They’re Not As Dumb As You Think

Once in a while, a client will suggest a scheme that makes me wonder if he is really living out there in the real world.

The case of Jacob Erlich is interesting in that it represents a set of facts which is not all that uncommon in my experience. It tells the story of a taxpayer who is willing to take the risk of excluding certain amounts in reporting his income, and the dire consequences that may befall him if his actions are subsequently investigated by the revenue authorities.

The facts were not complicated. Mr. Erlich was the owner of a chain of retail clothing outlets for a number of years, since he took the business over from his father in 1972. In 1992, someone (although not addressed in the text of the case, that someone was likely a disgruntled former employee with a cross to bear) made a report to the Special Investigations division of the Canada Revenue Agency, with regard to some unreported sales of the business.

During the audit that ensued, the CRA discovered that somehow, the cash register tapes which would verify sales from 1988 to 1991 were nowhere to be found. The Minister accordingly assumed that they had been destroyed by Erlich.

In 1992 Mr. Erlich made a series of deposits to his corporation’s bank account, totaling $367,000. The amounts were credited to his shareholder loan account. The Minister assumed that these amounts represented sales collected directly by Mr. Erlich, and not reported by the company.

In addition to the above, this was not the first time Mr. Erlich was under the gun for a similar offence. He had previously deposited unreported sales of a predecessor company into his shareholder loan account.

At this point, let me make an important point about the burden of proof. Quite simply, it rests with the taxpayer. In other words, the Minister made certain assumptions based on the evidence or lack thereof, issued a net worth assessment against Mr. Erlich, and assessed his company a similar amount with respect to unreported sales. This double tax assessment is one of the ways the government can punish a taxpayer for abusive transgressions.

Often, a client will be under the wrong impression that if the CRA can’t prove their case, they will lose. Unfortunately, as stated above, they don’t have to prove their case. The taxpayer does.

Furthermore, a client will sometimes believe that a suitable story will make the problem disappear. When asked where the money came from to make the deposits in question, Mr. Erlich had such a story. He stated that his mother had found the cash in boxes in a closet of her home, possibly left there by his father (now deceased), who may have had some rich (and, no doubt, generous) friends in Hong Kong.

Not surprisingly, the CRA did not take this explanation at face value. Nor, to their credit, did they reject it out of hand. They actually went back through the records of Mr. Erlich’s parents to determine whether any income source existed that would justify the amount of cash found. Unfortunately, no such source was found.

Without proof to substantiate Mr. Erlich’s his story, the court rejected it, and upheld the Minister’s assessments. This case illustrates in vivid fashion, something I try to impart on my clients on a regular basis. The CRA and the courts are not as dumb as you think.

CRA Exposes More Offshore Shenanigans

If you’ve been following the UBS scare in the U.S. (see my previous post on this topic) please add the tiny state of Liechtenstein and the relatively large Canadian  institution known as RBC Dominion Securities to the list of names associated with offshore shenanigans.

The CBC reports that the Canada Revenue Agency is investigating 13 taxpayers who set up offshore accounts with LGT Group in Liechtenstein. These accounts were set up with the aid of Colin Ross, a former investment adviser at the Victoria branch of RBC.

Liechtenstein: Small, beautiful, and one of the tax community's best kept secrets

The CRA’s investigation, launched last year, found that certain foundations were set up and used by taxpayers to “masquerade as non-residents.” The agency says the taxpayers were “hiding their investments and other income” and “evading their obligation to pay Canadian tax.”

Of the 13 taxpayers implicated, some have made voluntary disclosures, and will therefore likely escape criminal charges and penalties. Others are under the gun for tax evasion, including  one Victoria woman who told investigators she felt having an offshore account was “glamorous”.

RBC  has released a statement disavowing any wrongdoing as a firm. The CRA is now investigating whether more Canadians are doing the same thing through RBC advisers across the country. But it won’t stop there. Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn is quoted as saying “We will go after every other bank to obtain the list of their clients who do business abroad and to see if those clients declare their income.”

Offshore Trusts – Is The Sun Setting?

So often, I see tax strategies fall short, not due to faulty planning, but faulty execution. It is so easy to fall into complacency with regard to documentation. But I’m not going to ask you to take my word for it. I’ll let you read a great excerpt from the Tax Court of Canada in the case of Antle (2009 TCC 465). This case, by the way is one of the two recent “Barbados trust” cases involving the use of offshore trusts to escape tax on large capital gains.

