Debt Management

Tax Debt Forgiveness in Canada

Is it possible to find tax debt forgiveness in Canada? Many Canadians already face large amounts of debt. As of 2023, the debt-to-income ratio for the average Canadian household had risen to 184.5%, meaning Canadians owe $1.85 for every dollar of disposable income.

Tax debt can be particularly challenging, and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) can be a difficult creditor. In order to collect back taxes, the CRA can charge penalties, garnish your wages, and even seize the money in your bank account. You could also be denied the chance to take advantage of future tax credits.

Thankfully, financial recovery is possible. Here are some strategies you can use to pursue tax debt forgiveness. Canadian residents can use these tips to reduce their tax debt or, in some cases, eliminate it entirely.

Thankfully, financial recovery is possible. Here are some strategies you can use to pursue tax debt forgiveness. Canadian residents can use these tips to reduce their tax debt or, in some cases, eliminate it entirely.

Understanding Tax Debt in Canada

Tax debt occurs any time you fail to pay your tax obligations by the annual deadline. 

Sometimes, tax debt can be as simple as making a late payment, though the penalties and interest charges only add to your tax burden. But there are also many scenarios where your total tax liability can be higher, or you face challenges paying your taxes in full and on time. These scenarios include:

  • Withdrawing money from retirement plans, which adds to your taxable income
  • Failing to make quarterly tax payments (for those that are required)
  • Calculating your self-employment taxes improperly
  • Miscalculating your business taxes.

And let’s not forget tax evasion and avoidance. Tax evasion is a major crime in itself, but it can also result in additional penalties and fees that only add to your financial burden.

Failing to adhere to CRA guidelines can result in severe penalties.

At a minimum, the CRA is likely to charge you late fees. Penalties start at 5% of your current balance owing plus 1% of your balance for every month your return is late. But you may be charged an even higher penalty if you were charged a late fee in any of the three previous tax years.

The CRA can also go to great lengths to recover your debt, including garnishing your wages and seizing the funds in your bank account.

If that happens, the CRA may affect your credit history by putting a lien on specific assets, which means the agency has a legal claim over your current and future property. 

Tax Debt Forgiveness Options in Canada

Given the severity of tax debt and resulting penalties, it’s important to find a solution as quickly as possible. Fortunately, you may be able to take advantage of tax debt forgiveness. There are several options available in Canada that can provide financial assistance and help you manage your tax debt.

Relief Options

Who It’s For

What It Does

Taxpayer relief provisions

Those unable to pay their tax debt due to circumstances beyond their control

Waives penalties and fees for taxes filed after the deadline

Voluntary Disclosure Program (VDP)

Those who have made mistakes or submitted false information on past tax returns

Shields taxpayers from prosecution and penalties due to misinformation

Consumer proposal

Those who are legally insolvent (do not have the money to pay their debts as they are due)

Prevents the CRA from seizing your assets and provides time to negotiate a lower settlement


Those who are legally insolvent (do not have the money to pay their debts as they are due)

Prevents the CRA from seizing your assets

Taxpayer Relief Provisions

If you can’t pay your tax debt due to circumstances beyond your control, you may qualify for the CRA tax relief program. This program will waive penalties and fees for those who failed to file taxes due to extenuating situations. Such situations include:

  • Catastrophes and extraordinary circumstances (illness, natural disasters, etc.)
  • Errors or delays on the part of the CRA that prevented an on-time payment
  • Personal financial hardship that prevented a full payment.

To apply for this program, you must file Form RC4288, Request for Taxpayer Relief — Cancel or Waive Penalties and Interest with the CRA. You can also do this through the CRA’s website.

You may be able to provide other circumstances in which you could not pay your taxes in a timely manner. Be prepared to provide documentation about your unique circumstances.

The Voluntary Disclosure Program (VDP)

In some cases, excess tax debt or penalties may result from incorrect information on your tax return. Through its Voluntary Disclosure Program (VDP), the CRA permits taxpayers to correct errors or omissions in their tax filings; in exchange, taxpayers receive amnesty from prosecution or penalties. 

In order to qualify, your VDP application must be:

  • Voluntary: The CRA cannot already be aware of the errors or omissions
  • Complete: You must provide accurate data when making corrections
  • Tax-Owing: You must owe taxes, not be due a refund
  • Past Due: The tax form being corrected must be at least one year past due
  • Combined With Payment: You must pay your estimated tax upfront.

Within the VDP are two specific tracks. 

The Limited Relief stream is designed to correct cases of intentional non-compliance (e.g., tax evasion), shielding applicants from criminal charges. This track doesn’t offer relief from interest or other penalties.

The General stream is intended for anyone who doesn’t qualify for the Limited Relief stream. With the General stream, you can get partial interest relief for any taxes owed from the past four to ten years. 

Keep in mind that the VDP doesn’t offer tax debt forgiveness. Rather, the program is meant to help taxpayers avoid penalties for errors or voluntary omissions, which spares them from incurring excess debt or facing additional penalties. 

Consumer Proposal

If you enlist the assistance of a Licensed Insolvency Trustee, you can file what’s called a consumer proposal. Doing so will shield you from collection efforts, including wage garnishment or having your assets seized to pay your tax debt.

More importantly, you can use a consumer proposal to settle your debt for less than what you currently owe. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, but a consumer proposal may allow you to avoid late charges and even settle your tax obligations for less than the original amount, giving you a clean slate with the CRA.


