Snowbirds must watch the calendar

New record keeping provisions make it more important than ever this winter to keep track of how long you’re away

Canadian snowbirds need to remain vigilant around the calendar.

New federal record keeping systems will likely come into place by the end of the year that will ensure Canadians and non-Canadians alike are documented as they exit the country.

This becomes an issue for those who remain outside Canada for longer than allowed under residency requirement rules.

“For those of us who spend our winters someplace warmer, the rules aren’t changing, just the recording of travels,” said John Foster of Swift Current, Sask.

Foster and his wife Joan make the trip to Mesa, Arizona, every winter for 177 days.

“You are allowed 183, six months, less one day, making it 182, and as long as you follow that, you are OK with the American authorities,” said Foster, a director of the Canadian Snowbird Association.

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Programs such as Old Age Security, Employment Insurance and the Guaranteed Income Supplement are all tied to days spent in and out of the country.

As well, American tax authorities enforce a 182-day rule regarding how long Canadians can remain there without breaching that country’s substantial presence test of residency.

Bill C-21, which Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced a couple of years ago, was passed in the House of Commons last month.

“Bill C-21 would help us not only ensure that our border with the United States is more secure but also would ensure that our immigration system and social benefit system are better equipped to perform as intended,” he said during the bill’s recent debate.

American Customs and Border Patrol staff will continue to collect Canadian visitors’ information at land and port crossings, but now they will share that information with the Canadian government. Airlines will provide air travel information to Canadian authorities. Information assembled by Canadian officials will also be shared with the United States.

Canadians who exceed the American limits could find themselves having to file income tax reports there and could be classified as unlawfully present in the country, which could impair their abilities to return to the U.S. at a later date. That would be a significant issue for Canadians who own retirement or holiday property in the U.S.

The Canadian government estimates it could save up to $47 million annually on Old Age Security payments by not having to pay ineligible applicants.

Employment insurance overpayments, which are made when Canadians are collecting while living out of the country, could be another $5 million.

Canadian seniors who have been residents for more than 20 years don’t have to worry about being out of the country past any particular deadline because Old Age Security will be paid no matter where they live in the world.

Elise Boisjoly of Employment and Social Development, which is the federal department that looks after most of the national social programming, told a Commons committee reviewing the legislation that the government previously didn’t have the tools to look at who was outside the country and for how long.

When it comes to citizens of other countries looking to become Canadians, the new program will ensure they remain in the country for the 1,100 days needed over five years to apply for citizenship.

The biographical information being collected includes the name, date of birth, nationality, sex, the travelling document, the date, time and place of departure from Canada and, if the person arrives in the United States, the date, time and place of arrival. If biometric data is collected, such as fingerprints or retinal scans, those too will be provided to the government.

The information will not be shared with insurance companies or others looking to verify residence for commercial purposes, say officials.

Foster said how the 182 days is calculated is very important for snowbirds because it can be complicated by other U.S. travel not related to winter residency.

“For instance, if you go down to your (American) winter home in October and return in March but fly back to Saskatoon or Winnipeg for Christmas and stay for 10 days, those days back home in Canada count towards (American) days,” he said.

“This is because your intention is to return directly to the U.S. and resume residency.”

Canadians who own property in the U.S. should allow within their 182 days the opportunity to return to America to perform any non-seasonal maintenance or other work needed for the property or for family holidays that might be taking place during summer.

“And if you are wanting to slip down to Minneapolis to catch some Blue Jays games, for instance, in the summertime, well those days count to your 182 total as well,” said Foster.

“As an association, for several years we have been trying to get the American government to expand the period to eight months. This is largely for those who live at their Canadian lake homes in the summer and lose running water and other services up here after September and don’t get them back until May.”

Two weeks ago, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, both of Florida, introduced the Canadian Snowbirds Act, which would expand American residency to 240 days.

Rubio said Canadians who visit Florida contribute more than US$4 billion a year to the state’s economy. The legislation would allow Canadian citizens older than 50 who either own or rent a residence in the U.S. to remain there for two additional months.

About 3.2 million Canadians visited Florida in 2016. The legislation is endorsed by Visit Florida and the Canadian Snowbird Association.

Bill C-21 is before the Canadian Senate and will likely pass and gain royal assent after it returns in the fall.

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