The CRA Audit Process
Canada has a self-reporting tax regime, meaning that Canadians are responsible for accurately reporting their taxes payable to the federal government by certain prescribed filing deadlines. In order to properly police this self-reporting tax regime, Canada Revenue Agency (the CRA) requires tools at its disposal to investigate and verify the accuracy of amounts reported by taxpayers. Audits are an effective way for the CRA to assess the legitimacy of amounts claimed by taxpayers on tax filings.
In 2021, the audit process may become increasingly relevant for the average Canadian due to the possibility of COVID-19 related pandemic response audits.
CRA Audit Basics
Any “person” as defined by the Income Tax Act can be audited (notably, this definition includes corporations and trusts). The CRA chooses the subject of audits through risk assessments of the returns filed by taxpayers. Risk assessments look at the number of errors on the tax filings of a taxpayer and/or anything reported by the taxpayer that may indicate non-compliance or suggest a misrepresentation. Taxpayers are deemed responsible for misrepresentations advanced on their behalf by tax preparers.
Most Canadian taxpayers are familiar with what the process of an audit entails—a CRA agent (an auditor) contacting a taxpayer and asking a series of questions to determine the candidacy of the taxpayer for an audit. Establishing proof of the claims of the taxpayer requires that the auditor probe through troves of taxpayer records for lengthy periods and at great inconvenience to the taxpayer.
Most Canadian taxpayers would ideally prefer to avoid this process at all costs. While a taxpayer may believe that after receiving an income tax refund that the taxpayer is in the clear, that is not always the case. The CRA has variable discretion to reassess years after the income tax filing has been made and investigate through the taxpayer’s records from years prior to the filing.
How Long does the CRA have to Initiate Audit Proceedings?
If the CRA deems that a taxpayer meets the eligibility requirements of an audit, the CRA has a statutory limit of three years for reassessing tax liability. For example, if a Notice of Assessment is issued to a taxpayer on May 14th, 2021, the CRA can adjust that tax year by issuing a notice of reassessment until May 13th, 2024. However, if the CRA suspects that a taxpayer perpetrated a misrepresentation akin to fraud on the taxpayer’s filing, this time limit is extended.
Depending on the nature of the taxpayer’s returns (individual, corporate, etc.), this process could mean combing through a significant volume of documents. How far exactly the auditor can look back is subjective and depends on what is uncovered during the initial review of the first two to three taxation years.
If the auditor finds an error that sparks interest in a prior taxation year, the auditor then has cause to extend the period under scrutiny and open up other taxation years for review. Again, if the auditor uncovers what the auditor thinks is a misrepresentation tantamount to fraud, the auditor can look back as far as he or she wants into records from prior taxation years.
How Long does the CRA want me to keep my Records?
There is actually no time limit with respect to CRA requesting the production of tax records (notably in Ghermezian v. Canada, the CRA was permitted to peruse records from 21 years prior), but taxpayers are not expected to retain the records they relied on to file their returns indefinitely.
Subsections 230(4) and 230(4.1) of the Income Tax Act mandate that most tax records be kept for six taxation years following the date of filing of the taxation year. For example, if a taxpayer filed its annual income tax return on June 30th, 2020, its tax records from the 2020 taxation year should not be destroyed until June 30th, 2026 (if at all). This includes electronic records that must be kept in an “electronically readable” format of the document(s) for the same six-year period.
Where the taxpayer files its return late, the taxpayer must retain records for six years from the original date of late filing. Using the same example as above, if the taxpayer filed its 2020 income tax return on September 27, 2020, the corporation must retain its records from this reporting period until September 27, 2026.
The audit process can result in findings that cause life-changing adjustments to a taxpayer’s returns. Few taxpayers are aware that in lieu of having the audit conducted at their home or place of business, it is the taxpayer’s right to have the audit conducted at the office of their authorized representative. Conducting an audit at the office of a tax lawyer allows the taxpayer to protect their rights by having their lawyer present for the duration of the audit process. If you are being audited or fear you may be, having legal support can make all the difference in a successful audit defense. Contact a tax lawyer at Rosen Kirshen Tax Law today. We are here to help!
This article provides information of a general nature only. It does not provide legal advice nor can it or should it be relied upon. All tax situations are specific to their facts and will differ from the situations in this article. If you have specific legal questions you should consult a lawyer.