Tax audits are practically a rite of passage for Australian business owners, with as many as 1000 businesses audited every financial year.
Apart from the disruption to ‘business as usual’ that an audit can cause, there are significant stress levels to factor in, too.
So, how can we ensure that our relationship with the taxman remains a positive one?
The audit lottery
The audit process can sometimes feel a bit like the lottery – not the exciting kind where you can win a lot of money, but in the sense that anything can happen at random.
The most important way to appease the taxman is by maintaining tidy and compliant books and records.
Of course, this requires a commitment by the business owner from day one. Setting an organised and thorough foundation early on empowers business owners to better manage performance. There are so many tools these days to help us create efficiencies that enable business growth – the right software can truly become a business owner’s best friend and can easily be programmed to comply with the ATO’s GST and tax requirements, as well as any bookkeeping requirements specific to an individual business’ needs. The chart of accounts and tax codes in the software are also set up to ensure accurate reporting.
The technology behind today’s accounting software has also advanced to offer features like bank feeds which update instantly and constantly stay up to date, so you are ready to submit your year-end results well before the due date.
A little bit of due diligence at set up ensures you have nothing to fear if you ever hear the ATO knocking on the door!
Lodge on time, every time
Another way to stay friendly with the taxman is by lodging all of your Business Activity Statements, Instalment Activity Statements and tax returns on time, every time.
Late returns and unpaid balances are essentially a major red flag and call unwanted attention from our friends at the ATO, potentially triggering a request to audit. Of course, the accounting software you’re using should have the tools to easily prepare your BAS and IAS and track the amount owed to the ATO.
Businesses that update their records regularly are able to monitor business performance and identify issues before things spiral out of control. Successful businesses are those that monitor their cash flow on a regular basis, manage their debtors, creditors, stock control, set budgets and plan for future growth. By doing this, business will avoid the cash shortages that make it challenging to pay the ATO their debts – and duck under the ATO’s spotlight in the first place.
Another way to avoid the taxman’s eagle eye is to make sure that your business falls within the benchmarks for your industry.
Each year the ATO releases small business benchmarks to compare like-type business performance against their ratios. The ATO publishes benchmark information on its website, and it derives benchmarking information from business activity statements and tax returns lodged by businesses.
This isn’t to suggest that you lower the bar set for performance and successes, but it is worth noting that if your income or expenses fall significantly outside of the parameters of these benchmarks, it’s a pretty likely bet that the ATO will take a special interest in your business activity. Be prepared to give them a status check if you’re in this situation!
What can cause you to fall outside the benchmarks?
Claiming personal expenses as part of your business, inflating deductions or underreporting incomes will distort your results compared to other businesses in your industry. Here are some examples of common mistakes that can distort business results:
- Topping up the fuel of family member’s cars and claiming it as business car usage.
- Claiming mobile phones that are private.
- Claiming personal trips as business related.
- Expensing capital items purchased.
- Over-claiming on GST – by claiming on items that are exempt of GST like donations, bank fees, drawings etc.
- Not reporting cash income
While nobody rolls out the welcome mat for an ATO audit, it goes without saying that business owners that keep their books tidy, up to date and compliant can breathe a sigh of relief if the taxman ever knocks on their door.
Pam Madytianos is director of 2 Peas and a certified MYOB consultant.