Avoiding death and taxes might not be possible, but luckily there are ways taxpayers can lessen the pain. Tax season is now open and Georgina Crouth spoke to an auditor and the chief executive of the tax ombudsman about filing tax returns and where to turn if you have any complaints

Tax season opened on July 1 and, while Sars has no doubt received a flood of tax returns already, another office is awaiting the inevitable complaints about filings: the tax ombudsman.

With so many regulators set up in recent years, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who does what and how efficiently.

But taxpayers should take comfort in the fact that when it comes to their dealings with Sars, they’re not alone. Set up at the end of 2013, the tax ombudman’s office oversees the workings of the revenue service. Since its founding, it has embarked on promotional campaigns to highlight its work – and it’s (erm) paying off.

For taxpayers, it’s good to know that the tax ombudsman is autonomous, which means it acts as an arbiter between the tax authority and taxpayers.

Before referring complaints to the ombud, it’s important to ensure your submissions are done correctly.

Many people prefer to employ the services of a tax practitioner to sort out their affairs, but Stephan de Wet, chartered accountant and director of Futura Optimum Solutions, says completing your own e-filing is not daunting, even to laymen.

“Don’t fear e-filing. Embrace the potential of being in control of your own tax compliance and register as a user. It’s the most productive initiative in South Africa for the past 25 years. The entire initiative places the responsibility of tax compliance in the hands of the taxpayer. It’s a massive improvement on days gone by, when people had to take a day’s leave to get anything done at Sars, or alternatively, take their chances by posting documents or hand delivering them to Sars.

“It’s convenient – you can be tax compliant in the comfort of your home – and it’s relatively pain-free. In this respect, Sars should receive kudos for the general quality of their call centre officials, who have made huge strides in their ability to assist, teach and guide first-time and frequent users to get the most out of e-filing.”

De Wet says it’s vital to keep records of your expenditure (travel log books, entertainment claims, medical expenses, vehicle services, etc) and start early with your submission: “Don’t wait till the last minute to file your return.

“Know that you can save your return with partial information in it without filing the return, thereby giving you a chance to think about the information you have captured and still need to capture. You can thus store information as and when obtained, and then continue adding information as and when you obtain the required information.

“At any stage during the process of capturing and saving and eventually filing your return, you can obtain an online, interactive, preliminary assessment, which will tell you what your tax liability or credit should be, based on information captured to date.

“You can use this to gauge the accuracy of your inputs on an ongoing basis, and I would suggest that any user does this at least once before filing the return, so that they can compare the results of the Sars assessment to what was initially anticipated, based on the preliminary tax calculation.”

If things go wrong and you have a dispute or enquiry, your first port of call is Sars.

Once you’ve exhausted their complaints resolution process, it’s time to approach the ombud. But you can’t complain to them about Sars policy or tax legislation.

Chief executive of the tax ombud, advocate Eric Mkhawane, said they specifically “handle services, administrative and procedural matters relating to the application of tax legislation by Sars”.

They report directly to Pravin Gordhan, who happens to be the former head of Sars: “(We) are accountable to the minister of finance. (Our) mandate is to review and address any complaint by a taxpayer regarding a service matter or a procedural or administrative matter arising from the application of the provisions of a tax act by Sars.”

Complaints have increased since 2013 – not because Sars is necessarily dropping the ball, but because taxpayers have ­become wiser to the fact that they can lodge complaints with the ombud.

“Being a new office, a lot had to be done to increase public awareness. As more and more people come to know about our office and its services, the number of complaints continues to increase. In 2015/16, the number has increased beyond 2 000.”

They make recommendations – not rulings – which means that Sars is not obliged to implement their recommendations.

“If Sars does not implement those recommendations, they will form part of the tax ombud’s annual report to Parliament, but our office has not had problems with Sars implementing recommendations. The complainant may also ­approach the courts and the public protector.”

However, Sars has yet to refuse their recommendations, Mkhawane said. And the good news is that more than 75% of the complaints received by the ombud were resolved in favour of the taxpayer.

Compared to many other offices, the tax ombud’s process is relatively swift: “(We) endeavour to finalise complaints within 15 business days from the acceptance of the case. This is dependent on numerous factors, including the ­complexity of the case and the co-operation from Sars. However, should the office not be able to finalise the complaint within the stipulated period, we’ll advise the taxpayer/s ­accordingly.”

In terms of the Tax Act, the office may not review ­complaints that arose before October 10, 2012, but Mkhawane said the finance minister can – and has – asked them to review matters prior to that date.

And they have only received one complaint about e-filing, relating to document sizing.

“We received one case in the past where Sars failed to accept electronic copies of supporting documentation exceeding a certain size. A taxpayer, who was registered as an e-filer, was requested by Sars to provide supporting documentation related to certain claims submitted on his return. The e-filing system has a challenge to load documents bigger than 2MB in size. The office of the tax ombud made a recommendation to Sars to increase the size to 2MB, and Sars accepted our recommendation.”

What about Sars “dipping” into taxpayer accounts?

“It’s a legislation power given to Sars and has been found by the court to be justified for proper tax administration.

“The only recourse for taxpayers, if the debt is legally due and payable to Sars, is to contact debt management to make an alternative arrangement for payment,” Mkhawane said.

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Stephan de Wet suggests the following for ease of filing:

Make use of the call centre agents: They are helpful and friendly and mostly competent.

Don’t leave anything out: Follow the form from top to bottom and try to capture information into every field available. Sars has designed each type of form to be specific to the type of taxpayer – individual, trust, company – and every field on

the form will be relevant to some or other extent.

Not relevant? If any particular field is not relevant to your situation, capture a ZERO rather than leave it blank.

Full disclosure: Ensure that you make all relevant disclosures of capital gains, interest and dividends and other incomes earned, because non-disclosure can get you into trouble.

Check in: Log onto e-filing regularly to follow up on progress with your assessment. E-filing sends SMSes and e-mails to taxpayers notifying them of any actions that have occurred on e-filing. Don’t ignore these communications. Make the effort to log onto e-filing each time you receive such a communication. It will help in staying on top of your tax case.