5 ways to solve your tax problem before the 31 January filing deadline
Mark Lee, FCA CTA (Fellow), Chairman of the Tax Advice Network
The deadline for filing your tax return is looming. You’ve been putting it off as there’s something you’re not sure about. You want to check that you’re not going to have to pay too much tax. You want to ensure you’re giving the taxman all the information he needs, but not too much. Or maybe you just want to avoid ending up with a tax penalty.
Perhaps you have a tax problem, a tax headache, a worry or simply want to clarify one of the many confusing elements of our tax system.
Before you choose how to solve your tax problem, you need to decide what you really want. This could be:
- To find an answer online – regardless of who provides it as long as it puts your mind at rest;
- To find a draft letter you can send to the taxman;
- To contact someone who will then write or call the taxman on your behalf; or
- Expert advice from a tax specialist who will listen to you, talk through your issue and agree a plan of action.
Ok, now let’s check out the five alternative solutions:
Contact the taxman direct
If you have something to hide or that you fear you may have done wrong, you may choose to skip this option. Otherwise you may find what you’re looking for if you either:
- Check out HMRC’s forms and helpsheets via http://www.hmrc.gov.uk
- Contact one of HMRC’s telephone helplines eg: 0300 200 3310 re self assessment;
- Write to HMRC – although they ask you not to do this until you have first checked all their published information.
It’s important to note that although HMRC staff usually try to be helpful they are very busy, especially at this time of the year. The staff who answer the phones are rarely experts in all areas of tax so may not be able to provide you with definitive advice. Do note that that they will rarely help you find ways to keep your tax bills to a legal minimum or give you any help with tax planning.
But, even if the advice is not always in your favour, at least it’s free!
Ask your question in an online forum
If you are a member of an online networking group or are part of a club or association you may find other members willing to help you.
And sometimes their advice or input will be all that you need. Do be aware though that the answers you get will often be from enthusiastic amateurs. Would you make a financial investment recommended by a stranger on such a forum? Tax advice is not much different and the penalties for getting it wrong can be more than simply financial loss.
Online answers will also be generic and will rarely take full account of all relevant aspects of your personal circumstances.
Use Google to try to find the answer online
A quick search for tax advice will often reveal advisory notes and articles written by various people. Some know what they’re talking about, others less so. And plenty of websites have forgotten that they have these materials. So when they go out of date they remain accessible to Google.
Do ensure that any guidance you track online is uptodate. This is hard though as Google shows you the most popular items – which means older material often shows up ahead of the latest guidance. Our tax system changes every year – sometimes more often. So do beware that the information you find online may no longer be correct.
Also bear in mind that there is a limit as to the level of knowledge you can expect to find on the web. Good quality professional advice rarely comes free.
It costs nothing to use HMRC’s website and there are plenty of others that provide free general tax advice. It’s best to stick with those that have a degree of credibility as distinct from those established by strangers with little professional knowledge.
As always you should treat the general advice you find online with some caution unless it comes from a truly reputable source.
Speak to an accountant
If you don’t have an accountant then be careful who you approach to help you with your tax problem. Few accountants are also tax experts – although they are typically great at resolving day to day tax matters for their clients.
If you do have an accountant, they should normally be your first port of call. Remember though that accountants are much like GPs. When patients have unusual medical issues the GP will involve a specialist consultant. Accountants are the same. Very few of them are able to resolve all tax problems, but they will often know who to ask.
The best accountants know what they don’t know and will not pretend to the contrary. Many have listed their expertise on the website of the Tax Advice Network
Use a specialist directory service
You need to choose your directory carefully. Most are simply either listings taken from the phone book records or are paid for listings. Far better to find a service that is more choosy – like Trust A Trader or the more specialist Tax Advice Network.
This can be a really fast way to find the tax expertise you need, where you want it and provided by the sort of specialist tax consultant you will be comfortable with. And it costs nothing to use these directories.
These services do not charge you to use them. Once you have decided who to approach you can then call or email them immediately. If they agree to provide any substantive advice they will tell you how much this will cost and you will need to agree to pay them for it. That’s as it should be. The key here though is that you are no longer choosing someone at random.
Last updated: January 2019