Parenthetically, the other case, Garron Family Trust, (2009 TCC 465) calls into question the long-standing notion that a trust is resident in the jurisdiction where the majority of the trustees reside. This absolute certainty, like the shape of our globe, once considered to be flat, has given way to the reality that the residence of a trust should be determined based on the set of circumstances in question, and that the place where management and control takes place is now the overriding factor.

But I digress. I want to get to this great quotation, because the lawyers involved in this case must be pulling out their hair. When Mr. Antle was about to sell his shares, he decided he could avoid the capital gains tax by following a few simple tax planning steps, as follows:

Step 1: Set up a spouse trust with a trustee resident in Barbados.

Step 2: Transfer shares to a spouse trust (tax free under Canadian law)

Step 3: Trust sells shares to Mrs. Antle (tax-free under Barbados law and Canadian-Barbados tax treaty)

Step 4: Mrs. Antle sells shares with stepped-up cost base

Forget the fact that GAAR also applies to this transaction. The court, in fact made another fun statement in this regard, calling the strategy “a classic law school model of what GAAR was intended to capture”.

But again, I digress. The point is, don’t lose your case for a client before it gets out of the starting block through sloppy paperwork and poor execution. In Antle, the court stated:

“With certainty of intention and certainty of subject matter in question and, more significantly, no actual transfer of shares, there is no properly constituted trust: the Trust never came into existence. This conclusion emphasizes how important it is, in implementing strategies with no purpose other than avoidance of tax, that meticulous and scrupulous regard be had to timing and execution. Backdating of documents, fuzzy intentions, lack of transfer documents, lack of discretion, lack of commercial purpose, delivery of signed documents distributing capital from the trust prior to its purported settlement, all frankly miss the mark — by a long shot. They leave an impression of elaborate window dressing. In short, if you are going to play the avoidance game, it is not enough to have brilliant strategy, you must have brilliant execution.”

So true. Both the Garron and Antle cases are being appealed.


The Tax Issue:

I was wondering If I earn money offshore and do not repatriate any of it back to Canada do I have to pay tax on it. (i.e. Work, Investments, etc…)?

The Answer:

The short answer is YES!

With all the talk recently about UBS, offshore bank accounts and tax evasion, this question comes at a crucial time for any Canadian taxpayer with funds offshore.

Generally, if you are a Canadian resident, you are obligated to declare and pay tax on your world income. So, if you go off to Dubai and earn revenue as a systems consultant there for a few weeks, deposit the funds in a Swiss bank account and never bring the money into Canada, you are still obligated to report the income earned on your Canadian income tax return for the year.

Similarly, any investment income earned while that money sits in an offshore account is taxable in Canada as it is earned.

If the income is from employment, and you meet certain criteria, you may be eligible for an overseas employment tax credit to be deducted on your return. You should consult your tax advisor if you were employed on a long-term project offshore at any time in the year.

The Canadian system operates on the basis of residency alone. So, if you leave Canada permanently, you will no longer be subject to Canadian income tax from the time of departure. As a non-resident you will generally not be subject to tax in Canada, even if you are a Canadian citizen.

So, if you’ve read my previous post on the UBS affair and how it affects us here in Canada, you should be aware that any funds deposited in any offshore account that contains proceeds from taxable earnings you derived while a resident of Canada is subject to the scrutiny of the CRA at any time.

Update: See the case of Bensouilah v. MNR (2009 DTC 1327) for an illustration of Canadian resident taxpayer failing to report employment income earned in Saudi Arabia.

Brian Mulroney and the CRA – Part 2

This is a continuation of my Mulroney rant from last post.

While Mr. Mulroney admits to collecting $225,000 as a retainer for services to be rendered to Karlheinz Schreiber, he claims he did not report the amounts as income for tax purposes because he didn’t feel they were earned yet.

Muroney with Reagan - happier days

Mulroney with Reagan in happier days

Fast forward to 1999, when the amount was finally reported as income. First of all, the event that triggered the reporting was not the fact that anything was earned, it was the fact that Mr. Mulroney was feeling threatened that Schreiber was going to report him to the tax authorities. So, if Mulroney was complying with the tax law as he claimed, why would he worry about such a threat?

