CRA announces virtual free tax clinics amid coronavirus pandemic

Click to play video: 'Income taxes during COVID-19 pandemic'
Income taxes during COVID-19 pandemic
The deadlines to file taxes have been extended, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to wait until the last minute. – Apr 21, 2020

This tax season is different, but free tax clinics are still a thing.

Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announced on Tuesday the rollout of virtual tax clinics on an interim basis, as Canadians continue to follow social-distancing guidelines because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Community organizations working with the Canada Revenue Agency and Quebec’s volunteer income tax assistance program will provide free tax support remotely, including via video call.

Free tax clinics are a place where trained volunteers at community organizations help low-income Canadians with a simple tax situation fill out and file their returns.

During the 2018-19 tax season, some 740,000 taxpayers took advantage of the CRA’s program, which resulted in $1.9 billion worth of tax refunds and benefit payments.

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Canadians, including those with no income, must file taxes in order to access credits such as the GST/HST tax credit and benefits like the Canada Child Benefit as well as the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

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Working from home taxes

But amid the health emergency, many of the tax clinics have had to close, postpone or scale back, said Elise Alarie, director of the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP) at the CRA.

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In the coming weeks, though, eligible taxpayers will be able to access the no-cost service using email, phone and video calls.

We are working with our partner organizations to make sure that these virtual clinics are safe and secure and that taxpayers’ private information is protected,” Alarie said in a statement.

Some of the virtual clinics will be up and running as early as this week, she added.

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Eligible taxpayers can reach out to their local community organizations to set up a virtual appointment with a volunteer who will complete and file their return electronically with the CRA.

If the volunteer doesn’t already know the taxpayer from the community or a previous tax clinic, the taxpayer can establish his or her identity by showing a photo ID via videoconference. Volunteers can also download tax slips into the tax preparation software, with the authorization of the taxpayer, and ask about information on those slips to validate the taxpayer’s identity, Alarie said.

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2020 federal tax changes come into effect

Alternatively, volunteers can ask the CRA to confirm a taxpayer’s identity. Following the request, a CRA employee will contact the taxpayer to verify they are who they say they are.

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Filling out the return will work in a similar way. Taxpayers will answer questions remotely and either email documents, show them on screen or read the information over the phone.

Some tax clinics also offer the option to physically drop off any relevant paperwork, but all returns submitted via free tax clinics will be filed electronically, according to Alarie.

The video conferencing option is available through “any of the many video conferencing applications that are already available,” she said. However, volunteers must ensure they have the taxpayer’s explicit consent to proceed via a video call, she said.

The CRA is leaving it up to organizations, their volunteers and taxpayers to decide whether to use password-protected videoconferencing software, Alarie said.

Free tax clinics are available to Canadians with incomes below a certain limit. For example, for individuals, the current threshold is $35,000 ($25,000 in Quebec). For couples, it’s $45,000 ($30,000 in Quebec).

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Money 123: Pros and Cons of DIY tax filing

The service is for people with a straightforward tax situation, which generally excludes those who are self-employed, have employment expenses or have recently filed for bankruptcy.

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Eligible taxpayers can use the CRA website to locate a free tax clinic close to them.

Usually, the clinics are available as soon as tax season kicks off, but their virtual incarnation will be around for less than three weeks before this year’s June 1 tax-filing deadline.

However, many of the free tax clinics will be available beyond June 1, Alarie said.

Ottawa has postponed the tax-filing deadline for individuals to the beginning of June, from its usual April 30 date, due to the pandemic.

Canadians have until Sept. 1 to pay any tax owing without facing penalties or interest.

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