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International and Transfer Pricing Audits: Toronto Centre Canada Revenue Agency & Professionals Breakfast Seminar

International and Transfer Pricing Audits

At the Toronto Centre Canada Revenue Agency & Professionals Breakfast Seminar on February 18, 2014, the CRA provided an update on international and transfer pricing audits. The slides can be found here. The discussion was led by Paul Stesco, Manager of the International Advisory Services Section, International and Large Business Directorate, Compliance Programs Branch of the CRA and Cliff Rand, National Managing Partner of Deloitte Tax Law LLP.  Here is a brief overview of some of the highlights from the presentation on how such audits are performed:

  • Research and Analysis Stage: the CRA uses the internet extensively for research (e.g. industry analysis, competitor analysis, etc.) as well as prior audit reports, tax returns and annual reports of taxapyers to identify transactions and the appropriate transfer pricing methods applicable to those transactions.
  • Mandatory Referrals to Headquarters: mandatory referrals by the field auditor to the International Tax Division (“ITD”) are required in several situations including: cost contribution arrangements, reassessments that could be issued after the tax treaty deadlines, transfer pricing penalties under subsection 247(3), recharacterization under paragraphs 247(2)(b) and (d), the application of subsection 95(6) and downward pricing adjustments under subsection 247(2) and (10). Situations which involve the use of “secret comparables” to reassess the taxpayer (i.e. comparables used by the CRA that cannot be found in a public database) will automatically be forwarded to the ITD; the CRA will not forward audit issues to the ITD if the “secret comparables” were used only for risk analysis.
  • Access to Taxpayers: during an audit, the CRA may request access to certain individuals involved in the taxpayer’s business. The CRA does not necessarily require physical access to non-resident taxpayers; a telephone interview may suffice. An interview with operational personnel is likely to streamline the audit and, as such, is in the best interests of the taxpayer. Taxpayers are permitted to record such interviews (even including the use of a court reporter to produce a transcript).
  • Currency of Auditsinstead of proceeding on a year by year basis, audits will now generally begin with the most current risk-assessed taxation year (and one back year) and may then move back to other open years in respect of the same issue.  Having said that, there are still “legacy files” within the CRA’s system.
  • Concerns/Complaints: a taxpayer who wishes to express concerns about a transfer pricing audit should follow the appropriate local chain of command: first contact the auditor, then the Team Leader and the relevant Section Manager at the local TSO. Taxpayers should refrain from directly contacting Head Office. The CRA stressed the importance of communicating with the audit team on a regular basis.
  • Contemporaneous Documentation Requirement in subsection 247(4): the CRA acknowledged that transfer pricing studies have been accepted even if they were prepared after the period to which they relate.
  • Transfer Pricing Review Committee (TPRC): two types of referrals proceed to the TPRC: (1) penalty referrals under subsection 247(3) which involve transfer pricing adjustments in excess of 10% of gross revenue or greater than $5,000,000; and (2) referrals of recharacterization as an assessing position under paragraph 247(2)(b).
    • As of October 31, 2013, penalty referrals made up 86.5% of all referrals while recharacterization referrals accounted for 13.5% of all referrals.
    • The taxpayer does not have direct access to the TPRC to make submissions. However, minutes of committee meetings may be obtained by making an Access to Information request.

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International and Transfer Pricing Audits: Toronto Centre Canada Revenue Agency & Professionals Breakfast Seminar

CRA’s New Pre-Rulings Consultations Service

On November 26th, 2013, the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) participated in a Roundtable session at the 65th Annual Tax Conference of the Canadian Tax Foundation held in Toronto, Ontario. The panelists announced a one-year pilot project for Pre-Ruling Consultations.

Taxpayers may now approach the Income Tax Rulings Directorate (“ITRD”) on a formal, written basis to obtain a preliminary ‘pre-ruling’ on a particular issue in order to determine whether the ITRD will issue a full ruling on the same issue in the future.  A fee will be charged for taxpayers who use this service.

As noted on the CRA website “the purpose of the pre-ruling consultation is to reduce the likelihood of the taxpayer incurring significant costs as a result of submitting a request for a ruling that ITRD will be unable to provide.”

