Can SARS re-assess a tax return several years old?

Imagine the following scenario: a taxpayer named Andrew is on his annual vacation for four weeks. On the fifth day of his vacation, he is lying carefree in the sun with his toes wiggled into the warm beach sand.  A thought crosses his mind: perhaps he must check his email for a change.

Fast forward eight hours: Andrew logs in to his email. He gives the emails in his inbox a quick scan. Suddenly his stomach cramps. His eye caught an email from SARS. Andrew opens the email and then the attachment reluctantly. The attachment contains a letter from SARS stating that they are going to re-assess his income tax for a specific tax year. The assessment for that particular tax year has been issued more than four years ago. Can SARS do this?


To be subjected to the prescription (or re-opening) of an assessment that has been finalised a few years ago already, is something taxpayers don’t even want to contemplate. However, in terms of the new Tax Administration Act, 28 of 2011 (TAA) SARS may go back more than three tax years into the past, prescribe and re-assess a tax return but only if the Commissioner is objectively, based on the facts, satisfied that both the following statutory requirements are met:

  • There was fraud, misrepresentation or non-disclosure of material facts.

“Fraud” is defined as an unlawful act committed with the intention of misleading another person. The misleading information must cause the other person to act differently than they would have acted if they were not given the misleading information.

The legal meaning of “misrepresentation” refers to a false statement made by a person, regardless of whether the statement is made negligently, fraudulently or innocently. Misrepresentation does not include the expression of an opinion or an interpretation of law. The taxpayer must have made a positive statement which contained one or more facts that were untrue.

Note that innocence cannot be pleaded as an excuse for misrepresentation. Taxpayers thus have to make sure about the content of any statement they make regarding their tax affairs before making such a statement.

“Non-disclosure” means failure to reveal a fact if there is a duty to disclose it. Whether or not there is an intention to conceal it is irrelevant.

  • The above fraud, misrepresentation or non-disclosure of the material facts was the direct cause that the taxpayer had been assessed for a lower amount of tax than if the taxpayer had disclosed these material facts referred to in section (i) above, to SARS.

There must be evidence of a direct link between the non-disclosure or misrepresentation of the material facts and the taxpayer paying too little tax. If the fraud, non-disclosure or misrepresentation of the material facts did not cause the taxpayer to be liable for less tax than he was assessed for without the material facts, the second requirement listed above is not met and SARS shouldn’t be able to apply this section of the TAA.

Generally, the onus of proving that income is not taxable or that an expense is tax-deductible rests with the taxpayer. However, if SARS wants to apply the provisions of this section of the TAA, the onus of proving that the above requirements are met, rests with the Commissioner.

It seems that if the fraud, non-disclosure or misrepresentation of material facts did take place but did not cause the taxpayer to pay less tax than if SARS had been in possession of these material facts, and SARS would have assessed the taxpayer in exactly the same way as with the original assessment, despite SARS becoming aware of the material facts now, SARS cannot claim that the under-assessment was due to that fraud, non-disclosure or misrepresentation of the material facts.

If SARS wants to issue an additional assessment on the basis of requirement (i) above but requirement (ii) is not met, the taxpayer can deal with this situation using the objection and appeal provisions available.

In the light of SARS’s tools to go back and prescribe assessments for old tax years, it might be prudent to keep tax records for longer than the required retention periods prescribed by SARS.


TAA: Section 99

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)