Many B.C. residents are a little richer than they think.
Right now there are 378,000 outstanding payments worth $92.3 million sitting in Ottawa’s bank vaults, just waiting for British Columbians to step forward and claim the cash.
These unclaimed tax refunds and government cheques have piled up over the past five years, according to Public Works Canada.
Across Canada, total unclaimed payments total about $730 million. That’s about 3.2 million cheques for payments including employment insurance, child-tax payments, pensions and tax rebates that didn’t find their owners for a variety of reasons, the department says.
Sometimes cheques are lost or undelivered, and sometimes recipients move without registering a new home address.
Depending on where you live in Canada, claiming your cash could demand a troublesome trek through government phone systems and bureaucracy.
British Columbians are lucky, in that B.C. is among several provinces with unclaimed property laws and searchable databases to help citizens track down cash. But there are a number of reasons why people still have difficulty discovering what they are owed, experts say.
In B.C., a major portion of the $92.3 million in unclaimed cash is for 203,000 B.C. low-income climate tax credit payments, worth about $31.9 million. The tax credit is intended to help offset carbon taxes paid by low-income consumers.
Another big pile of cash stems from 52,000 unclaimed T1 tax refunds, worth approximately $21.8 million. And there were 13,000 unclaimed Canada Pension Plan payments stuck in Ottawa, valued at $4.9 million.
Experts note it is often people at the margins of society, with the least resources and financial savvy, who leave cash languishing in government accounts.
Financial planner Paul Lermitte of Assante Wealth Management said it is well known within the business that piles of unclaimed cash are sitting in Ottawa.
“Awareness is a huge issue,” Lermitte said. “Wealthy people have lawyers or accountants doing this stuff for them, and the average person probably has some access to a professional adviser. In these cases you are really looking at people who are not working with advisers.”
Lermitte said cash goes unclaimed because “people’s lives are so busy” — but there are other reasons, too.
Fear of the taxman and government bureaucracy makes some people reluctant to ask questions.
“Sometimes there is a fear that, ‘I haven’t got my payments, so maybe I took more than I was supposed to and they are coming after me,’” Lermitte said.
Lermitte pointed to the example of a young man in his 20s whom the firm helped get thousands of dollars in tax payments.
“He thought he owed money to the government, when in fact it was the opposite,” Lermitte said.
In B.C., people can go to the website of The British Columbia Unclaimed Property Society to search for assets and cash they may be owed.
As Lermitte points out, though, for some unfamiliarity with online technology could be a barrier.
Cheques owed by the government never expire. Some advocates suggest that the government is pretty diligent when tracking down debt from citizens, so perhaps Ottawa should be more proactive in reaching out to potential recipients of unclaimed cash.
Marcel Poulin, press secretary for Diane Finley, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, said Finley “has instructed her officials to examine options to help Canadians receive the payments the Government of Canada owes them.”
The department encourages citizens to register for direct bank deposits “to ensure that future payments are automatically transferred into their bank accounts,” Poulin said.
Lermitte told The Province that it is in the nation’s interest to make sure all Canadians are claiming their cash.
“Having this money sitting in government bank accounts doesn’t do anything for our economic growth,” he said.
• To find out if you have unclaimed money, go to UnclaimedPropertyBC.ca.
— with files from The Canadian Press
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