Next, if all was above board with this amount of income, why would Mulroney not simply add  it to his tax return for 1999? Here’s a fact: the voluntary disclosures route taken by Mr. Mulroney is only available to taxpayers where negligence penalties are involved.

And why, for heaven’s sake, would he not insist on reporting the full amount when his lawyers came to him with the deal they negotiated with the CRA that allowed him to escape tax on half the cash? That’s what I would do if I were a former Prime Minister conscious of my appearance in the public view.

When asked these very questions, Mr. Mulroney simply blamed it all on his lawyers. Trust me when I say that pleading ignorance and relying on professionals never works with the CRA or the courts. Taxpayers, especially sophisticated taxpayers are always assumed to have knowledge of the contents of the tax returns as evidenced by their signatures and are held responsible for them. For someone like Mr. Mulroney to reply to a direct question concerning his taxes with the statement that he “gave it to (his) tax advisers” is the epitome of brazenness.

Mulroney was followed immediately by Wayne Adams of the CRA who tried to explain to the committee much of what I’ve just said. At the end, Commissioner Oliphant said “I listened to Mr. Mulroney for six hours and I find myself more tired listening to an hour and a half of tax law here”.

Charisma. Mulroney’s got it. Tax nerds like me, not so much.


What’s all this commotion about UBS? Well if you’ve been out of the loop or simply hiding your head in the sand every time you hear those initials, then it is now officially time to wake up.

First, a bit of background. Around a year ago, a former UBS banker named Bradley Birkenfeld came forward to report illegal tactics by the giant Swiss Bank. UBS was luring big money investors to deposit undeclared income in their bank with promises of the famous Swiss secrecy laws. Birkenfeld was a party to a deposit of $200 million by U.S. billionaire Igor Olenicoff, who was convicted, and required to pay $53 million in taxes and penalties.

The IRS is looking into peoples affairs

The IRS is looking everywhere for offshore bank accounts

The IRS pulled a bit more on the thread. They discovered that a special office over at UBS would regularly make trips to North America to lure big time investors. A part of this office was known as the “Canada Desk”. It is estimated that Canadian investors have deposits of more than $5 billion at UBS.

Why all the Fuss This Week?

The IRS has been trying to get UBS to disclose more names and until last week, has been stonewalled by the bank, who claims it would run afoul of Swiss secrecy laws. On August 19, the Swiss government agreed to loosen those laws in order to cooperate with the IRS. As a result, UBS is now required to hand the names of 4,450 of its biggest U.S. depositors to the IRS.

And it’s only the beginning. In IRS commissioner Doug Shulman’s words “This issue is not going away, and people hiding assets and income offshore will find themselves increasingly at risk due to our efforts in this area.”

What about us poor folk north of the border?

The CRA is chasing after this gravy train like a dog after a truckload of Gravy Train. Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn is in a tizzy over Canada’s weak enforcement laws and is recommending major changes to the law to help trace the movement of funds offshore. Lawyers for the CRA are reportedly heading off to Switzerland for “discussions” with UBS officials.

From a Canadian perspective none of this seems to have hit home just yet. To date only seven people have come forward to report their offshore activities. But if more taxpayers intend to do so, they shouldn’t wait too long. The voluntary disclosures program in Canada is designed to give some relief to taxpayers who come forward prior to being investigated. So, if a name is divulged to the CRA and an investigation ensues, no relief will be available.

What kinds of consequences do Canadians face? Tax evasion can come with a two-year prison sentence and fines of more than 50 percent of the tax owing, plus interest compounded daily. Canadian taxpayers are required each year to report their offshore deposits if they exceed $100,000. Failure to file this form can lead to fines of up to $24,000 per year.

Americans have a quick decision to make. The IRS has set up a special framework for voluntary disclosures relating to offshore activities, but this framework has a short life span. If they do not come forward by September 23, taxpayers may face the full force of the law, including possible criminal charges. Here in Canada, the problem is not so urgent, but now would seem to be a good time to think about getting your ducks in a row.

Oh, and one more thing – if you are a professional advisor, you should be aware that our friend, Mr. Birkenfeld was sentenced to 3 years in prison for setting his client up with his UBS account. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.