The tax year is ending – some planning steps to take before December 31st (December 2018)
For individual Canadian taxpayers, the tax year ends at the same time as the calendar year. And what that means for individual Canadians is that any steps taken to reduce their tax payable for 2018 must be completed by December 31, 2018. (For individual taxpayers, the only significant exception to that rule is registered retirement savings plan contributions, which can be made any time up to and including March 1, 2019, and claimed on the return for 2018.)
While the remaining timeframe in which tax planning strategies for 2018 can be implemented is only a few weeks, the good news is that the most readily available of those strategies don’t involve a lot of planning or complicated financial structures – in many cases, it’s just a question of considering the timing of steps which would have been taken in any event. What follows is a listing of the steps which should be considered by most Canadian taxpayers as the year-end approaches.
The federal government and all of the provincial and territorial governments provide a tax credit for donations made to registered charities during the year. In all cases, in order to claim a credit for a donation in a particular tax year, that donation must be made by the end of that calendar year – there are no exceptions.
There is, however, another reason to ensure donations are made by December 31st. The credit provided by each of the federal and provincial or territorial governments is a two-level credit, in which the percentage credit claimable increases with the amount of donation made. For federal tax purposes, the first $200 in donations is eligible for a non-refundable tax credit equal to 15% of the donation. The credit for donations made during the year which exceed the $200 threshold is, however, calculated as 29% of the excess. Where the taxpayer making the donation has taxable income (for 2018) over $205,843, charitable donations above the $200 threshold can receive a federal tax credit of 33%.
As a result of the two-level credit structure, the best tax result is obtained when donations made during a single calendar year are maximized. For instance, a qualifying charitable donation of $400 made in December 2018 will receive a federal credit of $88 ($200 × 15% + $200 × 29%). If the same amount is donated, but the donation is split equally between December 2018 and January 2019, the total credit claimable is only $60 ($200 × 15% + $200 × 15%), and the 2019 donation can’t be claimed until the 2019 return is filed in April 2020. And, of course, the larger the donation in any one calendar year, the greater the proportion of that donation which will receive credit at the 29% level rather than the 15% level.
It’s also possible to carry forward, for up to 5 years, donations which were made in a particular tax year. So, if donations made in 2018 don’t reach the $200 level, it’s usually worth holding off on claiming the donation and carrying forward to the next year in which total donations, including carryforwards, are over that threshold. Of course, this also means that donations made but not claimed in any of the 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, or 2017 tax years can be carried forward and added to the total donations made in 2018, and the aggregate then claimed on the 2018 tax return.
When claiming charitable donations, it is possible to combine donations made by oneself and one’s spouse and claim them on a single return. Generally, and especially in provinces and territories which impose a high-income surtax – currently, Ontario and Prince Edward Island – it makes sense for the higher income spouse to make the claim for the total of charitable donations made by both spouses. Doing so will reduce the tax payable by that spouse and thereby minimize (or avoid) liability for the provincial high-income surtax.
Timing of medical expenses
There are an increasing number of medical expenses which are not covered by provincial health care plans, and an increasing number of Canadians who do not have private coverage for such costs through their employer. In those situations, Canadians have to pay for such unavoidable expenditures – including dental care, prescription drugs, ambulance trips, and many other para-medical services, like physiotherapy, on an out-of-pocket basis. Fortunately, where such costs must be paid for partially or entirely by the taxpayer, the medical expense tax credit is available to help offset those costs. Unfortunately, the computation of such expenses and, in particular, the timing of making a claim for the credit, can be confusing. In addition, the determination of what expenses qualify for the credit and which do not isn’t necessarily intuitive, nor is the determination of when it’s necessary to obtain prior authorization from a medical professional in order to ensure that the contemplated expenditure will qualify for the credit.
The basic rule is that qualifying medical expenses (a lengthy list of which can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/medical/#mdcl_xpns) over 3% of the taxpayer’s net income, or $2,302, whichever is less, can be claimed for purposes of the medical expense tax credit on the taxpayer’s return for 2018.
Put in more practical terms, the rule for 2018 is that any taxpayer whose net income is less than $76,750 will be entitled to claim medical expenses that are greater than 3% of his or her net income for the year. Those having income over $76,750 can claim qualifying expenses which exceed the $2,302 threshold.
The other aspect of the medical expense tax credit which can cause some confusion is that it’s possible to claim medical expenses which were incurred prior to the current tax year, but weren’t claimed on the return for the year that the expenditure was made. The actual rule is that the taxpayer can claim qualifying medical expenses incurred during any 12-month period which ends in the current tax year, meaning that each taxpayer must determine which 12-month period ending in 2018 will produce the greatest amount eligible for the credit. That determination will obviously depend on when medical expenses were incurred so there is, unfortunately, no universal rule of thumb which can be used.
Medical expenses incurred by family members – the taxpayer, his or her spouse, dependent children who were born in 2001 or later, and certain other dependent relatives – can be added together and claimed by one member of the family. In most cases, it is best, in order to maximize the amount claimable, to make that claim on the tax return of the lower income spouse, where that spouse has tax payable for the year.
As December 31st approaches, it is a good idea to add up the medical expenses which have been incurred during 2018, as well as those paid during 2017 and not claimed on the 2017 return. Once those totals are known, it will be easier to determine whether to make a claim for 2018 or to wait and claim 2018 expenses on the return for 2019. And, if the decision is to make a claim for 2018, knowing what medical expenses were paid and when will enable the taxpayer to determine the optimal 12-month waiting period for the claim.
Finally, it is a good idea to look into the timing of medical expenses which will have to be paid early in 2019. Where those are significant expenses (for instance, a particularly costly medication which must be taken on an ongoing basis), it may make sense, where possible, to accelerate the payment of those expenses to December 2018, where that means they can be included in 2018 totals and claimed on the 2018 return.
Reviewing tax instalments for 2018
Millions of Canadian taxpayers (particularly the self-employed and retired Canadians) pay income taxes by quarterly instalments, with the amount of those instalments representing an estimate of the taxpayer’s total liability for the year.
The final quarterly instalment for this year will be due on Monday December 17, 2018. By that time, almost everyone will have a reasonably good idea of what his or her income and deductions will be for 2018 and so will be in a position to estimate what the final tax bill for the year will be, taking into account any tax planning strategies already put in place, as well as any RRSP contributions which will be made before March 2, 2019. While the tax return forms to be used for the 2018 year haven’t yet been released by the CRA, it’s possible to arrive at an estimate by using the 2017 form. Increases in tax credit amounts and tax brackets from 2017 to 2018 will mean that using the 2016 form will likely result in a slight over-estimate of tax liability for 2018.
Once one’s tax bill for 2017 has been calculated, that figure should be compared to the total of tax instalments already made during 2017 (that figure can be obtained by calling the CRA’s Individual Income Tax Enquiries line at 1-800-959-8281). Depending on the result, it may then be possible to reduce the amount of the tax instalment to be paid on December 15 – and thereby free up some funds for the inevitable holiday spending!