The ABCs of Harmonized Sales Tax

Canada's federal harmonized sales tax ("HST") is complicated - even for the practitioners who practice in the area.  Here is a fun post about some of the common terms used in HST parlance.

A = Auditors - We hope they do not call.  When they do call, we hope they do not want to come for a visit.  When they come for a visit, we hope they do not stay long.  We are worried about the cost of their visit.

B = Budget - In the federal budget, the Department of Finance often includes changes to the Excise Tax Act (Canada) (the HST legislation).

C = Canada Revenue Agency - The Canada Revenue Agency enforces laws and regulations relating to HST.

D = Due Diligence - You want to have documentary evidence to show that you attempted to comply with the HST laws.  Directors can avoid personal liability for unremitted HST of a corporation is the director can show they took steps to prevent the corporation's failure.

E = Exemptions - Some supplies are exempt from GST/HST.  This means that no GST/HST will be applicable.  It also means that the person making the supply cannot claim certain input tax credits.

F = Fairness - If you could not comply with Canada's HST laws due to circumstances beyond your control (e.g., the Alberta flood 2013, the Ontario ice storm 2013), you may be able to apply for fairness.

G = Goods and Services Tax (GST) - GST is a component of HST. The GST rate is currently 5%.

H = Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) - HST is GST + PVAT and is applicable to supplies made in participating provinces,  The HST rate depends upon the province in which the supply is made.

I = Input Tax Credits - If your are a registrant and are engaged in commercial activities, you may be entitled to claim an input tax credit to recover GST/HST paid in connection with business inputs.  Individual consumers cannot claim input tax credits. Input tax credits are good (and a hot audit issue - which can be bad).

J = Judicial Reviews - If you disagree with the CRA (e.g., with a fairness decision), you may be able to file a judicial review to the Federal Court of Canada (which is different than an appeal to the Tax Court of Canada).

K = Keep Records - I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping records.  Auditors, the appeals branch and the Tax Court of Canada all need records and evidence in order to agree with you.

L = Limitation Periods - Always know the limitation period.  Missing a limitation can cost you money or the right to object to or appeal a decision.

M = Misrepresentations - A simple mistake can be considered to be a misrepresentation.  If a person makes a misrepresentation attributable to neglect, carelessness or willful default, the Canada Revenue Agency may assess beyond the 4 year limitation period.

N = Non-residents = Persons outside Canada who may need to know about and comply with Canada's HST laws.

O = Objections - If you disagree with an assessment made by a CRA auditor, you must file a Notice of Objection within 90 days after the Notice of (Re)Assessment.

P = Participating Province - Canadian provinces that have adopted the HST are called participating provinces.  British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are not participating provinces.

R = Registrants - Registrants are persons who are registered for GST/HST purposes or are required to be registered.

S = Supply - A supply is the provision that is subject to GST/HST. Since not all transactions are "sales", the term used is "supply".  A barter transaction and supplies for no consideration are still supplies for GST/HST purposes.

T = Tax Court of Canada - Appeals of CRA decisions concerning objections are filed with the Tax Court of Canada, which is a specialized court.

U = Underground economy - Many businesses do not register for GST/HST purposes and participate in the underground economy.  Small suppliers are not required to register for GST/HST purposes.  If a consumer hires a contractor and pays the contractor under the table in order to save the HST, they are contributing to the underground economy - which is bad.

V = Voluntary Disclosures - If a business makes a mistake, it may may a voluntary disclosure to correct the mistake.  Usually, the CRA requires the HST and interest to be paid - but will waive the penalty.

W = Written Ruling - If you are unsure about the application of the HST legislation to a particular situation, you can write to the CRA for a written ruling.  A written ruling may be binding if it is an advance ruling and not an interpretation.  In order to obtain a written ruling, it is necessary to provide the CRA with the facts.

X = X-director = A person who was a director of a corporation and ceased to be a director may be held personally liable for the GST/HST liability of the corporation up to 2 years after the person ceased to be a director of the corporation.

Y = Year-End - Most registrants have a calendar year end (but not all).  Businesses may have to self assess GST/HST in connection with year-end adjustments (it all depends).

Z = Zero-rated - Certain supplies are zero rated.  This means that the supply is subject to GST/HST at the rate of 0%.  The supplier should be entitled to claim input tax credits.

Request For Taxpayer Relief - How Do You Spell R-E-L-I-E-F?

There is form that exists than enables a taxpayer (including a GST/HST registrant, supplier or recipient) to request GST/HST relief from the Canada Revenue Agency (often in the form of interest and penalty relief, but can include GST/HST).  It is an RC4288 form. However, it is not a magic form and completing it does not necessarily mean that you are going to get the relief you seek. While the CRA has broad discretion to grant relief, they also have broad discretion to deny relief.

