Canada: Taxation Of Settlement Amounts - A Canadian Tax Lawyer

Last Updated: September 25 2019
Article by David Rotfleisch

Introduction-The Surrogatum Principle

The Canada Revenue Agency's (CRA) long time policy with regards to settlement payments has been that they are treated equivalently with damages awarded at trial by a judge, even with no finding of wrong doing on the payor's behalf. As with a finding of damages, settlement amounts follow the surrogatum principle with respect to taxation. This is the principle that the payment takes on the attributes of what the payment is meant to replace and is taxed (or not) accordingly. For example, if a settlement was reached paying the litigating party for a breach of contract which resulted in the loss of business income, then the settlement amount essentially replaces the lost income and would thus be taxable as business income. On the other hand, if a settlement amount is paid for a breach of contract that results in damages to an income producing property, then the settlement amount would generally be considered a capital amount.

Personal Injury Exception for Settlement Payments

Notably, any amount of a settlement payment for damages with respect to personal injury or death is exempt from tax. This applies to 1) special damages such as out-of-pocket expenses like medical and hospital expenses and loss of both accrued and future earnings; and 2) general damages such as pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity, loss of amenities of life, and shortened expectation of life. So long as the amounts received qualify as special or general damages for personal injury, those amounts are tax free even if they are determined with reference to the loss of earnings of a taxpayer.

That said, an amount awarded that is not considered damages and can reasonably be considered to be income from employment will still be taxable – for example, if as part of a settlement, the injured taxpayer is also guaranteed a severance payment, that severance payment will likely be considered employment income and thus taxable. Additionally, even where an amount awarded by a Court or included in a settlement is augmented by or includes an amount that is referred to as interest, that so-called interest amount remains non-taxable given that it is in respect of damages for personal injury. However, if an amount awarded for damages is held in a deposit account and interest accrues on that amount before it is paid out, that interest is taxable as income. While the difference seems minor, getting it wrong can mean an increased tax liability – speak to one of our experienced Canadian tax lawyers and make sure your settlement is structured in the most tax efficient way possible.

Taxation of Settlement for Investment Losses

The CRA addressed a question of how losses suffered by taxpayers due to an investment company inappropriately investing their funds. The CRA generally repeated that the surrogatum principle applied. Assuming that the actions of the investment company amounted to negligence, then it was the CRA's position that amounts paid as compensation for actual financial loss would likely be considered damages for personal injury and thus not taxable. On the other hand, any amounts paid as compensation for investment income that would have been earned if not for the negligence of the investment company would be considered income from property and taxable. For example, say a taxpayer invested $100,000 with the investment company and due to the company's negligence, the taxpayer's investments dropped to $80,000 after 5 years. The taxpayer and the investment company eventually settle for $50,000, of which $20,000 was on account of the decrease in value of the taxpayer's investments and an additional $30,000 was on account of investment income the taxpayer would have earned on his investments but for the negligence. Based on the CRA interpretation, the $20,000 amount would be considered not taxable as it would be compensating the actual financial loss, while the $30,000 would be taxable as it is meant to replace investment income that would have been earned, which had it actually been earned, would have been taxable.

Taxation of Settlements on Account of Capital vs Business/Employment Income

Taxability aside, where a settlement is taxable, it may also be taxed as business/ employment income or on account of capital. This too follows the surrogatum principle, so the determining factor is essentially what the settlement payment is meant to replace. For example, if the settlement is in respect of a broken contract that caused a taxpayer to fail to make several sales and lost business income, the settlement amount would also be taxed as business income. On the other hand, where a settlement payment is compensation for the loss of or damage to a capital asset, such as damage to or the destruction of business equipment, the settlement amounts would be considered proceeds of disposition of property.

Tax Tip – Engage a Canadian Tax Lawyer Before Finalizing a Settlement

In the case of settlements, there is often a great deal of flexibility when it comes to allocating the settlement amounts to various possible heads of damage. In the payor's case, it often does not make a great deal of difference how the settlement payments are allocated given that they are paying the same total amount. However, for the recipient of the settlement, the specific allocation can be the difference between receiving funds tax free or being on the receiving end of a hefty tax bill. Even at the time of settlement it may be necessary to amend the pleadings. Furthermore, once the settlement is concluded, it is generally too late ensure that the maximum amount possible is allocated to tax free sources. It is imperative that one engages an experienced Canadian tax lawyer before finalizing a settlement. Our top Canadian tax lawyers will do our best to minimize or eliminate the amount of tax owed on settlement payments.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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