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Tax Considerations for Snowbirds

In virtually every province and territory, the winter of 2014-15 has arrived early. Although the calendar may say that it’s still autumn, Canadians right across the country have already had to take out the snow shovels and re-learn winter driving skills. It’s no surprise, then, that the thought of escaping the Canadian winter for at least for a few weeks or months for a vacation down south is a priority for many Canadians.

For most of us, that means a trip to the southern United States, or perhaps the Caribbean, for a week or two. Others—usually retirees—will spend a couple of months, or even the whole winter, down south. While the declining value of the Canadian dollar has made such sojourns to warmer climates a more expensive proposition, meaning that some vacation plans may have to be scaled back, thousands of Canadians will still be planning to travel south of the border this winter.

 Leaving the Canadian winter behind for a few weeks or months, however, doesn’t mean leaving behind the Canadian tax system. No one gives a lot of thought to the tax implications of taking an out-of-country vacation, but the reach of our tax system is a long one, and there are financial and tax issues to consider when planning to spend an extended period of time outside the country.

For most Canadians who go south for a few weeks or even a couple of months during the winter, there aren’t typically a lot of such tax consequences. Such vacationers usually remain what is called, in tax parlance, “factual residents of Canada”. In practical terms, the income of such taxpayers is treated, for Canadian tax purposes, as though they had never left Canada. Factual residence is determined by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) on the basis of whether a taxpayer has maintained “residential ties” to Canada. Such residential ties could include continuing to own a home in Canada, having a spouse or dependants who remain in Canada while the snowbird is out of the country, having personal property (like a car) in Canada, and continuing to hold a Canadian driver’s licence and medical insurance.

The vast majority of snowbirds who winter down south do maintain sufficient residential ties to Canada to be considered factual residents. Consequently, when they file their tax returns for the year, they follow all the same rules as year-round Canadian residents. They report all income received during the year from both inside and outside Canada and claim all available deductions and credits. Income tax is paid to the federal government and to the province with which their residential ties are kept. Finally, snowbirds who remain factual residents of Canada remain eligible for the goods and services tax credit, which may be paid to recipients outside of Canada.

Health care coverage

One of the biggest concerns of many snowbirds is maintaining health care insurance coverage while out of the country. In all cases, the availability and degree of coverage will depend on the health care plan in effect for the province or territory of which the snowbird is a resident, and it’s necessary to confirm in advance the coverage which will be made available for out-of-Canada medical expenses. Most snowbirds end up obtaining supplementary health-care coverage, and the premiums paid for such coverage can usually be claimed as a medical expense on the Canada tax return. As well, any out-of-pocket costs incurred for eligible medical expenses while out of Canada (whether for the individual or his or her spouse) can be claimed as a medical expense on that year’s tax return. 

Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan payments

Both Old Age Security (OAS) and Canada Pension Plan (CPP) benefits can be paid to benefit recipients who are living outside Canada, and there is no change in the amount of the benefits. As well, such payments can be made by direct deposit, and in U.S. dollars.

Application of U.S. tax laws

The application of U.S. tax laws to snowbirds can, unfortunately, be a good deal more complex than the corresponding Canadian laws. Generally speaking, snowbirds who spend only a few weeks down south in the course of a calendar year are unlikely to be caught by any U.S. tax filing or payment obligations. Those who extend their stay for longer than that—and certainly those who spend more than half of the year in the U.S.—should seek professional tax advice from an adviser familiar with cross-border taxation, to make certain that they are in compliance with any applicable U.S. tax requirements.

At one time, the CRA published a very useful information booklet dealing with the tax implications of spending extended periods of time outside Canada, but that publication is unfortunately no longer available. The Agency does, however, devote a section of its website to issues affecting Canadians who spend part of the year down south, and that information can be found at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/nnrsdnts/sth-eng.html.


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.

 

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