The CRA is working to improve its procedures for dealing with Requests for Taxpayer Relief. When a completed form is filed with the supporting documentation, the CRA should send a letter to the requester acknowledging receipt of the Request for Taxpayer Relief.  The file should be assigned to a CRA officer and the taxpayer should receive requests for relevant documentation (unless a full set of relevant documents is provided with the Request for Taxpayer Relief).

If the taxpayer gets a decision that is not favourable - it happens often - then there is the ability to request an impartial review of the CRA officer's decision by the CRA (not the same CRA officer who rejected the request).

If the review procedure ends in a rejection of the requested relief, it is possible to seek a review by the Federal Court of Appeal by way of a judicial review.  However, judicial reviews often are an expensive legal procedure and can cost tens of thousands of dollars (even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases depending on the complexity of the issues). There have been judicial review applications filed and the Federal Court of Appeal has in some cases sided with the taxpayer.

I will be honest with you - the Request for Taxpayer Relief Program can be frustrating for persons seeking relief. That does not mean it is not worth the effort and one should not try. Just know that you may feel like you are still stuck in the mud while pursuing a process that may take time.

Voluntary Disclosures: Get Ahead of the Sales Tax Problem

If you make a voluntary disclosure of a sales tax error (giving rise to a payment), you get ahead of the problem.  You maintain an element of control.  If the Canada Revenue Agency or provincial governmental authorities (whichever is applicable) find the problem during the audit, you may have little control over the outcome.  This is why it is recommended that you make a voluntary disclosure if you find your sales tax mistakes and do not wait for the auditor to "maybe find it".

The Canada Revenue Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Revenue have developed voluntary disclosure programs that promise to not charge a gross negligence penalty (and other forms of penalty) if you voluntarily come forward to report the errors and pay the tax and interest.  In some cases, the authorities will even grant relief on a portion of the interest if the disclosure goes back many years.

For a voluntary disclosure to be accepted, it must be voluntary.  This means that the authorities have not informed the taxpayer of an upcoming audit.  If you were not on their radar and you come forward, there is a potential for financial savings.

But, that is not enough for the disclosure to be accepted.  It must be the first time this problem is identified with the tax authorities.  If you have made this type of error before and were informed about the error, the authorities will not accept the disclosure as voluntary.  They expected you to make the corrections to the sales tax recording and remittance systems after their earlier discussions with you.

Even if this is a first time issue, that is not enough for the disclosure to be accepted.  It must be complete.  You must do the work that an auditor would do.  You cannot hide some of the information or transactions.  For example, I recently worked with a non-resident client to make a voluntary disclosure of Ontario retail sales tax payable on goods imported from outside Canada for own use.  The client made an initial disclosure and payment based on Canada Customs import documentation.  Before we submitted the paperwork, we undertook a second review of the records and realized we have forgotten imports from another province.  We updated the disclosure and paid the additional tax.  We submitted to the authorities a detailed spreadsheet with each of the transactions and the back-up documentation at tabs matching the excel spreadsheet line number.  We made it easy for the government to audit and agree with our calculation.

The auditor assigned to the voluntary disclosure may conduct a desk audit or an on-site audit after the supporting documentation is provided.  If the auditor finds that the disclosure is not complete, he/she will assess the tax that you said was owing, the additional tax he/she found was owing, and then will calculate interest and penalties on the entire amount.

Many mistakes can be the subject of a voluntary disclosure; but, not all mistakes can be the subject of a voluntary disclosure.  If you collected sales tax and did not remit it, you will not be permitted to make a voluntary disclosure.  The government has a serious issue with you keeping their money.

The Canada Revenue Agency Has Released New Voluntary Disclosure Form

On June 16, 2011, the Canada Revenue Agency released a new version of its Voluntary Disclosure Program (VDP) Taxpayer Agreement form (Form RC 199E).  This form may be used to start the voluntary disclosure process for GST/HST errors (in addition to income tax and other federal tax programs). 

You must use this form to make a no names disclosure - but you have to be careful in filling out the form for the no names disclosure to be complete while holding back the taxpayer's identity.

I strongly recommend that persons concerned about how the Canada Revenue Agency will respond to the voluntary disclosure (e.g., the problem goes back many years and could amount to a lot of money) should ask a tax lawyer (with whom discussions are subject to solicitor-client privilege) to help them complete the form.  Whatever you write in this form may be used against you in the Tax Court of Canada or criminal courts (if you engaged in a criminal offence).

I strongly recommend that persons who do not communicate well or who are not comfortable with their ability to clearly state the facts ask a tax lawyer to help them complete the form.  Would you like to take chances that you will miscommunicate in such an important document?  Mistakes/miscommunications in the completion of this form and resulting misunderstandings may be very costly.

