Year-end tax planning – some steps to take before December 31st (December 2017)
As the 2017 calendar year winds down, the window of opportunity to take steps to reduce one’s tax bill for the 2017 tax year is closing. As a general rule, tax planning or tax saving strategies must be undertaken and completed by December 31st, in order to make a difference to one’s tax liability for 2017. (For individual taxpayers, the only significant exception to that rule is registered retirement savings plan contributions. Such contributions can be made any time up to and including March 1, 2018, and claimed on the return for 2017.)
While the remaining time frame in which tax planning strategies for 2017 can be implemented is only a few weeks, the good news is that the most readily available of those strategies don’t involve a lot of planning or complicated financial structures – in many cases, it’s just a question of considering the timing of expenditures which would have been made in any case. Below is a list of the most common such opportunities available to individual Canadians.
The federal government and all of the provincial and territorial governments provide a tax credit for donations made to registered charities during the year. In all cases, in order to claim a credit for a donation in a particular tax year, that donation must be made by the end of that calendar year – there are no exceptions.
There is, however, another reason to ensure donations are made by December 31st. The credit provided by each of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments is a two-level credit, in which the percentage credit claimable increases with the amount of donation made. For federal tax purposes, the first $200 in donations is eligible for a non-refundable tax credit equal to 15% of the donation. The credit for donations made during the year which exceed the $200 threshold is, however, calculated as 29% of the excess. Where the taxpayer making the donation has taxable income (for 2017) over $202,800, charitable donations above the $200 threshold can receive a federal tax credit of 33%.
As a result of the two-level credit structure, the best tax result is obtained when donations made during a single calendar year are maximized. For instance, a qualifying charitable donation of $400 made in December 2017 will receive a federal credit of $88 ($200 × 15% + $200 × 29%). If the same amount is donated, but the donation is split equally between December 2017 and January 2018, the total credit claimable is only $60 ($200 × 15% + $200 × 15%), and the 2018 donation can’t be claimed until the 2018 return is filed in April 2019. And, of course, the larger the donation in any one calendar year, the greater the proportion of that donation which will receive credit at the 29% level rather than the 15% level.
It’s also possible to carry forward, for up to 5 years, donations which were made in a particular tax year. So, if donations made in 2017 don’t reach the $200 level, it’s usually worth holding off on claiming the donation and carrying forward to the next year in which total donations, including carryforwards, are over that threshold. Of course, this also means that donations made but not claimed in any of the 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, or 2016 tax years can be carried forward and added to the total donations made in 2017, and the aggregate then claimed on the 2017 tax return.
When claiming charitable donations, it’s possible to combine donations made by oneself and one’s spouse and claim them on a single return. Generally, and especially in provinces and territories which impose a high-income surtax – currently, Ontario and Prince Edward Island – it makes sense for the higher income spouse to make the claim for the total of charitable donations made by both spouses. Doing so will reduce the tax payable by that spouse and thereby minimize (or avoid) liability for the provincial high-income surtax.
This year, there is an additional last-chance incentive for Canadians who have not been in the habit of making charitable donations to make a cash donation to a registered charity. In the 2013 Budget, the federal government introduced a temporary charitable donations super-credit. That super-credit (which can be claimed only once) allows individuals who have not claimed a charitable donations tax credit in any tax year since 2007 to claim a super-credit on up to $1,000 in cash donations made during the year. The super-credit works by providing an additional 25% credit for cash donations. Consequently, when the super-credit is combined with the regular charitable donations tax credit, the total credit claimable is equal to 40% (15% + 25%) of donations under $200 and 54% (29% + 25%) of donations over the $200 threshold. This year (2017) is the last year for which the super-credit can be claimed, and only in respect of qualifying donations made before the end of the year.
