2018-05-16 00:18:40 UTC
Hundreds of people are mistakenly declared dead every year, says federal taxpayers' ombudsman
Yvonne Colbert • CBC News
What does it take for the Canada Revenue Agency to declare you dead?
Little more than a phone call from any number of people will do it, resulting in benefits being immediately cut off and, in some cases, sending the living "dead" into an abyss of bureaucracy that can take months to correct.
The CRA says the Income Tax Act does not require it to request a death certificate to mark a taxpayer as deceased.
Instead, it will declare someone dead when it receives a phone call from "other government departments, lawyers, executors, representatives, beneficiaries or family members."
CRA is unique
Tax lawyer Rob Miedema told CBC News the CRA is unique in not requiring a death certificate before declaring someone dead, noting it's a routine requirement for businesses to insist on having the document before allowing access or providing information on a deceased person's account.
"That might be the phone company, that might be their landlord, even Facebook actually requires a death certificate before they'll start dealing with a family member in terms of memorializing or shutting down an account," Miedema said.
Being brought back to life is not always easy.
Two people who were erroneously declared dead without a death certificate question why one isn't needed, saying it would have prevented the mistakes and not burdened them with added stress while dealing with the death of a loved one.
'A confusing problem'
Reg Kane of Howie Centre, Cape Breton, said an error happened when he filed income tax returns for both his late wife and himself. He isn't sure whether he made the mistake or CRA, but both he and his wife were both declared dead.
He provided a death certificate for his late wife, but clearly didn't provide his own.
"Please, if you declare somebody deceased make sure that person is really deceased," Kane told CBC News.
Dartmouth resident Mildred Bull also was listed as dead after H&R Block erroneously included the wrong information on her return. She, too, filed for her late husband.
In both cases, Kane and Bull were required to spend a significant amount of time trying to straighten out their situations.
"It's a confusing problem for people," Miedema said. "They don't understand why they have to make so much contact to address a problem that was made inside of a system that is not transparent to them."
Thousands declared dead
In 2014, federal taxpayers' ombudsman Paul Dubé investigated the issue of CRA mistakenly declaring people dead.
His report titled "Alive and Well" found that between 2007 and 2013 CRA accidentally declared 5,489 people dead when in reality they were alive.
The report said while those who call and report a death are supposed to forward a copy of the death certificate, their investigation found "the CRA does not have a followup procedure to ensure that the documents requested ... are sent in and matched to the account."
The CRA told CBC News it understands that the death of a family member or a loved one is always a difficult time and the death certificate is not required, "in order to decrease the burden on the taxpayers."
The 2014 report notes that once the CRA is notified of a death the deceased designation "automatically stops all benefit payments" such as GST/HST, the Canada Child Benefit and federal pension payments.
It says this prevents making an overpayment, which the government would then have to recoup and "which could leave the family or executor to deal with unnecessarily repaying a debt that could have been prevented."
If you owe money, death certificate required
Miedema notes the CRA requires a death certificate before it will stop collections efforts against those who owe the federal government money.
The ombudsman's report also noted "once an account is found to have been coded deceased in error, the CRA has an internal program target of 48 hours to correct the information." That didn't happen in either the Kane or Bull case, although Kane did receive his pension money on Thursday.
In fact, both are uncertain whether they will receive their pension payments next week.
The report made eight recommendations for improvements, but it did not recommend a death certificate be required before a taxpayer is declared deceased.
Number of CRA errors declining
The CRA said it has implemented each recommendation and when an error is discovered, the CRA corrects the record within 48 hours and advises Service Canada of the error so it can update its records accordingly.
It did not respond to a question about how often it meets its target of restoring the "dead" to life in that time frame.
The 2014 report noted that despite the small percentage of error (0.23 per cent), "being declared dead is stressful and can be very challenging for taxpayers to fix once it occurs."
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