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Reduced tax returns reported as ATO reactivates 290,000 debts

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has quietly reactivated about 290,000 historical debts worth $1.2 billion — which were frozen in 2020 — and plans to automatically offset them against Australian tax returns.

It could leave Aussies who were expecting an end-of-financial-year cash boost with either a significantly reduced tax return — or no refund at all — as financial experts slam the lack of warning on the ATO’s move.

After one in seven Australians admitted in Finder research that they were waiting on their tax returns to pay their bills amid the cost of living crisis, the surprise debt reactivation is likely to come as an unwelcome shock.

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The so-called “debts on hold” were reactivated in the middle of last year, and H&R director Mark Chapman told 7NEWS.com.au the ATO hadn’t been pursuing the debts because of the “financial strains imposed on taxpayers by COVID”.

“However, the ATO has recently announced that they will re-commence collection of the debts and the first impact of that has been felt by taxpayers not getting the tax refunds they were expecting.”

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It’s a totally legal move by the ATO, which states its obligation on its website: “While a debt is on hold, we do not try to collect it. However, any credits or refunds you become entitled to are used to pay off the debt. This is required by law.

“There are limited circumstances in which we have the discretion not to offset, and to instead issue a refund.”

But the act has still been criticised as being out-of-touch.

“The ATO is legally mandated to collect these debts, but the timing of the ATO’s decision is poor,” Chapman told 7NEWS.com.au.

“This will impose one more burden on the shoulders of hard-working taxpayers already struggling with higher interest rates and higher inflation.

“Now, the ATO had to reactivate these debts at some point — after putting debt collection on the back-burner during COVID — but it is difficult to justify the decision to push hard to collect these debts right now, in the middle of a cost of living crisis.”

7NEWS.com.au has contacted the ATO for further comment.

The ATO has reactivated debts frozen in 2020 and plans to automatically offset them against tax returns. Credit: Getty Images

Not everyone was blindsided by the ATO’s move — accountants were made aware of the reactivating of debts. But the problem is, many Australians don’t use a tax agent.

“Agents were informed about the ATO’s decision to ramp up debt collections and use current year refunds to help clear outstanding prior year debt,” Chapman confirmed.

“But don’t forget that 40 per cent of all taxpayers aren’t represented by an agent.

“For anybody who uses myTax to ‘do it yourself’, they would simply have no idea that this debt collection strategy was happening and could impact their refunds.

“The ATO don’t seem to be implementing it properly.”

The debt reactivation falls within the same financial year as the removal of the low and middle-income earner tax offset (LITMO), which has also caused extremely lower tax returns for Australians.

The scheme ran from 2019 and 2022 and gave Australians earning up to $126,000 a tax-time boon of up to $1500.

How to check for reactivated debts

Of the 290,000 thawing debts worth $1.2 billion, the ATO expects more than 69,000 taxpayers to repay a collective sum of $274 million, according to SBS.

Taxpayers can check if they have a newly reactivated debt by reviewing their statement of account, or by logging into the ATO online services.

The ATO will note a “debts on hold” with the phrases: “Re-raise of non-pursuit”, “partial re-raise of non-pursuit”, or “cancellation of non-pursuit”. These phrases can also be used as search terms to help locate relevant transactions by the ATO.

An outstanding balance will also appear, along with a note that the debt is now “active”.

Taxpayers can see the amount of tax refund that has also been used to offset their debt by searching “offset”.

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