Contrary to popular belief, bankruptcy can be a viable and beneficial option if you are overwhelmed by debt. It provides a structured and legally supervised process that protects you from wage garnishments and asset seizure. In fact, essential assets like clothing, furniture, or even a personal vehicle can be protected depending on provincial regulations. Although bankruptcy impacts credit ratings it gives individuals a fresh start and a clear path to rebuilding credit and financial stability. 

How Tax Debt Relief Can Benefit You

You might understandably wonder whether these debt reduction strategies actually work. They have for many individuals. Here are two stories of how tax debt relief can benefit you (names have been changed for anonymity).

Case 1: Taxpayer Relief

John, a sole proprietor small business owner, was doing great by filing his taxes every year on time and paying his GST monthly until Covid-19 hit. He quickly started falling behind and saw that his finances were going downhill. Using every dollar he was making to cover his basic needs and keeping his business running was all he had. Every month, he realized a tax and GST deficit of over $1,500. With Covid-19 lingering on, he reached out to CRA and filed the proper documentation to have his fees and interest reduced or eliminated. The CRA representative reviewed John’s financials and worked with John to eliminate all fees and penalties during COVID-19 and worked on a plan once COVID-19 ended to get back on track.

Case 2: Debt Settlement

Stephen, a project manager from Quebec, decided to tap into his Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) one year. What he didn’t realize was that by doing so, he was raising his taxable income. When it came time to file, he owed more than he could afford to pay.

After getting some financial assistance, Stephen filed a consumer proposal. As a result, the CRA couldn’t garnish his wages. The proposal bought him time to negotiate a lower settlement so he could resolve his debt.

Key Lessons and Takeaways

What can we learn from these stories and the strategies described in them? Here are a few important points:

  • Tax debt relief depends on individual circumstances
  • Some forms of relief are more focused on avoiding additional penalties
  • Debt negotiation is possible with a consumer proposal or bankruptcy
  • Filing a consumer proposal or bankruptcy prevents the CRA from garnishing wages or seizing assets.

By finding the right tax debt solutions, you can minimize penalties and interest charges and may even be able to negotiate a lower settlement amount.

Common Myths About Tax Debt Forgiveness

Unfortunately, there are still some common misconceptions about tax debt forgiveness in Canada. Taxpayers should understand the following myths and facts about CRA debt forgiveness:

  • Myth: Your tax debt will go away on its own.
  • Fact: The CRA can continue to collect debt for up to 10 years, depending on the type of debt. After that, your debt still remains, and you can make voluntary payments.
  • Myth: Tax debt can’t be cancelled.
  • Fact: Tax programs provide relief from penalties and can help you settle for less.
  • Myth: Bankruptcy is the worst-case thing that can happen to you.
  • Fact: While bankruptcy is often seen as a last resort, it can sometimes be a viable and even beneficial option if you are overwhelmed by debt.

Understanding the realities of tax debt forgiveness can help you more effectively navigate your tax debt.

Actionable Steps to Apply for Tax Debt Forgiveness

What steps should you take if you choose to pursue tax debt forgiveness? First, calculate the exact amount of your tax debt, then contact the CRA to discuss options such as a payment plan. If you’re still struggling, you can pursue a tax debt relief option to avoid penalties.

Calculate Your Tax Debt Accurately

Start by properly assessing your tax situation. The best way to do that is by completing and submitting all your outstanding tax returns. That way, you’ll know exactly what you owe and can take appropriate steps to determine whether you’re able to pay.

Even if you know you can’t pay your tax debt, you should still aim to file your tax return by the deadline. Doing so will help you avoid charges for late filing and may give you time to make some financial decisions.

Contact the CRA

If you’re unable to file or pay your income taxes by the deadline for any reason, your first step should be to contact the CRA to discuss a payment plan.

This is another reason it’s a good idea to take time to assess your tax situation first, as this data will be crucial for reaching an agreed-upon payment plan. In many cases, the CRA may allow you to make payments on your tax debt over time rather than forking over a lump-sum payment.

However, it’s important to make sure your tax debt payment plan aligns with your budget. Otherwise, you might pay off last year’s taxes but fail to save for your next income tax return. If you can’t devise a payment plan that works for you, consider seeking out a tax debt relief program.

Pursue Tax Debt Relief

At what point should you consider one of the tax debt management plans described here? You might apply to one of these programs if:

  • You can’t file your tax return on time
  • You’ve made mistakes on previous tax returns
  • You’ve withheld information from previous tax returns
  • You’re unable to pay your tax debt
  • You’ve been charged interest for late payments.

Analyzing your circumstances will help you determine which tax debt relief program to apply for and whether you meet the tax forgiveness eligibility requirements that come with each program.

Consider Professional Help

Not sure where to start? You can always reach out to a tax professional or financial advisor. These individuals can offer expert guidance on how to manage your tax debt and provide debt counselling services on a variety of different types of debt. They’ll also know about changes to Canada’s tax laws that may affect your situation.

Speaking with a financial professional can also provide general guidance on money management. Developing a personalized budget and a long-term financial plan can go a long way toward managing not just your tax debt but your holistic financial health.

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How Credit Canada Can Help

Whether it’s tax debt, consumer debt, or other financial challenges, Credit Canada is here for you. We offer expert-level guidance in areas like:

  • Debt management
  • Debt consolidation
  • Financial coaching 
  • Credit counselling

Our website is also packed with resources to boost your financial literacy and improve your financial wellness. Contact us today to learn more about how we can address your tax debt issues and help you take control of your financial future.

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