This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Globe & Mail on July 22, 2015.
In recent years, the popularity of the Canada Revenue Agency's voluntary disclosures program – which enables taxpayers to correct any mistakes or omissions in their previous tax filings – has ballooned.
When taxpayers come forward, their tax problems get solved, the CRA reduces the accrued interest and, most important, waives all penalties and potential criminal prosecution for tax evasion. For the CRA, it is found money – well into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually – that might not otherwise make its way into the government's coffers. It's a win-win.
It has been estimated that Canadians have more than $100-billion in offshore bank accounts. If you have unreported offshore investments and are considering making a voluntary disclosure, here are six reasons to do it now:
1. If the CRA starts enforcement action, it instantly becomes too late to make a voluntary disclosure. Any kind of inquiry or audit could disqualify you. Horror stories abound of how the agency came knocking while a taxpayer dithered over whether to make a voluntary disclosure.
2. Once it becomes too late to make a voluntary disclosure, the CRA can impose extremely onerous and harsh penalties for investments held offshore. This is because, in addition to penalties based on unpaid tax for unreported income, there are penalties for not filing the required disclosure form for foreign property that are based on a percentage of the amount invested. Those penalties, including interest, can easily become almost as much as the total amount invested offshore.
3. In recent years, the risk of detection has significantly and constantly increased – from well-publicized foreign bank leaks handing governments a treasure trove of information and enhanced intergovernmental exchange of information policies to the CRA issuing warning letters to Canadians whom they have identified as high-risk and launching a whistle-blower program to reward informants. This trend is bound to continue. For years, the revenue agency's tip line has been a fertile source of audits. CRA recently upped the ante with its bustling offshore tax informant program, agreeing to pay tipsters 5 per cent to 15 per cent of the tax collected. Beware of your disgruntled former spouse, business colleague or neighbour.
4. The door may close. If international information exchange agreements spell the demise of offshore banking secrecy, the CRA may no longer want or need to give taxpayers incentives to come forward. Instead, it may simply prosecute, imposing full penalties. The CRA has said the recently signed Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement will help set the stage for the automatic exchange of information, beginning in 2018.
5. Our law firm routinely helps elderly clients clean up their affairs and avoid saddling their children with their tax messes. Before distributing your assets, your executor will need to get a clearance certificate from the CRA, which essentially means the executor must advise the agency that there are no unresolved tax issues. If your executor is aware of an unreported offshore account, it will be legally impossible to get that certificate.
6. Finally, it is the right thing to do. Our clients who regularize their tax affairs through a voluntary disclosure invariably tell us later that they feel better. It is one less thing to keep you up at night.
Overall, the voluntary disclosures program is balanced and proportionate. It provides taxpayers an opportunity to correct previous tax deficiencies proactively and favourably, and, if the disclosure is not too late and is accepted by the CRA, avoid drastic consequences. Remember the ancient proverb: "Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy."