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Personal finance: Plug those tax leaks now

Ten top tips on tax saving from the people who know how it's done.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Benjamin Franklin's famous comment is as true today as it was 200 years ago but, while most of us are happy to pay our taxes, few of us want to pay any more than we have to.

The essence to saving tax is, for most people, a question of concentrating on simple, well-proven ideas, rather than setting up complex tax mitigation schemes. Not everyone wants to, or can afford to, set up offshore trusts. Indeed, it is important not to get involved in tax evasion - which is illegal - and even tax avoidance, using legal tax loopholes to minimise tax, is distasteful to many.

To find out how best to minimise tax, we consulted two firms of accountants and two guides to taxation. Here, then, are The Independent's top 10 tax tips:

n A good starting point from the Allied Dunbar Tax Handbook, edited by Tony Foreman and sponsored by accountants Pannell Kerr Forster, is to take your tax affairs seriously, to read up about self-assessment, and not to be fooled by "G&T tax advice". Just because a mate down the pub claims to pay no tax does not mean that they do not, or that their activities are legal. Make sure that you keep good records. That will also make it easier for you or your accountant to sort out your tax affairs.

n In many families, one spouse pays less tax than the other does. So, if your spouse pays less tax than you do, consider transferring assets to them. This works especially well if one partner is a higher rate taxpayer and currently holds most or all of the family's investments. Janice Payne of London-based Kings Mill Tax Practice, says this can help avoid paying higher rate tax on investment income. The gift has to be without reservation - if your partner decides to cash the money and go on a spree they are free to do so.

n People whose homes are big enough can receive tax-free rent up to pounds 4,250 under the Rent a Room rules. The home needs to be your main or only residence at some time during the letting and the room must be furnished says William Hinton, of chartered accountants William Hinton & Partners in Stow-on- the-Wold.

n If you have a business that generates more profits than you want to spend, consider incorporating it, writes tax consultant Sonia Gable in her book Planning for Capital Gains Tax. There are two reasons to do so; first, a limited company is likely to pay a lower rate of tax than you do, and second, there are CGT advantages available through companies that individuals do not have.

n For the self-employed, look at investing as much as you can into a personal pension. You can start getting your hands on pensions income from age 50 - lower if you are in a profession such as sport or show business, says Janice Payne.

n Another idea from William Hinton is to take advantage of available tax breaks. Most people are familiar with PEPs and with Tessas, but a useful tip, if the recession bites and your business is VAT-registered, is that if you can write off bad debts after six months you can reclaim the VAT paid.

n If you think that you are self-employed, make sure that the Revenue does too, advises the Tax Handbook. Self-employed workers can offset more expenses against tax than employees. The rules are especially complex if you work "onsite" for someone else, so you should seek professional advice.

n If you have held assets for less than 10 years, consider delaying realising gains where the qualifying holding period is just short of a full number of years, says Sonia Gable. That is because the new taper relief for Capital Gains Tax, works on how many full years you have held the asset for.

n Here's a simple way to save at least pounds 100 - make sure that you have submitted your self assessment tax return and paid your tax for 1997/98 by 31 January.

n Do not throw anything away. The Tax Handbook advises that the Revenue's policy is to "process now, check later". It reserves the right to open an enquiry into your 1997/98 tax return until 1 February 2000 - and it does not have to give a justification for doing so. How strong would your case be if you had thrown away your tax records before then?

If your tax affairs are at all complex, it will probably pay you to employ an accountant or tax adviser -- but make sure that they employ properly qualified staff, and specialise in the tax affairs of people like you. If you want to do it yourself, a good tax guide is a must. The Allied Dunbar Tax Handbook is one of the best established, while Taxbriefs' Planning for Capital Gains Tax is a new guide to this complex tax.

But do not leave it too long to get your tax affairs in order. The time to plan and to set aside the money to pay your tax bill is now.

The Kings Mill Tax Practice, 0181 649 8889; William Hinton & Partners, 01451 831 130; `Allied Dunbar Tax Handbook', price pounds 25.99 from booksellers; `Planning for Capital Gains Tax', price pounds 47 from Taxbriefs on 0171 250 0967