Andrew Feindel is a financial planner and co-author of Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started. Kyle Richie is a consultant who specializes in wealth management for medical and dental professionals.
Since the federal government first unveiled its prospective changes to small-business taxation, it has remained unwavering in its commitment to "tax fairness" and a desire to expand Canada's middle class – a line it has been touting since the 2015 election campaign.
But when you work with clients who will be affected by the proposals, what you see is a government that has decided to draw a bull's-eye around a tax regime that was designed to spur the small-business sector. In so doing, they are punishing the very Canadians they purport to aid: those seeking to build businesses of their own, and in turn, the future of our country.
At present, a small-business owner can lessen their tax burden by paying dividends out of their corporation to family members over the age of 18. Thus, any owner receiving proper counsel is "sprinkling" or sharing revenue wherever they can: not only to their spouse, but to qualifying children and parents who aren't presently receiving government benefits. The government seeks to do away with this practice. To some, this seems only right: "Why should business owners be able to do what I can't do with my salary?"
However, it is best to acknowledge the role a spouse plays in absorbing the risk implicit in starting a business. Remember, small-business owners often mortgage their homes and take on debt to start their business venture. Many create their own savings plans inside their corporations to fund their retirement. If a government pension can be split between an individual and their spouse, why shouldn't a small-business owner be permitted to split their non-registered corporate savings?
In examining the proposed changes to dividend sharing, we should also acknowledge the extent to which new Canadians see our present corporate tax laws as a way to attract them here and keep their family together. Any new Canadian wishing to bring aging parents to the country knows they won't receive many government benefits for the first 10 years after arriving. For them, dividend sharing makes the transition feasible. If we want to continue to attract high-potential newcomers, we should consider preserving as many present "pull factors" as we can.
If the federal government is truly seeking "fairness," it should acknowledge the need for business owners to plan for their retirement and the legitimate benefits of dividend sharing. One way would be to amend the proposal to ensure that dividends could continue to be shared with spouses for family wealth planning purposes and parents for the first 10 years of the life of each corporation.
Moreover, many business owners chose to use legitimate corporate savings strategies to fund their child's education rather than RESPs and the associated government grants. For those with children either in, or seeking postsecondary education, they have no opportunity to alter their plans. The government should delay the change by four years, to give people the chance to modify their planning.
And the reforms to the proposal shouldn't stop there.
The government proposes doing away with the tax mechanisms that eliminate double taxation on the accumulation of corporate investments. It argues this is necessary to eliminate the tax deferral associated with retaining corporate earnings from an active business as a retirement savings strategy. This proposal won't touch any of the millions Canadian small-business owners have saved inside their corporations over the years under the existing laws. Instead, it will target the next generation of entrepreneurs: The new wave of innovative Canadians who have stepped away from more secure futures to follow their dreams. Those in the federal service receive defined-benefit pensions, typically based on one's top five years of earnings. If we collectively agree that we want to incentivize Canadians to start small businesses, why not keep the proposed change but create a threshold of $2-million or $3-million in savings? That way, we'd at least let the next generation of small-business owners begin to solidify a nest egg.
If the government had really wanted to achieve tax fairness, it wouldn’t have drafted proposals affecting the most entrepreneurial and upwardly inclined members of our middle class. And that’s really who this hits.