In addition, a lawyer can help you negotiate with the Canada Revenue Agency the parameters of a voluntary disclosure after making a no names disclosure.  A negotiation will be dependent on the facts and, most importantly, if the disclosure is considered to be voluntary.

The benefit of making a voluntary disclosure is that the Canada Revenue Agency will not impose penalties and will merely require the payment of tax and interest.  If the mistake translates into a large payment of tax over a number of years, the penalties savings can exceed the amount of the lawyer's legal fees.  In many cases, having a lawyer act as your Sherpa may be a wise business decision or, if personal finances are at stake, a stress minimization technique.

For how long will the CRA be lenient regarding HST implementation errors?

The answer is "for not much longer".  It will be hard to argue that the CRA should be lenient in regards to any harmonized sales tax ("HST") implementaion errors --- but, I can gurantee you that every lawyer who practices in this error will try.  We have a number of good reasons to request leniency.

That is not the point of this posting.  The point I am trying to make is that if you are not sure that your implementation efforts are correct, it would be prudent to conduct an internal audit and check your GST/HST systems.  Finding errors before the one-year anniversary of HST in Ontario and British Columbia is better than not asking the question at all.  Do not be afraid of what you might find -- be more concerned about not finding the errors and being audited by an unforgiving CRA auditor.  The CRA may be lenient if you conduct an internal audit and adjust systems before the one year anniversary.  They may see this as a sign of compliance and of acting as a "good" suppler/purchaser/consumer.

What I can tell you is that if you undertake an internal audit and find the errors and fix the system errors, you will have good argument that you deserve lenient treatment.  Mom used to say "actions speak louder than words".

People Are Careful When Writing A Confession, Why So Little Care When Completing A HST Voluntary Disclosure Form?

I honestly do not know the answer to this question.  I am baffled when a client comes to me after they have completed and sent to the Canada Revenue Agency ("CRA") their voluntary disclosure form in which they admit to a mistake in their harmonized sales tax (HST) compliance. They have already confessed their errors.  Then, when they see the HST assessment, the do not agree with the number and have a list of reasons.

I have been asked on many occasions to help correct the CRA auditor's misunderstanding of the facts - the same facts provided by the client in writing to the CRA in the voluntary disclosure form.  I cannot count the number of times a client has said to me "I did not mean to write that", "I should have been more careful in what I wrote", "I did not verify that information and it is in fact wrong", "I did not think about that", and "I just wrote something quickly".  I am asked to "fix this" ---  and, I have my work cut out for me.

Voluntary disclosures are similar to a "confession", albeit a voluntary disclosure is not often relaying criminal activities.  However, it is possible that a person will write information in a voluntary disclosure that could be used in a criminal investigation under the Excise Tax Act.  If you would seek the help of a lawyer when writing a confession, then seek the help of a lawyer when completing a voluntary disclosure form.  If you would take time to investigate facts and write, edit, review, redraft and reconsider the writing of a confession, then take time when completing a voluntary disclosure form. If you would take time to understand the consequences of writing a confession, then take time to understand the consequences of completing a voluntary disclosure.  If you would not want to cause a misunderstanding when writing a confession, then avoid misunderstandings when completing a voluntary disclosure form.

If you do not understand the law, you may miss opportunities to raise good facts that may be used to your benefit --- your actions have not all been bad have they?  You may not convey the important information and facts that support defences (such as the due diligence defence).  You may miss opportunities to support lower penalties.  You may miss opportunities to limit interest if there has been an officially induced error. 

Did you know that the CRA audits to "net tax" or do you even know what I mean by that?  You may be able to identify amounts that the CRA owes you and when you calculate "net tax" for the period in which you owe GST/HST, you may be able to subtract amounts you can show the government owes you.  There is a lot more to consider than "getting things off your chest".

Now that I have said my piece - here is the voluntary disclosure form.  The CRA calls this form "VOLUNTARY DISCLOSURES PROGRAM (VDP): TAXPAYER AGREEMENT", do not let the name fool you or cause you to be complacent.

 

What is the worst GST/HST infraction?

The worst goods and services tax (GST) / harmonized sales tax (HST) infraction is collecting HST and not remitting the GST/HST to the Receiver General of Canada.  The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) considers this to be on the same level of wrongdoing as stealing the government's money.  Many auditors say to registrants and non-registrants who charge HST who do not file GST/HST returns after collecting GST/HST from recipients  or who file returns without the remittance cheque that they are stealing the government's money.

GST/HST is a tax on consumers or on consumption.  Generally speaking, businesses do not bear the ultimate burden of the GST/HST.  However, the Government of Canada relies on suppliers to collect GST/HST from recipients of taxable supplies.  If a business takes advantage of the fact that they collect GST/HST and keep the government's money, the system breaks down.

