Digital bookkeeping is a process that companies in Italy have been able to implement since 2004, and it can be said, without a shadow of a doubt, that after several years, the legislation has become more mature and clearer, establishing the procedure for the digitization of accounting books throughout their life cycle. Choosing digital bookkeeping offers significant benefits in terms of efficiency and digitization of processes: let’s see how.
Reference regulations to be applied
The fiscal and civil value of the electronic document and its digital maintenance and preservation has been legitimized and coordinated by a primary norm, which consists of the Civil Code, the Digital Administration Code (CAD – Legislative Decree March 7, 2005, n. 82 s.m.i.), and the EU Regulation for the protection of personal data “GDPR.” In addition, we must not forget the special and sectoral reference regulations for the tax field, such as the Ministerial Decree of June 17, 2014, which has been clarified by resolutions and responses of the Revenue Agency.
There is also a technical regulation, which consists of the technical rules for implementing the CAD, the so-called AgID Guidelines, which regulate the formation, management, and preservation of electronic documents and which must be respected. Moreover, the CAD establishes that the obligations for preservation and exhibition of documents foreseen by current legislation are understood to be fulfilled for all legal purposes by means of electronic documents, if the related procedures are in accordance with the Guidelines.
But what are the benefits of digitization?
Many companies have already adopted digital bookkeeping and record keeping as they provide many benefits, as identified below:
- reduced costs and time required for paper processing, from the consumption of paper and toner for printers and photocopiers to the management of paper archives;
- streamlined and optimized operational processes with automation, simplification, and reduction of typical human errors in paper management, and reduced risk of loss of documentary assets;
- authenticity of origin and integrity of accounting books, ensuring that fiscal and accounting certainty is maintained throughout the entire retention period;
- optimized remote availability, retrieval, extraction, and exhibition of documents both to the competent authorities and to auditing bodies;
- increased security, transparency, reliability, and shared access to the books throughout the storage period;
- association of electronic date certainty to the accounting books subjected to the preservation process, with the affixing of the time stamp on the index of the archiving package;
- adoption by the company of processes based on environmental sustainability through the digitization of documents;
- possible delegation of the tasks of the company’s Preservation Manager and outsourcing of activities and the conservation process to a specialized Preservation Service Provider.
Maintenance and preservation phases, two distinct moments
The Revenue Agency, through the relevant Response n. 236 of April 9, 2021, has issued an important clarification regarding the maintenance and preservation of books and records, stating that it is compliant with the CAD provisions is mandatory and, therefore, it is also mandatory to ensure compliance with digital preservation within three months from the deadline for the telematic submission of the annual tax return.
The Agency’s clarification was necessary to explain that the concepts and fulfillments of maintenance and preservation remain distinct, albeit placed in continuity, also in light of the recent amendments to art. 7, paragraph 4-quater, of Decree-Law no. 357/1994 introduced by art. 12-octies of Decree-Law no. 34/2019, which extended to all books and accounting records the validity of keeping electronic or mechanical systems without the obligation to print, which is already applicable to VAT registers:
“[…] the keeping of any accounting register with electronic systems on any medium is, in any case, considered regular in the absence of transcription on paper media within the terms of the law, if at the time of access, inspection, or audit the same are updated on the aforementioned electronic systems and are printed following the request made by the proceeding bodies and in their presence”.
The changes regarding the keeping of the journal, the inventory book, the auxiliary entries in which the assets and income elements must be recorded, the auxiliary entries of the warehouse and the register of depreciable assets have not modified the regulations regarding their preservation, with specific reference to tax-relevant IT documents, as governed by the Ministerial Decree of 17 June 2021.
The conclusion of the Revenue Agency in its opinion
The Agency, in its opinion as reported in Response No. 236/2021, clarifies that if the books and records are kept in electronic format, for the purposes of their regularity:
- they do not have to be printed until the third month following the deadline for submitting the relevant tax return, unless specifically requested to do so by the supervisory bodies during access, inspection, or audit;
- by the deadline indicated (the third month following the deadline for submitting the tax return) they must be digitally stored in accordance with the aforementioned Ministerial Decree of 17 June 2014, the CAD pursuant to Legislative Decree no. 82/2005 and the relevant implementing measures, where the taxpayer wishes to keep them in electronic format, or they must be materialized (printed on paper) where instead the taxpayer wishes to adopt a traditional paper storage.
Outsourcing the preservation process
We have said that legislation allows for the outsourcing of digital bookkeeping activities to a certified and specialized Preservation Service Provider, which guarantees security, reliability, and quality in the delivery of preservation activities. In addition, the preservation manager of the owner company can delegate all or part of the tasks to the preservationist and his or her manager for the Preservation Service, although the legal responsibility remains with the owner of the records and his or her preservation manager. The act of delegation must indicate the references and all the tasks required by the AgID Guidelines that are delegated to the chosen Preservation Provider and its manager for the Preservation Service, with the exception of the preparation and updating of the Owner’s Preservation Manual, which remains a non-delegable task.
