While it’s often said that lawyers and accountants are their own worst clients, or doctors are their own worst patients, taxpayers too can be their own worst clients when they represent themselves in disputes with the Tax Office.
This happened recently with a carpenter who represented himself before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in a GST dispute with the Tax Commissioner.
In that case, the AAT upheld the Tax Commissioner’s decision to impose on the taxpayer a 50% administrative penalty on the basis of “recklessness” because he had over-claimed GST credits.
The taxpayer is a carpenter by trade, a sub-contractor in the building industry. He is a sole trader and has no employees. The Commissioner audited his Business Activity Statements for the period 1 January 2007 to 30 June 2010 and found he had over-claimed input tax credits. The BASs showed that claims for ITCs exceeded his GST payable in all but six out of the 42 BASs lodged in the relevant period. The tax shortfall amount was around $130,000 and the penalty imposed was some $65,000 based on 50% of the shortfall amount.
The taxpayer said that his wife prepared and lodged his BASs and that he never reviewed them or any of the supporting documents, including the invoices that he kept in a box in the linen closet which, as it transpired, did not substantiate his ITC claims. He also did not keep vehicle log books. Nor did he ever check any of his bank statements and so he was unaware that he was receiving GST refunds from the Commissioner over a lengthy period of time in the joint bank account that he had with his wife.
The taxpayer did not dispute the tax shortfall but argued he was not responsible for the penalty maintaining that it was the Commissioner who was mostly responsible for it. He alleged that Tax Officers had represented to his wife that he was entitled to claim ITCs for the purchase of his family home because he maintained a home office (although the AAT noted the settlement statement for the purchase of the home did not show any GST having been charged by the vendor to the taxpayer and his wife as the purchasers). Additionally, the taxpayer claimed it was the Commissioner that allowed the situation to go on for so long without him being audited.
The taxpayer also alleged that a car salesman had represented to him that he could claim back the GST on the purchase of two vehicles, but he accepted before the AAT that he was given wrong information by the salesman.
The taxpayer also stated that he had lost a lot of information about his purchases when his old computer died and that many other receipts that he had stored had faded and were illegible. The taxpayer contended that the mistakes in his BASs “were not made intentionally by his wife and that he had always been honest with the Commissioner”.
The taxpayer was self-represented. The AAT did not accept what the taxpayer said his wife was told by the Tax Officers or what the taxpayer said he was told by the car salesman. It agreed with the Commissioner’s contention that the taxpayer had over-claimed ITCs “for a lengthy period of time in circumstances where he knew or should have known that he was not entitled to claim the ITCs”. The AAT said the taxpayer had conceded he was “indifferent as to whether the BASs were accurate”. It also noted the taxpayer “never checked any of the BASs or whether he had the supporting documentation for the ITC claims because he thought everything was fine”. The AAT was of the view that the taxpayer “chose to leave the preparation of his BASs in the hands of his wife who had no taxation expertise”.
In the Tribunal’s view, the taxpayer’s conduct amounted to recklessness because there were foreseeable risks as to a tax shortfall where his BASs included claims for ITCs to which he was not entitled. The AAT said a reasonable person in the taxpayer’s position should have known about those risks. The Tribunal said the taxpayer “displayed complete indifference to the high risk of non-compliance in his GST affairs”. Game, set and match to the Tax Office on this occasion.
The AAT held the taxpayer had failed to discharge the onus of proving that the penalty was excessive. It held the decision to impose an administrative penalty of 50% was correct and that it should not be remitted in the circumstances.
Taxpayers must exercise care in their taxation affairs. They have that responsibility, and while they may claim they have no intention of making mistakes, that does not unfortunately stack up. Leaving the preparation of BASs to a family member (even if they are well versed in this), be it a wife or someone else, does not absolve the taxpayer from his or her responsibilities.
Thomson Reuters Australian Tax Handbook 2014 – Tax Return Edition provides information on claiming all kinds of tax deductions, including the rules relating to claiming rental properties and work-related expenses.
Terry Hayes is the editor-in-chief of tax news reporting at Thomson Reuters, a leading Australian provider of tax, accounting and legal information solutions.