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Filing your taxes can be an unpleasant experience. It’s not uncommon for stress to accompany the filing of a tax return, especially one that’s complex. Navigating the endless rules in the tax code can be a daunting and time-consuming task. There’s also the stress associated with filing on time, paying taxes owed, and of course, the most dreaded one of all: the audit.

But does an audit warrant that kind of anxiety? Or do people overreact in the face of an impending Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) audit, believing it to be more terrible than it is?

Key Points You Should Know About A CRA Tax Audit

  • The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) conducts tax audits to ensure taxpayers are complying with the tax code.
  • Being self-employed, declaring recurrent business or rental losses, information discrepancies, and large wire transfers can all trigger a tax audit by the CRA.
  • If an audit reveals any discrepancies, you can either pay the balance owed or dispute the findings.
  • It’s recommended that Canadians keep their tax files and related records for at least six years in case of an audit.

What Does A CRA Tax Audit Mean? 

When the CRA initiates an audit on your taxes, it means they want to verify that the claims you’ve made on your tax returns are accurate and compliant under the tax code. 

An audit typically entails providing proof of income and expenses in the form of receipts, bank statements, accounting records, and other documentation. An auditor examines all of these documents and then presents their findings to the CRA.

Does The CRA Only Audit For Tax Evasion? 

It’s important to note that the CRA isn’t only targeting taxpayers who are engaging in tax evasion – they want to help fix innocent mistakes people make on their tax returns. In some cases, the audit may reveal a person overpaid their taxes and is entitled to a refund

The CRA’s goal with tax audits is to maintain the integrity and fairness of the Canadian tax code, ensuring individuals pay what they owe, no more and no less.

Who Gets Audited By The CRA?

When it comes to the CRA, no one is exempt from scrutiny – you can be audited at any time. However, if you fall into one of the following categories, your chance of being audited may increase based on the CRA’s risk assessment guidelines.

You’re Self-Employed

If you’re self-employed, you’re essentially operating a small business, which means your tax return is likely more complex than a standard T4. The CRA may wish to verify that you’ve reported all your income and deducted your expenses correctly.

Your Income Doesn’t Match Your Postal Code

Your home address may sometimes arouse suspicion from the CRA. Suppose you live in an affluent neighbourhood in an expensive house but report a relatively modest income on your tax return. The CRA may wonder if you’re earning more money than you’re reporting, perhaps from under-the-table cash jobs.

Consistent Business Or Rental Loss Claims

Business and rental losses can be used legally to offset your taxable income, reducing your tax liability. However, if your losses keep recurring year after year,  the CRA could suspect you’re “manufacturing” them by deliberately selling assets at a loss. 

They may also wonder if you’re operating a hobby business as if it were a legitimate commercial activity. If your business is primarily a hobby, with no reasonable expectation of turning a profit, the tax code prohibits you from deducting any associated losses against your taxable income.

A Discrepancy In Information 

If the CRA spots discrepancies between the details on your tax returns and information provided by third parties (such as your employer), this could spark an audit. For example, suppose the income from your T4 slip exceeds what you reported on your tax return. In that case, you may have received additional taxable benefits from your employer during the year, which you omitted when filing your taxes.

Conflicting Reports 

Does your income fluctuate widely from year to year? Do you constantly switch jobs while juggling freelance work on the side and use tax credits and deductions inconsistently? If so, your chances of getting audited may be higher. Given your erratic income stream, the CRA may wish to review your records to ensure your reporting is accurate. 

High-Value Wire Transfers

Financial institutions are required by law to report to the CRA wire transfers of $10,000 or more. If you’ve been the recipient or sender of numerous wire transfers in that dollar amount, the CRA may wish to examine the nature of those transactions.

What Happens If You Receive A Notice For A CRA Tax Audit?

What exactly happens if the CRA has chosen to audit you? And what’s involved in the process? The following is an outline of what a typical CRA audit entails.

First Contact

A representative from the CRA will contact you by phone or mail, informing you of the upcoming audit process and where and when it will take place. 

Where Will You Be Audited?

The audit will likely take place at your home but may take place at your business or your representative’s office if you have one. An on-site audit at your principal residence is ideal, as it allows you to gather the essential documentation without having to transport it to a CRA-designated office. 

If an on-site audit is not possible, it will be scheduled at a CRA office. The CRA does not permit sending and receiving records by email as they consider it unsecure. 

Documents Required

Depending on the scope of the audit, you may need to supply the auditor with a wide array of documents and detailed information, including:

  • Filed tax returns
  • Bank statements
  • Credit history
  • Mortgage and property details
  • Rental records
  • Credit card statements
  • Accounting records (receipts, ledgers, invoices)
  • Various business records (sales contracts, rental agreements, emails)
  • Personal records of family members not being audited
  • Business records of entities no being being audited

Results

Upon completion of their analysis, the auditor will make one of two conclusions: 

  • Your tax returns match your records. In this case, the auditor will issue you a completion letter and close your audit file, with no further action required on your part. 
  • Your tax returns contain errors and will require a reassessment. The CRA will send you a letter explaining the reason for the reassessment. You will have 30 days to either agree or disagree with the reassessment

Once the audit is fully complete, the CRA will issue you one final letter informing you of the results and any action required. One of three scenarios is possible.

  • Your tax reporting was correct, and no further action is needed.
  • Your tax reporting was incorrect, and you have a balance owed.
  • Your tax reporting was incorrect, and you’re entitled to a refund.

Bottom Line

Audits are routine for the CRA. They are necessary to ensure that Canadians are following the tax code and reporting their incomes and expenses accurately. Still, they can be intrusive and time-consuming.

Always anticipate you may be audited one day. Being aware of this possibility will incentivize you to maintain your tax filings and related documentation, to present them if the need arises. The better prepared you are, the quicker and easier it’ll be for the auditor to review your records, make an assessment, and close the audit. And who knows, you might even end up with a refund! 

Tax Audit FAQs

What’s the difference between a tax review and a tax audit?

Every year the CRA reviews roughly 3 million tax returns. A tax review is not a tax audit. It’s simply a process to verify the accuracy of the information you provided on your income tax return.  An audit is a more complex affair where your records are more thoroughly scrutinized. It may take a longer time to complete and necessitate more extensive documentation from you.

What happens if my audit results in me owing more taxes?

You have the option of paying the balance owed or appealing the decision by filing a complaint with the CRA. When your taxes are reassessed, you will receive a letter explaining everything you need to know and will have 30 days to respond.

How long must I keep my tax returns, records, and receipts?

You must retain your tax returns, records, receipts, and other tax-relevant documents for a minimum of six years. If you’ve been audited, ensure you keep the audit records as well.

How long does an audit take?

The length of an audit depends on a variety of factors:
  • The audit scope: The more areas in your tax filings that appear problematic, the longer the audit will be.
  • The state of your records: If your financial documents are poorly organized or damaged, expect a more time-consuming audit.
  • Delays: If you’re missing critical documents, this can result in delays.
  • Consultation with other tax professionals: If the audit is complex, it may require the input of other tax professionals. You may decide, for example, to enlist the help of a tax lawyer to ensure you don’t receive an unjust tax ruling from the CRA.
Mark Gregorski avatar on Loans Canada
Mark Gregorski

Mark is a writer who specializes in writing content for companies in the financial services industry. He has written articles about personal finance, mortgages, and real estate and is passionate about educating people on how to make smart financial decisions. Mark graduated from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology with a degree in finance and has more than ten years' experience as an accountant. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing poker, going to the gym, composing music, and learning about digital marketing.

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