I owe taxes but can’t pay: what to do

Navigating Tax Debt: A Comprehensive Guide When You Can’t Afford to Pay

Tax season can be an overwhelming experience, especially when you find yourself owing money to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) but lack the financial means to settle the debt immediately. This predicament can strike anyone, from self-employed individuals to salaried employees facing unexpected financial challenges. Ignoring the situation or allowing it to escalate can lead to severe consequences, including penalties, interest charges, and potential legal actions.

Fortunately, the CRA recognizes that taxpayers may encounter difficulties and offers various options to help alleviate the burden. This comprehensive guide aims to provide you with a clear understanding of the steps you can take when you find yourself thinking, “I owe taxes but can’t pay.” By exploring the available solutions and seeking professional assistance, you can navigate this challenging situation and regain control of your financial well-being.

Understanding Why Some Owe Taxes While Others Receive Refunds

Before delving into the solutions, it’s essential to understand the underlying reasons why some individuals owe taxes while others receive refunds. Those who receive refunds have typically overpaid their income tax throughout the year, often due to factors such as claiming tax credits or deductions. In contrast, those who owe taxes have underpaid their income tax obligations.

This situation frequently arises for self-employed individuals or freelancers who are not subject to automatic tax deductions from their income. Unlike salaried employees, they must budget and set aside funds to cover their tax liabilities. Additionally, some individuals may owe taxes due to underestimating their tax obligations or failing to account for changes in their financial circumstances.

Consequences of Not Paying Taxes

Ignoring tax debt can have severe consequences that can escalate quickly if left unaddressed. The CRA will typically make three attempts to contact you by phone to collect the outstanding amount. If these efforts are unsuccessful, they will issue a written warning detailing the amount owed and the reasons for the debt.

If the taxes remain unpaid after 90 days from the mailing of the notice of assessment, the CRA may initiate legal action. This can lead to various enforcement actions, including:

  • Wage garnishment: The CRA may garnish your wages directly from your employer, diverting a portion of your paychecks to repay the tax debt.
  • Bank account freezing: Your bank accounts may be frozen, preventing you from accessing your funds until the debt is repaid in full.
  • Property liens: The CRA can place a lien on your home or other valuable assets, pledging them as collateral for the tax debt.
  • Asset seizure and sale: In extreme cases, the CRA may seize and sell your assets, such as vehicles or valuables, to recover the outstanding tax debt.

To avoid these severe consequences, it’s crucial to take prompt action and explore the available options for resolving your tax debt.

Staying Calm and Addressing the Issue

When faced with tax debt, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and anxious. However, panicking or ignoring the problem will only exacerbate the situation. Instead, it’s essential to approach the matter with a level head and a proactive mindset.

First and foremost, remember that no matter how dire your financial circumstances may seem, professional assistance is available. Licensed Insolvency Trustees (LITs) at reputable firms like Spergel have helped thousands of Canadians navigate similar situations and gain debt relief. Their expertise and experience can provide invaluable guidance and support.

Secondly, ignoring your tax obligations will only lead to increased penalties, interest charges, and potential legal actions by the CRA. It’s crucial to take immediate action to address your tax debt, even if you cannot pay the full amount right away. Proactively communicating with the CRA demonstrates your willingness to resolve the issue and may increase their cooperation.

Contacting the CRA

One of the most critical steps in addressing your tax debt is to contact the CRA as soon as possible. Remember, interest on unpaid taxes compounds daily at the rate set by law until you pay the amount in full. By being proactive and reaching out to the agency, you demonstrate your commitment to resolving the issue, which may increase their willingness to work with you.

You can contact the CRA by phone or through your online CRA My Account. When communicating with them, be honest about your financial situation and ask for guidance on how to proceed. The CRA has a dedicated team that specializes in assisting taxpayers facing financial difficulties, and they can provide you with options to resolve your tax debt.

One potential solution the CRA may offer is a payment arrangement, allowing you to pay your tax debt in installments. Be prepared to provide information about your income, expenses, and assets to help determine an appropriate payment amount and schedule.

Filing Your Taxes Regardless of Inability to Pay

Even if you cannot pay your tax debt immediately, it’s crucial to file your tax return on time. Failing to file can result in additional penalties and consequences, such as:

  • A 5% increase on any amount owed for filing a return after May 1st.
  • An additional 1% penalty for each subsequent month of non-filing.
  • Limitations on your ability to access government benefits and credits.

By filing your tax return, you demonstrate your commitment to fulfilling your tax obligations and may be eligible for alternative payment arrangements or relief programs offered by the CRA.

