ATO Debt Recovery and Director Penalty Notices

Since April 2022, the ATO has sent tens of thousands of letters to directors notifying them about impending action. Director penalty notices (DPNs) have been issued

Can you avoid an ATO Debt Recovery or Director Penalty Notice in New South Wales?

  • A tax accountant can help with an ATO Debt Recovery process.
  • Paying outstanding debts is important to the ATO.
  • A business can avoid ATO Debt Recovery situations.

The ATO has increased its activity around recovering unpaid business debts. During the pandemic, it paused debt recovery but since then they have resumed their usual pursuit of debts as the Government tries to recoup all the money invested to keep the economy running. In fact since April 2022, the ATO has sent tens of thousands of letters to directors notifying them about impending action. 

Director penalty notices (DPNs) have been issued to directors who have not replied to the ATO letters and have not otherwise engaged with the ATO about their debts. DPN law means that if a company did not pay ATO obligations on time, company directors could become personally liable for the amount owing, in addition to any penalties occurred. DPNs can be issued for unpaid PAYG withholding, superannuation guarantee, GST, WET and LCT.



If you received a letter about ATO debt recovery, you can hire an accountant from our team in Gregory Hills so that we can assess the available options. A tax accountant can be a vital resource for any business owner to review the financial figures and provide advice on how you can not only minimise the tax you pay to the ATO but come up with a plan to pay any outstanding debts. 

The accounting team at Fitzpatrick and Robinson do this for many businesses in Sydney’s south west every year. 



What does ATO Debt Recovery mean?

ATO Debt Recovery refers to the process by which the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) seeks to recover outstanding tax debts owed by individuals, businesses, or other entities. When taxpayers fail to pay their tax obligations on time, the ATO initiates actions to recover the owed amounts. These actions can range from communication and negotiation to more formal legal proceedings, depending on the amount of debt and the taxpayer’s responsiveness. The ATO has an obligation to collect all money legally owed to the Commonwealth, therefore they will usually not accept less than the full amount requested. They will work with you to help you manage the payment of your tax debt – including if deferred payment or payment by instalments is an option.

In their approach to collecting tax and super debt, they seek a balance between considering your individual circumstances and the associated risks to recovery (including your compliance history and the size of the debt). A qualified accountant can help with this process in order to prepare financial records and create a debt recovery plan.


Components of ATO Debt Recovery:

1. Initial Contact:

    • The ATO typically initiates contact with the taxpayer to inform them of the outstanding debt and seeks to understand the reasons for non-payment. Taxpayers are encouraged to communicate openly with the ATO to resolve the issue.

2. Payment Plans:

    • If the taxpayer is facing financial difficulties, the ATO may negotiate a payment plan. It allows the taxpayer to pay off the debt in instalments over a specified period.

3. Legal Action:

    • For unresolved debts, especially when the taxpayer is unresponsive, the ATO can initiate legal action. It might include garnishee orders (directing a third party to pay the ATO directly), Director Penalty Notices, or asset seizure.

4. Interest and Penalties:

    • Interest and penalties may accrue on outstanding tax debts, increasing the total amount owed.

How to Handle ATO Debt Recovery:

1. Prompt Response:

    • Respond promptly to any communications from the ATO. Early engagement can lead to more favourable outcomes.

2. Seek Professional Help:

    • Consider seeking advice from a tax professional or accountant. They can provide guidance on managing the debt, negotiating with the ATO, and ensuring future compliance.

3. Payment Arrangements:

    • Be proactive in discussing potential payment arrangements if you are unable to pay the full amount upfront. The ATO is often willing to work with taxpayers to manage their debts.


ATO Debt Recovery is a structured process aimed at recouping outstanding tax debts. Taxpayers are advised to engage proactively and constructively with the ATO to manage and resolve their tax obligations. Seeking professional assistance can facilitate a more manageable and less stressful resolution process, ensuring compliance and financial stability for the taxpayer.

What is a director penalty notice?

There are lots of corporate obligations in New South Wales (NSW) so understanding various legal and financial responsibilities, including things like a Director Penalty Notice (DPN) becomes quite important. A DPN is a critical aspect of corporate governance, serving as a mechanism to ensure directors are held accountable for their company’s tax obligations. So what is a DPN and when does it get issued?


What is a Director Penalty Notice?

A Director Penalty Notice is a notice issued by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to directors of a company, holding them personally liable for certain unpaid debts of the company. These typically relate to Pay As You Go (PAYG) withholding amounts, Superannuation Guarantee Charges (SGC), and Goods and Services Tax (GST). As a company director you are responsible for ensuring that the company’s tax and super obligations are reported and paid on time. If your company does not pay certain liabilities by the due date, we can recover these amounts from you personally as a current or former company director.

