Contributing Lawyers

Canada

Cyndee Todgham Cherniak

United States

Susan Kohn Ross

Australia

Andrew Hudson



If You Would Like Near Certainty in GST/HST, You Need To Get An Advance GST/HST Ruling

Seth Godin, a marketing guru, usually is right on the mark.  In today's post, entitled "The Certainty Premium" he writes, in part:

How much would you pay for an envelope that had a 50% chance of containing $10 and a 50% chance of being empty?

Over time and in bulk, probably $4.99. But certainly not more than $5.

Here's where it gets interesting: how much extra would you pay for a plane that was guaranteed to be always on time, or a surgery that was always guaranteed to work? Suddenly, the same math that helped us value the envelope doesn't work so well. That's because we're often willing to pay a significant premium to avoid risk.

In GST/HST, near certainty may be derived from a ruling from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).  There are two types of requests that can be made to the CRA, GST/HST Rulings Directorate:

1. Advance Rulings; and

2. Interpretations.

An advance ruling requires that the requested provide their name and all relevant facts relating to the request.  The CRA will consider the request, possibly ask questions, and request more documentation before issuing an advance ruling.  This process takes time and the request is well considered (sometimes a very long time).  However, what the taxpayer receives from the CRA is a letter containing their answer that is binding.  This means that the CRA should not issue an assessment against the person who made the request for the ruling if they requester acts in accordance with their advance GST/HST ruling.  In cases where an auditor disagrees or the CRA's administrative position has changed after the CRA provides the advance GST/HST ruling to a requester (and they have not notified the person to whom the ruling was provided of the change), the CRA generally does not assess GST/HST, penalties and interest for the past, but requests that the person abide by the CRA's current position on a going forward basis.  This can save a person from audit stress and having to pay an assessment in the future.

An interpretation is something less than an advance ruling and it is not binding on the CRA.  An interpretation usually involves a general and generic question and can be made on a no-names basis.  The interpretation provides the CRA's current position relating to the facts and topic set out in the request. If a taxpayer has an interpretation and an auditor disagrees or the CRA's position changes, an assessment may be issued against a requester. Usually, if a person has an interpretation letter from the CRA, the CRA will not assess penalties because the person exercised due diligence by requesting an interpretation.  There are cases where the CRA will restrict the audit period to something less than 4 years if their administrative position changed.  CRA auditors exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis.

That being said, if the CRA discovers during an audit that the request for an advance ruling or interpretation does not set out all relevant facts or that the facts were "spun" and not entirely accurate, they may take the position that the ruling or interpretation is void and may issue an assessment against the requester despite the ruling or interpretation.  For this reason, if there is a significant amount that may be assessed if a future audit covers 4 years, then it is wise to use the services of a GST/HST professional who can help you write your ruling request.  In addition, the GST/HST professional can communicate with the CRA, GST/HST Rulings Directorate personnel to determine what information they require to analyze the advance ruling/interpretation request. 

Businesses often do not know what they do not know and are too afraid to ask the CRA out of fear that contact will cause an audit to occur.  Businesses owners may not know what to say and what not to say.  By working with a professional, the business owner may be shielded from the CRA's view or may find out that their advance ruling request may not be granted and that they are doing something wrong.  If the business is doing something wrong, they can make a voluntary disclosure for past mistakes and correct the errors on a going forward basis. Assessment risk may be reduced.

For more information on GST/HST Rulings, please look at GST/HST Memorandum Series 1.4 (September 2009) "Excise and GST/HST Rulings and Interpretation Services".  If you need help in analyzing whether to request an advance GST/HST ruling or an interpretation, please call Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168.

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