This is why there is no limitation period for this type of infraction.  If a person collected GST from a recipient in 2001 and did not remit it to the Receiver General, that person could be audited and assessed today.  If the person is a corporation and still in business, the CRA could assess a director if the money cannot be recovered from the corporation.  If the person is a corporation and no longer is in business, the CRA could assess a former director so long as the director did not cease to be a director more than 2 years ago.  If the person is a partnership, the CRA may assess one or more of the partners.  If the person is a sole proprietorship, the individual may be assessed.

When a supplier discovers that it collected tax and failed to remit it (for example a bookkeeper was stealing the money) over a lengthy period of time and makes a voluntary disclosure, the CRA may ask the person to go back in their records to the very beginning (at least until the start of GST or the systematic failure).  The interest charges on the unremitted GST/HST can exceed the amount not remitted (I have seen theis many times).

The person who does not register for GST/HST purposes and who falsely informs recipients that they are registered, gives a false GST/HST number, and takes the GST/HST money for themselves is arguably the worst of the worst type of offender.  Persons who do this may be prosecuted criminally for fraud and other GST/HST specific offences. Persons who collect GST/HST from recipients and just keep the money may also be prosecuted under the Excise Tax Act and the CRA publicly announces convictions.

Some businesses that commit this type of infraction have "good" explanations after their wrongdoing is discovered.  It is not easy to convince the CRA that the decisions are not blameworthy.  If you think that you will just tell the CRA a reasonable story and they will not issue an assessment for the tax not remitted plus penalties plus interest, you are living in a fantasy world.  There are few very good explanations that satisfy the conditions of the fairness policy or that pass the smell test.

For this reason, if you discover (not in the context of an audit because that would be too late) that you have collected GST/HST and failed to remit it, the best course of action is to make a voluntary disclosure (not the type within the CRA's voluntary disclosure program but voluntary in that you come forward on your own initiative).  If you admit your wrongdoing to the CRA (with a lawyer preferably) and pay the GST/HST collected and not previously remitted (or make arrangements to pay the amounts owed) and penalties and interest, the CRA may not pursue criminal charges.  There is a risk of criminal charges even if you come forward voluntarily and that is why making a voluntary disclosure with a lawyer's assistance is prudent.

For more information, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-760-8999.  I am a lawyer and our discussions will be subject to solicitor-client privilege.

What Happens When Good Companies Make Mistakes?

Some companies/businesses are very compliance-conscious when it comes to sales tax.  They attempt to do everything by the book.  However, with the changes to harmonized sales tax and the late breaking changes to the sales tax laws, some issues may have fallen through the cracks.

Other companies have hired experienced sales tax staff to ensure accounting records are accurate and GST/HST returns are filed on time.  But, these employees deserve their 4 weeks vacation or have sick days from time to time.  Someone else takes over their desk and mistakes can occur.

Some companies conduct internal audits of their sales tax reporting mechanisms every year.  When such mistakes are discovered, the entity may make be able to make adjusting entries (such as claiming an overlooked input tax credit) or may file an amended return (if permitted to adjust the amount of GST/HST collected).  However, when the mistakes are discovered later in time or are systemic in nature or are the result of changes to the law that were not understood in time, it may be necessary for the company to make a voluntary disclosure.

A voluntary disclosure must be made before the tax authorities come knocking on your door.  If the tax authorities are already planning an audit, they may not accept any disclosure as voluntary in nature.

A voluntary disclosure must be complete and may be subject to an audit.  Think of a voluntary disclosure as you doing the auditor's job for them.  You do the calculations that they would do if they came in to conduct an audit.  By taking this approach, if the tax authorities decide to verify your voluntary disclosure, they can quickly determine that you have been as thorough as they would have been.

What Is The Best Defense to A Purchase Side Audit?

The Ontario Ministry of Revenue conducts audits of vendors (sales side audits) looking for failures to remit tax collected and failures to collect tax.  The Ministry also conducts audits of purchasers (some are also vendors) looking for failures to pay tax on taxable goods (called purchase side audits).  When an auditor is looking at the purchase side of the business and failures to pay Ontario retail sales tax ("ORST"), the best defense is that "The other guy was audited already or self-assessed the ORST - you have your money".

The Ministry should not audit both the vendor and the purchaser for the exact same tax.  This happens sometimes because an audit or a purchaser can lead to an audit or a vendor and vice versa because an audit brings out information of non-compliance of others. Often the auditor goes from an audit of one person to his/her next "target" who was discovered in a previous audit.  Many times the auditor may not know of the other audit/assessment.  It should not be assumed that the auditor is intentionally trying to collect the same tax twice.

