Missing tax deadline can lead to benefits being cut, even for those owed refunds

MONTREAL – Canada’s annual last-minute tax filing panic has ended.

But for about two million citizens and residents, the clock has begun to tick on penalties, interest charges and the possibility of having government benefits cut off.

Each year, about eight to nine per cent of the 27 million Canadian taxpayers miss the April 30 deadline.

Some “late-filers” aren’t pressed if they anticipate a refund while others may not be too worried about the initial five per cent penalty if they are just a few days late.

But, failing to file for months puts at risk federal and provincial benefits that are calculated based on annual tax returns, says Cleo Hamel, a senior tax analyst with H&R Block.

Among the benefits calculated each summer based on tax returns are GST and child tax credits, Ontario Trillium benefits, guaranteed income supplement and provincial assistance programs.

“If you continue to procrastinate and you don’t file until later on in the year, you could potentially see those benefits cut off until such time that you do file and get back into the system again,” she said from Calgary.

Filing too late could mean missing the deadline to get benefits paid out in July.

Many of those who don’t owe taxes or are entitled to a refund don’t realize the importance of the filing a tax form until the benefits fail to arrive as usual.

“The child tax benefit can be a big deal for low-income families because it can be significant money that is not in their budget anymore,” Hamel said.

Canada Revenue Agency gives a month’s grace when it comes to determination of benefits, but failing to file on time could have real consequences, agency spokeswoman Kareen Dionne said.

“Those are payments that people are counting on and to get them they have to file,” she said in an interview.

Notice of assessments issued by the federal and Quebec tax departments are also often requested to get student loans and home mortgages.

Taxes can continue to be filed online until the end of November.

But the penalties will mount. In addition to the five per cent penalty on taxes owed, one per cent is added each month up to 12 months. Interest is also charged, compounded daily.

Taxpayers owing $1,000 in taxes, for example, would face about $220 in penalties and interest after one year.

Penalties can reduced or waived in exceptional circumstances, but they can also double for the chronically late, Dionne said.

“It may be a very steep fine that people could avoid by filing on time,” she said.

Even though the tax deadline arrives each year like spring flowers, many Canadians simply procrastinate.

“There are people who just get lazy and figure it’s not a big deal and say: ‘I don’t care if I don’t get my refund,’ ” Hamel said.

She said the government likely isn’t too concerned about those due refunds because it’s money that isn’t dispersed.

But those owing taxes who are “non-compliant” run the risk of the government filing the claim for them, leaving the taxpayer with the headache of trying to correct errors.

“They’re only going to file with the information that they have on hand, so it’s not going to be to your advantage.”

Hamel said people shouldn’t avoid filing taxes because they don’t have the money to pay the tax bill. Paying by instalments is accepted, although penalties can still apply for late filers. And, declaring bankruptcy doesn’t get you off the hook.

Taxpayers can now pay their taxes online using credit cards, however it comes with a two per cent fee, not to mention high credit card interest rates for outstanding balances.

Technology makes it easier for the government to track the late filers.

Many income forms are transmitted directly to government, where computers help determine which late filers to pursue based on their tax recovery potential.

Each year, computer systems identify up to three million individuals as potential non-filers.

Letters are sent reminding taxpayers of their obligations, while some are chased with prosecution that includes fines and the possibility of jail.

The federal government’s program that chases non-filers is relatively small. It employs about 700 of the agency’s 39,000 employees.

Despite its meagre $39-million budget, the program generated $2.8 billion in taxes, penalties and interest annually, according to a 2012 auditor general’s report.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.