NEWS

6 juicy tax-free benefits for employees

03/07/2012 04:10 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Every dollar your employer pays you in salary is considered taxable income, but there are some tasty benefits companies can offer to staff that the tax man won't be able to bite into.

"Certain employment benefits are not taxable, even though many of them are deductible expenses to the employer," advises KPMG in its Tax Planning For You and Your Family 2012 guide. "The government is thus offering an incentive to employers to provide these benefits, since the after-tax returns are greater than straight salary."

Some benefits are reported on your T4 slip as being taxable — things like life insurance premiums that the employer pays. So what are some of those non-taxable benefits?

Well, they run the gamut from the potentially juicy (frequent flier points and post-secondary education scholarships for your children) to the definitely trivial (coffee mugs stamped with the company logo).

Here are six potentially lucrative, non-taxable benefits that many people aren't aware of:

1. Frequent flier points.

If you’ve done a lot of job-related flying and charged your expenses on your personal credit card, the frequent flier or reward points that accrue are not considered a taxable benefit, even if your employer reimbursed you for all your expenses.

This change in the tax rules was announced in 2009 and is in effect for all subsequent tax years.

There are a couple of critical caveats, however, in order to keep the non-taxable status. For one thing, you can’t convert the points to cash. For another, your employer’s plan to award you those reward points can’t be designed as a form of remuneration to avoid taxes.

One more thing: if the points are accumulated through a company credit card, rather than your own, the employer will be deemed to control the points and the free flight will be considered a taxable benefit in the employee's hands.

2. Overtime meals and allowances

Since 2009, the Canada Revenue Agency no longer considers a meal or meal allowance to be a taxable benefit if it's awarded to an employee who has to work overtime. The value of the meal has to be "reasonable," which means $17 or less.

The employee must also have worked at least two hours of overtime immediately before or after the scheduled work hours. Plus, the overtime has to be infrequent or occasional.

"If the overtime occurs frequently, the CRA considers overtime meal allowances to be a taxable benefit because they are akin to extra remuneration," says KPMG.

3. Non-cash gifts under $500

Your employer is allowed to give you gifts and awards worth up to $500 a year without attracting a tax hit. That is provided the gifts aren’t in cash and you aren't related to your employer. So that bottle of scotch at Christmas is tax-free, if not hangover-free.

In addition, your employer can give you a non-cash long-service or anniversary award. As long as the total value is $500 or less, it's a non-taxable benefit.

The key here is that such long-service awards can’t be given every year. "In order to qualify, the anniversary award cannot be for less than five years of service or for less than five years since the last long-service award had been provided to the employee," advises Evelyn Jacks in Essential Tax Facts 2012.

Christmas parties are also considered non-taxable benefits, as long as the cost per employee is less than $100. "Parties costing more than that will generally be considered to be beyond the 'privilege' point and may result in taxable benefits," according to Grant Thornton’s Tax Planning Guide 2011-2012.

4. Post-secondary scholarships for your kids

Let's assume your employer wants to give you a $5,000 bonus for all your hard work. Let’s also assume you are planning to pay your son’s $5,000 college tuition bill.

Try to cancel the bonus (which would be taxable) and have your employer instead give your son a $5,000 scholarship. That's not considered a taxable benefit as long as it's used for post-secondary education.

5. Contributions to a private health services plan (PHSP)

Many people still don’t know about PHSPs but they can be a great way for a small business to provide their employees with coverage for drugs, medical expenses like dental bills, and hospital costs that aren’t covered under provincial health plans.

The premiums are a tax-deductible expense for the business and are non-taxable to the employee (except in Quebec).

Similarly, employer-paid premiums that go towards a group sickness or accident insurance plan are non-taxable benefits. They are taxable only if they’re not group plans.

6. Moving expenses

If you had to move because your employer transferred you, the expenses related to that move can be reimbursed by your employer without attracting a tax hit. Those expenses can include:

- The cost of house-hunting trips to the new location.

- Moving costs and storage expenses.

- Real estate commissions and legal fees to purchase the new residence when the old residence has been sold.

- Mortgage prepayment and lease cancellation fees.

- Costs of disconnecting and reconnecting utilities.

All of the above expenses are non-taxable if your employer asks for receipts or if you otherwise have to account for your expenses. But if your employer just gave you a cash payment and you didn’t need to account for how the money was used (what’s called a non-accountable moving allowance), it's only a non-taxable benefit if it's for $650 or less and you certify that the amount was used entirely for moving expenses. If it’s for more $650, it becomes a taxable benefit.

One additional point: if your employer required you to relocate and you had to sell your old home at a loss, your employer can reimburse up to $15,000 of that loss without it being a taxable benefit. If the loss and reimbursement are more than $15,000, only half of the excess is considered a taxable benefit.

MORE:cbcNews