CRA’s New Pre-Rulings Consultations Service

Highlights from the Toronto Centre CRA & Professionals Group Breakfast Seminar (Objections and Appeals) – November 6, 2013

On November 6, 2013, at the Toronto Centre Canada Revenue Agency & Professionals Breakfast Seminar, representatives from the CRA provided an update on objections and appeals.

Anne-Marie Levesque, Assistant Commissioner of Appeals, presented these slides and made the following comments:

  • The Appeals Branch reviews objections to assessments from the following branches:
    • Compliance programs (audit)
    • Assessment and benefit services
    • Taxpayer services and debt management (collections)
  • The Appeals Branch will not normally contact an assessing branch unless the assessing position is unclear or pertinent information is missing. If this is the case, the practice of the Appeals Branch is to note this in the file.
  • The Appeals Branch is aware and concerned about the time required to process large files, which may take a few months to assign, and up to a year to resolve.
  • The Appeals Branch manual is available at CRA Reading Rooms. A taxpayer may visit these rooms and ask for a copy, and an appeals officer will provide a copy.
  • The Appeals Branch has been “swamped” by objections in the last 5-8 years, most relating to tax shelters. Historically, the Appeals Branch received 50,000 objections per year, but in recent years has received up to 100,000 objections per year. Currently there is a “significant backlog” of objections in the Appeals Branch’s inventory.
  • The Appeals Branch is distributing certain files to particular offices across the country (i.e., alimony, Disability Tax Credits, Child Care Tax Benefits, GST credits, etc.) to streamline the resolution for less complex objections.
  • Large group files (i.e., tax shelter objections) have been concentrated in the Toronto North Tax Services Office.
  • The Appeals Branch has designated certain offices as industry specialists: forestry in Vancouver; resources in Calgary; insurance, banking and mining in Toronto North; and manufacturing in Montreal.
  • The Appeals Branch has moved away from the practice of granting face-to-face meetings (too expensive and time consuming, requires that objections be assigned to offices located near taxpayer’s home or office). While some files may still require in-person meetings, for most files the appeals officer will not meet with the taxpayer or the taxpayer’s representative. However, the Appeals Branch is committed to communicating with taxpayers and their representatives over the phone and in writing.
  • The Appeals Branch will continue to ask that taxpayers make written submissions. This is to protect the integrity of the decision-making process – both for the Appeals Branch’s internal quality standards and for the purposes of any external review by the Auditor General.
  • Generally, the Appeals Branch is committed to resolving disputes prior to litigation. Taking a file to the Tax Court is the exception and not the rule for the Appeals Branch.
  • The “benefit of the doubt” should go to the taxpayer where there is credible evidence in support of the taxpayer’s version of the facts. If the taxpayer’s version of the facts makes sense and is reasonable, the Appeals Branch may give the taxpayer the benefit of the doubt even in the absence of documentary evidence. However, in such cases, the Appeals Branch expects that the taxpayer will be diligent about maintaining proper documentation to avoid the same problem in the future.
  • The Appeals Branch has had a settlement protocol with the Department of Justice since 2004, which has evolved over time. Recent amendments give Department of Justice counsel additional leeway to resolve low-complexity files without having to obtain instructions from the CRA litigation officer – this would apply to all informal procedure appeals and some general procedure appeals. Conversely, the settlement protocol empowers CRA litigation officers to settle informal procedure appeals without requiring sign-off by the Department of Justice.
  • Historically, the Crown is successful in approximately 85% of appeals to the Tax Court. This rate fluctuates over time, but in the last three months the Crown’s success rate has increased. The increase may be due to the efforts of the CRA and the Department of Justice to settle those appeals that should not go forward to a full hearing.
  • When the Crown loses an appeal in the Tax Court, the reasons for judgment are reviewed by the Adverse Decision Committee, which includes the Assistant Commissioner of the Appeals Branch, Assistant Commissioners from the assessing branches, senior counsel from the Department of Justice, and a senior representative from the Department of Finance. The Committee considers whether there has been an error of law and the chance of success on appeal.
  • The Appeals Branch has initiated a pilot project in British Columbia under which appeals officers will be empowered to consider relief from interest and penalties at the same time they are considering the substantive tax issues on objection. The Appeals Branch is still considering how this process may work, due to the different processes by which these decisions may be appealed by the taxpayer (i.e., appeal to the Tax Court for tax assessments, and judicial review of decisions regarding interest and penalty relief).
  • Auditors are empowered to “waive” interest and penalties before assessing, while appeals officers may “cancel” interest and penalties after assessment.
  • Remission orders under the Financial Administration Act are not dealt with by the Appeals Branch and are granted to taxpayers only in rare circumstances.
  • The Appeals Branch would prefer that taxpayers not appeal to the Tax Court immediately after 90 days have passed from the date of filing the Notice of Objection.

