Change at the CRA
How their services are evolving - for better or worse
by Jamie Golombek
With tax season now in full swing, it may be worthwhile advising your clients of recent changes announced by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) late last year in the way the Agency provides services at its counters in the various local Tax Services Offices.
During 2006, the enquiries counters were reconfigured to offer self-serve Internet help, the downloading and printing of forms through kiosks and direct access, via telephone, to the CRA's call centres. Service agents at the local offices are available to help your clients use these self-serve options.
While your client will no longer be able to simply walk into their local CRA office and automatically speak to someone regarding their own, specific tax situation, he or she does have the option of making a future appointment with a CRA inquiries agent to discuss their personal affairs. According to the CRA, this will help to eliminate wait times and "(ensure) that the best available agent is assigned to address (the client's) needs".
To book an appointment, your client can simply phone the applicable 1-800 inquiry lines and speak to a CRA telephone agent who will book a convenient time.
In the past, clients would visit their local CRA office to request a copy of an account printout, especially if late payment or interest charges continue to accrue in respect of a prior tax year. Now, if you need a copy of account information, the CRA is advising taxpayers to consider viewing tax return and balance information through the "My Account for Individuals" feature on the CRA's website (www.cra.gc.ca/myaccount).
To be able to access "My Account", however, each taxpayer will need something called a Government of Canada "epass". Although somewhat cumbersome (having done so myself) to register, you follow the instructions on the website and then an activation code is mailed to the taxpayer at his or her home address within five business days. Once the activation code is received, the registration process can be completed online.
After your client has an epass and is registered for My Account, they can take advantage of numerous electronic viewing options through the CRA's secure website. You can view information about a tax refund or balance owing, direct deposit info, RRSP contribution limits, Home Buyer's Plan and Lifelong Learning Plan balances, and the new Universal Child Care Benefit account balance, among other things.
Do you prepare tax returns for clients or regularly advise them on tax matters? If the client so desires, he or she can use the My Account site to grant you formal authorization as their representative, allowing you to go in and view your client's tax information or discuss matters on behalf of your clients with CRA officials.
Perhaps most importantly, the My Account site allows you or your client to modify a previously filed tax return or even formally object to a Notice of (Re)Assessment.
Small business owners
Is your client a small-business owner? Businesses can also register for "My Business Account" online (www.cra.gc.ca/mybusinessaccount), provided they also obtain an epass. Businesses can then file their corporate returns online, view the status of an already filed return, check up on their tax and GST balances as well as access many other business services.
Date stamping of returns and documents
Perhaps one of the biggest and most controversial moves that was originally announced as part of the changes to the local CRA offices discussed above was that the CRA would no longer be "date stamping" returns and other documents. Instead, they would be providing unmanned, secure drop-off boxes in which CRA correspondence as well as tax returns could literally be "dropped off". Each day, the contents would be removed by CRA officials and routed to the appropriate CRA office for processing.
There was a minor outcry from the professional tax community that the CRA would no longer be date stamping time-sensitive returns and elections and, therefore, there was no way of proving that a document was filed on time. This is often critical, given the severe penalties for being even one day late when filing a return.
On December 7, 2006, the Honourable Carol Skelton, minister of National Revenue, backtracked and announced, during an appearance before a meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, that the CRA "will provide a uniform on-demand date-stamping service for hand-delivered correspondence in every local office across Canada".
According to the CRA, the service will consist of placing a stamp on envelopes received at local office counters for deposit in drop-boxes. "By setting a uniform national standard for date stamping deliveries, we are replacing an outdated, uneven and ad hoc approach to customer service", the minister added.
Note, however, that CRA counter will neither confirm the completeness nor acceptability of an envelope's contents. They will simply stamp the sealed envelope with the date of delivery, thus providing taxpayers assurance that a record of the date of the transaction has been registered.