Over the course of my career, I have helped many businesses during the audit process by asking them to review an audit summary (before the "finish assessment" button is pushed) and identify large amounts of unpaid ORST on the purchase side of the audit.  I explain that the Ministry cannot assess the same tax twice.  If they have good relationships with their suppliers, I explain the benefits of picking up the phone and calling their contact at a supplier to see if they have been visited by an ORST auditor.  Sometimes the answer is "unfortunately, yes" and sometimes the answer is "luckily, no".

If they answer is "unfortunately, yes", it will be necessary to determine if the transactions at issue in the current audit were covered by the other audit and assessment.  If the answer is "yes", then the auditor should remove those items from the proposed assessment before pressing the 'finish assessment" button on the computer (there really isn't such a button).

Even if the answer is "luckily, no", the supplier may have self-assessed if they determined they should have charged and collected the ORST.  The supplier could have made a voluntary disclosure or received advice from an accountant or lawyer and the ORST could have been remitted without the purchaser knowing or receiving a new invoice showing ORST remitted/remittable.

It is worth mentioning that the vendors may use this defense if a purchaser has voluntarily disclosed or self-assessed and remitted ORST or if the purchaser has been audited.  The vendor may show an auditor that the ORST has been remitted or paid to the Ministry of Revenue in order to defend portions of a sales side audit.

The next step after finding that "the other guy has paid or remitted the ORST" is to communicate the information to the auditor and providing adequate proof that the monies have been paid.  This is where an experienced lawyer may be able to help with the clear communications and strategy. 

The existence of this defense is important to know now more than ever before because Ontario is auditing in order to finish all ORST audits by March 2012 (when the auditors transfer to the Canada Revenue Agency).  There is an increased likelihood that this defense is available given the volume of audits.

Voluntary Disclosures Must Be Complete and Accurate

When a lawyer or accountant discovers that a client has made an error (e.g., treated certain sales as tax exempt when they are actually taxable), they may recommend that the client make a voluntary disclosure.  Assuming that the disclosure meets the administrative criteria of the tax authority as being voluntary (which is an entirely other problem), the hard part is "getting to 'Yes' with the auditor".

The voluntary disclosure must be complete and accurate.  The auditor operates under the mantra "accept, but verify".  If the person making the disclosure leaves out important information that they do not want the auditor to know, they may be fooling themselves and not the auditor.  The auditor may discover those secrets during a desk audit or an on-site audit.  The factual circumstances may not make sense to the auditor if part of the story is missing and the auditor will dig further. Do not assume that the auditor will accept the cheque on behalf of the government and not have a single follow-up question.  That never happens.

When a business makes a voluntary disclosure, they often do so to avoid paying the penalty that is charged when an auditor finds the mistake. In return for not charging the penalty, the government wants a complete and accurate disclosure of the relevant facts in order to be in a position to determine that the business is coming in to full compliance.  Essentially, in a voluntary disclosure, you do the work for the auditor and the auditor quickly reviews the work (and in the case of correct disclosures, simply agrees with your worksheets).

Voluntary disclosures can be problematic when this simple review stage cannot take place because the information is not provided.  In many cases of voluntary disclosures by inexperienced persons, there is no intentional wrongdoing, but the disclosure is not complete because of the inexperience.  The auditor wants certain information and if the person making the disclosure does not understand the task at hand, or the sales tax regime, or the facts that are relevant or the documentation that will be relevant, etc., the good intentions of the voluntary disclosure can turn into a big and costly mess.

It is kind of like that home renovation project that started with a beautiful photo in a magazine and when you did it yourself to save money, it ended really badly and was much more expensive.  Or, you hired a cheap contractor who did not have experience renovating bathrooms, but took on the project, and ran into problem after problem after the demolition phase.  Part way through the project, you could not turn back and go back to the status quo.

Consider sales tax specialists as a "Mike Holmes" of voluntary disclosures.  Professionals who have done this before plan ahead.  They use their knowledge to investigate the potential issues BEFORE moving forward with the project.  They develop a plan that is tried and true.  They help you be reasonable in your expectations.  They work with you so that the results are successful and within the planned budget.

Many sales tax lawyers who have helped many clients make voluntary disclosures have precedents that they use to prepare the voluntary disclosure.  They know the statutory provisions, the case law, and the tax advisory opinions that apply.  Sales tax lawyers are able to help you gather the facts and communicate the facts correctly.  They can anticipate the follow-up questions and include the answers in the disclosure.  They can help you organize the applicable documents and the documents that the auditor likes to review in the normal course. 

Getting to "yes" in a voluntary disclosure means meeting the auditor's expectations and needs.  The auditor must put together a report for a supervisor.  You must give the auditor what he/she needs to get that approval.

