15 Stages Of A Canada Revenue Agency GST/HST Audit

If you have never been audited before, you probably have no idea what to expect.  Most audits follow the same 15 stages (more or less).  On the taxpayer's side of things, each stage is stressful.

  1. CRA Selection Process:  The taxpayer usually has no involvement in this process.  It all happens behind the scenes and the taxpayer can only guess why their name was selected. Sometimes the taxpayer is randomly selected.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected as a result of the industry segment in which they operate.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected because of something in a filing with the CRA.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected because of a tip made to the CRA.
  2. The Audit Letter: The taxpayer receives a letter from the CRA notifying them that they are to be audited. Normally, the taxpayer is asked to contact the CRA auditor.  However, sometimes the auditor just shows up at the business premises.
  3. The CRA letter requesting certain documents:  Usually the CRA auditor will send to the taxpayer a letter indicating what documents need to be provided before the initial meeting at the taxpayer's premises or what documents must be available for the first day of the audit.
  4. Initial Meeting:  If the audit occurs at the taxpayer's premises, the auditor will have a meeting at the start of the audit.  The auditor explains what is expected during the audit.  The taxpayer should also communicate to the auditor what is expected.  The taxpayer may indicate that the auditor must deal with a specific person so that the entire organization does not end up working for the auditor.
  5. Fieldwork:  The on-site audit is the fieldwork stage.  The fieldwork can take place over a few days or over a lengthy period of time.
  6. Office work: Usually the auditor will take information back to the CRA offices and work on the audit from the CRA premises.
  7. Follow-up questions: It is common for the CRA auditor to contact the taxpayer after the fieldwork stage of the audit. Sometimes additional documents are requested.  Sometimes additional questions are asked.
  8. Preliminary Report: The CRA auditor will prepare a proposal and send it to the taxpayer for comment.  Usually a proposed assessment number is provided to the taxpayer.
  9. Response Letter: The taxpayer has an opportunity to change the minds of the CRA.  This is the best opportunity to stop an incorrect assessment from being issued.
  10. Notice of Re-assessment: The CRA auditor sends to the taxpayer the Notice of Reassessment setting out how much is being assessed.
  11. CRA Collections: As of the date of the Notice of Re-assessment, a debt is due to Her Majesty.  CRA Collections may start collection activities immediately after the Notice of Re-Assessment is issued.
  12. Notice of Objection: If a taxpayer disagrees with a Notice of Re-Assessment, the taxpayer can file a Notice of Objection.
  13. Objection: The taxpayer will communicate with a CRA Appeals Officer and the re-assessment will either be confirmed, amended to reversed.
  14. Notice of Appeal: Assuming that not all the issues are addressed in the objection stage, a taxpayer may file an appeal with the Tax Court of Canada.
  15. Day in Tax Court: A taxpayer will have their day(s) in the Tax Court of Canada if the appeal is not settled.  A Tax Court judge will listen to the parties and render a judgement.

For more information, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or at cyndee@lexsage.com.  We have many useful articles about tax audits under Free Information - Sales Tax, Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) Articles.

Make A List And Check It Twice: Record All Information Provided To A CRA Auditor

One of the most common mistakes we see taxpayers make during a Canada Revenue Agency ("CRA") audit is that they do not record what documents were requested by the auditor, what documents were provided to the auditor, and when those documents were provided to the auditor.  What is common is that documents are requested by the CRA auditor and the taxpayer is so nervous and anxious about the audit that they run around providing everything that is asked without making a list.  The taxpayer wants the audit to happen so quickly (so the auditor will leave) that they do not take time to think about how best to protect themselves.  What could go wrong during an audit?

We have seen cases where the CRA auditor forgets that they did not ask for something, but says it was never provided.  Accusations are easily made against a taxpayer and are sometimes used to justify an arbitrary assessment.  When you have a list, you have evidence that the CRA auditor did not ask for the document or was provided the document.  If you diligently make the list, the CRA auditor may have to think twice about how you should be treated - you are acting professionally and diligently.

We have seen many things happen during CRA audits over the years.  We have seen cases where the CRA auditor asks for documents and loses the documents.  This has happened in too many files. The worst case I remember happened many years ago during an Ontario provincial sales tax audit.  A Ministry of Finance auditor asked a taxpayer for a USB key with all the companies bookkeeping records and was provided with all of the taxpayer's books and records.  After a few months had passed, the auditor admitted to the taxpayer that he had lost the USB key and had no idea where it could be.  The auditor had to ask for the information again and the taxpayer was uncomfortable providing another USB key for obvious reasons.  The auditor had to admit his error because the taxpayer had a list and he had initialed that he had received the USB key.

