TAX TIPS: You can't put off that DIY work any longer

The first of a series of occasional articles from tax specialists
Nostalgia and tax returns do not, at first sight, sit easily together. But being in the tax business I can reflect on the past and how it used to be in the "good old days". The ability to write on your tax return "to be advised", "see vouchers attached", "estimated", "see employer's return" was calculated to buy you a little more time and if you were very lucky those nice people in the Inland Revenue would do the work for you.

Unfortunately those days are past, self-assessment - the "simpler" tax system (who are they kidding) - is now with us. If you are one of those people who have completed their return and are now feeling rather smug then the rest of the article is not for you. Lesser mortals are just reaching one of the decision points of the tax year. Do you set aside that evening or Sunday morning to complete the return and get it to the Inland Revenue by 30 September? Or, do you leave it for the real deadline of 31 January next year?

For one group of people it is a very good idea to get tax returns in before 30 September. If you are employed and you find that you owe the taxman less than pounds 1,000 you may not have to pay this amount on the deadline next January if you file by 30 September. The taxman will probably adjust your tax code for next year and you will pay in monthly instalments over 12 months from April, a nice interest-free loan. The other reason for getting your tax return in now is that if you do, the taxman will calculate your tax bill for you. But the calculation is a bit of a doddle compared with working out what information the taxman needs, and he is not volunteering to do that part for you.

What if you don't do the calculation and send in the return after 30 September? The taxman will still do it for you, but he or she will not guarantee to do it in time to send you your bill in time for you to pay before the due date of 31 January. Moreover, if you don't pay enough off, you could end up with an interest charge.

Let us suppose that you have decided to get it in by 30 September. What should you do now?

Amass all those bits of financial paper - bank and building society statements, dividend vouchers, pension records. If you are employed, forms P60 and perhaps form P11D from your employer (or form P45 if you have changed jobs this year). If you are self-employed, records of business earnings and expenses.

Fill in page two of the form to check you have been sent all the right pages. If not, ring the taxman on 0645 000 404 (seven days a week 8am until 10pm).

Read the guidance notes (yes, there are a lot of them) and fill in the form in pencil.

If you are not sure, ring up your own tax office, or for a general inquiry you can use the self-assessment helpline on 0645 000 444, but be prepared to wait a bit as they are often engaged.

Finally, check the form, ink it in and remember to sign it.

Now send it off in time to get to the taxman by 30 September because if he does not get it by then, you know the consequences.

Looking at it another way, if you go to the trouble of putting it all together and then don't post it early enough you might as well have left it until Christmas. Now there is a thought.

John Andrews is president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and a partner in Coopers & Lybrand. The Chartered Institute of taxation will give a free list of tax specialists in your area. Tel: 0171-235 9381.