The goal of a specialized preservation service is to preserve the requirements of authenticity, integrity, reliability, and legibility associated with computerized ledgers from the maintenance phase to the preservation phase, and to ensure access, retrievability, and exhibition of documents throughout the preservation period.
But how does the operational process of digital bookkeeping and preservation work?
Operationally, it’s easy: the digital bookkeeping is done in the accounting software. Then, there is an automated process that produces ledger files from the company’s accounting software in a suitable format (e.g., PDF/A or PDF) divided by year or month, depending on the size and nature of the type of ledger, and with the generation of an index file that contains key metadata. Then, the procedure provides for the telematic transfer from the company’s systems to the standard preservation service provided by the outsourcer. The transfer or deposit of the files to be preserved occurs through a secure application dialog directly with a connector that connects the accounting management system to the preservation service.
In order to complete the electronic record keeping, for example on the journal, it is recommended that a digital signature be affixed by the entrepreneur or his delegate in accordance with article 2215-bis of the Civil Code; this digital signature with automatic procedure can, for example, also be affixed by proxy by the Preservation Provider’s systems with a digital signature certificate of a company representative, in a quick and transparent way, before proceeding with the operational process of legal electronic archiving. In the case of an inventory book, the aforementioned digital signature must be affixed by force of the legal representative, in compliance with the provisions of art. 2217 of the Civil Code.
The operational process of preservation is completely managed by the Preservation Provider and provides for the generation of the preservation index within the legal deadline (within three months of the deadline for filing the tax return) according to the UNI SInCRO 11386:2020 interoperability standard, on which the digital signature of the person in charge of the Preservation Service and a time stamp (data certification) are affixed.
Throughout the 10-year period of preservation (art. 2220 of the Civil Code), the preserved documents and the preservation index will be made searchable, and available for consultation, also for exhibition purposes.
How to pay the stamp duty
We also remind you that the journal and the inventory book are subject to stamp duty. To adopt the proper modality for payment of the stamp duty for keeping the journal and the inventory book, you will need to distinguish whether the aforesaid accounting books are kept with mechanical systems and done on paper for preservation purposes, or if they are kept and preserved digitally according to AgID Guidelines. In the case of digital bookkeeping and storage for the purposes of discharging the tax, the provisions of art. 6 of Ministerial Decree of 17 June 2014 must be applied.
Stamp duty must be paid in the amount of €16,00, increasing to €32,00 for sole traders, partnerships, cooperatives, mutual insurance companies, consortia, bodies, and associations, for every 2,500 registrations or fractions thereof (where registration means the single accounting event), within 120 days from the end of the fiscal year and by exclusively telematic means, i.e. by means of the F24 payment model with the tax code “2501” called “Stamp duty on books, registers, and other documents relevant for tax purposes – article 6 of the decree of 17 June 2014”.
Resolution no. 161/E of July 9, 2007 clarified that for the journal, a single accounting event is represented by each economic transaction, recorded in double entry, regardless of the number of detailed lines. On the other hand, for the inventory book, a single accounting event refers to the registration that relates to each individual asset as well as to the registration of the explanatory note.
The provisions on proper exhibition
Regarding the exhibition of records and documents relevant for tax purposes, paragraph 2 of art. 5 of the aforementioned Ministerial Decree stipulates that in the event of audits, controls, or inspections, the electronic document must be made readable and, on request, available on paper or electronic media at the taxpayer’s premises or at the place where the records are kept, as declared by the party pursuant to art. 35, paragraph 2, letter d) of the VAT Decree.
Paragraph 4.9 of the AGID Guidelines on “Modes of exhibition” establishes that, without prejudice to the obligations on the exhibition of documents provided for by the regulations in force, the preservation system allows authorized parties direct access, even remotely, to the preserved digital objects through the production of distribution packages according to the methods described in the preservation manual.
Is it possible to recover the past?
Yes, historical records from previous fiscal years may be retrieved. This is provided for by the provisions of art. 4 of the Ministerial Decree of 17 June 2014. In order to dematerialize historical documents, in most cases you can generate computer copies of analog originals by simply extracting true and accurate PDF/A or PDF copies of bookkeeping documents from previous periods from your accounting software, without having to go through the costly and laborious process of mass scanning.
Scanning cannot be avoided where there are stamps or seals on the original paper document which require the taxpayer to produce a true and faithful image copy by scanning. On both computer copies and image copies, the generation must be completed by affixing the digital signature on the single copy file, which can also be done through a massive automatic signature process delegated to the Conservator. Regarding the timing of the recovery, it is advisable to carry it out by tax periods, in an orderly manner, in order to facilitate proper exhibition in the event of a request by the authorities; there is no legislative deadline for dematerializing historical documents, but the original paper document cannot be destroyed if the substitute storage has not been completed.
In conclusion, the procedure of complete digitization in the phases of bookkeeping is a proven operational process, and one that is both already quite widespread in Italian companies and much appreciated by the competent authorities (financial administrations, judicial authorities, control bodies, etc.).