Government debts and your travel plans

The government has started a crackdown on individuals who owe welfare debts by preventing them from leaving the country, even for a holiday, until either the debts have been paid or they enter into a repayment plan. Some of the welfare debts are as small as $10,000, so is this the start of the government using Departure Prohibition Orders (DPOs) more frequently as a tool to pressure individuals from paying their government debts, including money owed to the Tax Office?

Departure Prohibition Orders (DPOs) have long been used as a tool by the government as a way to stop those who owe debts from leaving the country before they pay their debts, even if they are just going on a holiday. It has been used successfully for more than a decade in the enforcement of child support payments, and by the ATO as well.

Now the government has started applying DPOs to prevent former welfare recipients from leaving the country over debts as small as $10,000.

So far, more than 20 DPOs have been issued and the Department of Human Services is looking to increase the use of DPOs to help recover more than $800m owed by more than 150,000 who are no longer in the welfare system. Those that are currently receiving a welfare benefit will not be caught under this measure and those that are experiencing genuine hardship can have their repayments deferred.

The Department has made it clear that they will only issue DPOs in cases where the individual has consistently refused to repay their debts and have ignored multiple warnings. In addition, those who are subject to a DPO will also continue to have interest charged on their debt until they take action to repay the money they owe. The real question is whether this increased used of DPOs as a way to exert pressure on individuals to pay their debts will spread to other areas such as ATO debts.

The ATO guidelines on DPO indicate that the Commissioner can issue a DPO where an individual has a tax liability and the Commissioner believes on reasonable grounds that it is desirable to issue a DPO to ensure that the individual does not depart Australia without wholly discharging the tax liability or making arrangements for the tax liability to be discharged. This is regardless of whether the individual intends to return. In addition, DPOs can apply to both Australian citizens and foreign nationals who are liable to pay Australian tax.

In deciding whether to issue a DPO, the ATO will take into account all relevant facts and circumstances, including whether: the debt can be recovered; disposal of assets had occurred; information to suggest concealment of assets exists (eg AUSTRAC reports); the individual has sufficient assets overseas to maintain a comfortable lifestyle; transfer of any assets overseas; the actual need for travel; recovery proceedings or audit activity in progress; and involvement in criminal activity.

It should be noted that the issuing of DPOs will only be pursued after initial collection activity which involves issuing a notice calling for payment and then having the debt referred for collection activity. While the ATO acknowledges that a DPO imposes significant restrictions on normal rights of individuals and deprives them of their liberty, it needs to be balanced with the protection of revenue.

Therefore, the Commissioner already has a wide remit to issue DPOs in circumstances he considers to be appropriate. Data from past years indicate that the majority of DPOs were issued in relation to tax fraud/evasion on an international scale, related to wealthy or high-net-worth individuals or their related entities. Even then, the fact that the ATO has issued relatively few DPOs in the past few years may be an indication that it will not be applying this method to pressure individuals with smaller tax debts.

Need help with a tax debt?

Even though the ATO is unlikely to stop you from going on holidays because you have a tax debt, it may still be prudent to take care of any debt you may have outstanding with the ATO, even if it's a small one. We can save you money in interest charges and potentially get penalties remitted. Contact us today.

Call us at Robert Goodman Accountants on 07 3289 1700 or email us at reception@rgoodman.com.au.  © Copyright 2018. All rights reserved. Source: Thomson Reuters. Brought to you by Robert Goodman Accountants.