1. Those Wedding Fees
One of a series of articles on Ringing and Money by Steve Coleman
(Just in case you’re wondering why I’m writing this, I’d better explain that as well as being a ringer I’m also a money person. I used to be one of the Central Council’s Independent Examiners – what most people call, Auditors – and I do a lot of work with ringing and church accounts too. Professionally I also used to be a rather senior Inspector of Taxes. So it’s not surprising that among the purely ringing questions people send me, I also get a fair few money questions. And it’s those questions that this series is all about.)
I’ve just read a most disturbing article about the burgeoning mountain of middle class crime, and I fear I am myself a pebble in that mountain. It’s four years since I started ringing for weddings, yet in all that time I haven’t declared a single wedding fee on my tax return. Small stabs of guilt are niggling me, so if you can give me absolution – or, better still, justification – I’d be really grateful.
By great good fortune I can give you both. But since, by your own admission, you’re middle class, middle aged and – I suspect – a middle brow ringer to boot, you won’t just want an answer, you’ll want an explanation to go with it.
So beginning at the beginning, in this country, tax – thank the Lord – is purely a matter of law. There are no bribes and no extortion, and nothing you receive is taxable unless the law says it is.
But good though that is, tax law is unfortunately fantastically complex. The statutes themselves amount to several thousand pages, whilst the judicial interpretation of all those pages fills dozens of stout volumes. So if anyone tells you that your question is a simple one, don’t believe them.
That said, it could be worse, because in a mere page or so, the law sets out a handful of categories that a chunk of income must fall into if it’s to be taxable. And that’s because not all income is taxable. Gifts aren’t, for example, nor are betting wins or the money you get for your old car when you buy a new one. So we have to look at each taxing category in turn and see if wedding fees fall into it.
It’s rather like doing one of those Sunday newspaper puzzles. You ask yourself one question after another and keep ruling things out. "Is a wedding fee income from property?" No. "Is it interest on money?" No. "Is it a dividend from an overseas company?" No.
No trouble with any of those. They’re simple questions with simple answers and most of the other questions are just as simple. But when you’ve eliminated all the simple ones, there are four questions left that need thinking about.
So first, are your wedding fees income from an employment? Are you in some way employed as a bell ringer?
And you ask yourself that question because, as I’m sure you know, for tax purposes almost all earned income is divided into two categories: income from employment – often known as Pay as You Earn – and income from self-employment – often known as Pay as You Please.
And once you’ve asked that question, it won’t take you a moment to reply, "Of course I’m not employed as a bell ringer." No ordinary ringer is. There is no contract of employment and nor are there any features of the arrangement which could lead anyone to think that an employer/employee relationship exists. Judges have spent a vast amount of time considering what might or might not be considered an employment, but they’d take one look at this situation and say the answer’s just plain obvious.
Of course, if you were employed as something else – a cathedral verger, say – and you had to ring for weddings as part of your duties, your fees would be taxable, but that’s getting decidedly theoretical.
An Office Holder?
More obscurely, Schedule E – which is what the employment bit of tax law is technically called – also applies to people who hold an "Office" and who get income from that "Office". And I say "obscurely" because no one’s entirely sure what an "Office" is. By and large, "Offices" are likely to be long-standing and vaguely prestigious posts, or posts that exist under some form of written constitution – the sort of posts that seem to exist whether someone fills them or not. The Master of the Queen’s Horse, for example, or the Lord Lieutenant of the County, or the Ringing Master of an Association.
Closer to the mark, vicars were always considered to hold an office – although there’s some doubt about that now – and church organists were looked on similarly. So might ringers also be considered to be office holders? Well, almost certainly not. In most churches the local band is a vague kind of thing. It has no fixed size, no terms of appointment and no written or centuries-old constitution. Any tax inspector who tried to pin an office on you would be quickly told to spend their time looking at something more sensible.
Just possibly – and I’m speaking entirely theoretically here – it could be suggested that one or two tower captains hold an office. If so, their wedding fees would be taxable while the rest of the band’s wouldn’t be. But that would be such a bizarre situation that no sensible tax inspector would try to suggest it. So on Schedule E grounds, you’re safe.
But could you be self-employed? Could you have the trade or profession of "bell ringer"?
Well, nothing in the statutes says what a trade or profession is, and judges have spent a really huge amount of time over the past 100 years considering exactly that – normally when someone’s made a very large sum of money by buying and selling something. Boiled right down, the test is whether you have arranged your affairs with the primary aim of making money, or whether such money as you receive is just incidental to your private life or hobby. Quite clearly, wedding fees fall in the latter category.
But if we’re just supposing, it’s possible that someone could organise themselves to ring at five weddings every Saturday at £20 a time solely because they wanted the money, and it could then be suggested that such a person was in trade. A tax inspector would have a distinctly uphill task trying to prove it, though.
And you might think that that would be that, but unfortunately there’s also a small "catch everything else" section called Case VI of Schedule D. It claims to tax,
" … any annual profits or gains not falling under any other Case of Schedule D and not charged by virtue of Schedule A or Schedule E …"
And at first sight that looks like it could be a tricky one because surely a wedding fee must be some kind of "profit or gain."
Well, you might think so, but while tax inspectors are rather fond of catch all legislation, judges certainly aren’t, and over the years they’ve come to the rescue in severely limiting what Case VI can catch. So first, only money received under an enforceable contract is taxable under Case VI, and although contracts can be oral as well as written, it would be very difficult indeed to suggest that wedding ringers have entered into a contract.
For a start, it would be hard to pin down who the contract could be with – the church? the vicar? the bride’s father? the best man? the tower captain? And secondly, the arrangements are so vague as to who rings, when they ring and what they ring, that an enforceable contract could hardly be considered to exist.
Of course, lawyers are always happy to assert remote possibilities with each other, and I dare say that at this very moment ringing lawyers all over the country are itching to put pen to paper with a counter view. But tax inspectors are practical people not vague theorists, and they would readily agree that no contract exists.
And second, even if a contract did exist, you could still claim to set your expenses against the fees received. Those expenses wouldn’t include your costs of going to practice nights or buying ringing books or anything like that, but they would include travelling expenses, and with a little thought you could easily get them large enough to wipe out your fee.
The Bottom Line
So the bottom line is, you’re safe. Your wedding fees are not taxable, they shouldn’t be included in your tax return and you aren’t part of the middle class crime mountain. Of course, if you do include your fees on your tax return .... the Revenue will tax them, because it’s their job to tax everything that gets put on tax returns. But that will be your fault not theirs.
And if sometime in the past you asked a tax person whether your wedding fees were taxable, and you got the answer that they were, don’t feel cross. As I said earlier, tax isn’t simple, and you need to have all the facts of any situation if you’re going to come to the right conclusion. Quite likely you didn’t give the person all the facts.
Of course, tax inspectors are much too busy tackling large scale evasion to bother about a handful of wedding fees, so you’re most unlikely ever to be challenged about them. But from time to time a few ringers at cathedrals and large churches have had a problem. Their church authorities have been handing out quite large amounts of money to a variety of people – including professional musicians – and not deducting tax as they should have done. When the tax inspector has sorted things out, the ringers’ wedding fees have been swept up along with everything else.
So if – just remotely if – a tax inspector wants to start taxing your fees – either through your tax return or, more likely, by deduction – show them this article. If they still can’t agree, make a politely worded complaint and show this article to their boss. And if their boss can’t agree, make an equally polite complaint to their Regional Office. That, at least, should sort it.
Absolution is yours!