Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Coquitlam widow jumps through hoops to exempt dead husband from speculation tax

A 78-year-old widow was told she’s on the hook for her husband’s portion of the speculation tax for their condo — even though he died in September — because his name was still on the land-title document.

An opposition MLA says one of her constituents has had to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops to try to get her deceased husband exempted from the province’s speculation tax.

Joan Isaacs, the Liberal MLA for Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, said she has been helping a 78-year-old widow who was told she’s on the hook for her husband’s portion of the speculation tax for their condo — even though he died in September — because his name was still on the land-title document.

“That was a lot of anxiety and stress she had to deal with,” said Isaacs.

After receiving the notice last week, the woman had called the hotline set up by the government to explain the situation. After talking to at least five agents over two separate calls, she was told she had to pay the tax first, then apply for a rebate.

Panicked, the woman phoned Isaacs’ office.

“She sounded very frightened … she was unsure as to what her next steps would be,” said Isaacs, whose office helped the woman through the process of how to remove her husband’s name from the title, which requires hiring a lawyer or notary.

The woman later learned that she qualified for an exemption, which stipulates that if an owner of a property dies, all other owners are exempt from the tax in the year of death and the following calendar year.

“It was a long, over-a-few-days process,” said Isaacs. “She didn’t sleep. There’s a lot of anxiety.”

The woman told her that she and other friends felt like “they were guilty for having a home,” even though they weren’t speculators.

The woman confirmed the story with Postmedia News, but didn’t want to go on the record.

She said she also reached out to the office of NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth, the MLA for Port Coquitlam. One staffer referred her, puzzlingly, to Service Canada, she said. It was another staffer, in another phone conversation, who told her about the exemption for a deceased owner.

She is still waiting to find out how to apply for the exemption given she doesn’t have access to a computer. She received a phone call from the government Tuesday telling her someone will be in touch with her next week.

When asked for comment, the Finance Ministry said the speculation and vacancy tax is designed to take into account a variety of circumstances and challenges, including the recent death of an owner. Speaking broadly, a property that was a principal residence in 2018 will “generally” be exempt from the tax, it said.

With speculation- and vacancy-tax notices set to arrive at 1.6 million households in Metro Vancouver (excluding Bowen Island and Lions Bay), Greater Victoria, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack, Isaacs estimates there’s likely “hundreds” of people whose spouse had died but with their names still on land-title documents who may be inadvertently caught in the wide bureaucratic net cast by the NDP.

Out of the 1.6 million households who have to file a declaration by March 31, only 32,000 homeowners will actually be subject to the tax, said the Finance Ministry.

Isaacs questioned how much it costs the government to implement the tax and says a better approach would have been to use other property data, such as property taxes where homeowners already declare their principal residences in order to get a homeowners’ grant, to identify homeowners with second homes.

“It has nothing to do with speculation,” said Isaacs of the tax. “I think people are offended when they are called speculators when this is a thing in the province that has contributed to affordability issues when clearly they are not speculators.”

Homeowners who don’t qualify, or apply for an exemption, will be sent a bill due July 2. The tax rate is 0.5 per cent of a home’s assessed value in 2018. The rate increases to two per cent for foreigners and satellite families starting in 2019.

The NDP maintains the speculation and vacancy tax targets foreign and domestic speculators, and owners who leave homes vacant, in order to improve housing affordability in B.C.

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