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Highlights from the Toronto Centre CRA & Professionals Group Breakfast Seminar (Objections and Appeals) – November 6, 2013

The Crown Succeeds on a Motion to Strike a Portion of the Taxpayer’s Pleading: Golini v. The Queen

In Paul C. Golini v. The Queen (2013 TCC 293) the Tax Court of Canada agreed to strike out portions of a taxpayer’s pleading suggesting that a protective reassessment issued by the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) was invalid.

In June 2012, the CRA informed the taxpayer that his 2008 income tax return had been selected for an audit. In the following months, both parties continued to correspond and exchange information. In August 2012, the CRA asked the taxpayer to provide a waiver extending the limitation period to reassess the 2008 taxation year. The taxpayer declined to do so.

In September 2012, the Minister reassessed the taxpayer and informed him that the reassessment was a “protective reassessment;” supporting documentation would be provided upon completion of the audit.

The Crown brought a motion to strike out the allegation that the reassessment was invalid. The taxpayer contended that a “protective reassessment” was inconsistent with the assessing provisions of the Income Tax Act as it was issued solely to allow the Minister additional time to complete an audit.

The Tax Court judge looked to Karda v. HMQ (2006 FCA 238) for guidance on the issue. In that case, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the Minister may issue a protective reassessment where a taxpayer declines to provide a waiver so long as the CRA has completed “some review” and has requested further information. The Tax Court judge held that:

There is no law . . . to the effect that a protective assessment is invalid if issued for the sole purpose of leaving the door open to conduct or continue an audit.

He went on to note that:

. . . the law, I find, is clear that some review by the CRA followed by inquiries for more information and a request for a waiver, subsequently refused, is sufficient for a protective assessment to be a valid assessment. And that is exactly what we have here.

Whenever a taxpayer declines to grant the CRA a waiver, the CRA almost invariably reassesses before the “normal reassessment period” expires.  There is nothing surprising about that.  What is noteworthy here, though, is the willingness of the Tax Court to entertain the Crown’s request to strike out, before trial, an argument put forward by a taxpayer. As we noted in our blog post on the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision in Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce v. The Queen:

Parties are generally given the opportunity to make whatever arguments they consider necessary to their case with the ultimate determination being made by the trial judge who is in the best position to decide questions of relevance and weight in light of all the evidence.  It is rather unusual for a legal theory, novel though it is, to be taken off the table at such an early stage.  At the same time, courts are increasingly concerned about “proportionality” and are reluctant to allow scarce judicial resources to be spent on matters that are unlikely to have any effect on the outcome of the hearing.

This decision is, therefore, consistent with recent jurisprudence from the Federal Court of Appeal and should reduce the number of issues to be decided at trial.

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The Crown Succeeds on a Motion to Strike a Portion of the Taxpayer’s Pleading: Golini v. The Queen

GAAR at 25: Panelists Discuss Lessons Learned and Challenges

On September 26, 2013, the Canadian Tax Foundation Young Practitioners Group (Toronto) convened a panel discussion titled “GAAR at 25: Lessons Learned & Current Challenges” on the General Anti-Avoidance Rule (“GAAR”) in section 245 of the Income Tax Act (“ITA”).

The panelists included Justice Karen Sharlow (Federal Court of Appeal), Justice Patrick Boyle (Tax Court of Canada), Phil Jolie (formerly of the Canada Revenue Agency), Ed Kroft (Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP), Patricia Lee (Department of Justice) and Shawn D. Porter (Deloitte LLP and formerly at Department of Finance).