What Can I Do To Motivate You To Make Positive Steps Towards Better GST/HST Compliance

I would like to offer you words of encouragement to make positive improvements towards better goods and services tax (GST), harmonized sales tax (HST) and other sales and local taxes (SALT) compliance.  I would like to motivate you to make your working lives easier if you are blessed with the task of GST/HST/SALT recording and reporting.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) motivates us to act by fear of negative events, such as an audit and/or assessment.  The CRA motivates compliance by threat of penalties and interest assessments.  They are not wrong in approaching GST/HST in this manner as it is a self-reporting system --- follow the rules of suffer negative consequences.  Many businesses are motivated by money and fear and this system works for some. However, it does not work for many. 

Almost all businesses have just completed the task of filing a GST/HST return.  Annual filers filed their first GST/HST by today's deadline.  Quarterly filers have filed their second GST/HST return (for Q4 2010) by today's deadline.  Monthly filers filed their December 2010 GST/HST return by today's deadline. 

How many of you have spent hours of frustration in performing the calculations and rechecking documentation and numbers in order to file the GST/HST return?  How many of you could not verify whether you were to remit GST at 5% or HST at 13% or 12% or 15%?  How many of you had to self-assess GST/HST and were unsure what to do?  How many of you needed to complete documentation for a refund/rebate and were not sure what to do?  How many of you could not trace your point of sale rebates, your exempt sales and your zero-rated sales (sales when you did not charge GST/HST)?  How many of you walked away from the task wanting to scream at assistants and others within your organization?  How many called someone in your organization and "idiot" or other unpleasant name (if you did, go apologize).

Would you like this task to be easier for the next reporting period?  Are there answers you need in order to perform the task better next month or quarter or year? Is there training that you or your employees need? Would you like to take better control over this reporting process?

If you want to make the tasks related to GST/HST reporting easier, you can. Take the negative experience and make a list of why it was a negative experience to file your GST/HST return.  Write down what worked and what did not.  GST/HST compliance will improve if you fix the things you listed as not working properly. 

Did you have difficulties making sure you claimed 100% of you input tax credits? Fix it.

Did you have difficulties making sure you recaptured input tax credits where required? Fix it. 

Did you have difficulty reconciling various reports? Fix it. 

Were you lacking information that you needed to make decisions? Fix it.

Do you need help to fix it? Find people who understand GST/HST to help you. They do exist.

You can do this.  You can improve your job. You can spend more time with family and friends during GST/HST reporting time. You can be the force of positive change and others will be grateful. what are you waiting for --- another SALT return?

Should Companies/Partners Undertake GST/HST Inspections Before Buying a Business?

Most people hire a home inspector to inspect a home before buying a home.  They hire home inspectors to find the problems that they cannot see so that they do not experience large unexpected expenditures after the closing date.

Should businesses (corporations and partners/joint venturers) hire a GST/HST expert to conduct a GST/HST focused review prior to the closing date so that they do not buy GST/HST problems that a Canada Revenue Agency auditor may blame on the buyer?  What I am referring to is due diligence and a private audit of GST/HST books and records.

A GST/HST inspection is prudent if the buyer is buying the shares of a corporation.  The past errors (liabilities) are acquired in a share purchase transaction.  If you find a serious problem with the GST/HST compliance, then a purchase price reduction can be discussed.  The purchase price reduction for the shares may be quantified by way of a pre-closing voluntary disclosure - but that may delay the transaction.  If you do not want to delay the closing of the transaction, an amount of the purchase price may be put in a reserve or escrow account as the voluntary disclosure proceeds.  It is not necessary to conduct a a voluntary disclosure and reserves can be maintained depending what is found in and quantified during the GST/HST inspection.

Similarly, a GST/HST inspection is prudent if the buyer is purchasing a partnership unit or joint venture interest in an existing partnership or joint venture. As discussed with corporations, the buyer would be buying the GST/HST history and the existing problems.

Even if the acquisition is an asset transaction, a GST/HST inspection is prudent.  If the buyer is making offers of employment to existing employees, they will continue to make any mistakes they had been making in their record keeping and reportings. If you would like to stop bad practices, you need to know they exist and take positive steps to teach proper practices.

GST/HST inspections are not usual - yet.  With the implementation of GST/HST in Ontario and British Columbia, the cost of mistakes increased to 13% and 12% respectively, plus additional basis points for interest and penalties.  Depending on the value of the business that is being acquired, there is more money at stake than the cost of replacing a leaky roof or old furnace.

If You Would Like Near Certainty in GST/HST, You Need To Get An Advance GST/HST Ruling

Seth Godin, a marketing guru, usually is right on the mark.  In today's post, entitled "The Certainty Premium" he writes, in part:

How much would you pay for an envelope that had a 50% chance of containing $10 and a 50% chance of being empty?

Over time and in bulk, probably $4.99. But certainly not more than $5.