Negotiating a Payment Plan

One of the most common solutions for individuals unable to pay their tax debt in full is to negotiate a payment plan with the CRA. This arrangement allows you to make manageable monthly payments toward your outstanding tax liability.

To negotiate a payment plan, be prepared to provide detailed information about your income, expenses, and assets. The CRA will use this information to determine an appropriate payment amount and schedule that aligns with your financial situation.

It’s important to note that while a payment plan can help you avoid more severe penalties and legal actions, interest will continue to accrue on the unpaid balance until it is fully paid. However, this option can provide much-needed relief and allow you to gradually resolve your tax debt without facing immediate financial strain.

Applying for Taxpayer Relief

In certain cases, the CRA may grant taxpayer relief if you can demonstrate that you are facing financial hardship or exceptional circumstances beyond your control. This relief can include waiving or reducing penalties and interest charges, providing you with a fresh start and reducing the overall burden of your tax debt.

To apply for taxpayer relief, you must complete and submit a formal request to the CRA, explaining your situation in detail and providing supporting documentation. While approval is not guaranteed, it’s worth exploring this option if you believe you have a valid case for financial hardship or extenuating circumstances.

Exploring Borrowing or Refinancing Options

If you are unable to secure a payment plan with the CRA or are concerned about the high interest charges associated with your tax debt, you may want to explore borrowing or refinancing options. These alternatives can include:

  • Taking out a personal loan: Depending on your credit score and financial situation, you may be able to secure a personal loan with a lower interest rate than what the CRA charges on unpaid taxes.
  • Using a credit card: While credit card interest rates can be high, this option may be viable if you can pay off the balance quickly and avoid accruing significant interest charges.
  • Refinancing your mortgage: If you have equity in your home, you may be able to refinance your mortgage and use the funds to pay off your tax debt.

It’s important to exercise caution when considering borrowing or refinancing options, as they may involve additional fees or higher interest rates. Carefully weigh the costs against the benefits and ensure that you have a solid plan in place to repay the borrowed funds promptly.

Seeking Professional Assistance: Licensed Insolvency Trustees

Tax matters can be complex, and navigating the various options available can be overwhelming, especially when you’re already facing financial challenges. In such situations, seeking professional assistance from Licensed Insolvency Trustees (LITs) can be invaluable.

LITs are the only professionals in Canada legally authorized to file all forms of debt relief, including consumer proposals and bankruptcies. At firms like Spergel, experienced LITs will review your financial circumstances, offer guidance and advice, and help you navigate the best course of action.

These professionals can explore debt relief options if necessary, assist you in negotiating payment plans, and guide you through the process of applying for taxpayer relief. Their expertise and familiarity with tax laws and regulations can significantly increase your chances of resolving your tax debt effectively.

Appealing the Amount of Tax Debt Owed

If you believe that the amount of tax debt you owe is inaccurate or miscalculated, you have the option to file an appeal. In Canada, you have one year and 90 days from the date of confirmation, reassessment, or redetermination to submit a Notice of Appeal to the Tax Court of Canada.

However, it’s important to note that the appeal process can be complex, and it’s advisable to involve a Licensed Insolvency Trustee or a tax lawyer who specializes in dealing with the CRA. They can guide you through the process, ensure that all your tax filings are up-to-date, and increase your chances of a successful appeal.

If your appeal is unsuccessful, it may be beneficial to explore debt relief options, such as bankruptcy or a consumer proposal, which can substantially reduce or eliminate your tax debt altogether.

Understanding Tax Due Dates

To avoid penalties and additional interest charges, it’s crucial to understand the deadlines for filing your tax return and paying any outstanding tax debt. Generally, the deadline for filing your tax return and paying any taxes owed is April 30th. However, if you are self-employed, you have an extended deadline of June 15th.

Failing to meet these deadlines can result in late filing penalties and interest charges, further compounding your tax debt and making it more challenging to resolve.


Owing taxes to the CRA while struggling financially can be an overwhelming and stressful situation. However, by taking prompt action, exploring the available options, and seeking professional assistance when needed, you can navigate this challenging predicament and regain control of your financial well-being.

Remember, the CRA recognizes that individuals may face difficulties in paying their taxes and offers various solutions, such as payment plans, taxpayer relief programs, and debt relief options like consumer proposals or bankruptcies. By staying proactive, communicating openly with the CRA, and seeking guidance from Licensed Insolvency Trustees, you can find a path forward and achieve a fresh financial future, free from the burden of tax debt.

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