The Uncertainty of Death and Taxes: What it Means to Be Legally Dead in Canada

Canada Revenue Agency

American founding father Benjamin Franklin once said that the only certain things in this world are death and taxes. Over the past few years the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has proven this to be more than true. Since 2007 they’ve been erroneously declaring thousands of Canadian taxpayers deceased. Though the heroes of modern action and suspense films extoll the virtues of being believed dead, being legally dead can have harrowing consequences for those who are alive and well and happy to be it.

There are a lot of ways a person can become dead in the eyes of the law.

The most obvious one is also the most natural: you die. In Quebec you can also be considered legally dead after a prolonged absence. If you disappear from the province for seven years and no one knows if you’re alive or dead, any interested party can apply for a judgment declaring you dead, and such a judgment has the same effects as if you actually died.

In order for the CRA to consider you dead, all it takes is a phone call. Though the CRA typically receives calls from executors and beneficiaries of a deceased person, anyone can call them and give a date of death of a person. The CRA doesn’t ask for any supporting documents.

Unfortunately you can also end up dead in the eyes of the law via mistakes by government officials responsible for keeping and updating records.

In February 2014 Canada’s Taxpayers’ Ombudsman J. Paul Dubé released a report on Canadian taxpayers who’d accidentally been declared dead by the Canada Revenue Agency. The report was commissioned by the Minister of National Revenue following the discovery that from 2007 to 2013 almost six thousand Canadians were mistakenly declared dead.

The report identified the three major causes of the erroneous declarations of death by the CRA: mistakes made by taxpayers and representatives on their T1 forms, CRA agents mistakenly marking deaths under the wrong social insurance numbers, and incorrect information received from outside sources. The Ombudsman’s recommendations included ensuring that forms are correctly filled out, and following up with taxpayers who’d reported a death by phone and asking them to substantiate the deaths by providing documents.

In spite of these recommendations, Canadians still get mistakenly declared dead by the Canada Revenue Agency. On January 28th, 2016 the CBC reported on a Winnipeg resident who found out via a letter from the CRA addressed to the “Estate of the Late Alyanna Lapuz” that she’d been mistakenly marked deceased when she’d phoned them to ask for direct deposit on her tax refunds.

As a result her Social Insurance Number was flagged as belonging to a deceased person and her application for a student loan was denied. Despite her complaints, it took over three weeks for the CRA to fix the problem.

Regardless of what action heroes will have you believe, there are major disadvantages to being considered dead.

The legal definition of death according to Canadian and Quebec law is the cessation of life and the complete stop of the vital functions of the brain and body. Death also means the end of a person’s “juridical personality” which allows them the full enjoyment of their civil rights.

If you’re dead your social insurance number becomes invalid. You technically won’t have to pay taxes but you’ll also find yourself ineligible for the government benefits you might need and otherwise be legally entitled to. This includes not only child tax benefits, but welfare payments and tax refunds.

You won’t be able to collect a legal paycheck, open a bank account, or get a student loan. If you need healthcare, you’re out of luck. If you’re legally dead, your medicare card will lose its value.

Though health care is administered by the provinces, federal and provincial governments work closely with one another and frequently share information. If the federal government deems you deceased, eventually so will the provincial.

In Quebec, being dead means the dissolution of your marriage or civil union. It also means that your estate, consisting of your property and rights therein becomes open to your legal heirs and all the rules regarding wills and estates apply. If you don’t have any legal heirs, your property reverts back to the State.

Fortunately, if you’re accidentally declared dead by a government screw up or malicious caller, you have options.

First, find out which agency is responsible and call them during their phone hours. Don’t bother with the automated system. Service Canada’s automated phone system is particularly annoying to navigate but there’s a loophole. Press zero and you’ll automatically be put in line to speak to a human being.

You may have to listen to an hour’s worth of annoying music, but it’s worth it if you speak to an agent who can fix things or direct to the person who can. If you’re lucky, you might even get an apology.

When contacting the government agency fails, you can file a formal complaint. If your issue is with the CRA, contact the Taxpayer’s Ombudsman whose office is responsible for investigating complaints from taxpayers who feel they’ve been treated unfairly or unprofessionally by CRA agents. If your problem is with the Directeur de l’état civil (DEC) – the Quebec government office responsible for keeping track of births and deaths – you can file your complaint directly from their website.

If all else fails, go to the press. Governments hate bad publicity and sometimes a little bad publicity is necessary to right wrongs. In a welfare state like Canada, your social insurance number and medicare card can determine whether you get treatment when you’re sick and whether you can earn a salary to feed and clothe yourself.

All that can mean the difference between being literally alive or dead. Don’t let a government screw up kill you before you’re ready.

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