During the month of December, it is customary for employers to provide something “extra” for their employees, by way of a holiday gift, a year-end bonus or an employer-sponsored social event. And it is certainly the case that employers who provide such extras don’t intend to create a tax headache for their employees. Unfortunately, a failure to properly structure such gifts or other extras can result in unintended and unwelcome tax consequences to those employees.
Trying to formulate and administer the tax rules around holiday gifts is something of a no-win situation for the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). On an individual or even a company level, the amounts involved are usually small, or even nominal, and the range of situations which must be addressed by the applicable tax rules are virtually limitless. As a result, the cost of drafting and administering those rules can outweigh the revenue generated by the enforcement of such rules, to say nothing of the potential ill will generated by imposing tax consequences on holiday gifts and celebrations. Notwithstanding, the potential exists for employers to provide what would otherwise be taxable remuneration in the guise of holiday gifts, and it’s the responsibility of the tax authorities to ensure that such strategies are caught by the tax net.
There is, as a consequence, a detailed set of rules which outline the tax consequences of gifts and awards provided by the employer, and even in relation to annual holiday celebrations sponsored (and paid for) by an employer.
The starting point for the rules is that any gift (cash or non-cash) received by an employee from his or her employer at any time of the year is considered to constitute a taxable benefit, to be included in the employee’s income for that year. However, the CRA makes an administrative concession in this area, allowing non-cash gifts (within a specified dollar limit) to be received tax-free by employees, as long as such gifts are given on religious holidays such as Christmas or Hanukkah, or on the occasion of a significant life event, like a birthday, a marriage, or the birth of a child.
In sum, the CRA’s administrative policy is simply that non-cash gifts to an arm’s length employee, regardless of the number of such gifts, will not be taxable if the total fair market value of all such gifts (including goods and services tax or harmonized sales tax) to that employee is $500 or less annually. The total value over $500 annually will be a taxable benefit to the employee, and must be included on the employee’s T4 for the year, and on which income tax must be paid.
It’s important to remember the “non-cash” criterion imposed by the CRA, as the $500 per year administrative concession does not apply to what the CRA terms “cash or near-cash” gifts and all such gifts are considered to be a taxable benefit and included in income for tax purposes, regardless of amount. For this purpose, the CRA considers anything which could be easily converted to cash as a “near-cash” gift. Even a gift or award which cannot be converted to cash will be considered to be a near-cash gift if, in the CRA’s words, it “functions as cash”. So, a gift card or gift certificate which can be used by the employee to purchase his or her choice of merchandise or services would be considered a near-cash gift, and taxable as such. It’s not hard to see that drawing a firm line between cash and non-cash gifts can be difficult. The CRA provides the following information and examples to help clarify that difference.
You give your employee tickets to an event on a specific date and time. This may not be a taxable benefit for the employee since there is no element of choice, if the other rules for gifts and awards are met.
You give your employee a voucher (which may be a ticket or a certificate) that entitles the employee to receive an item for a set value at a store. For example, you may give your employees a voucher for a turkey valued up to $30 as a Christmas gift, and for convenience, you arrange for your employees to go to a particular grocery store and exchange the voucher for a turkey. The employees can only use the voucher to receive a turkey valued up to $30 (no substitutes). Such vouchers are generally considered non-cash gifts.
A gift card or gift certificate to a movie theatre, however, is considered a near cash gift or award. With a gift card or gift certificate to a movie theatre, your employee can choose which move to see and when to see it, or they can use the card or certificate at an arcade or concession stand.
This time of year, the tax treatment of the annual employee holiday party also must be considered. The CRA’s current policy in this area is that no taxable benefit will be assessed in respect of employee attendance at an employer-provided social event, where attendance at the party was open to all employees, and the cost per employee was $150 or less (which represents an increase from the $100 ceiling for previous years). The $150 cost is meant to cover the party itself, not including any ancillary costs, such as transportation costs or overnight accommodation. Where the total cost of the event itself exceeds the $150 per person threshold, the CRA will assess the employee as having received a taxable benefit equal to the entire per person cost (i.e., not just that portion of the cost that exceeds $150.)
It may seem nearly impossible to plan for employee holiday gifts and other benefits without running afoul of one or more of the detailed rules and administrative policies surrounding the taxation of such gifts and benefits. However, designing a tax-effective plan is possible, if a few basic principles are kept in mind.
- If the employer is planning to hold a holiday party, dinner, or other social event, it is imperative that such event must be open to all employees. Restricting attendance in any way will mean that the CRA’s concession with respect to the non-taxable status of such events does not apply. The cost of the event must, as well, be kept below $150 per person. While the CRA’s policy doesn’t specify, it seems reasonable to calculate that amount based on the number of employees invited to attend the event, rather than on the actual attendance, which can’t be accurately predicted in advance.
- Any cash or near-cash gifts should be avoided, as they will, no matter how large or small the amount, create a taxable benefit to the employee. Although gift certificates or pre-paid credit cards are a popular choice, they aren’t a tax-effective one, as they will invariably be considered by the CRA to create a taxable benefit to the employee.
- Where non-cash holiday gifts are provided to employees, gifts with a value of up to $500 can be received free of tax. The employer must be mindful of the fact that the $500 limit is a per-year and not a per-occasion limit. Where the employee receives non-cash gifts with a total value of more than $500 in any one taxation year, the portion over $500 is a taxable benefit to the employee.
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.