The holiday season is usually costly, but few Canadians are aware that those costs can include increased income tax liability resulting from holiday gifts and celebrations. It doesn’t seem entirely in the spirit of the season to have to consider possible tax consequences when attending holiday celebrations and receiving gifts; however, our tax system extends its reach into most areas of the lives of Canadians, and the holidays are no exception. Fortunately, the possible negative tax consequences are confined to a minority of fact situations and relationships, usually involving employers and employees, and are entirely avoidable with a little advance planning.

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. And it’s certainly the case that employers who provide such extras don’t intend to create a tax liability for their employees. Unfortunately, it is the case that a failure to properly structure such gifts or other extras can result in unintended and unwelcome tax consequences to those employees.

It’s even possible to feel some sympathy toward the tax authorities who have to deal with the tax treatment of employer-provided holiday gifts, as they are in something of a no-win situation. On an individual or even a company level, the amounts involved are usually 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 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 Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to ensure that such situations 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 an unlimited number of non-cash gifts (within a specified dollar limit) to be received tax-free by an employee over the course of the tax year.

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 to that employee is $500 or less annually. Where the total fair market value of such gifts is more than $500, the amount over that $500 limit 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 the amount or frequency of the gifts. For this purpose, the CRA considers anything which could easily be 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 it, in the words of the CRA, “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.

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 $100 or less. The $100 cost is meant to cover the party itself, not including any ancillary costs, such as transportation home, taxi fare, or overnight accommodation. Where the total cost of the event itself exceeds the $100 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 $100.)

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 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 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.