Top 10 VAT Howlers

I am often asked what are the most frequent VAT errors made by a business. I usually reply along the lines of “a general poor understanding of VAT, considering the tax too late or just plain missing a VAT issue”.

While these are unquestionably true, a little further thought results in this top ten list of VAT horrors:

Not considering that HMRC may be wrong.

There is a general assumption that HMRC know what they are doing. While this is true in most cases, the complexity and fast moving nature of the tax can often catch an inspector out. Added to this is the fact that in most cases inspectors refer to HMRC guidance (which is HMRC’s interpretation of the law) rather to the legislation itself. Reference to the legislation isn’t always straightforward either, as often EC rather than UK domestic legislation is cited to support an analysis. The moral to the story is that tax is complicated for the regulator as well, and no business should feel fearful or reticent about challenging a HMRC decision.

Missing a VAT issue altogether.

A lot of errors are as a result of VAT not being considered at all. This is usually in relation to unusual or one-off transactions (particularly land and property or sales of businesses). Not recognising a VAT “triggerpoint” can result in an unexpected VAT cost, penalties and interest, plus a possible reduction of income of 20% or an added 20% in costs. Of course, one of the basic howlers is not registering at the correct time. Beware the late registration penalty, plus even more stringent penalties if HMRC consider that not registering has been done deliberately.

Not considering alternative structures.

If VAT is looked at early enough, there is very often ways to avoid VAT representing a cost. Even if this is not possible, there may be ways of mitigating a VAT hit.

Assuming that all transactions with overseas customers are VAT free.

There is no “one size fits all” for cross border transactions. There are different rules for goods and services and a vast array of different rules for different services. The increase in trading via the internet has only added to the complexity in this area, and with new technology only likely to increase the rate of new types of supply it is crucial to consider the implications of tax; in the UK and elsewhere.

Leaving VAT planning to the last minute.

VAT is time sensitive and it is not usually possible to plan retrospectively. Once an event has occurred it is normally too late to amend any transactions or structures. VAT shouldn’t wag the commercial dog, but failure to deal with it at the right time may be either a deal-breaker or a costly mistake.

Getting the option to tax wrong.

Opting to tax is one area of VAT where a taxpayer has a choice. This affords the possibility of making the wrong choice, for whatever reasons. Not opting to tax when beneficial, or opting when it is detrimental can hugely impact on the profitability of a project. Not many businesses can carry the cost of, say, not being able to recover VAT on the purchase of a property, or not being able to recover input tax on a big refurbishment. Additionally, seeing expected income being reduced by 20% will usually wipe out any profit in a transaction.

Not realising a business is partly exempt.

For a business, exemption is a VAT cost, not a relief. Apart from the complexity of partial exemption, a partly exempt business will not be permitted to reclaim all of the input tax it incurs and this represents an actual cost. In fact, a business which only makes exempt supplies will not be able to VAT register, so all input tax will be lost. There is a lot of planning that may be employed for partly exempt businesses and not taking advantage of this often creates additional VAT costs.

Relying on the partial exemption standard method to the business’ disadvantage.

A partly exempt business has the opportunity to consider many methods to calculate irrecoverable input tax. The default method, the “standard method” often gives an unfair and costly result. I recommend that any partly exempt business obtains a review of its activities from a specialist. I have been able to save significant amounts for clients simply by agreeing an alternative partial exemption method with HMRC.

Not taking advantage of the available reliefs.

There are a range of reliefs available, if one knows where to look. From Bad Debt Relief, Zero Rating (VAT nirvana!) and certain de minimis limits to charity reliefs and the Flat Rate Scheme, there are a number of easements and simplifications which could save a business money and reduce administrative and time costs.

Forgetting the impact of the Capital Goods Scheme.

The range of costs covered by this scheme has been expanded recently. Broadly, VAT incurred on certain expenditure is required to be adjusted over a five or ten year period. Failure to recognise this could either result in assessments and penalties, or a position whereby input tax has been under-claimed.


So, you may ask, how do I make sure that I avoid these VAT pitfalls, and you would be right to ask. Of course, I would recommend that you engage a VAT specialist to help reduce the exposure to VAT costs!

This article was written by Marcus Ward.


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