Here's where it gets interesting: how much extra would you pay for a plane that was guaranteed to be always on time, or a surgery that was always guaranteed to work? Suddenly, the same math that helped us value the envelope doesn't work so well. That's because we're often willing to pay a significant premium to avoid risk.

In GST/HST, near certainty may be derived from a ruling from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).  There are two types of requests that can be made to the CRA, GST/HST Rulings Directorate:

1. Advance Rulings; and

2. Interpretations.

An advance ruling requires that the requested provide their name and all relevant facts relating to the request.  The CRA will consider the request, possibly ask questions, and request more documentation before issuing an advance ruling.  This process takes time and the request is well considered (sometimes a very long time).  However, what the taxpayer receives from the CRA is a letter containing their answer that is binding.  This means that the CRA should not issue an assessment against the person who made the request for the ruling if they requester acts in accordance with their advance GST/HST ruling.  In cases where an auditor disagrees or the CRA's administrative position has changed after the CRA provides the advance GST/HST ruling to a requester (and they have not notified the person to whom the ruling was provided of the change), the CRA generally does not assess GST/HST, penalties and interest for the past, but requests that the person abide by the CRA's current position on a going forward basis.  This can save a person from audit stress and having to pay an assessment in the future.

An interpretation is something less than an advance ruling and it is not binding on the CRA.  An interpretation usually involves a general and generic question and can be made on a no-names basis.  The interpretation provides the CRA's current position relating to the facts and topic set out in the request. If a taxpayer has an interpretation and an auditor disagrees or the CRA's position changes, an assessment may be issued against a requester. Usually, if a person has an interpretation letter from the CRA, the CRA will not assess penalties because the person exercised due diligence by requesting an interpretation.  There are cases where the CRA will restrict the audit period to something less than 4 years if their administrative position changed.  CRA auditors exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis.

That being said, if the CRA discovers during an audit that the request for an advance ruling or interpretation does not set out all relevant facts or that the facts were "spun" and not entirely accurate, they may take the position that the ruling or interpretation is void and may issue an assessment against the requester despite the ruling or interpretation.  For this reason, if there is a significant amount that may be assessed if a future audit covers 4 years, then it is wise to use the services of a GST/HST professional who can help you write your ruling request.  In addition, the GST/HST professional can communicate with the CRA, GST/HST Rulings Directorate personnel to determine what information they require to analyze the advance ruling/interpretation request. 

Businesses often do not know what they do not know and are too afraid to ask the CRA out of fear that contact will cause an audit to occur.  Businesses owners may not know what to say and what not to say.  By working with a professional, the business owner may be shielded from the CRA's view or may find out that their advance ruling request may not be granted and that they are doing something wrong.  If the business is doing something wrong, they can make a voluntary disclosure for past mistakes and correct the errors on a going forward basis. Assessment risk may be reduced.

For more information on GST/HST Rulings, please look at GST/HST Memorandum Series 1.4 (September 2009) "Excise and GST/HST Rulings and Interpretation Services".  If you need help in analyzing whether to request an advance GST/HST ruling or an interpretation, please call Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-760-8999.

The ABCs of Harmonized Sales Tax

Harmonized sales tax ("HST") is here to stay in Ontario for 5 years due to the arrangement between Premier McGuinty and the Government of Canada.  The provincial portion of the rate (currently 8% and called PVAT to those in the know) may be altered on or after July 1, 2012.

Now for something serious and not so serious at times - the ABCs of HST:

A is for Almost Everything - HST covers almost everything;

B is for Bookkeeping - Registrants need to keep detailed records and maintain books are records that can be audited by the Canada Revenue Agency Auditors;

C is for Canada Revenue Agency - The CRA enforces the HST (both the GST and PVAT portions);

D is for Documentary Requirements - A top 10 audit issue is that registrations do not maintain adequate information to support input tax credit and refund claims;

E is for Exemptions - Exempt means that HST/GST is not charged, but the supplier is not entitled to claim input tax credits - so GST/HST is passed on in the price of the property/services;

F is for Filings - Registrants must file their GST/HST returns on time and large businesses must recapture ITCs on time and builders must report certain information in their filings or face costly penalties;

G is for Government Contracts - Suppliers to the Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia Governments must charge GST/HST (previously Ontario and BC did not pay GST or PST);

H is for HST - should have expected this one - or I could have written "Hated Sales Tax";

I is for Input Tax Credits - ITCs are good for businesses engaged in commercial activities who get to recover GST/HST on business inputs (good until they get audited and mistakes are found);

J is for Judge - If you disagree with the CRA about an assessment, file a notice of objection and notice of appeal and take the dispute to a Tax Court of Canada judge;

K is for Knowledgeable - While it is self-serving, you need to talk to a knowledgeable practitioner as the HST rules are complicated;

L is for Legislation - the Excise Tax Act needs to be updated - we have not had a good review since 1997;

