RESPONDING TO A FIRST INSTALMENT REMINDER FROM THE CRA
Sometime around the middle of August, millions of Canadians will receive unexpected mail from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), and that mail will contain unfamiliar and unwelcome news. Specifically, the enclosed form will advise the recipient that, in the view of the CRA, he or she should make instalment payments of income tax on September 15 and December 15th of this year – and will helpfully identify the amounts which should be paid on each date.
No one particularly likes receiving unexpected mail from the tax authorities, and correspondence which suggests that the recipient should be making payments of tax to the CRA during the year (instead of when he or she files the return for the year next April) is likely to be both perplexing and somewhat alarming. It’s fair to say that most Canadians aren’t familiar with the payment of income tax by instalments, and are therefore at a loss to know how to proceed the first time they receive an Instalment Reminder.
The reason the instalment payment system is unfamiliar to most Canadians is that most of us pay income taxes during our working lives through a different system. Every Canadian employee has tax automatically deducted from his or her paycheque (“at source”), before that paycheque is issued, and that tax is remitted, by the employer to the CRA, on the employee’s behalf. Such deductions and remittances accrue to the employee’s behalf, and they are credited with those remittances when filing the annual tax return for that year. It’s an efficient system, but it’s also one largely invisible to the employee, and certainly one which operates without the need for the employee to take any steps on his or her own. When someone’s working life ends and retirement begins, it’s consequently not surprising that the individual wouldn’t know that it is now his or her responsibility to make specific arrangements for the payment of income tax.
Adding to the potential confusion, most employees who are now moving into retirement have had only a single source of income throughout their working lives. Once in retirement, however, there are likely multiple such sources of income, including Canada Pension Plan benefits and Old Age Security payments, and perhaps monthly amounts received from an employer-sponsored registered pension plan (RPP) or a registered retirement income fund (RRIF). Unless the individual so directs, none of the payors of those kinds of income will deduct income tax from the payments and remit them to the federal government on the individual’s behalf.
Canadian tax rules provide that, where the amount of tax owed when a return is filed by the taxpayer is more than $3,000 ($1,800 for Quebec residents) in the current (2017) year and either of the two previous (2015 and 2016) years, that taxpayer may be required to pay income tax by instalments.
The reason that first instalment reminders are issued in August has to do with the schedule on which Canadians file their tax returns. The amount of tax payable on filing for the immediately preceding year can’t be known until the tax return for that year has been filed and assessed, and the tax return filing deadline for individuals is April 30 (or June 15 for self-employed taxpayers and their spouses). Consequently, by the end of July, the CRA will have the information needed to determine whether a particular taxpayer should receive a first instalment reminder for the current year. In many cases, a first instalment reminder is triggered where an individual who has retired within the past two years, as in the following example.
An individual retires at the end of 2015 from employment in which tax deductions were automatically taken from his or her paycheque. Beginning in January 2016, that individual’s sources of income change from a single paycheque from their employer to Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits, as well as a monthly withdrawal from a RRIF. In order for the individual to have the appropriate amounts of tax withheld from those income sources during 2016, the individual taxpayer would have to have calculated the amount of total tax liability for the year and made arrangements for the appropriate amount to be withheld from one or more of those three sources of income. For most taxpayers, especially those who are making all the various adjustments needed to move from working life into retirement, and who have never before needed to make such a calculation, that’s not a very likely scenario. Consequently, it would be very unlikely that withholdings in the correct amount (or any withholdings at all) would be made from those sources of retirement income, and very likely that more than $3,000 in tax will be owed when the return for 2016 is filed. Where the taxpayer’s income levels and withholding amounts are unchanged for 2017 and it can be expected that, once again, more than $3,000 will be owed on filing, the criteria for the instalment requirement would be met and a tax instalment reminder would be issued in August 2017, after the return for 2016 is assessed.
Taxpayers who receive that first Instalment Reminder in August may also be puzzled by the fact that it is a “Reminder” and not a “Requirement” to pay. The reason for that is that those who receive it are not actually required by law to make instalment payments of tax. There are, in fact, three options open to the taxpayer who receives an Instalment Reminder.
First, the taxpayer can pay the amounts specified on the reminder, by the respective due dates of September 15 and December 15. A taxpayer who does so can be certain that he or she will not have to pay any interest or penalty charges even if he or she does have to pay an additional amount on filing in the spring of 2018. If the instalments paid turn out to be more than the taxpayer’s tax liability for 2017, he or she will of course receive a refund on filing.
Second, the taxpayer can make instalment payments based on the total amount of tax which was owed and paid for the 2016 tax year. Where a taxpayer’s income has not changed between 2016 and 2017 and his or her available deductions and credits remain the same, the likelihood is that total tax liability for 2017 will be the same or slightly less than it was in 2016, owing to the indexation of tax brackets and tax credit amounts.
Third, the taxpayer can estimate the amount of tax which he or she will actually owe for 2017 and can pay instalments based on that estimate. Where a taxpayer’s income has dropped from 2016 to 2017 and there will consequently be a reduction in tax payable, this option may be worth considering. Taxpayers who wish to pursue this approach can obtain the information needed to estimate current year taxes (federal and provincial tax brackets and rates) on the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/individuals/frequently-asked-questions-individuals/canadian-income-tax-rates-individuals-current-previous-years.html#federal.
All of this may seem like a lot of research and calculation effort, especially when one considers that many Canadians don’t even prepare their own tax returns. And those who don’t want to be bothered with the intricacies of tax calculations can pay the amounts set out in the Instalment Reminder, secure in the knowledge that they will not incur any penalty or interest charges and that, should those amounts ultimately represent an overpayment of taxes, that overpayment will be recovered and refunded when the 2017 return is filed next spring.
Once they have resigned themselves to the reality of the tax instalment system, the remaining question that most taxpayers have is how such payments can be made. The options open to taxpayers in that regard are helpfully outlined on the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/individuals/topics/about-your-tax-return/making-payments-individuals/paying-your-income-tax-instalments/you-pay-your-instalments.html.
The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.