The Morneau Massacre of 2017


If you’ve just returned from vacation and wondering what’s new in the tax world, you’d better sit down and take a pill. On July 18, finance minister Bill Morneau rolled out the federal government’s proposals designed to “close loopholes and deal with tax planning strategies that involve the use of private corporations”. In short, Finance is proposing to tax an axe to many of the tax strategies that have been available to small business owners and professionals up until now.

The proposals are complex, comprehensive and wide-ranging, covering the following main areas of tax planning:

  • Income sprinkling
  • Multiplication of the capital gains exemption
  • Converting a private corporation’s regular income into capital gains
  • Holding investments inside a private corporation

Income Sprinkling

This strategy involves the splitting of income to take advantage of lower marginal tax rates available to family members. Many rules have been put in place over the years to curtail this practice. Most notably, the tax on split income (TOSI), or “kiddie tax” applies the highest marginal tax rates to certain dividends paid to minor children.

With the new proposals, the TOSI will no longer be limited to minor children. Complex new rules will apply the TOSI to dividends paid to adult individuals unless such dividends are reasonable in light of that individual’s labour contributions and/or capital contributions to the corporation.

The TOSI will also be expanded to apply to capital gains on property, the income from which was subject to the TOSI. Further, it will also apply (for individuals under age 25) to “compound income” that was previously subject to attribution rules or the TOSI.

These proposals are scheduled to apply to for the 2018 and later years.

Multiplication of the capital gains exemption

A capital gains exemption (CGE) of up to $800,000 (indexed) is currently available to any individual on the sale of qualifying shares of a private company. Issuing shares to family members, either directly or through a trust, is a common way to multiply this tax benefit.

The finance minister has proposed a three-pronged approach that will eliminate the multiplication of the CGE:

Age limit: The CGE will no longer be available to individuals where the gain occurs in any year before the individual reaches the age of 18 years.

Reasonableness test: In essence, this rule will deny the CGE on any gain on the sale of shares if the gain from those shares is subject to the TOSI measures described above.

Trusts: With exceptions for spouse or alter ego trusts the GCE will no longer be available on any gain on a share that is held by a family trust.

These proposals will apply to dispositions after 2017. However, there will be transitional rules that will allow an elected deemed disposition at any time in 2018. The fair market value of the shares would have to be determined, and the qualification criteria for the CGE will be treated as being satisfied if they are met at any time in the preceding 12 months.

Converting a private corporation’s regular income into capital gains

Normally, a distribution of a corporation’s retained earnings is considered a dividend and taxed as such. The top rate on dividends is approximately 44%. Strategies have been used with varying degrees of success to arrange for dividends to be transmogrified into capital gains, which are taxed at 25%. This involves the utilization of the high cost base on shares that have been acquired through a non-arm’s length transaction that had previously triggered a capital gain. Current rules are in place to curtail such “surplus stripping” in limited circumstances. Section 84.1 effectively forces a return to dividend treatment where the capital gains exemption was claimed on the previous capital gain.

The government proposes to extend these rules to any situation where a non-arm’s length transaction involved even a fully taxable capital gain. This proposal is meant to address what has become known as the “pipeline” transaction.

The pipeline has been used extensively in recent years as a post-mortem planning tool to avoid double-taxation where the capital is deemed to occur on the death of a corporate shareholder. Unless the current proposals are altered, the pipeline strategy will no longer be available to an estate.

These proposals will take effect for all dispositions that occur after July 18, 2017. There will be no room for transitional planning.

Holding investments inside a private corporation

One of the long-standing advantages of incorporation is the tax deferral that comes with lower rates on business income. Once the retained income has accumulated over time, the company will have a larger amount available for investment. This has been a great contributor to the retirement of many small business owners. However, it is an advantage that salaried persons or those who don’t incorporate cannot access. Accordingly, the government proposes to eliminate it.

Of all the proposals announced, this is the only one that is not fully developed with draft legislation. The Minister has included some suggested strategies to deal with the issue, each one complex in its own right, and generally altering the system of integration currently in place by eliminating the effect of the corporate tax deferral for future passive investment.

The Minister acknowledges that there currently exists a significant amount of capital invested within private corporations, and it is not his intent to affect these holdings. Any new rules will have effect on a going-forward basis.

These proposals are subject to a consultation period which will end on October 2, 2017. Interested parties should write to the Minister of Finance with any concerns before that date. I suspect that it will be an interesting and eventful autumn for the tax community.

What’s Your Tax Issue? Sale of Estate Assets

The Tax Issue

I am in the midst of settling my mother’s estate and my accountant has told me I have to sell her house within one year or else I’ll have to pay capital gains tax. He is also telling me that all my mother’s possessions such as jewellery, furniture and  and artwork may be subject to tax. I’ve never heard of this. Can you tell me if he is right?

The Answer

OK, the first thing you must know is that generally, upon the death of an individual, she is deemed to have disposed of all her capital property immediately before her death for proceeds equal to fair market value at that time.

First, let’s deal with the house. I’m assuming your mother lived in the house for the full time she owned it and it is eligible for the principal residence exemption. That means there will be no tax on the gain at death, but you will still inherit the place at a tax cost to you equal to the fair market value of the house at the time of her death.

Now the question is, how do you determine what the fair market value was at the time of death? Well the best way is to actually sell the house immediately. The closer the date of the sale to the date of death, the better estimate you have of the value at death. The longer you wait to sell, the more you will have to rely on an estimate of the value at the time of death based on valuation methods. Whatever the difference is between the value at the time of death (i.e., your tax cost) and the actual sale proceeds when you sell will become a capital gain or loss in your hands.

If you feel the value will be going up in the future, then if you plan to sell, do it sooner rather than later if you want to avoid having to report a capital gain on the increase in value from the time of death.

