Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected].
Dear Hans-Torsten: I recently had my bank account locked by the Finanzamt, on the grounds of supposed unpaid taxes. After my accountant talked to the authority, it was revealed to be a mistake on the Finanzamt’s part (all my taxes had already been paid). I was assured that the situation would be fixed as soon as possible and was relieved to know it would be fixed within a week.In reality, though, it took the Finanzamt four weeks to resolve the situation – they gave me the excuse that the person in charge was ill. At some point I spent two and a half hours trying to call the Amt, with no one picking up from any office!
Had I not had a girlfriend to support me during those four weeks, I would not only have defaulted on important payments like rent and health insurance, I would basically have starved because I had no way to withdraw money or use my bank cards – all because of their mistake. Am I in any position to demand compensation for my ordeal? In practice, I did end up having to pay penalties to my health insurance and to the GEZ (under €10 euro total), but I also spent four weeks stressed out of my mind and with no solution in sight, due to the lack of response from the authorities. I hope you can help me. All the best — João
Dear João: Mensch, I feel your pain! I hope you’re still together with your kind girlfriend after that little nightmare. If there is 100 percent verifiable certainty that your taxes had been paid in full when they seized your bank account, there is no question your accountant (if he or she is a proper Steuerberater/in and not just a bookkeeper) should submit a complaint and request that late fees and the costs associated with the account seizure be reimbursed. Getting these costs paid should be possible, though don’t be surprised if it takes months.
The matter of being compensated for any other penalties you had to pay because your bank account was out of action could be trickier. You’ll obviously have to collect the complete paper trail, hire a lawyer and sue the FA for what’s known as “schuldhaften Amtspflichtverletzung” or “culpable breach of official duty” aka a bureaucrat’s slip of the pen (I’m imagining some downtrodden, soul-dead clerk like in Kafka’s The Trial). But how much money did you actually lose?
I think you can forget about getting compensated for pain and suffering in this country. I suspect it will be thrown out for being too minor and non-quantifiable by the German legal mentality. A short anecdote illustrates my point: In 2008, a couple from Bavaria had their bank account blocked by mistake while on holiday in Italy. The Finanzamt was actually after their son, who owed €103 in back taxes. Once they found out what had happened, the couple submitted a request for compensation for their ruined holiday, and only received a few euros for all the phone calls they made to sort out the miserable ordeal. Let me know how you fare!
Dear Hans-Torsten: The Finanzamt is on my case again. They want advance taxes for the coming year, but I don’t have enough money in my German bank account. I’m afraid they’re going to block it. Could they block my British bank account as well? Thanks — Adrian
Dear Adrian: In a word, yes. Who knows what may happen if Brexit comes to pass but for now, the UK is an EU member, and in the EU anything goes. If asked, you’re required to list any foreign bank accounts. And if you don’t tell them about your British account, they’ll find out eventually. It could just take them some time. Resistance is futile.