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From what I understand about corporation tax in Canada, you only pay tax when you make a profit. So, if I open up a software corporation and work as an independent contractor, and then whatever the corporation earns, I pay to myself as salary and bonus, so the corporation has no earnings, then I pay no corporate tax, right?

Once I pay myself, I could contribute the money to an RRSP, to reduce income tax.

Is this legal? What are the pitfalls of this obvious strategy?

  • Which corporation tax are you referring: Corporate income tax or GST? – JB King Feb 6 '14 at 18:31
  • From what I understand, GST/HST is unavoidable. i was referring to corporate income tax. – Victor123 Feb 6 '14 at 18:34
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IANAL (and nor am I an accountant), so I can't give a definitive answer as to legality, but AFAIK, what you propose is legal. But what's the benefit? Avoiding corporation tax? It's simplistic – and costly – to think in terms like that.

You need to run the numbers for different scenarios, and make a plan. You can end up ahead of the game precisely by choosing to pay some corporate tax each year. Really! Read on.

One of the many reasons that self-employed Canadians sometimes opt for a corporate structure over being a sole proprietor is to be able to not pay themselves everything the company earns each year. This is especially important when a business has some really good years, and others, meh. Using the corporation to retain earnings can be more tax effective.

Example:

Imagine your corporation earns, net of accounting & other non-tax costs except for your draws, $120,000/year for 5 years, and $0 in year 6. Assume the business is your only source of income for those 6 years. Would you rather:

  1. Pay yourself the entire $120,000/yr in years 1-5, then $0 in year 6 (living off personal savings you hopefully accumulated earlier), subjecting the $120,000/yr to personal income tax only, leaving nothing in the corporation to be taxed?

    Very roughly speaking, assuming tax rates & brackets are level from year to year, and using this calculator (which simplifies certain things), then in Ontario, then you'd net ~$84,878/yr for years 1-5, and $0 in year 6. Overall, you realized $424,390. Drawing the income in this manner, the average tax rate on the $600,000 was 29.26%.

    vs.

  2. Pay yourself only $100,000/yr in years 1-5, leaving $20,000/yr subject to corporation tax. Assuming a 15.5% combined federal/provincial corporate tax rate (includes the small business deduction), then the corp. is left with $16,900/yr to add to retained earnings in years 1-5. In year 6, the corp. has $84,500 in retained earnings to be distributed to you, the sole owner, as a dividend (of the non-eligible kind.)

    Again, very roughly speaking, you'd personally net $73,560/yr in years 1-5, and then on the $84,500 dividend in year 6, you'd net $73,658. Overall, you realized $441,458. Drawing the income in this manner, the average tax rate on the $600K was 26.42%.

i.e. Scenario 2, which spreads the income out over the six years, saved 2.84% in tax, or $14,400.

Smoothing out your income is also a prudent thing to do. Would you rather find yourself in year 6, having no clients and no revenue, with nothing left to draw on? Or would you rather the company had saved money from the good years to pay you in the lean one?

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First, point: The CRA wants you to start a business with a "Reasonable expectation of profit". They typically expect to see a profit within 5 years, so you may be inviting unwanted questions from future auditors by using a breakeven strategy.

Second point: If the goal is to pay as little tax as possible, you may want to consider having the corporation pay you as little as possible. Corporate income taxes are much lower than personal income taxes, according to these two CRA links:

How it works is that your company pays you little as an outright salary and offers you perks like a leased company car, expense account for lunch and entertainment, a mobile phone, computer, etc. The company owns all of this stuff and lets you use it as part of the job. The company pays for all this stuff with corporate pre-tax dollars as opposed to you paying for it with personal after-tax dollars. There are specifics on meals & entertainment which modify this slightly (you can claim 50%) but you get the idea. The actual rate difference will depend on your province of residence and your corporate income level.

There is also a requirement for "Reasonable Expenses", such that the expenses have to be in line with what you are doing. If you need to travel to a conference each year, that would be a reasonable expense. Adding your family and making it a vacation for everyone would not.

You can claim such expenses as a sole proprietor or a corporation. The sole-proprietorship option puts any after-expense profits into your pocket as taxable income, where the corporate structure allows the corporation to hold funds and limit the amount paid out to you.

I've seen this strategy successfully done first-hand, but have not done it myself. I am not a lawyer or accountant, consult these professionals about this tax strategy before taking any action.

  • That's a good point about the REOP test. Yet, the kinds of business expenses listed could also be claimed as deductions by a sole proprietor -- the corporation structure, by itself, doesn't make those accessible to the self-employed. Also, it's incorrect to say "You are thus paying for [the expenses] at corporate income tax rates." Actually, assuming the expenses are reasonable business expenses, they are deductible and therefore paid for with pre-tax dollars. [Though the meals & entertainment, specifically, would only be deductible at 50% of the reasonable amount.] – Chris W. Rea Feb 20 '14 at 0:38
  • Thanks for the clarifications and corrections, Chris. Edited. – Jerry Penner Feb 20 '14 at 15:23

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