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Tax consequences of employer holiday gifts and bonuses (December 2021)


During the month of December, it’s 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. Once again this year, as in 2020, there is unlikely to be an annual office holiday party; however, employees may still be able to look forward to something additional in the way of compensation during the last month of the year. In fact, given the current labour shortage and the difficulties employers are having attracting and retaining employees, there may be an added incentive for employers to show their appreciation to current employees by means of a holiday gift or bonus.


What such employers certainly don’t want to do is to create a tax liability for their employees. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that 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 related 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 or parties. 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 situations don’t slip through the tax net.


There is, as a result, a detailed set of rules which outline the tax consequences of gifts and awards provided by the 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. On its website, the CRA indicates that the following types of gifts/bonuses/reimbursements will result in a taxable benefit to the employee:

  • cash or near-cash gifts and awards such as Christmas or holiday bonuses or near-cash gifts and awards such as gift certificates;

  • points that can be redeemed for air travel or other rewards; or an internal points system where an employee earns points and can redeem them for items from a catalogue;

  • reimbursements from an employer to an employee for a gift or an award that the employee selected, paid for, and then provided a receipt to the employer for reimbursement; and

  • hospitality rewards such as employer-provided team building lunches and rewards in the nature of a thank you for doing a good job.

While the above listing may seem comprehensive, the CRA does make 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, 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 in the same way 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.


Example of a near-cash gift or award


You give your employee a $100 gift card of gift certificate to a department store. The employee can use this to purchase whatever merchandise or service the store offers. We consider the gift card or gift certificate to be an additional remuneration that is a taxable benefit for the employee because it functions in the same way as cash.


Example of non-cash gifts or awards


You give your employee a voucher (which may be a ticket or 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).


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 the following rules are kept in mind.


Any cash or near-cash gifts should be avoided, as they will, no matter what 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.


While the rules around employer gifts aren’t complex, they are detailed, and it’s necessary to consider carefully the kinds of gifts which are given and to be mindful of the annual $500 per employee limit on non-cash gifts. At the end of the day, a gift which results in unintended and unwanted tax consequences is unlikely to engender much holiday spirit or goodwill on the part of the employee who receives it.

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