Recently, a CRA GST/HST appeals officer informed us that no documents provided during the audit had been uploaded in the system and he could not get the auditor's files.  He took the position that our client had not provided the documents. We were asked to provided all the documents again (which amounted to a number of boxes). Luckily, we had the list and we kept copies of all documents that had been provided in audit binders.  When each document was provided, three copies were made.  One copy was made for the CRA auditor, one copy was made for the audit binder and one copy was made for the scanned electronic record.  All documents were stamped confidential before being copied. We were able to provide the list and all the documents within 48 hours.

In another file, the CRA GST/HST auditor started an input tax credit audit and spend months looking through invoices and purchase documents.  The audit changed courses after many months and many requests for documents. An arbitrary assessment was issued because a limitation period was about to expire. We had been preparing the list and keeping copies of the documents.  When we performed the same audit on the same documents, the assessment was almost zero.  We filed a notice of objection and eventually the appeals officer received our analysis.  The objection was successful because we were able to show that we had a list of documents provided and what the correct analysis of those documents showed.

We have developed a template Audit List for taxpayers to use during audits.  This is the same template that we give our clients who ask us to help them during the audit process.

For more information, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or at cyndee@lexsage.com.  We have many useful articles about tax audits under Free Information - Sales Tax, Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) Articles.

Audit Tip: Make A List Of All Documents Provided To The Auditor

When we work with clients who are undergoing a GST/HST audit, we recommend that the client document each and every request of the auditor and what is provided.  This is done is two ways:

1) The taxpayer should keep a written master list of all documents (including (a) the request of the auditor, (b) the date of the request, (c) the documents provided to the auditor, (d) the date the documents were provided to the auditor, (e) notes about information provided along with the document, and (f) the location in the binder of hard copies or the name of the electronic document; and

2) A binder with hard copies copies of all the documents provided to the auditor and a USB key with any electronic documents provided to the auditor.

The master list and the copies are helpful if there is a disagreement over what was provided (e.g., the auditor claims certain documents were never provided) or if there is a disagreement about and assessment.  If the dispute is ultimately appealed to the Tax Court of Canada under the General Procedure, a partial list of documents (and potentially the documents) would be discoverable.  It takes much less time to photocopy an binder than to recreate document production at a later point in time.

Recently we were hired to file an appeal in a Tax Court proceeding and the bookkeeper no longer worked for the company.  The new bookkeeper was not familiar with the documents and spend many hours trying to re-create the document trail.  If the original bookkeeper had kept a list of documents and a binder, the client could have saved a lot of time and money.

We also recently worked with an existing client after an audit and they have followed our advice. They sent u the list of documents provided to the auditor and we could quickly determine that the auditor had not put many of the key documents in the audit file.  We had filed an ATIP request and received a very small file.

How To Find Out What Is In The Canada Revenue Agency's Files About Your Audit

Wouldn't you like to know what is in the Canada Revenue Agency's ("CRA") files concerning your GST/HST audit? This information is very valuable in finding out where the CRA made a mistake or what is the basis for the misunderstanding about your taxes.  We recommend obtaining this information as soon as possible after an assessment is issued AND after an appeals officer makes a decision to confirm an assessment.  The information in your audit file may help you prepare a notice of objection or notice of appeal.  The information in your CRA files may also be very useful during an examination for discovery. During the examination for discovery, your lawyer may use the information to catch the auditor or appeals officer (the usual deponents for the CRA) in a misstatement.  The examination for discovery process sometimes leads to settlements. Most importantly, the information in the auditors own files may be used to contradict assumptions made in making the assessment.

You may obtain information in your CRA files by filing an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request.  The ATIP requester must complete a Form RC378.  Where you may need the assistance of a tax lawyer is to ensure you are asking for the correct information.  If you have no idea for what to ask (e.g., the T2020 form completed by the CRA officer each time she/he spoke to you or a representative or someone in the CRA), you may miss requesting useful information.  This is the most common problem is not knowing what would be in the CRA's audit file.

The filing fee is only $CDN 5.00.

The CRA posts limited information on the Canada Revenue Agency web-site about making an ATIP request - see How to access information at the CRA.

The next problem that arises is that the CRA may withhold information.  There is the right of appeal should the CRA withhold certain information. This will be the subject of a subsequent blog post.

Based on our experience, the ATIP process often results in information being provided that an auditor will not often send to the taxpayer.  For example, if the auditor obtained an appraisal from the CRA, Real Property Appraisal Division, the auditor is often told not to give that document to the taxpayer.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the appraisal.  Similar,y the auditor often will not share internal emails.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the internal emails.  At the end of an audit, the auditor prepares a memo for the team leader/supervisor.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the Auditor's file memo(s).

