Dec 11

December 2018 Newsletter

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The 2018 Fall Economic Statement – some good news for business

While there weren’t a great number of tax measures included in the 2018 Fall Economic Statement brought down by the Minister of Finance on November 21, 2018, the tax changes that were announced represented good news for Canadian businesses.

Perhaps most notably, several of the measures announced include tax changes which will benefit Canadian businesses of all sizes and operating in all sectors of the economy. Generally, those changes involved enhancements to the existing rules which will provide businesses with accelerated write-offs of assets which are acquired after the Budget date.

The Canadian tax system enables taxpayers to deduct (or write off) a specified percentage of the cost of newly-acquired capital property each year, through the capital cost allowance (CCA) system. In the year of acquisition, that deduction is, for most classes of assets, limited to one-half the usual percentage deduction (known as the “half-year rule”). The changes announced in the statement provide businesses with enhanced deductions under the existing capital cost allowance system – in some cases, allowing the entire cost of the property to be deducted in the year it is acquired.

The most broad-based of the changes announced in the statement – the Accelerated Investment Incentive, or AII – will effectively suspend the half-year rule for eligible property, meaning that a full CCA deduction could be taken in the year that eligible property is acquired. In addition, the allowance claimable for that year will be calculated by applying the prescribed CCA rate for that class of property to one-and-a-half times the cost of the property acquired.

For example, the combined effect of those changes is that where a property has a write-off rate of 20% per year, that write off will, under the AII, be equal to 30% of the cost of the property in the year the property is put in use. Significantly, such preferential treatment is not restricted to particular kinds or types of businesses or property. Rather, as stated in the statement, the AII will be available to “businesses of all sizes, across all sectors of the economy, that are making capital investments”. Such property, in order to be fully eligible for the AII, must be acquired and put in use by the taxpayer after November 20, 2018 and before 2024.

The second significant change will allow taxpayers to fully deduct, in the year of acquisition, the cost of machinery and equipment acquired for use in Canada primarily in the manufacturing and processing of goods for sale or lease. Such machinery and equipment, in order to qualify, must be acquired after November 20, 2018, and be available for use before 2024. The enhanced 100% deduction will be phased out for otherwise qualifying property which becomes available for use between 2023 and 2028.

Finally, clean energy equipment acquired by taxpayers in any industry already qualifies for preferential capital cost allowance treatment. That preferential treatment will be enhanced by a measure announced in the Statement which will provide a 100% deduction for such equipment which is acquired after November 20, 2018 and is available for use before 2024. Again, that enhanced deduction will be phased out where the otherwise qualifying property becomes available for use between 2023 and 2028.

While the basics of the three CCA measures announced in the Update are fairly straightforward, the application of those measures, as with any tax change, involves more detailed rules and restrictions. Those rules and restrictions are summarized in an Annex to the 2018 Fall Economic Statement, and that Annex can be found on the Finance Canada website at https://www.budget.gc.ca/fes-eea/2018/docs/statement-enonce/anx03-en.html.

Year-end planning for your RRSP and TFSA

Most Canadians know that the deadline for making contributions to one’s registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) comes after the end of the calendar year, around the end of February. There are, however, some instances an RRSP contribution must be (or should be) made by December 31st, in order to achieve the desired tax result, as follows.

When you need to make your RRSP contribution on or before December 31st

Every Canadian who has an RRSP must collapse that plan by the end of the year in which he or she turns 71 years of age – usually by converting the RRSP into a registered retirement income fund (RRIF) or by purchasing an annuity. An individual who turns 71 during the year is still entitled to make a final RRSP contribution for that year, assuming that he or she has sufficient contribution room. However, in such cases, the 60-day window for contributions after December 31st is not available. Any RRSP contribution to be made by a person who turns 71 during the year must be made by December 31st of that year. Once that deadline has passed, no further RRSP contribution is possible.

Make spousal RRSP contributions before December 31

Under Canadian tax rules, a taxpayer can make a contribution to a registered retirement savings plans (RRSP) in his or her spouse’s name and claim the deduction for the contribution on his or her own return. When the funds are withdrawn by the spouse, the amounts are taxed as the spouse’s income, at a (presumably) lower tax rate. However, the benefit of having withdrawals taxed in the hands of the spouse is available only where the withdrawal takes place no sooner than the end of the second calendar year following the year in which the contribution is made. Therefore, where a contribution to a spousal RRSP is made in December of 2018, the contributor can claim a deduction for that contribution on his or her return for 2018. The spouse can then withdraw that amount as early as January 1, 2021 and have it taxed in his or her own hands. If the contribution isn’t made until January or February of 2019, the contributor can still claim a deduction for it on the 2018 tax return, but the amount won’t be eligible to be taxed in the spouse’s hands on withdrawal until January 1, 2022. It’s an especially important consideration for couples who are approaching retirement who may plan on withdrawing funds in the relatively near future. Even where that’s not the situation, making the contribution before the end of the calendar year will ensure maximum flexibility should there be an unforeseen need to withdraw funds.

Accelerate any planned TFSA withdrawals into 2018

Each Canadian aged 18 and over can make an annual contribution to a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) – the maximum contribution for 2018 is $5,500. As well, where an amount previously contributed to a TFSA is withdrawn from the plan, that withdrawn amount can be re-contributed, but not until the year following the year of withdrawal.