M is for MUSH Sector - The MUSH (Municipalities, Universities, Schools, Hospitals) sector have a rebate scheme and difficult rules;

N is for Non-Residents - Businesses outside Ontario (e.g., in other Canadian provinces, the United States and overseas) may be required to charge, collect and remit HST and do not know or understand it;

O is for Ontario Retail Sales Tax - HST replaces ORST, but ORST is still applicable on used car sales and certain insurance premiums;

P is for Place of Supply Rules - Whether you charge HST depends in part on the application of the place of supply rules, which determine if the supply takes place in an HST province and which HST province;

Q is for Quick Method - really a misnomer because it is not quick and some people using it will have to apply special transition rules;

R is for Recaptured ITCS - Large businesses (those that make over $10 million is sales per annual alone or with affiliated entities) must pay back certain ITCs claimed relating to PVAT and must report on monthly GST/HST return;

S is for Small Suppliers - Small supplier do not have to register for GST/HST purposes;

T is for  Technology - Technology helps capture and report GST/HST information - this cannot be done manually;

U is for Unhappy Consumers - Consumers are paying more on electricity, home heating, bikes, services, etc because of HST;

V is for Voluntary Disclosures - If you make a mistake and have not been contacted by a CRA auditor, you may consider making a non-names voluntary disclosure via a practitioner so save paying a penalty;

W is for web-site - go to www.thehstblog.com for information on HST or www.cra.gc.ca;

X is for Xerox - you need to keep good records as evidence to show auditors - you need to invest in a good scanner or photocopier;

Y is for Yikes - This is what a person says when they hear they will be audited for HST (probably say something else - but this is a clean web-site); and

Z is for Zero-rated - If property or services are zero-rated, you pay GST/HST at a rate of 0% and the supplier gets an input tax credit (therefore, health care and educational services should be zero-rated instead of exempt).

A Taxpayer May Have Grounds to Judicially Review A Denial of Access to Voluntary Disclosure Relief

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) offers a voluntary disclosure program that allows taxpayers to come forward and admit mistakes and pay outstanding GST/HST owing.  If the disclosure meets the requirements of the voluntary disclosure program, the taxpayer will not have to pay the penalty (the CRA waives the penalty).

Often, the CRA takes the position that a disclosure is not voluntary because the taxpayer was going to be audited (you cannot come forward after the auditor calls and says he/she is coming to conduct an audit).  At this point in time, the taxpayer knows that their mistakes will be found.

In a recent judicial review in an income tax case, the Federal Court did not agree with the CRA's characterization that a particular disclosure was not voluntary.  In Amour International Mines d'Or Ltee v. the Attorney General of Canada, the Federal Court determined that the Minister's failure to exercise his/her discretion to treat a disclosure as voluntary was not reasonable.  The Minister had relied on an internal CRA memo that indicated that the taxpayer would be audited (in circumstances where the taxpayer would not be aware of the memo).  The Federal Court also did not believe that a request for information sent to the taxpayer by the CRA PRIOR TO THE DISCLOSURE would not preclude the particular disclosure from being voluntary in nature.

The Federal Court granted the judicial review, but could not say the disclosure was voluntary and could not order the CRA to refund the penalties collected.  The judge did write that "I will, however, state that the decision was based on an erroneous finding of fact, made in a perverse or capricious manner or without regard for the material before the decision-maker."  Hint, hint, refund the penalty - please.

The morale of this story is that where enough money is at stake and the CRA refuses to treat a disclosure as voluntary, a judicial review may be an option.  A judicial review can cost over $100,000 if counsel for the CRA/Attorney General brings procedural and jurisdictional motions and if there is are problems relating to the release of relevant documents by the CRA.  It is not an option if only a small amount is at stake unless you want to fight for the principle of taxpayer fairness.

Changes to Wash Transaction Rules Coming Soon

happy faceThe Canada Revenue Agency is close to releasing a revised wash transaction policy for goods and services tax (GST) and harmonized sales tax (HST).   A "wash transaction" occurs when a supply that is taxable at 5% or 12% or 13% is made and the supplier has not remitted an amount of net tax by virtue of not having correctly charged and collected the tax from the recipient who is a registrant who would have been entitled to claim a full input tax credit (ITC) if the tax had been correctly applied.  In other words, the supplier makes an error in not charging the correct amount of GST/HST when the recipient is entitled to a full input tax credit.  As a result, the Government of Canada is not deprived of tax revenues as a result of the error.

The old wash transaction policy in GST Memorandum 16-3-1 "Reduction of Penalty and Interest in Wash Transaction Situations" granted a concession to suppliers.  The CRA did not collect interest, but did impose a 4% wash penalty.

This 4% penalty may be gone under the new policy.  Please stay tuned for what we are told is good news.