Time Is Running Out to Get Your Tax Return in, and the ATO Is Watching

Time Is Running Out to Get Your Tax Return in, and the ATO Is Watching
Time is running out to get your tax return in — this is what the ATO is looking for.

This year’s been a roller coaster ride and time seems to have both stood still and flown by. But if you haven’t lodged your 2019-20 tax return already, time is running out fast. You have until Saturday, October 31, to lodge your claim. You don’t want to take any shortcuts that could land you in trouble. So here’s a list of tax claims the ATO will be closely monitoring.

By now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise the ATO focuses on certain hotspots at tax time to call out taxpayers who have either accidentally or deliberately made errors. To avoid falling into a trap, you need to keep an eye on two key areas: work-related expenses and claims for investment properties.

Work-related expenses for tax deductions 

According to the ATO, there was a $8.7 billion shortfall in the amount of taxes it should have collected in 2019. Mark Chapman, director of tax communications at H&R Block, told Lifehacker Australia the ATO believed claims for work-related expenses play a big role in the ‘tax gap’ and have called out they’ll be closely monitoring these claims this year.

Here’s exactly what they’ll be looking at:

  • Claims for work-related clothing, dry cleaning and laundry expenses
  • Deductions for home office use, including claiming for “occupation” costs like rent, rates and mortgage interest, which are not allowable unless you’re actually running a business from home
  • Overtime meal claims
  • Union fees and subscriptions
  • Mobile phone and internet costs, with a particular focus on people who are claiming the whole (or a substantial part) of the bill for their personal mobile as work-related
  • Motor vehicle claims where taxpayers take advantage of the 68 cents per kilometre flat rate available for journeys up to 5,000km (the ATO is concerned that too many taxpayers are automatically claiming the 5,000km limit regardless of the actual amount of travel)
  • Incorrectly claiming deductions under the rule that allows taxpayers who have incurred work-related expenses of $300 or less in total to make a claim without receipts (the ATO believes that some taxpayers are claiming this – or an amount just less than $300 – without actually incurring the expenses at all)

“The focus on home office, mobile phone and home internet costs is likely to be particularly pronounced with so many people working from home due to COVID-19,” Chapman said.

“Before making any claim, be confident that you understand what you can and can’t claim and that you have the necessary proof (invoices, receipts, diaries, etc) that you actually incurred the expenditure and that it was work or business related.”

Property investment claims

At the big end of town, the ATO will keep a hawk’s eye on claims made on investment properties and holiday homes.

The ATO commissioner, Chris Jordan said at the Tax Institute’s National Convention in Hobart in 2019 the tax office had audited claims for more than 300 rental property and “found errors in almost nine out of 10 returns reviewed.”

Keeping that in mind, Chapman believes this year the ATO will focus on:

  • Excessive interest expense claims — for example, when property owners try to claim borrowing costs on the family home as well as their rental property
  • Incorrect apportionment of rental income and expenses between owners — like when deductions on a jointly owned property are claimed by the owner with the higher taxable income, rather than jointly
  • Holiday homes that are not genuinely available for rent. Rental property owners should only claim for the periods the property is rented out or is genuinely available for rent. Periods of personal use can’t be claimed.
  • Incorrect claims for newly purchased rental properties. The costs to repair damage and defects existing at the time of purchase or the costs of renovation cannot be claimed immediately. These costs are deductible instead over a number of years.

Chapman said a focus on investment property owners is likely because rental losses may be bigger than normal this year due to the hit that rental returns have taken during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The key tip here is to ensure that property owners keep good records,” he said.

“The golden rule is if you can’t substantiate it, you can’t claim it, so it’s essential to keep invoices, receipts and bank statements for all property expenditure, as well as proof that your property was available for rent, such as rental listings.”

Other focus areas for the ATO this year

There are a few more issues to be aware of this year around COVID-19:

  • If you lost your job or had your hours reduced as a result of COVID-19, it’s possible that your employer will have over-deducted tax earlier in the year in relation to your wage or salary. That could mean you’re entitled to a bigger than normal refund when you lodge your tax return this year.
  • If you received the $1,500 per fortnight JobKeeper payments from your employer or through your business, this is included in your taxable income for the year and will need to be added in to your tax return
  • Most employers are no longer obliged to provide you with a payment summary. Instead, they report your year-end details directly to the ATO. You’ll be able to use online services via myGov to access these.
  • You may be entitled to the low and middle income tax offset if your taxable income is less than $126,000. The base amount is $255, rising to a maximum of $1,080. The actual amount you receive will depend on your individual circumstances, such as your income level and how much tax you have paid throughout the year.

How to prepare for tax return

Chapman recommends taking out time to gather all the information you’ll need to do your tax returns, including invoices and receipts for work-related expenses and any bank or credit card statements that include a list of your work-related expenses that you no longer have (or never had) receipts or invoices for.

“If you don’t have the paperwork, you can’t claim a deduction so it makes sense to set aside this time in advance of the end of the financial year to spare yourself a stressful document hunt whilst you’re actually in the process of getting your return prepared,” he said.

And if you’re making claims for expenses that fall under both the work category and private use (like using a personal mobile phone), “set some time aside to work out what a reasonable apportionment is for the work-related bit,” Chapman advised.

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This article has been updated since its original publication.

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