Money Grouse: Caught up in a tax code trap

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The Independent Online
ALAN AND ANNE Murray decided to swap roles. In the summer of 1989, Mr Murray gave up his job as an environmental health officer to be a househusband and look after the couple's three school-age children, and Mrs Murray started work with the police.

This all took place in the era when a husband was responsible for his wife's tax affairs. But from April 1990 independent taxation has given husbands and wives separate tax status.

The married couple's allowance - renamed from the married man's allowance - was transferred from Mr Murray to his wife, as he did not have enough income to use it.

The problem began when it was realised that there had been an underpayment of pounds 132.50 for the tax year 1989/90 - when married couples were treated as a single unit.

Mr Murray was asked to pay up. But as he is unemployed he asked if the sum could be collected through altering his wife's PAYE tax code, which she has agreed to. The Inland Revenue said this was not possible and threatened to sent in the bailiffs to collect the sum.

Mr Murray says he will pay the bill, but believes the Revenue's stance is unnessarily inflexible. 'It's such a small amount, but with three children, a mortgage, and having to run two cars because we live in the country, paying it off will leave us rather tight for the month.

'My wife will have to pay the bill anyway as I have no income, and they have been happy to collect underpayments via PAYE in recent years. Anyway, it arose because they used incorrect tax codes.'

The Revenue will accept a cheque from anyone to pay off tax liabilities, but it cannot alter the tax code of one individual to pay off the tax for someone else - even husband and wife who are treated as distinct individuals now.

A spokesman for the Inland Revenue said that the Murrays, who live on the edge of the Pennines in Cumbria, should talk to their local office if there is difficulty about paying the bill. It is not unknown for the Revenue to wipe out debts when people are genuinely unable to pay, and it is usually glad to accept staged payments rather than no payment at all.

The spokesman added that recent code adjustments to take account of an underpayment were on account of Mrs Murray's own tax affairs and therefore there was no question of a cross-over from one person's tax to another's. Every individual is now entitled to have his or her tax affairs kept separate and private, and the Revenue cannot breach this, even if all concerned agree.

'It all seems a bit pedantic to me,' said Mr Murray.

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