Are you worried about CERB repayment? Perhaps you received CERB funds when CERB eligibility criteria wasn't exactly clear, and now you're potentially facing a big CRA bill. 2020 has been a year like no other, one most of us have never experienced before (and never want to again). The Canadian government quickly sprinted into action and created different financial support programs to help those impacted by COVID-19, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). CERB was a survival lifeline for many Canadians; however, it could have some drawbacks.
Why did CERB overpayment happen?
To get funds to those who needed it as quickly as possible, the Canadian government didn’t require proof of CERB eligibility at the time of application; this would be determined at a later date. According to some sources, CERB paid out just over $81.6 billion in benefits to 8.9 million people from March 2020 until the program ended at the beginning of October 2020.
Although this helped millions of Canadians get by financially during a time a crisis, it also created a false sense of security for many Canadians who may not have been eligible to receive CERB. In some cases, it could become a catalyst for putting already vulnerable Canadians in a more financially precarious situation months ahead.
Letters from the CRA Regarding CERB
Thousands of people have received letters indicating they may have a CERB overpayment. According to the CBC, nearly 500,000 "educational" letters have been sent out asking for more information from recipients to determine if they met the income eligibility criteria for CERB. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) told Global News that those who have received letters shouldn’t interpret it as a determination that they were ineligible for receiving CERB funds. In many cases, they are simply asking for more information to confirm their eligibility.
When speaking to the CBC on December 17, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the CRA had already received close to a million repayments of CERB by people who realized they didn’t qualify.
CERB Repayment Scams
It is very important to note that the CRA has warned Canadians to be aware of CERB repayment scams, including texts, emails, or phone calls that appear to come from the CRA asking for money or personal information. Scam artists flourish during times of panic, crisis, chaos and misinformation. As always, you should never open attachments from unknown sources or provide your personal information to anyone, even if they claim to be from the CRA. Always verify first if the source requesting this information is indeed legitimate.
Please note that the CRA contacts you by letter, not through texts, emails, or phone calls. If you receive a text, email or phone call claiming to be from the CRA requesting personal information or money transfers, do not respond or open any attachments. Instead, notify the Canadian Anti-fraud Centre immediately.
Who Has to Pay Back CERB?
There are three (3) main reasons why someone might have to pay back CERB:
You were paid twice—In November 2020, the CRA warned about 213,000 Canadians who may have been paid twice through CERB that they would have to repay the overpayment. The letters were sent to people who might have applied for CERB through both Service Canada and the CRA. The letters didn’t require immediate repayment but did indicate there may be a requirement to repay the amounts received in error.
You didn't earn enough income in 2019—Another reason why some Canadians may have received CERB funds when they in fact did not meet CERB eligibility requirements are those who didn’t earn the minimum employment or self-employment income in 2019 required to qualify for CERB. To qualify, one had to have employment or self-employment income of at least $5000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to applying for CERB. There was some confusion around certain income that technically wasn’t considered to be employment or self-employment income. This includes pension income, disability benefits, student loans and bursaries, social assistance payments and Employment Insurance. There was further confusion for self-employed Canadians on how to determine their net income.
You didn't file your 2019 taxes—Letters have also been sent to people who didn’t file 2019 tax returns and those who haven’t shown proof of income.
CERB and Personal Income Taxes
CERB funds are taxable, but no taxes were withheld when Canadians received the funds. Please note that taxes are being withheld on the new benefit programs replacing CERB, but only 10 percent is being withheld. That means you could still owe money on taxes for the new benefits if you are receiving them, depending on your other sources of income.
If you received CERB payments that you were not eligible for and pay them back by December 31, 2020, there will not be tax implications for the overpayment. However, there will be taxes on the benefits you were entitled to receive. If you return the overpayment funds after December 31st, 2020 you may need to pay taxes on the full CERB amount received in 2020. Taxes paid on the amount you repaid will be adjusted after you file your 2021 tax return.
CERB payments will have to be included in your taxable income for 2020 and a tax slip will be issued to you. What you could owe in taxes will depend on your marginal tax rate and your other sources of income. For example, the federal basic personal amount is $13,229 for 2020. If you received the maximum CERB of $500 per week for 28 weeks, you would have received $14,000. If that was your only source of income for 2020, you would owe little-to-no taxes. However, if you had other sources of income during the year, you could owe money depending on your total income for 2020 and any tax credits you may claim.
How to Return CERB Payments
The CRA indicated that those who applied for CERB in good faith, and who are later required to pay the money back, won’t face penalties or interest. Prime Minister Trudeau told the CBC, “You don’t have to repay during Christmas. You don’t have to think about Jan. 1 as any deadline and we’re going to work over the coming weeks and months to make sure that there’s a path forward that makes sense." He also said the government will work with individuals on a case-by-case basis.
Ideally, the government could look to implement a CERB debt repayment plan where a person repays any CERB overpayments, or benefits received in error, over a reasonable period of time based on their financial ability to do so. This would prevent financially vulnerable Canadians from being pushed further into a financial abyss and/or insolvency just to repay CERB funds received in error. The repayment plan should take into account a person's income, monthly expenses, debt payments and any other financial obligations and responsibilities they might have, allowing someone to pay back CERB in a financially sound manner that doesn't put further stress or strain on their household's finances and ability to survive in the coming months.
As a non-profit credit counselling agency, Credit Canada has decades of experience helping Canadians successfully get out of debt and repay debts owed to various creditors through a debt repayment plan, known as a Debt Consolidation Program. It's a straightforward process where the client doesn't have to take out any additional loans or resort to insolvency (i.e., consumer proposals and bankruptcy). Instead, they make a single monthly payment through the agency which then gets distributed to all of their creditors on the Program. And that monthly payment is based on their current monthly income and expenses.
The client works one-on-one with a certified Credit Counsellor who negotiates the repayment terms with their creditors on their behalf, to make sure they are able to repay their unsecured debts while still being able to buy groceries, pay rent/mortgage, insurance, and all other monthly bills. Clients also receive money management and budgeting support from their Counsellor to help make sure they can keep up with payments and stay financially afloat.
How to Deal with CERB Repayment
In the meantime, while the Government of Canada irons out a new plan for the timely repayment of CERB, here are a few tips on how to address CERB repayment:
- Get your taxes done early to allow yourself enough time to repay the amount due and/or look into repayment options. The CRA says it can come up with individual arrangements based on one’s ability to pay.
- Speak with a tax accountant or tax lawyer if you're self-employed to see if there may be possible adjustments that can be made to your 2019 tax return. It's important to get sound advice from a tax expert as you could possibly have to pay back taxes and possibly interest and penalties.
- Repay the CERB overpayment and avoid the tax implications if you have the funds available to do so.
- Work on your personal budget to see how you might be able to accommodate repayment amounts.
Credit Canada Can Help During COVID
Many people are getting hit financially in multiple ways. Debt payment deferrals may be ending, income tax payments will soon be upon us and some people will have CERB overpayments to deal with. CERB repayment issues are just beginning, and for many, they will affect their ability to maintain other payments. Like so many issues, burying your head in the sand is not a good option. You need to deal with the situation.
The good news is you don’t have to face this alone. Credit Canada and our certified Credit Counsellors are here to help you with your financial situation. The first step your Counsellor will do with you is an assessment of your income, expenses, assets and debts to explore the different debt relief options available to you. Give us a call at 1.800.267.2272 to arrange a free telephone or video appointment. Now is the time to be proactive!
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