Last-minute tax filing strategies—the timing of medical and charitable tax credit claims (April 2021
By the time most Canadians sit down to organize their various tax slips and receipts and undertake to complete their tax return for 2020, the most significant opportunities to minimize the tax bill for the year are no longer available. Most such tax planning or saving strategies, in order to be effective for 2020, must have been implemented by the end of that calendar year. The major exception to that is, of course, the making of registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) contributions, but even that had to be done on or before March 1, 2021 in order to be deducted on the return for 2020.
The fact that the clock has run out on most major tax planning opportunities for 2020 doesn’t mean, however, that there are no tax-saving strategies left. At this point, there are a couple of ways to minimize the tax hit for 2020 — by claiming all available deductions and credits on the return and also by making sure that those deductions and credits are claimed in the way which will give the taxpayer the most “bang for the buck”.
Everyone’s tax situation — and, therefore, tax return — is different, but most taxpayers make claims on their annual returns for medical expenses incurred and/or charitable donations made. It may seem counterintuitive or even illogical to not claim every available deduction and credit in order to obtain the best possible tax result for the year. However, for both medical and charitable tax credit claims, albeit for different reasons, there are situations in which it makes sense to defer an available claim until a future year, or to transfer the claim to another person.
Claiming charitable donations
Taxpayers are entitled to make a claim on the annual tax return for charitable donations made in the current (2020) year or any of the previous five years. The reason it can sometimes makes sense not to claim a charitable donation in the year it was made arises from the way in which the charitable donations tax credit is structured to encourage higher donations.
That credit, at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels, is a two-tier credit. Federally, the first $200 in donations receives a credit of 15% of the total donation, or $30. However, donations above the $200 level receive a credit equal to 29% of the donation amount over $200.
Take, for example, a taxpayer who makes a regular contribution to a favourite charity of $100 each month, or $1,200 per year. Where he or she claims that donation on the annual return each year, that claim will result in a federal credit of $320 ($200 × 15%, + $1,000 × 29%). Where, however, the same taxpayer defers the claim to the following year and claims a total of $2,400 in donations on a single return, he or she will receive a federal credit of $668. ($200 × 15%, + $2,200 × 29%). Where the donations are accumulated and claimed once every five years, the federal credit received will be $1,712 ($200 × 15%, + $5,800 × 29%). Under each scenario, the total charitable donation made is the same, but the amount of credit received increases with each year that the claim is deferred. Since each of the provinces and territories provide a two-tier credit (at different rates, depending on the jurisdiction), the same result will be seen when calculating the provincial/territorial credit.
Medical expense tax credit
Notwithstanding our publicly funded health care system, there are a great (and increasing) number of medical and para-medical expenses for which coverage is not provided and which must be paid on an out-of-pocket basis. In many instances, it’s possible to claim a medical expense tax credit for those out-of-pocket costs.
The federal credit for such expenses is 15% of allowable expenses. As is usually the case, the provinces and territories also provide a credit for the same expenses, albeit at different rates.
Many taxpayers, with some justification, find the rules on the calculation of a medical tax credit claim confusing. First, there is an income threshold imposed. Medical expenses eligible for the credit are qualifying expenses which exceed 3% of net income, or (for 2020) $2,397, whichever is less. Put more practically, for 2020 taxpayers who have net income of $79,900 or more can claim medical expenses incurred over $2,397. Those with lower incomes can claim medical expenses which exceed 3% of that lower net income. For instance, a taxpayer having $35,000 in net income could claim qualifying medical expenses incurred over $1,050 (3% of $35,000).
The other aspect of the medical expense tax credit which can be confusing is the calculation of the optimal time period. Unlike most credit claims, the medical expense tax credit can be claimed for qualifying expenses which were paid in any 12-month period ending during the tax year. While confusing, such rule is beneficial, in that it allows taxpayers to select the particular 12-month period during which medical expenses (and therefore the resulting credit claim) is highest. The only restrictions are that the selected 12-month period must end during the calendar year for which the return is being filed and, of course, any expenses which were claimed on a previous return cannot be claimed again.
While only expenses which exceed the $2,379/3% threshold may be claimed, it’s also possible to aggregate expenses incurred within a family and make a single claim for those expenses on the return of one spouse. Specifically, the rules allow families to aggregate medical expenses incurred for each spouse and for all children born in 2003 or later. While medical expenses incurred by a single family member might not be enough to allow him or her to make a claim, aggregating those expenses is very likely (especially for a family that does not have private medical insurance coverage) to mean that total expenses will exceed the applicable threshold.
In determining who will make the medical tax credit claim for a family, there are two points to remember. Since total medical expenses claimable are those which exceed the 3% of net income/$2,379 threshold, whichever is less, the greatest benefit will be obtained if the spouse with the lower net income makes the claim for total family medical expenses. However, the medical expense credit is a non-refundable one, meaning that it can reduce tax otherwise payable, but cannot create (or increase) a refund. Therefore, it’s necessary that the spouse making the claim have tax payable for the year of at least as much as the credit to be obtained, in order to make full use of that credit.
Finally, there are a huge number and variety of medical expenses which individuals and families may incur, and the rules governing which can be claimed and in what circumstances, are very specific. In some cases, for instance, a doctor’s prescription will be required, while in others it will not. The very long list of medical expenses eligible for the credit, and any ancillary requirements, such as a prescription, can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/individuals/topics/about-your-tax-return/tax-return/completing-a-tax-return/deductions-credits-expenses/lines-33099-33199-eligible-medical-expenses-you-claim-on-your-tax-return.html.