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Is coronavirus a valid excuse for missing the tax return deadline?

Late filers now won't be fined in February - but the tax bill deadline is still 31 January

Is coronavirus a valid excuse for missing the tax return deadline?

You may have seen headlines suggesting that coronavirus can now be used as a blanket excuse for missing the self-assessment tax return deadline, but HMRC is urging everyone who is able to file on time to do so by 31 January.

Despite several news reports suggesting that coronavirus can be used as a catch-all excuse for filing your tax return late, HMRC has asserted that the submission deadline isn’t being changed and its ‘reasonable excuse’ policy is in place as usual.

If the coronavirus pandemic means you have a genuine reason for not being able to file your tax return, late charges will be waived – but each excuse is assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Here, Which? outlines what HMRC may class as a ‘reasonable excuse’ for filing late and what charges you could face if your excuse isn’t good enough.

UPDATE on 25 January 2021: HMRC has announced it is waiving fines for late filers in February. However, the deadline to pay your 2019-20 bill is still 31 January. Read our news story for more.

What is a ‘reasonable excuse’ for submitting a late tax return?

HMRC defines a ‘reasonable excuse’ for filing late as being ‘normally something unexpected or outside your control that stopped you meeting a tax obligation’.

As each claim is considered individually, there isn’t an exhaustive list of what officially is and isn’t deemed reasonable, but some of the examples HMRC gives are:

  • The recent death of a partner
  • An unexpected hospital stay
  • Computer failures
  • Service issues with the tax authority’s website
  • A fire which prevented you from completing your tax return or caused postal delays.

Issues related to the coronavirus pandemic could feasibly fit into this list, but HMRC is urging people to stick to the usual filing deadline if they’re able to do so.

When we asked HMRC about its policy on coronavirus-related late submission excuses it told us: ‘We want to encourage as many people as possible to file on time even if they can’t pay their tax straight away. But where a customer is unable to do so because of the impact of COVID-19, we will accept that they have a reasonable excuse and cancel penalties, provided they manage to file as soon as possible after that.

‘Support is in place for those who may struggle to pay, with customers able to spread their payment liabilities of up to £30,000 over 12 months.’

If the pandemic has meant you’re unable to obtain figures or other information ahead of the submission deadline, it’s possible to file your tax return with provisional figures and update them later – just be sure to tick the relevant box to say so when you fill out the return.


Penalties if you submit late without a reasonable excuse

If HMRC doesn’t deem your excuse for being late as ‘reasonable’, you could face late charges. These start with a £100 fine if you’re just a day late – though the rules have been relaxed this year because of coronavirus and HMRC says it will waive fines for late filers in February. Read our news story for more.

After the initial £100 fine, charges then increase over time:

  • Up to three months late £10 for each additional day late (capped at 90 days), plus initial £100 fine
  • Six months late £300 charge, or 5% of the tax due (whichever is higher), plus penalties above
  • 12 months late another £300 charge, or 5% of the tax due, plus penalties above. In serious cases you may be charged an additional 100% of the tax due.

If you’re also late paying your tax bill, which is still due by 31 January, you may incur a separate set of charges for that as well unless you have an alternative payment arrangement in place.

The Which? Money Podcast

Appealing a late tax return charge

If you’ve received a charge for a late tax return submission due to HMRC rejecting your excuse, it’s possible to appeal the decision.

Due to coronavirus, HMRC has extended the penalty appeal period to three months for any penalty dated February 2020 or later – previously, appeals had to be made within 30 days.

To make an appeal for a late self-assessment submission, you’ll need to either fill out the online form – a link to this can be found here, but you’ll need a Government Gateway ID and password to access it.

In your appeal you must detail:

  • The date you received the penalty
  • The date you filed your self-assessment tax return
  • Details of your reasonable excuse for filing late.

HMRC has said it will accept COVID-19 as a reasonable excuse for someone missing the tax return deadline – but you must also be able to explain how you were affected and your grounds for appeal.

Personal or business disruption may well constitute a reasonable excuse, as long as there’s a genuine explanation behind it.

HMRC is currently looking into potential changes to improve the appeals process; while some articles have mentioned the possibility of a forthcoming ‘coronavirus excuse form’, this has not been confirmed by HMRC.

Some of the worst excuses HMRC has received

Last year, HMRC revealed the worst excuses it had received over the past decade. In reverse order of strangeness, these included:

  • ‘I was up a mountain in Wales and couldn’t find a post box or get an internet signal’
  • ‘My dog ate the post… again’
  • ‘My hamster ate my post’
  • ‘I’ve been cruising round the world in my yacht and only picking up post when I’m on dry land’
  • ‘A DJ was too busy with a party lifestyle – spinning the deck… in a bowls club’
  • ‘My mother-in-law is a witch and put a curse on me’.

Despite their creativity, none of these excuses were deemed to be reasonable.

File your 2019-20 tax return with the Which? tax calculator

If you haven’t yet filed your 2019-20 tax return and are able to do so, it’s a good idea to get the job done as soon as possible to avoid being landed with a late fine.

You could try the Which? tax calculator – our online tool is easy to use and totally jargon-free.

You can tot up your tax bill and get suggestions for expenses you might have forgotten. Then, when you’re ready, it can even submit your return directly to HMRC.

The video below shows you how it works:


This story was updated on 25 January 2021 with information about HMRC waiving fines for late filers in February.

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