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When CERB benefits don’t have to be repaid (April 2021)

When the pandemic was declared just over a year ago, the federal government announced a wide range of benefits to help mitigate the financial stress experienced by those who lost jobs or saw their hours (and income) reduced.

The most broad-based of those programs was the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), which was received by nearly 9 million Canadians. The rollout of the program was rapid—generally speaking, recipients could obtain benefits by direct deposit within days after completing an online application questionnaire. Inevitably, the rapid rollout of CERB gave rise to some confusion, among recipients and those who were administering the program. That confusion meant that some individuals who were not actually eligible for the CERB nonetheless received benefit payments—in some cases substantial benefit payments.

A year later, such recipients are faced with the requirement that benefits which they received but to which they were not entitled must be repaid. Nonetheless, the federal government has announced that as a matter of administrative policy, relief from such repayment obligations may be provided, mainly in circumstances where erroneous information was provided to applicants.

The beneficiaries of the relief measure announced are self-employed individuals. When the CERB program was rolled out, one of the criteria for benefit eligibility was that the applicant must have had income of at least $5,000 during the previous 12 months. For most individuals determining that figure is straightforward, but for the self-employed, the calculation is more complex.

Information given to some self-employed applicants last spring was the $5,000 threshold referred to gross self-employment income, not net income. That information was incorrect, and self-employed individuals who indicated on the application form that they had at least $5,000 in income from self-employment in the previous 12 months generally received the CERB (assuming all other criteria were met). Where, however, they had less than $5,000 in net self employment income during the qualifying period, such individuals were subsequently found not to been eligible, after all, and were required to repay CERB amounts received.

In February of this year, the federal government determined that, in light of the fact that such individuals had acted in reliance on information provided by CERB program administrators, repayment should not be required. Consequently, the government announced that:

“ … self-employed individuals who applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and would have qualified based on their gross income will not be required to repay the benefit, provided they also met all other eligibility requirements. The same approach will apply whether the individual applied through the Canada Revenue Agency or Service Canada.

"This means that, self-employed individuals whose net self-employment income was less than $5,000 and who applied for the CERB will not be required to repay the CERB, as long as their gross self-employment income was at least $5,000 and they met all other eligibility criteria.”

Of course, many self-employed individuals who would be eligible for that relief had already repaid CERB amounts received, after being advised of their ineligibility. The federal government announcement (which can be found at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/news/2021/02/government-of-canada-announces-targeted-interest-relief-on-2020-income-tax-debt-for-low--and-middle-income-canadians.html) indicates that such amounts repaid to the federal government will be returned to those individuals. No details have yet been released on how and when that will occur.

To date, the relief to be provided to qualifying self-employed CERB recipients is the only broad-based repayment forgiveness program which has been announced by the federal government. In any other circumstances, relief of any kind may be provided only on a case-by-case basis.

Those who believe that they are required to repay CERB amounts received (or have received a communication indicating that they must do so) should also be aware of the existence of CERB repayment scams, and know to recognize such a scam. Sadly, but predictably, individuals have been contacted by scammers purporting to be from the federal government who insist that repayment of CERB amounts received must be made immediately, often by unconventional means, like pre-paid credit cards. The federal government has issued a warning with respect to such scams, advising Canadians to beware of fraudulent emails, texts or calls claiming to be from the CRA about repaying the CERB or requesting personal information. The best way to avoid becoming a victim of such scams is to be knowledgeable about the ways in which the CRA does and does not communicate with taxpayers on such matters. For instance, the CRA will never demand immediate payment by Interac e-transfer, bitcoin, prepaid credit cards, or gift cards from retailers such as iTunes or Amazon, and will never threaten a taxpayer with arrest or a prison sentence. As well, the CRA never uses text messages or instant messaging such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to communicate with taxpayers about tax-related issues under any circumstance. Any text or instant message purporting to be from the CRA is a scam.

More information on how to avoid falling victim to a CERB repayment scam (or any other kind of tax scam) is outlined in detail on the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/corporate/security/protect-yourself-against-fraud.html.

The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.

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