If the value goes down, then selling within the first year of death allows you to make a special election to use the capital loss against any gains reported on your mother’s final tax return.

Now to the other stuff. Technically speaking, all personal belongings are referred to in the law as “personal use property”, and they are subject to special rules. They are also deemed disposed of at the time of death at fair market value. The only difference is that each item has a deemed minimum cost base and minimum value for tax purposes of $1,000. So, any item that is worth less than $1,000 will not be taxed.  Gains will be taxed, and losses, if any, may be applied only against gains from other personal use property.

Items such as jewellery and artwork are another subset of personal use property called “listed personal property”, and are also subject to the above rules. Losses on this type of property, however, can only be applied against gains from other listed personal property.

What’s Your Tax Issue? Home Built By Company

The Tax Issue

I recently built our “dream” home for 2.50M$. However, not having sufficient funds personally, my professional corporation financed the construction of the house for me, writes off the maintenance, utilities and taxes, and I rent the house from my company at a market value rent, having researched comparable rents in the neighbourhood. Apart from forgoing the principal residence exemption – are there any other detriments to this strategy?

The Answer

Could be. I’m assuming, since you are paying rent, that you’re aware of the shareholder benefit rules. That is, by virtue of the fact that the company has financed your house and pays expenses on your behalf, you are exposed to tax on the value of the benefit you are receiving from the company.

What you may not be aware of is how the CRA might establish the value of the benefit. It could be the market value rent as you have researched, and if so, the rent you’re paying would be enough to offset the taxable amount completely.

In your case, however, it may not be so simple. There is a line of jurisprudence, starting with the case of Youngman v. The Queen, that suggests that the benefit or advantage conferred on you is not merely the right to use or occupy a house; it is the right to use or occupy a house that the company, at your request, had built specially for you in accordance with your specifications. How much would you have had to pay for the same advantage if you had not been a shareholder of the company?

So what is this “alternative” calculation? Generally, the value of the benefit could be calculated by reference to the income the corporation would have earned if its capital had been productively employed and not based on the fair market rental value (which might be considerably lower).

As an example, on a $2.5M capital outlay, the company could have been expected to earn interest in a relatively risk-free investment of, say anywhere from 2% to 5%. This would mean an annual rent of $50,000 to $125,000, plus expenses. If you are paying any less than this in rent, despite what the market rents are in the area, then you could be exposed to a greater taxable benefit than you thought.

Selling Low

I am often asked during the course of a year whether a taxpayer, for whatever reason, can make a sale of property at a price lower than fair market value, transfer an asset for no consideration, make a gift to a relative or friend, either personally or through a corporation, etc. You get the idea.

The Income Tax Act (“the Act”), being the complex animal that it is, contains many provisions that deal with these questions, and, depending upon the circumstances, any one or more of them could apply. And we won’t even get into the General Anti-Avoidance Rule. What follows is a general discussion of some of these provisions.

Subsection 69(1) – Inadequate consideration

Subsection 69(1) of the Act provides rules that apply where any consideration other than fair market value is provided in any transaction between people who are not dealing at arm’s length. Generally, the provision provides a one-sided adjustment to the selling price. If the proceeds are too high, then the purchaser’s cost amount will be adjusted downwards. If the price is too low, then the seller’s proceeds will be adjusted upwards. If there are no proceeds at all (i.e., a gift) then the transfer will be deemed to have been made at fair market value for both parties.

Subsection 15(1) – Shareholder Benefits

Subsection 15(1) of the Act is a broad provision that taxes shareholders (and future shareholders) on the value of any benefit conferred on them by a corporation. This subsection would cover such transactions as the issuance of treasury stock at less than fair market value, and the forgiveness of shareholder debt.

Some exceptions apply, such as stock dividends, and treasury shares where identical offers are made to all existing shareholders.

Subsection 56(2) – Indirect payments

Subsection 56(2) of the Act applies to “indirect payments”. It deals with situations where a benefit is conferred on a person, where that benefit would, if it were paid to the taxpayer, be taxed in the taxpayer’s hands. The effect of the provision is to tax the person who confers the benefit.

According to the CRA, there are four conditions that must be met for this provision to apply:

(a) there is a payment or transfer of property to a person other than the taxpayer;
(b) the payment or transfer is pursuant to the direction of, or with the concurrence of, the taxpayer;
(c) there is a benefit to the taxpayer or a benefit the taxpayer wishes to confer on the other person;
(d) the taxpayer would have been taxable on the amount under some other section of the Act if the payment or transfer had been made directly to the taxpayer.

A simple example is where a director of a corporation makes a payment to a person who is a non-shareholder of the corporation at the request of a shareholder.

It has been held that subsection 56(2) cannot be applied to dividends paid to one shareholder to exclusion of another at the discretion of the directors of a corporation (i.e., discretionary dividends).

Subsection 246(1) – Benefit Conferred On A Person

Subsection 246(1) of the Act is another broad rule that provides that where a person confers a benefit on a taxpayer, the amount of the benefit must be included in income of the taxpayer.

Subsection 246(2), however, provides an “arm’s length” exception, where all of the following four conditions are met:

(a) The person and the taxpayer are dealing at arm’s length;
(b) The transaction is bona fide;
(c) The transaction is not pursuant to, or part of any other transaction; and
(d) The transaction was not entered into to effect payment of an obligation.

There is very little jurisprudence with respect to the saving provision in subsection 246(2). The only case involving this provision is Pelletier et al v. the Queen. In that case, a shareholder sold his shares to the other arm’s length shareholders of the same corporation for less than fair market value. The exception was held to apply.

Generally, the CRA likes transactions to occur at market value. Any deviation could invoke any one of the above provisions, so as always, be cautious.