Timing of medical expenses
There are an increasing number of medical expenses which are not covered by provincial health care plans, and an increasing number of Canadians who do not have private coverage for such costs through their employer. In those situations, Canadians have to pay for such unavoidable expenditures – including dental care, prescription drugs, ambulance trips, and many other para-medical services, like physiotherapy, on an out-of-pocket basis. Fortunately, where such costs must be paid for partially or entirely by the taxpayer, the medical expense tax credit is available to help offset those costs. Unfortunately, the computation of such expenses and, in particular, the timing of making a claim for the credit, can be confusing. In addition, the determination of which expenses qualify for the credit and which expenses do not isn’t necessarily intuitive, nor is the determination of when it’s necessary to obtain prior authorization from a medical professional in order to ensure that the contemplated expenditure will qualify for the credit.
The basic rule is that qualifying medical expenses (a lengthy list of which can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/medical/#mdcl_xpns) over 3% of the taxpayer’s net income, or $2,268, whichever is less, can be claimed for purposes of the medical expense tax credit on the taxpayer’s return for 2017.
Put in more practical terms, the rule for 2017 is that any taxpayer whose net income is less than $75,500 will be entitled to claim medical expenses that are greater than 3% of his or her net income for the year. Those having income over $75,500 will be limited to claiming qualifying expenses which exceed the $2,268 threshold.
The other aspect of the medical expense tax credit which can cause some confusion is that it’s possible to claim medical expenses which were incurred prior to the current tax year, but weren’t claimed on the return for the year that the expenditure was made. The actual rule is that the taxpayer can claim qualifying medical expenses incurred during any 12-month period which ends in the current tax year, meaning that each taxpayer must determine which 12-month period ending in 2017 will produce the greatest amount eligible for the credit. That determination will obviously depend on when medical expenses were incurred so there is, unfortunately, no universal rule of thumb which can be used.
Medical expenses incurred by family members – the taxpayer, his or her spouse, dependent children who were born in 2000 or later, and certain other dependent relatives – can be added together and claimed by one member of the family. In most cases, it’s best, in order to maximize the amount claimable, to make that claim on the tax return of the lower income spouse, where that spouse has tax payable for the year.
As December 31st approaches, it’s a good idea to add up the medical expenses which have been incurred during 2017, as well as those paid during 2016 and not claimed on the 2016 return. Once those totals are known, it will be easier to determine whether to make a claim for 2017 or to wait and claim 2017 expenses on the return for 2018. And, if the decision is to make a claim for 2017, knowing what medical expenses were paid and when, will enable the taxpayer to determine the optimal 12-month waiting period for the claim.
Finally, it’s a good idea to look into the timing of medical expenses which will have to be paid early in 2018. Where those are significant expenses (for instance, a particularly costly medication which must be taken on an ongoing basis) it may make sense, where possible, to accelerate the payment of those expenses to December 2017, where that means they can be included in 2017 totals and claimed on the 2017 return.
Reviewing tax instalments for 2017
Millions of Canadian taxpayers (particularly the self-employed and retired Canadians) pay income taxes by quarterly instalments, with the amount of those instalments representing an estimate of the taxpayer’s total liability for the year.
The final quarterly instalment for this year will be due on Friday December 15, 2017. By that time, almost everyone will have a reasonably good idea of what his or her income and deductions will be for 2017 and so will be in a position to estimate what the final tax bill for the year will be, taking into account any tax planning strategies already put in place, as well as any RRSP contributions which will be made before March 2, 2018. While the tax return forms to be used for the 2017 year haven’t yet been released by the CRA, it’s possible to arrive at an estimate by using the 2016 form. Increases in tax credit amounts and tax brackets from 2016 to 2017 will mean that using the 2016 form will likely result in a slight over-estimate of tax liability for 2017.
Once one’s tax bill for 2017 has been calculated, that figure should be compared to the total of tax instalments already made during 2017 (that figure can be obtained by calling the CRA’s Individual Income Tax Enquiries line at 1-800-959-8281). Depending on the result, it may then be possible to reduce the amount of the tax instalment to be paid on December 15 – and thereby free up some funds for the inevitable holiday spending!
The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.