Penalties, interest charges and offences relating to tax returns

 

Actions relating to tax returns that can be penalised include:

  • failing to lodge returns and other documents by the due date;
  • late payment of tax.

The penalties for these actions are fines and interest charges respectively. The penalties vary depending on certain factors, including how late the return or payment is, how well you cooperate with the ATO, and whether you voluntarily disclose your offence to the ATO.

There are also a range of criminal offences that can be imposed for tax return related offences.

When can penalties apply?

If you have not complied with your tax obligations, you may have to pay penalties and interest charges. Some of the penalties can be severe, particularly for deliberate tax evasion. Penalties apply in addition to the ordinary tax payable, rather than in substitution for tax. Therefore, you must be aware of your tax obligations and observe them. The ATO may reduce or remit penalties and interest, depending on individual circumstances.

Two of the more common actions may be penalised as follows:

failing to lodge returns and other documents by the due date or in the approved form: for small entities (including most individuals), there is an ATO base penalty of 1 penalty unit (currently, the value of one Commonealth penalty unit is $170) for each 28-day period or part of a 28-day period (up to a maximum of five periods) during which the documents are not lodged; and

late payment of tax: the shortfall interest charge (SIC) and the general interest charge (GIC) are uniform, tax-deductible charges. The SIC is payable where your tax assessment is amended to increase the amount of tax payable. It is 5.36%–5.75% per year for the 2014–2015 financial year. The GIC is payable where you do not pay an amount of tax by the time it is due or where your assessment for a year (prior to the 2004–2005 income year) is amended to increase the amount of tax payable. It is 9.36%–9.75% per year for the 2014–2015 financial year. The GIC and SIC are each calculated daily on a compounding basis.

Penalties for taxation shortfalls

Nature of behaviour

Basic Penalty
Amount (BPA)
(% of shortfall)

Penalty adjusted for:

Lack of cooperation

Voluntary disclosure by taxpayer

During audit

Before audit

Intentional disregard of the law

75

90

60

15

Recklessness

50

60

40

10

Failure to take reasonable care

25

30

20

 5

Case not reasonably arguable

25

30

20

 5

Failure to provide documents

75

90

60

15

Tax shortfall provisions

You will have a tax shortfall if, due to your own actions, you paid less tax than the ATO considers you should have paid. This may be due to several factors, including deliberate understatement of your income, carelessness, or where you contend that the Acts could be interpreted in a particular way favourable to you but cannot “reasonably argue” that your interpretation is acceptable.

The penalties imposed are complex and are determined by a number of factors, including the degree of seriousness of the offence, whether you cooperated with the ATO, and whether you voluntarily disclosed the offence to the ATO. The penalties, expressed as a percentage of the shortfall, are shown in the table above.

The ATO has a fair amount of scope as to the penalty to be imposed within particular limits and may also remit penalties where it deems appropriate. Some of the terms used in the above have been the subject of discussion and interpretation as follows.

Recklessness

The Commissioner considers recklessness arises where there is a high degree of carelessness, including disregard of, or indifference to, risks that are foreseeable by a reasonable person.

Lack of reasonable care

The reasonable care test requires a taxpayer to take the same degree of care in fulfilling their tax obligations as could be expected of a reasonable ordinary person in their circumstances. Where you are regarded as having tried your best, no penalty should be imposed.

Reasonably arguable

A matter is “reasonably arguable” if what is argued for is as likely to be correct as incorrect, or is more likely to be correct than incorrect. Therefore, there must be a substantial prospect that your interpretation of the relevant provision would be upheld by a court. No penalty will be imposed for this offence, unless the tax shortfall is greater than $10,000 or 1% of the tax payable on the basis of the return you lodged.

Specific penalty provisions also exist if you are involved in a tax avoidance scheme.

Promoter penalties

The promotion of tax avoidance and tax evasion schemes is prohibited. This activity can be penalised with civil penalties of up to $850,000 for an individual or $4.25 million for a body corporate, or more depending on the benefits received by the promoter and their associates.

Offences

In addition to the penalties listed above, a range of criminal offences may be imposed instead of the penalties referred to in the previous sections. Maximum penalties range from a fine of $3,600 to $18,000 and/or two years imprisonment for individuals. Fines may be up to five times higher in the case of companies and company officers may be personally liable for the tax offences of the company. Further, the court has the power to order a penalty of up to three times the amount of tax that was sought to be avoided.