Based on our experience, it is important to file an ATIP request.  It is a small price to pay to possibly win the tax argument.  It is a small price to pay to potentially save the expense of a hearing at the Tax Court of Canada and years of fighting the tax dispute.  Finally, wouldn't you like to know what the auditor wrote in your file?

If you require assistance, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or cyndee@lexsage.com.  We offer flat rates to file ATIP requests.

Would You Like To Play Audit Roulette In Ontario?

Last week at the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants Commodity Tax Symposium West in Calgary, a representative of Ontario stated to the audience that Ontario planned to conduct retail sales tax audits of most businesses in the next two years.

Pursuant to the Retail Sales Tax Act (Ontario), the normal audit period is four years. The audit period may be extended where there has been a misrepresentation attributable to neglect, carelessness or wilful default.

This is important to know because after the implementation of the harmonized sales tax (HST) on July 1, 2010, the Ontario Government will want to make sure that it has received all the retail sales tax required under the law as it was prior to HST. Just because we are moving to the HST, retail sales tax liabilities will continue. Auditors will continue to visit businesses (some would say plague businesses - but that is not very nice).

Businesses are now playing audit roulette. Will the auditor find the retail sales tax problems/mistakes that the business has been ignoring?

Businesses have three primary choices:

1. Continue to play audit roulette by continuing to ignore legacy retail sales tax problems;

2. Conduct an internal audit or control audit with a sales tax lawyer, accountant or consultant, identify the existing problems, and make a voluntary disclosure to report the mistakes to the Ministry of Revenue (come clean so to speak); and

3. Conduct an internal audit or control audit with a sales tax lawyer, accountant or consultant, identify the existing problems/mistakes and improved the processes and retroactively solve the problems to reduce exposure. For example, if a business sells goods that will be incorporated into goods for resale or will be resold by the purchaser, the business may ensure its purchase exemption certificates are in order. Another example would be that if a business should have collected tax on a transaction, they may send an invoice to the customer and remit the tax to the Ontario Government. Another example would be that if a business imported goods and failed to report and pay retail sales tax in respect of the importation, they may do so before an auditor knows on the door.

In addition, vendors and customers should communicate with each other about audits as the Minister is not entitled to impose a penalty on a vendor who failed to collect tax and assess the buyer for failure to pay tax on the same transaction --- the Minister cannot receive the same tax from both parties.

Audits take up the human resources of company officials and interfere with the operation of the business. Proactive steps by a business does save money, time and aggravation.

Sales Tax Tip: Ask to Include the Auditor's Manager in Discussions

First, I should say, DO NOT CALL WOLF. Asking to include to the auditor's manager or the senior manager at a meeting with you (the vendor or taxpayer) and the auditor should be used in limited (but greater than occasional) circumstances. If you ask for a meeting, the general rule is that a meeting must be arranged.

In this blog post, I focus on Ontario retail sales tax. However, the concept also applies to goods and services tax (GST).

I have asked for a meeting with the auditor's manager or senior manager when there is a fundamental disagreement of the applicability to a taxing provision to a client's situation. I have asked for a meeting when the auditor does not appear to understand the facts (often the facts are complex) and I feel that the auditor is going to raise an assessment incorrectly. I ask for a meeting with the auditor's manager when there is a serious personality conflict between my client and the auditor (it has happened) and I feel that the auditor may be biased and intent on punishing my client.

I do not ask to speak to the auditor's manager to intimidate the auditor - it does not work. I do not ask to speak to the auditor's manager regarding little issues. I do not ask to speak to the auditor's manager on the first day of the audit. I do not ask to speak to the auditor's manager when my client is clearly in the wrong.

In Ontario, if a retail sales tax assessment is issued, then the auditor's job is complete and the only recourse a vendor or taxpayer has is to file a notice of objection. It currently takes over 2 years for a notice of objection to be reviewed by the Ontario Ministry of Revenue Tax Appeals Branch. Usually, the tax assessment must be paid within 18 months and interest continues to accrue. For this reason, I feel it is my role to make sure the auditor gets the assessment correct.

If I receive an audit summary (which is a summary of the auditor's findings), which usually precedes the actual assessment, I ask for the reasons for the assessment. When there is a disagreement over the law or an interpretation of the law, an administrative statement or a court decision, I ask to speak to the auditor's manager, who usually has more discretion and more experience. Sometimes I for the auditor to write Tax Advisory for a ruling and that I will help with the facts so that the answer received is more likely to be correct (does not always happen that way).

There is a fine line between being assertive and aggressive, proactive and reactive. That being said, recently, managers have agreed with me (when I have known that i am correct) and some assessments have been reduced (1) Case 1: from over $1 million to close to $0, (2) Case 2: from approximately $500,000 to about $25,000 and (3) Case 3: by over $300,000. These results obviously depended on the particular circumstances of the file.