then completing your return will be very frustrating!

Check your tax code: There are often reports that taxpayers are on the wrong tax code, meaning they’re paying too much or too little without realising.

Either is a pain, but paying too little can be a disaster as you’ll be hit with the bill at a later point. Check you’re on the right tax code over at the HMRC website.

[Related feature: How to check you’re on the right tax code]

Check your return: By the time you’ve finished the form, you’re probably ready to just hit ‘submit’ and pour a large glass of wine/beer. But don’t. Take a few more minutes to read through your return once more, to check for errors.

Ask for help: If you’re stuck, I have always found the Self-Assessment phone line staff to be friendly and helpful, assuming you can get through. You can ring them on 0845 9000 444 – but be warned, this is their busy season and you could find you have to wait to speak to a human.

There’s also a lot of advice on HMRC’s website, so that’s worth visiting if you have a question.

What if you can’t complete it in time?

Okay, say you leave it to the very last minute and then find you don’t have all the login details you need, or your cat gets run-over and you spend the day at the vet, or you’re struck down with gastric flu just as you reach for your computer. What then?

Well, you can appeal against the fine but your excuse has to be pretty good.

HMRC gives a list of ‘reasonable excuses’, including IT failures, illness or bereavement. But it expects you to have made a ‘reasonable effort’ to meet the deadline and won’t accept excuses like ‘I forgot’ or ‘it was too complicated’.

You can download a reasonable excuse claim form from the HMRC website and should fill it out as soon as possible.

It’s OK to be angry

You might get frustrated over gathering up all your receipts and paperwork, and battling the occasionally-incomprehensible logging in system, but that won’t help. If you collect everything you’ll need before starting your return, the whole thing can be over very quickly.

So here are some alternative reasons to be angry. The private company that runs the 0845 tax helpline has admitted making hundreds of thousands of pounds in profits, despite many people claiming to have been left on hold or not had their query resolved.

Then there’s the news that HMRC made an estimated £85 million by fining 850,000 late-paying Brits last year, according to the accountancy service Boox.

You could also check out this list of Britain’s top tax cheats – evaders who face a combined total of 155 years, 10 months behind bars if they’re ever caught.

Do you fill out a tax return? Do you think it’s unnecessarily complicated or simple? Is it fair to fine late payers? Share your thoughts with other readers using the comments below.