As a company director you become personally liable for your company’s unpaid amounts for these three areas:


These amounts that you are personally liable for are called director penalties. We can recover the penalty amounts from you once we issue you a director penalty notice.


When is a Director Penalty Notice Issued?

A DPN can be issued in situations including, but not limited to, the following:

1. Non-Compliance:

    • When a company fails to meet its obligations concerning PAYG, SGC, or GST. If these amounts are not reported or paid by the due date, directors can be held personally responsible.

2. Insolvency Concerns:

    • If there are indications that a company is trading while insolvent, directors might receive a DPN as a part of the ATO’s effort to recover owed taxes.

3. Long-Term Unpaid Debts:

    • When tax debts have been prolonged and the company has not made arrangements to settle them, the ATO may issue a DPN to recover the funds.


Types of Director Penalty Notices:

DPNs fall into two main categories:

1. Non-Lockdown DPN:

    • Issued when tax obligations have been reported but remain unpaid. Directors have options to avoid personal liability, such as paying the debt, appointing an administrator, or beginning the company’s liquidation.

2. Lockdown DPN:

    • Issued when PAYG or SGC have not been reported or paid by the due date. In this case, directors become automatically personally liable, and the options to avoid personal liability are limited.


How to Respond to a Director Penalty Notice:

Receiving a DPN requires immediate attention. Directors should:

1. Seek Professional Advice:

    • Consult with a professional advisor, such as an accountant or lawyer, to understand the specifics and implications of the DPN.

2. Evaluate Options:

    • Depending on whether it’s a non-lockdown or lockdown DPN, evaluate options including negotiating with the ATO, paying the debt, or considering insolvency options.

3. Act Promptly:

    • Take immediate actions as there are strict time frames within which directors must act to avoid personal liability.


A Director Penalty Notice is a significant legal instrument in NSW, aimed at holding directors accountable for their companies’ tax obligations to help the ATO with their debt recovery efforts. Awareness and understanding of DPNs, coupled with proactive financial management and compliance practices, can mitigate the risks associated with personal liability and ensure that directors and their companies navigate tax obligations with confidence and integrity.

Can an accountant help manage an ATO Debt Recovery request?

When faced with an ATO Debt Recovery request, it can be a daunting experience for any business owner or individual. The complexities of tax laws, coupled with the pressure of resolving outstanding debts, can be overwhelming. Fortunately, for those based in Sydney, engaging a professional accountant can be a crucial step to effectively manage and mitigate the impact of such a request. Below, we explore how a Sydney accountant can be instrumental in navigating ATO Debt Recovery processes.



How can an accountant assist:

1. Assessment and Analysis:- 

    • An accountant will conduct a thorough assessment of your financial situation, review the debt in question, and analyse the underlying issues that led to the ATO Debt Recovery request.

2. Communication with the ATO:

    • They act as an intermediary between you and the ATO, facilitating clear, concise, and proactive communication. This helps in clarifying the nature of the debt and exploring options for resolution.

3. Payment Negotiations:

    • Accountants can assist in negotiating payment plans or settlements with the ATO. Their expertise enables them to present viable plans that align with your financial capacity while satisfying the ATO’s requirements.

4. Compliance Checks:

    • They ensure that your tax filings and payments are up to date, identifying areas of non-compliance and offering solutions to address them, reducing the risk of future debt recovery actions.

5. Financial Planning:

    • Accountants provide tailored financial planning advice to stabilize your financial health, ensuring that you are better positioned to meet tax obligations promptly.

6. Legal Insights:

    • If necessary, they can provide insights into the legal aspects of ATO Debt Recovery, ensuring that your rights are protected and obligations understood during the resolution process.

What are the benefits of engaging an accountant:

1. Expert Guidance:

    • Navigate the complexities of ATO Debt Recovery with expert guidance, turning a stressful situation into a manageable and structured process.

2. Financial Clarity:

    • Gain insights into your financial standing, empowering informed decision-making to resolve outstanding debts.

3. Strategic Approach:

    • Develop and implement strategic approaches to manage debts, mitigating the impact on your financial health.

4. Peace of Mind:

    • With a professional handling the ATO Debt Recovery request, you can focus on core business operations with peace of mind.


An ATO Debt Recovery request need not be a path treaded alone. A seasoned accountant in Sydney can transform this daunting experience into a journey of financial reassessment, strategy, and resolution. By combining professional expertise, tailored strategies, and proactive communication, accountants play a pivotal role in resolving outstanding debts and fostering a stable financial outcome.

