How Income Tax Debt Occurs and What Happens When You Can’t Pay

Tax season has this tendency to sneak up on us every year. The filing deadline for individuals—April 30, 2019—will be here before you know it, and if you haven’t filed in a year or more, it’s a good idea to start getting all your ducks in a row soon.

Many Canadians are unable to pay their personal income taxes when they are due, despite incentives to defer tax in a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP). Owing money to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) can be stressful, but you have options. Check out our blog post “How to Avoid Serious Penalties, Even If You Are Late Filing or Have Back Taxes Owing” to learn what those options are.

Here’s what you need to know about how income tax debt occurs and what actions the CRA can take to collect tax from individual taxpayers like you.

Unpaid tax debt adds up

It’s easy for personal income tax debt to add up if you are self-employed and have no income tax deducted at source or if you have multiple jobs and insufficient tax deducted at source. One of the primary reasons that people fall behind on their taxes, besides tax evasion, is that they fail to adequately plan for taxes owed, and then find that they are unable to pay what they owe.

CBC News recently reported that the amount of tax that Canadians admit to owing CRA —but haven’t paid—rose to a record $43.8 billion in 2018, and individual Canadians account for close to half of that unpaid tax debt (the rest is owed by corporations and businesses). The revenue agency projects that the amount of unpaid tax owed is set to hit more than $47 billion by 2020.

Sometimes the CRA will agree to settle or write off a debt, but the law states that should happen only if “there is no reasonable prospect of recovery.” A few years ago, it was reported that the revenue agency wrote off at least $4 billion in debt in 2014 and 2015 combined. Debts were declared uncollectible if those owing had died, gone bankrupt (you can read more about how CRA debt is handled in a bankruptcy here), couldn’t be located or lived outside of Canada. In other cases, CRA officials considered it not worth the expense to track down the money owing, or they reached a settlement with the debtor.

Uncollected tax debt affects all Canadians, as tax revenue is relied upon to fund public programs.

How the CRA collects tax

The revenue agency has several methods at its disposal to collect tax, including:

  • Collecting tax through deductions at source: The CRA helps Canadians avoid a high income tax balance due at the end of the year by requiring that taxes be deducted at source from employment.
  • Collecting tax payments in instalments: If you earn income that has no tax withheld or does not have enough tax withheld for more than one year, and your net tax owing is $3,000 or higher, you may have to pay tax by instalments. This CRA page has more information on paying tax by instalments.
  • Collecting tax debts through a requirement to pay: The CRA can use a requirement to pay (RTP) to collect a tax debt and interest owed from taxpayers who don’t pay voluntarily. A requirement to pay is a legal notice to a third party—such as an employer, bank, tenant or client—to remit payments to the CRA instead of to you.

    In the RTP, the revenue agency instructs the third party to send a fixed amount or percentage from each payment, or a fixed amount from all amounts paid in a set time period (e.g. one month), to the CRA. The agency will copy you on each new RTP. It’s worth noting than an RTP does not apply to your house or RRSP, unless you conduct a transaction that creates a debtor/creditor relationship (for e.g. if you sell your home or change investments within your RRSP). Once the tax debt is paid in full, then the CRA will issue a cancellation notice to the third party and copy you on the notice. Check out these frequently asked questions about RTPs from the CRA.

Other legal actions the CRA can use to collect tax debt

The CRA may take other legal actions to collect tax debt, such as registering a lien on your home, seizing and selling your assets, or using any other means under any applicable statutes or laws to collect the debt.

The revenue agency can also prosecute you for failing to file a return. Once it undertakes legal proceedings, the revenue agency will not usually stop until the tax account is paid in full or it can be shown that the action is causing undue hardship. You will be responsible for paying all reasonable costs and charges incurred to collect any amounts certified, and you’ll still be liable for any remaining balance you have the ability to pay.

Find out what your options are

From the recently revised Voluntary Disclosure Program to taxpayer relief and payment arrangements, the CRA has programs and procedures in place to make it easier for Canadian taxpayers to pay what they owe.

We recommend that you read our blog post “How to Avoid Serious Penalties, Even If You Are Late Filing or Have Back Taxes Owing” to learn about these options.

How to approach the CRA

If you can’t pay your taxes, it is recommended that you still file your tax return and notify CRA about your financial difficulties right away. Failure to do so can lead to penalties and interest being retroactively applied when you do finally file—or worse, such as collection activities or criminal prosecution.

If you collaborate with the CRA, you may find yourself resolving your debt more easily, such as by negotiating a payment plan. Your odds of getting the CRA to accept a proposal will depend on your approach, including your history with the revenue agency, the amount that you owe and your ability to pay. The CRA will generally not approve a proposal unless the full amount of any source deductions owing is paid within six months.

How Faber can help

If you have unpaid income tax debt, and you don’t know what to do to tackle it, we can help. Our team can assist you in obtaining protection from the CRA and help you avoid having your assets seized and sold for the recovery of your income tax debt. There are options for income tax debt. Let’s find the best one for you.

Contact us today for a free, confidential consultation.