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Tax effect if a charity returns a donated life insurance policy to a policyholder

By Doug Carroll | June 27 2017 07:00AM

Photo: Freepik

At issue

Most people donate to charity by cash or its equivalent, whether on a one-off basis or as a periodic routine. This allows the donor to take an immediate tax benefit from the donation and for the charity to use funds for current needs. However, when longer term projects are contemplated, it may be desirable to establish a ‘planned giving’ arrangement, and that’s often when life insurance comes into consideration.

One way to do this is to name the charity as beneficiary on a policy owned by the donor. That person pays the annual premiums, with the tax benefit coming to the estate when the proceeds are paid at death. While the charity expects to eventually receive the money, the policyholder usually retains the ability to change the beneficiary, in which case the charity may ultimately get nothing.

For the charity’s greater certainty, the policy itself could be donated so the charity controls it. The donor receives tax credit for the value of the policy (if any) in the year of donation, plus year-to-year credit for any further premiums paid on the charity-owned policy. Of course, the donor may still have a change of heart, and though the charity could technically continue to carry the policy, that may be politically unpalatable. But is it even legally possible to return a policy, and if so then what are the tax implications for charity and donor?

CRA Guidance CG-016, Qualified donees – Consequences of returning donated property

The CRA’s guidance on this issue warns off the top that it is a legal issue whether a gift has been made and whether circumstances allow for a return by the charity. The guide focuses on the tax result on those “rare and unique circumstances” when there is a legal requirement for a charity to return a gift.

Assuming that the return of the property fits this test (or is believed to fit), an information return outlining the particulars must be filed with the CRA within 90 days. If the test is not met, this would likely be construed as a gift to a non-qualified donee, or the provision of an undue benefit. The penalty for such action is 105% of the value, or 110% on a repeat infraction, all the way up to revocation of registered status in egregious situations.

For a donor, there will be a reassessment of any year’s tax return related to the returned property, with any claimed charitable tax credits disallowed. This may be mitigated by the fact that the taxpayer is deemed not to have disposed of the property in the first place if the original property is returned. No mention is made of interest on related reduced/unpaid taxes, so presumably the normal rules apply.

CRA 2016-0630351E5 – Return of a gift

A taxpayer had gifted a whole life insurance policy to a charitable foundation in 1981, and now sought the return of that policy on the basis that a condition of the gift had not been fulfilled.

The foundation raises money to support a particular college, and the gift was made conditional on the proceeds being used to create a scholarship in a specific program. When the program was terminated, the taxpayer sought the return of the policy. The foundation was willing to comply, but on condition that the taxpayer obtain assurance from CRA that this would not negatively affect the foundation’s charitable status. This technical interpretation is the response to the taxpayer’s inquiry.

The writer on behalf of CRA repeats the relevant provisions of CG-016 (summarized above) with respect to the charity’s reporting obligations and the taxpayer’s exposure to reassessment.

However, it could not assist on the two key issues: whether the gift was subject to a condition, and whether the foundation could legally return the policy. The former requires a determination of the facts, and the latter a review of applicable legislation, both of which are outside the scope of a technical interpretation.

Practice points
  • Donations to charity are almost invariably one-way transactions. Even if a donor and charity expect that the gift could be returned, governing legislation seldom allows that to occur.
  • If a gift is to be conditional, that should be clearly documented between the donor and charity, including objective criteria regarding fulfilment of the condition. And if the condition is not fulfilled, it should be agreed what is (expected) to happen with the gift.
  • Per CG-016, a taxpayer is subject to reassessment and disallowed tax credits claimed in preceding years. It is that much more uncertain in a situation like that outlined in letter 2016-0630351E5 with a timeline going back over 35 years, how statute-barred years would be treated. Whether or not those are included, with interest charges this could be quite costly.
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