Consequently, it makes sense, where a TFSA withdrawal is planned within the next few months, perhaps to pay for a winter vacation or to make an RRSP contribution, to make that withdrawal before the end of the calendar year. A taxpayer who withdraws funds from his or her TFSA before December 31st, 2018 will have the amount which is withdrawn added to his or her TFSA contribution limit for 2019, which means it can be re-contributed as early as January 1, 2019. If the same taxpayer waits until January of 2019 to make the withdrawal, he or she won’t be eligible to replace the funds withdrawn until 2020.

The tax year is ending – some planning steps to take before December 31st

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.

Charitable donations

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!

The potential tax costs of holiday gifts and celebrations

The holiday season is usually costly, but few Canadians are aware that those costs can include increased income tax liability resulting from holiday gifts and celebrations. It doesn’t seem entirely in the spirit of the season to have to consider possible tax consequences when attending holiday celebrations and receiving gifts; however, our tax system extends its reach into most areas of the lives of Canadians, and the holidays are no exception. Fortunately, the possible negative tax consequences are confined to a minority of fact situations and relationships, usually involving employers and employees, and are entirely avoidable with a little advance planning.

During the month of December, it’s customary for employers to provide something “extra” for their employees, by way of a holiday gift, a year-end bonus or an employer-sponsored social event. And it’s certainly the case that employers who provide such extras don’t intend to create a tax liability for their employees. Unfortunately, it is the case that a failure to properly structure such gifts or other extras can result in unintended and unwelcome tax consequences to those employees.

It’s even possible to feel some sympathy toward the tax authorities who have to deal with the tax treatment of employer-provided holiday gifts, as they are in something of a no-win situation. On an individual or even a company level, the amounts involved are usually nominal, and the range of situations which must be addressed by the related tax rules are virtually limitless. As a result, the cost of drafting and administering those rules can outweigh the revenue generated by the enforcement of such rules, to say nothing of the potential ill will generated by imposing tax on holiday gifts and celebrations. Notwithstanding, the potential exists for employers to provide what would otherwise be taxable remuneration in the guise of holiday gifts, and it’s the responsibility of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to ensure that such situations are caught by the tax net.

There is, as a consequence, a detailed set of rules which outline the tax consequences of gifts and awards provided by the employer, and even in relation to annual holiday celebrations sponsored (and paid for) by an employer.

The starting point for the rules is that any gift (cash or non-cash) received by an employee from his or her employer at any time of the year is considered to constitute a taxable benefit, to be included in the employee’s income for that year. However, the CRA makes an administrative concession in this area, allowing an unlimited number of non-cash gifts (within a specified dollar limit) to be received tax-free by an employee over the course of the tax year.

In sum, the CRA’s administrative policy is simply that non-cash gifts to an arm’s length employee, regardless of the number of such gifts, will not be taxable if the total fair market value of all such gifts to that employee is $500 or less annually. Where the total fair market value of such gifts is more than $500, the amount over that $500 limit will be a taxable benefit to the employee, and must be included on the employee’s T4 for the year, and on which income tax must be paid.

It’s important to remember the “non-cash” criterion imposed by the CRA, as the $500 per year administrative concession does not apply to what the CRA terms “cash or near-cash” gifts and all such gifts are considered to be a taxable benefit and included in income for tax purposes, regardless of the amount or frequency of the gifts. For this purpose, the CRA considers anything which could easily be converted to cash as a “near-cash” gift. Even a gift or award which cannot be converted to cash will be considered to be a near-cash gift if it, in the words of the CRA, “functions in the same way as cash”. So, a gift card or gift certificate which can be used by the employee to purchase his or her choice of merchandise or services would be considered a near-cash gift, and taxable as such.

This time of year, the tax treatment of the annual employee holiday party also must be considered. The CRA’s current policy in this area is that no taxable benefit will be assessed in respect of employee attendance at an employer-provided social event, where attendance at the party was open to all employees, and the cost per employee was $100 or less. The $100 cost is meant to cover the party itself, not including any ancillary costs, such as transportation home, taxi fare, or overnight accommodation. Where the total cost of the event itself exceeds the $100 per person threshold, the CRA will assess the employee as having received a taxable benefit equal to the entire per person cost (i.e., not just that portion of the cost that exceeds $100.)

It may seem nearly impossible to plan for employee holiday gifts and other benefits without running afoul of one or more of the detailed rules surrounding the taxation of such gifts and benefits. However, designing a tax-effective plan is possible, if a few basic principles are kept in mind.

  • If the employer is planning to hold a holiday party, dinner or other social event, it is imperative that such event be open to all employees. Restricting attendance in any way will mean that the CRA’s concession with respect to the non-taxable status of such events does not apply. The cost of the event must, as well, be kept below $150 per person. While the CRA’s policy doesn’t specify, it seems reasonable to calculate that amount based on the number of employees invited to attend the event, rather than on the actual attendance, which can’t be accurately predicted in advance.
  • Any cash or near-cash gifts should be avoided, as they will, no matter how large or small the amount, create a taxable benefit to the employee. Although gift certificates or pre-paid credit cards are a popular choice, they aren’t a tax-effective one, as they will invariably be considered by the CRA to create a taxable benefit to the employee.
  • Where non-cash holiday gifts are provided to employees, gifts with a value of up to $500 can be received free of tax. The employer must be mindful of the fact that the $500 limit is a per-year and not a per-occasion limit. Where the employee receives non-cash gifts with a total value of more than $500 in any one taxation year, the portion over $500 is a taxable benefit to the employee.