Tax Evasion vs Tax Avoidance

The purpose of this blog is to give an overview of the main differences between tax evasion and tax avoidance.  Everyone wants to avoid paying taxes but it is simply not possible to avoid paying them all together.  Many businesses and individuals devise schemes and plans with third parties (accountants, lawyers) to limit their amount of tax payable.  It is important know the line between what is legal and what is not.  This leads to the first and likely most important takeaway: tax avoidance complies with the letter of the law whereas tax evasion does not.

The Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) says that tax avoidance is legal but “is inconsistent with the overall spirit of the law”.  In other words, tax avoidance occurs when the taxpayer does not provide false information to the CRA, but the provisions of the law are used in a manner that was not intended by Parliament.  Even though tax avoidance is legal, the CRA can still use s. 245 of the Income Tax Act, the general anti-avoidance rule, to invalidate tax savings if the benefit came from a series of transactions done with no commercial purpose other than avoiding tax.  Notwithstanding the ‘legality’ of tax avoidance, the CRA can still recapture some of your avoided tax.

The CRA has legitimate avenues available for individuals and businesses to reduce their taxes.  These avenues are referred to as “effective tax planning” by the CRA.  Examples of effective tax planning would be taking advantage of RRSP tax deductions and using tax credits or gaining benefit form certain small business deductions.  Where effective tax planning starts to turn into something more sinister is when the CRA starts to become concerned.  For example, if you start to divert your business income to family members that can be a legitimate way of reducing tax.  However if it is discovered that you are diverting your business income to your 8 year old child, that would likely be considered unscrupulous by the CRA as there is likely no commercial purpose behind the income diversion besides the avoidance of tax.

This leads to a discussion regarding tax evasion.  The CRA describes tax evasion as deliberately ignoring a specific part of the law.  For example, those participating in tax evasion may under-report income or claim deductions for receipts or expenses that are non-deductible or overstated. They might also attempt to evade taxes by willfully refusing to comply with legislated reporting requirements.  Tax evasion violates the object, spirit and letter of the law.  A very important distinction to be made aware is that tax evasion, unlike tax avoidance, has criminal consequences. Tax evaders can face prosecution in criminal court.

Both tax avoidance and tax evasion are not looked at kindly by the CRA as they both violate the spirit of the law.  However, tax evasion goes one step further in actually breaking the law.  This is an important distinction which can result in significant consequences for the tax-payer if they are not careful in their tax planning strategies.