E-filing doesn’t allow ‘secured’ or password-protected documents to be uploaded—but there is a solution.
Following SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter’s announcement that he intends to rebuild SARS’ enforcement capabilities as part of his quest to become the scourge of recalcitrant taxpayers, there has been a noticeable increase in requests from SARS for the submission of supporting documents.
However, thanks to e-filing, the days of having to photocopy reams of documents and pop them in the post, fervently praying that they will arrive at SARS’ offices, reach the right department, and be received and logged with-in the 21 working-day window, are long gone. For the past few years, any required documents can quickly be up-loaded using a few mouse clicks.
Except, it’s not always quite as simple as the good folks from SARS often make it out to be.
Whenever I submit a tax return (whether for myself or a client), once I’ve clicked ‘Submit to SARS’, I hold my breath while waiting for the assessment to be issued, hoping and praying that the box next to ‘Selected for Verification’ contains a ‘N’. If this is the case—once I’ve checked the assessment, my job is done for another year.
However, if the box contains a ‘Y’, then it’s a case of waiting for the dreaded verification request letter from SARS.
Of course, it would be helpful if SARS were to indicate on the letter which document(s) they required, but as was the case about 15 years ago when I crossed swords with Mark Kingon over SARS’ “we’ve got documents that you haven’t submitted, but we won’t tell you what those documents are” letters, the ones that get issued nowadays aren’t much better.
In short, they simply say something along the lines of “send us all the documents you used in completing this return, as we want to verify these”.
Now that’s simple enough if you only have an IRP5 and certificates showing interest from your bank, contributions towards your retirement annuity, and membership of your medical scheme. Not so simple if your tax affairs are a bit more complex.
There’s also a number of constraints that the e-filing system imposes when it comes to uploading and submitting documents, namely:
- Documents must be in one of the following formats: pdf, doc, docx, xls, xlsx, gif, jpg, jpeg, bmp and png.
- Documents should not be empty, password-protected, or encrypted;
- Documents may not be more than 5MB per upload, and a maximum of 10 documents may accompany a single submission;
- Document names should not include the characters ‘ or &; and
- No more than 10 submissions are permitted against a given case number.
Nowadays, virtually all documents are sent electronically, usually in a PDF format. However, following the promulgation of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI), most institutions are paranoid about electronic documents being intercepted in transit (although they’ll gladly pop a hard copy in the post—go figure…), with most of them being encrypted and/or password-protected.
For one of my clients last year, I had to submit a plethora of supporting documents (including 12 months’ worth of bank statements), most of which had some form of encryption or password protection.
And while the client normally forwards me the passwords required to open the documents, removing the encryption from the document requires a different password. Try getting that out of your bank! There’s a greater chance of this (male) author falling pregnant by wind pollination!
So my go-to solution in this case was to print out all the documents, then scan them back in again. Not only was this a monumental waste of both time and paper—but since scanned paper documents tend to create far larger file sizes than the original PDF that I’ve had to print out, there’s a very good chance of breaching SARS’ 5MB limit.
To get around this, I tried scanning the documents in smaller batches, but this then meant that I would end up with more than the 10 documents that SARS allows me to upload. Which meant that I had to submit as many as I could, then wait for SARS to request the missing ones—which could be as much as 21 working days later!
But this year I have found a far better solution, requiring just two pieces of software—one of which is included as part of Windows, and the other being a free download.
Removing encryption and passwords from PDFs
To remove all encryption and passwords from any PDF, you don’t even need any specialised software. If you are a Windows user, the functionality is built in as standard.
These are the steps to follow:
- Open up the PDF by double-clicking it. For most Windows users, the PDF will open up either with Adobe Reader or Microsoft PDF Viewer.
- If the PDF is password-protected, enter the password.
- Once the document is opened, you will see the word SECURED to the right of the file name.
- Click on the ‘print’ icon or press Ctrl-P on your keyboard, and when the printer selection box appears, select ‘Microsoft Print to PDF’ as the printer to use.
- Click ‘print’, and a box will open for you to save the document. Choose an appropriate file location and enter a unique file name (an example of the format I like to use for my file names is ‘Jones, SG – 2022 – Document (IT3B Investec)’), and click ‘Save’.
- If you then open up the newly-saved PDF, you will notice that you no longer need a password, and any references to ‘SECURED’ have been removed.
- You can now upload this new PDF to SARS via e-filing.
Combining multiple PDFs into a single file
If you have multiple documents of a similar type to upload (for example, 12 months of bank statements or a number of IRP5 / IT3B / IT3C certificates), you might want to combine the documents into a single file. E-filing places no constraints on the number of pages contained within a single PDF, as long as the overall file size does not exceed 5MB.
To do this, you need to download a free piece of software called ‘PDFBinder’ from https://pdfbinder.en.softonic.com/.
Once you have entered the site’s URL into your browser and accepted the ubiquitous cookies, click on the box marked ‘Free Download for Windows’. An ad for other software will usually pop up, so be careful not to click on the big green ‘Download Now’ button—instead, click on the link that states ‘No thanks, continue to download PDFBinder’.
You will then need to click on the button marked ‘Free Download for PC’, which will then take you to the page where the files are listed for download. The current version is ‘PDFBinder-v1.2.msi’. Click on the file name, click ‘Save as’, and select the location in which you want to save the file. The desktop is normally fine as it’s a tiny file (about 1.7 MB).
I’ve found the Softonic website to be safe, but for your own piece of mind, I suggest scanning the downloaded file with your anti-virus software before installing the program. When installing, simply follow the prompts until complete—the software will now be ready for use.
You only need to do this once, but if you’re not comfortable loading software on your PC, virtually all computer shops have a resident nerd who will gladly do this for you at a relatively low cost.
Actually binding your PDFs into a single document couldn’t be easier.
- Launch the software by clicking the shortcut icon (usually found on your desktop or by clicking the ‘start’ icon). The following screen will appear.
- Click ‘Add file…’. Navigate to the folder where the PDFs that you want to upload are stored.
- Select the files in the order in which you want them to appear in the combined PDF. Each time you select a file, you will return to the above screen, and you will see a list of the files that you have selected.
- To add another file, click ‘Add file…’ and repeat the process until you have selected all the files you want.
- If you have selected the files in the incorrect order, the up and down arrows will allow you to change the order.
- Once you have selected all the files you want to combine into a single PDF, click ‘Bind!’, navigate to the folder where you want to save the new PDF, give it a new file name, and click ‘Save’.
- You will then be able to upload the new combined PDF to SARS via e-filing.
PDFBinder will not allow you to bind PDFs that are secured and/or contain passwords (which is just as well, since e-filing won’t allow you to upload these anyway). If you get an error indicating that one of the files you are selecting is secured / contains a password, cancel out and remove the security from the file using ‘Microsoft Print to PDF’ as described above.
Note: These two processes have been found to work fine on both Windows 10 and Windows 11. Unfortunately, if you are an Apple user, you would need to enlist some assistance from other Apple users as I don’t even know where to switch on those infernal devices!
WRITTEN BY STEVEN JONES
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other 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 adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).