Retired Money: Should you worry a large TFSA will trigger a CRA audit?


Should you worry that a large TFSA will trigger a CRA audit? My latest MoneySense Retired Money column looks at a legal debate between the Canada Revenue Agency and taxpayers who have succeeded too well in growing their Tax-free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) with shrewd investing. You can access the full story by clicking on the highlighted headline: Why the CRA is targeting some TFSAs in court. 

If you’ve contributed regularly to the TFSA since it began in January 2009 you now have $57,500 of cumulative contribution room. With decent growth, it’s easily possible to have accumulated $100,000 in a TFSA by now: in fact, the CRA told me for the article that of the 13.5 million TFSA accounts that existed by 2016, 18,000 have balances of at least $100,000 (a number that includes myself and my own Millennial daughter, thanks to a few good FANG stock picks).

Globe & Mail article last week profiled several ordinary Canadian investors and financial bloggers who have TFSAs of at least $100,000. See How to Grow your TFSA: Tips from Financial Bloggers to Fatten Your Account.

My MoneySense article quotes an unnamed investor who is being audited because his TFSA has grown to $500,000, owing to  timely growth of some private technology companies. He doesn’t think $100,000 is enough to trigger an audit but suggests $250,000 may be. In other words, the CRA may be fine with TFSA doubles but five-baggers will invite scrutiny and ten-baggers most certainly so.

But the real controversy involves TFSAs that are run as de facto securities trading businesses. The Globe highlighted this latest crackdown in an earlier article in July but was merely the latest of a series of TFSA audit scares that have been surfacing virtually since after the first year the program existed.

Shrewd stock-picking is not “aggressive tax planning” 

Some of those earlier audits involved TFSAs that soared because they held private companies but my guess is that, as in my own case or that of my daughter, the vast majority of TFSA holders are neither day traders nor experts in investing in private companies. We only buy exchange-traded funds or blue-chip North American stocks, including the FANG tech giants (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).

True, depending on when you bought them, it’s quite possible TFSA investors may have experienced 5- or even 10-baggers on stocks like Facebook, Amazon or Netflix. I doubt many investors would make concentrated bets on just one or two of these but if they did, then a $250,000 TFSA would not be inconceivable. That might invite scrutiny from the CRA but I strongly doubt they’d have a case for running a securities business.

Based on the CRA numbers cited in the MoneySense column, Tim Clarke estimates the CRA would have to audit 9,000 TFSAs in order to “recover” the amount of tax specified in the July G&M column that sparked this latest round of TFSA audit worries.

“I love how they say successful traders are conducting ‘aggressive tax planning’ “, Clarke told me in an email, “The purpose of TFSAs was stated in the budget that announced them to be a vehicle to allow taxpayers to save for retirement and other legitimate purposes. How can being successful at that be aggressive tax planning?”


TFSAs remain a critical tax-shelter for retirees

If you’re a retiree or close to it, presumably your TFSA will be invested fairly cautiously, just like an RRSP or RRIF, which means some combination of blue-chip dividend-paying stocks and fixed income. The TFSA is too valuable a tax shelter to get scared by audits of a handful of aggressive investors. Keep in mind that unlike RRSPs, you can still keep adding to your TFSAs well after age 71, to the current tune of $5,500 a year, and perhaps with future inflation adjustments.

There’s no reason that a retiree shouldn’t keep adding to their TFSAs until their late 90s or even beyond: not necessarily with “new” money but from post-tax money liberated from non-registered investments or after tax is paid on forced annual RRIF withdrawals.



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