The general view of the panelists was that the potential application of GAAR in a specific case is very fact-dependent, and that the jurisprudence on the legal analysis continues to evolve. In the future, the focus will remain on how to interpret the “misuse and abuse” test within section 245.

Impact of GAAR

The panel discussed whether the GAAR has had an impact in deterring taxpayers from engaging in aggressive tax planning. Phil Jolie was of the view that it has not been a major deterrent as some abusive transactions are still not caught under GAAR, whereas Ed Kroft and Shawn D. Porter noted that the GAAR has had somewhat of a “chilling” effect in tax planning, particularly with public companies concerned about reputational risk.

Smell Test

There was a general consensus among the panelists that there is an element of a “smell test” in the GAAR. When evaluating whether GAAR should apply, Justice Boyle admitted there is an element of using one’s “nose” or getting in touch with one’s “spidey sense” and Justice Sharlow noted that she would determine if something “weird” was happening before undertaking the legal analysis as to whether the GAAR may apply.

These comments, made in jest by the panelists, convey the difficulties of analyzing complex transactions to determine whether a situation fits within the object and spirit of the Act under GAAR.

The other panelists noted that this may raise difficulties for tax practitioners who are asked to provide GAAR opinions to clients. The panelists advised that prudent counsel should address the evolving nature of GAAR jurisprudence in any opinion to a client on an issue where the GAAR could be engaged.

Current Litigation

Patricia Lee noted that the Department of Justice is currently litigating 44 cases where GAAR is a “live” issue. The cases include the following types of transactions:

  • Value shifting and capital loss creations;
  • Reverse attributes with trusts;
  • Base averaging of shares sold to a spouse;
  • Surplus stripping and, in particular, cross-border surplus stripping;
  • Manipulation of adjusted cost base of property;
  • Acquisition of tax credits and change in control; and
  • Leveraged donation cases.

The panelists concluded that, even after 25 years, there remains a degree of uncertainty in respect of the engagement and application of the GAAR.

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GAAR at 25: Panelists Discuss Lessons Learned and Challenges

Will the Tax Court of Canada entertain a determination of a question of law where the focus is on future assessments?

In Sentinel Hill Productions IV Corporation v. The Queen (2013 TCC 267), Justice Judith Woods of the Tax Court of Canada said no. In so doing, she shed light on the requirements for making an application for a determination of a question of law under Rule 58 of the Tax Court of Canada Rules (General Procedure).

Rule 58(1) states:

58. (1) A party may apply to the Court,

(a) for the determination, before hearing, of a question of law, a question of fact or a question of mixed law and fact raised by a pleading in a proceeding where the determination of the question may dispose of all or part of the proceeding, substantially shorten the hearing or result in a substantial saving of costs, or

(b) to strike out a pleading because it discloses no reasonable grounds for appeal or for opposing the appeal,

 and the Court may grant judgment accordingly.

The question proposed by the appellants involved the issue of whether notices of determination under subsection 152(1.4) of the Income Tax Act issued in respect of certain partnerships for 2000 and 2001 should be vacated and the appeals allowed on the basis that the Minister subsequently concluded that the partnerships did not exist for these years. Importantly, the Court found that “the focus of the Proposed Question is on whether the Minister of National Revenue is now statute barred from issuing reassessments to partners by virtue of subsection 152(1.8) of the Income Tax Act.” (para. 7)

The Court decided not to allow the Rule 58 application to proceed as it did not meet the two conditions in Rule 58(1)(a). First, the statute-barred issue had not been raised as an issue ”by a pleading”. Second, the proposed question would not have disposed of or shortened the proceeding or saved costs.  Although the validity and correctness of an assessment can be determined by the Tax Court of Canada, the proposed question would have challenged the validity of assessments not yet issued and, therefore, the determination of the question of law (whether the Minister is statute-barred from issuing future assessments) would not have disposed of or shortened the proceeding or saved costs.

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Will the Tax Court of Canada entertain a determination of a question of law where the focus is on future assessments?

Get it right the first time: Newfoundland Transshipment Ltd. v. The Queen

In Newfoundland Transshipment Ltd. v. Queen (2013 TCC 259), the Tax Court of Canada dismissed an application by Newfoundland Transshipment (“NTL”) for an order to extend time to serve notices of objection for its 2002 to 2005 taxation years. The application was filed in 2012, several years after the deadline for serving the objections had expired.

