Act now for tax breaks

There are eight days to the end of the financial year and the Easter weekend takes up four of them, leaving just four working days for your year-end tax planning.

It is now or never to start checking what needs to be done. The following list covers the main points you should be watching out for:

Plan for old age. Tax relief on pension payments is generous, so use it. Employees in a company pension scheme can put up to 15 per cent of net relevant earnings into their pension or as additional voluntary contributions (AVCs). Contributions based on 1998/99 earnings must be paid this tax year. The self-employed and employees who are not in company pension schemes may make contributions into personal pension plans. Contributions paid this year will reduce this year's tax liability and next year's payments on account. Unused tax relief for pension payments can be brought forward from the last six years.

Be generous. If you have assets that will create an inheritance tax (IHT) bill when you die, it makes sense to give some away. You can give small gifts up to the value of pounds 250 to as many people as you wish. Larger gifts worth up to pounds 3,000 a year are also exempt from IHT. The pounds 3,000 exemption can be carried forward for one year, so there's no rush to pay out before 5 April. Both husband and wife can make these gifts.

Use those gains. Anyone who has made large capital gains, from rising share prices for instance, should consider selling enough assets to use up their annual capital gains tax exemption of pounds 6,800 per person this year. A married couple can make tax-free gains of pounds 13,600.

The allowance is lost if not used before 6 April. Make sure you do not buy back the same shares within 30 days or you will fall foul of the rules against "bed and breakfasting".

Save for a rainy day. Tessas (tax-exempt special savings accounts) will be replaced by individual savings accounts (ISAs) next year, but Tessas can be opened with cash deposits of up to pounds 3,000 this year (see page 14). You can open a Tessa account with a smaller sum before 6 April and still save up to pounds 9,000 tax free over the next five years.

Something ventured. Wealthier investors prepared to take risks should look at venture capital trusts (VCTs) and enterprise investment schemes (EIS).

Both offer big tax breaks. There is income tax relief at 20 per cent on EIS investments up to pounds 150,000 and on VCTs there's tax relief to pounds 100,000, plus CGT deferral on both.

An even more generous 100 per cent income tax relief is available on Enterprise Zone buildings or investment trusts. Payment is due by 5 April.

Drive down your tax rate. The more business miles you drive in your company car the lower the tax rate, so if you are just under one of the thresholds - 2,500 or 18,000 miles - hit the road now.

Give to charity. If you are a top-rate taxpayer giving more than pounds 250 to charity (going down to pounds 100 next tax year) or making covenants, then you will benefit from 17 per cent tax relief.

Trust income. Trustees of discretionary and accumulation and maintenance trusts, which are taxed at 34 per cent, may want to distribute some income from the trust to basic-rate or non-taxpaying beneficiaries. Take care in case the distribution increases the beneficiaries' tax rate.

n Frank Collingwood is a chartered tax adviser and president of the Association of Taxation Technicians.