Should you check if a business has an ATO Debt before you get involved?

It is so crucial to talk to an accountant about a business’ liabilities if you are considering to get involved with it or take it over.

  • Are you clear about what you owe the ATO?
  • Are you aware of the extent and financial implications of your personal liability?
  • Have you given director guarantees to any suppliers that might increase your individual liability?
  • Are your ASIC details correct? If a notice is issued to an incorrect address listed on ASIC, legal recovery will go ahead whether the director receives the notice or not, if contact is not made within 21 days of the letter’s date.

If you are considering taking on a new position for an existing company, check the status of the financial obligations of that company before accepting the position, as new directors may become liable for existing debts. Equally, if you resigned from the position of directorship don’t ignore it as the notice may relate to the time you were a director.


Contact us to learn more about managing business finances so you can continue running the business you love.

How can a business owner pay off an ATO Debt?

If you have an ATO Debt that needs to be paid there are different ways this can be done. If you’re experiencing financial difficulties, the ATO can provide a range of support options that may help you meet your tax or super obligations. The reality is the ATO will do their best to accomodate you because it is in their best interests to recover the debt rather than lose it completely.

Payment plans
Find out how to set up a manageable payment plan to pay down your debt.

Managing payments
How to manage your payments, including prepayments and payment transfers.

Compromise of tax debt
Find out what happens in a compromise of tax debt and how to apply for one.

Deferring repayments
Work out if you can defer or amend your compulsory payment or overseas levy.

In summary

For businesses in south west of Sydney and across Australia, receiving an ATO Debt Recovery notice can be a sign of significant financial distress. However, with proactive measures and the right financial strategies, businesses can avoid getting to this stage. One way is to partner with a professional accountant who can initiate practical steps to evade ATO debt recovery 


Ways to about an ATO Debt Recovery Notice:

1. Timely Tax Payments:

    • Ensure that all tax obligations, including GST, PAYG, and income tax, are paid on time. Utilizing reminders or automated payment systems can be helpful.

2. Accurate Record Keeping:

    • Maintain precise and up-to-date financial records. Accurate records facilitate correct tax filing and payments, reducing the risk of underpayment or late payment.

3. Cash Flow Management:

    • Implement effective cash flow management strategies to ensure that funds are always available to meet tax obligations.

4. Understanding Tax Obligations:

    • Be well-informed about your specific tax obligations, including amounts due and deadlines, to avoid oversights and miscalculations.


How an accountant can help:

1. Expert Advice:

    • A Sydney accountant provides expert advice tailored to your business’s specific financial and tax situation, helping you navigate complex tax landscapes.

2. Tax Planning:

    • They assist in strategic tax planning to optimize tax positions, ensuring that you take advantage of all available credits and deductions.

3. Timely Compliance:

    • Accountants ensure timely tax filings and payments, reducing the risk of penalties and ATO Debt Recovery notices.

4. Financial Health Monitoring:

    • By regularly monitoring your business’s financial health, an accountant can identify potential issues before they escalate and suggest corrective measures.


Does it make sense to engage with an accountant?

Absolutely, and here’s why:

1. Risk Mitigation:

    • An accountant helps mitigate the risk of financial mismanagement, ensuring that tax payments are accurate and timely.

2. Cost-Efficiency:

    • Though there’s a cost to hiring an accountant, the savings from optimized tax positions, avoided penalties, and enhanced financial management often outweigh the expense.

3. Business Growth:

    • With an accountant managing your finances, you can focus on core business activities, driving growth and profitability.

4. Peace of Mind:

    • Knowing that a professional is handling your tax and financial matters provides peace of mind, assuring that you are compliant with ATO regulations.


Avoiding an ATO Debt Recovery notice is inherently tied to effective financial management and timely compliance with tax obligations. A Sydney accountant can be a valuable partner in this journey, offering the expertise, insights, and strategic planning necessary to keep your business financially healthy and compliant. The investment in professional accounting services is not just a compliance measure but a strategic move towards sustainable business growth and financial stability.

Come and have a chat to us about it, we offer a free initial consult to figure out how we can help you

Rick & Bryn
Rick & Bryn

Experienced accountants who love helping other business owners in Sydney to maximise profits, improve cash flow & grow their business.

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At Fitzpatrick and Robinson our purpose and reason for being is to help business owners make more money, pay less tax while growing in a sustainable & methodical way. We have a team of bookkeepers, accountants, tax accountants for business, a CPA, Xero accountant specialists while also providing business advisory services.

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