NTL had originally filed its returns for 2002 to 2005 on the basis that its pipeline was a Class 1 asset, with a depreciation rate of 4%.  By the time it filed its 2006 return, it came to the conclusion that the pipeline was a Class 6 asset, with a depreciation rate of 10%. Accordingly, in April 2007, NTL filed amended tax returns for its 2002 to 2005 taxation years reclassifying the pipeline from Class 1 to Class 6 and filed its 2006 to 2010 returns on the basis that the pipeline was a Class 6 asset. In February 2012, the CRA wrote to NTL, refusing to accept the amended filings for 2002 to 2005 and proposing to reassess 2006 to 2010.

In August 2012, NTL asked the Minister to issue notices of reassessment to enable it to serve notices of objection for 2002 to 2005. The Minister responded by saying that the time to serve notices of objection and applications for orders extending time had expired. Section 166.1 of the Income Tax Act allows the Minister to grant an extension of time to serve an objection only if an application is filed within one year after the expiration of the normal 90 day period.

In arguing that its application for an extension of time should be granted, NTL argued that a letter from the CRA in February 2012 rejecting the amended returns constituted a “reassessment”. In the alternative, NTL claimed that it had relied on CRA policy that an amended return was a de facto waiver.

The Tax Court disagreed. In Armstrong v. The Queen (2006 FCA 119), the Federal Court of Appeal held that a request by a taxpayer to amend its return is “merely a request” and need not result in an assessment. In addition, the Tax Court held that it was not bound by a CRA policy and had no jurisdiction to grant an extension of time as the relevant taxation years were statute-barred by the time the taxpayer attempted to serve the objections.

This decision is a useful reminder that, depending on when it is filed, there may be no recourse when an amended return is rejected by the Minister – all the more reason to get it right the first time!

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Get it right the first time: Newfoundland Transshipment Ltd. v. The Queen

Waiving rights of objection and appeal: SCC declines to hear the taxpayer’s appeal in Taylor v. The Queen

On August 15, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the application for leave to appeal in Terry E.Taylor v. Her Majesty the Queen (2012 FCA 148).

In Taylor, the issue was whether a signed settlement agreement under which the taxpayer waived his right to appeal was binding. In that case, the taxpayer was assessed for income tax and GST, as well as gross negligence penalties and interest. He signed a settlement agreement under which the Minister of National Revenue would vacate the gross negligence penalties and, in exchange, he would waive his right to object or appeal in accordance with subsections 165(1.2) and 169(2.2) of the Income Tax Act and subsections 301(1.6) and 206.1(2) of the Excise Tax Act. The taxpayer, who did not have counsel advising him at the time, later claimed that he was under duress when he signed the agreement. Having already disposed of the penalties, he went to Tax Court to challenge the amount of tax assessed.

Justice Judith Woods held that the taxpayer’s testimony that he was “scared” and pressured into signing the agreement lacked credibility given his qualifications as a Certified Management Accountant and his extensive business and financial experience. He had ample time to consult with counsel prior to meeting with the CRA. The Tax Court held that the settlement agreement was “freely made” and signed without “undue pressure.”  The Tax Court dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal (2010 TCC 246) and the Federal Court of Appeal affirmed at 2012 FCA 148. As noted above, the Supreme Court of Canada has declined to hear Mr. Taylor’s appeal.

Taylor adds to an existing body of case law on the question of whether, and under what circumstances, settlement agreements between taxpayers and the CRA can be set aside. The Tax Court has held that in certain limited circumstances a settlement agreement may not be binding. For example, in 1390758 Ontario Corporation v. The Queen (2010 TCC 572) and Huppe v. the Queen (2010 TCC 644), agreements were held to be binding so long as they were made on a “principled” basis (see, for example, Daniel Sandler and Colin Campbell, “Catch-22: A Principled Basis for the Settlement of Tax Appeals“, Canadian Tax Journal (2009), Vol. 57, No. 4, 762-86).

Given that a significant portion of tax disputes are settled and never reach the courtroom, professional advisors should ensure that taxpayers understand the implications of signing settlement agreements under which they relinquish rights of objection or appeal.

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Waiving rights of objection and appeal: SCC declines to hear the taxpayer’s appeal in Taylor v. The Queen

Supreme Court dismisses leave application in Johnson v. The Queen

On March 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed (with costs) the application for leave to appeal in the case of Donna M. Johnson v. Her Majesty The Queen.

The issue in Johnson was the tax treatment of receipts from a Ponzi scheme. The Tax Court (2011 TCC 540) allowed the taxpayer’s appeal and held that the receipts were not income from a source for the purpose of paragraph 3(a) of the Income Tax Act. The Federal Court of Appeal (2012 FCA 253) reversed the lower court’s decision, allowing the Crown’s appeal.

I commented on the decisions of the Tax Court and the Federal Court of Appeal in the March 2013 Ontario Bar Association Tax Section newsletter.

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Supreme Court dismisses leave application in Johnson v. The Queen

Tax Court of Canada Allows Charitable Gift Treatment for Taxpayer’s Cash Contribution: Berg v. The Queen

On November 19, 2012, the Tax Court released its decision in Berg v. The Queen (2012 TCC 406), which dealt with donative intent in the context of a donation scheme involving inflated charitable donation receipts. The Tax Court held that, although the taxpayer received documentation reflecting a valuation about nine times greater than the fair market value of the donations, the cash contributed by the taxpayer could effectively be segregated from the rest of the scheme and, thereby, constitute a “gift” for purposes of subparagraph 118.1 of the Income Tax Act.

Facts

In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Berg purchased 68 timeshare units, for which he paid $375,950 in cash and the remainder via low-interest financing. The taxpayer subsequently donated the units, and the recipient charity issued donation receipts for amounts approximately nine times higher than the fair market value of the units. The taxpayer claimed the inflated charitable donation tax credits. The CRA reassessed and disallowed the claimed charitable gifts of $2,420,000 for 2002, $1,786,000 for 2003 and $718,380 for 2004, including the portions paid by the taxpayer in cash for the units.

The only issue before the Tax Court was whether the cash paid was a “gift” and therefore eligible for the charitable donation tax credit.

Analysis

The taxpayer argued that since he provided value for the units, and received no benefit from the charity (other than the credits themselves), the cash payments had to constitute a gift. The Crown argued that the inflated receipts conferred an additional benefit to the donor, thereby negating the donative intent of the taxpayer entirely. The Tax Court distinguished Marechaux v. The Queen in the Tax Court and Federal Court of Appeal on the basis that the Crown had conceded in this case:

[35] . . . that the Transaction Documents were pretenses and thereby not legally effective documents. Legally, no tangible or potential benefit to the Appellant, beyond the camouflage afforded by the Inflated Gift Receipts which were needed to enhance the purported gift value beyond the Cash Donation Amounts, can be ascribed to the Transaction Documents which, on admission by the Respondent, gave rise to no legal rights, obligations or benefits.

The Tax Court concluded as follows:

[48] . . . to the extent the Cash Donation Amount related to the Transferred Units, the Appellant was impoverished by, paid valuable consideration for, intended to give, and conveyed the Transferred Units which were, in turn, received by the Charity. Whatever opprobrium may be ascribed to the Donation Program, legally the Cash Donation Amount has met the legal test of a charitable gift. In the absence of some other benefit received beyond the Inflated Tax Receipts, no legal authority suggests donative intent as defined by the case law relevant to section 118.1 of the Act has been vitiated or nullified to the extent of the value of the Cash Donation Amount.

Conclusion

The Tax Court concluded that the taxpayer intended to donate to the charity, even if he was motivated by the possiblility of receiving an inflated tax receipt. This decision takes seriously the words of the Federal Court of Appeal in The Queen v. Friedberg in which it was held that a “gift is a voluntary transfer of property owned by the donor to a donee, in return for which no benefit or consideration flows to the donor.” In certain circumstances, including those found in this case, one may be able to effectively segregate the “gift” amount from the “non-gift” amount provided that the requisite degree of intent is found in connection with the former.

It is not known whether the Crown will appeal the Tax Court’s decision to the Federal Court of Appeal.

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Tax Court of Canada Allows Charitable Gift Treatment for Taxpayer’s Cash Contribution: Berg v. The Queen