Tax time 2015: Some workplace benefits come tax-free

Every dollar your employer pays you in salary is considered taxable income, but there are some useful benefits companies can offer to staff that the taxman can't touch.

Frequent flyer points, health spending accounts and your kids' university scholarships won't be taxed

Your employer is allowed to give you gifts and awards worth up to $500 a year without them being taxed. Christmas parties are also tax-deductible as long as they cost less than $100 per person. (Shutterstock)

Every dollar your employer pays you in salary is considered taxable income, but there are some tasty benefits companies can offer to staff that the tax man won't be able to bite into.

Some benefits are reported on your T4 slip as being taxable — things like life insurance premiums that the employer pays. So, what are some of those non-taxable benefits?

Well, they run the gamut from the potentially juicy (frequent flyer points and post-secondary education scholarships for your children) to the definitely trivial (coffee mugs stamped with the company logo).

Here are nine potentially lucrative, non-taxable benefits that many people aren't aware of:

1. Frequent flyer points

If you've done a lot of job-related flying and charged your expenses on your personal credit card, the frequent flyer or reward points that accrue are not considered a taxable benefit, even if your employer reimbursed you for all your expenses.

This change in the tax rules was announced in 2009 and is in effect for all subsequent tax years.

Taxable benefits:

  • Personal use of a company car.
  • Low-interest or interest-free loans from your employer.
  • Stock options given by your employer.
  • Holiday trips and prizes that are incentive awards.
  • Allowing you or your family free use of a vacation property.
  • Scholarships for your children to attend primary or secondary schools.
  • Tips and other gratuities from customers.
  • Reimbursement for the cost of tools used in your duties on the job.

There are a couple of critical caveats, however, in order to keep the non-taxable status. For one thing, you can't convert the points to cash. For another, your employer's plan to award you those reward points can't be designed as a form of remuneration to avoid taxes.

One more thing: if the points are accumulated through a company credit card, rather than your own, the employer will be deemed to control the points and the free flight will be considered a taxable benefit in the employee's hands.

2. Overtime meals and allowances

Since 2009, the Canada Revenue Agency no longer considers a meal or meal allowance to be a taxable benefit if it's awarded to an employee who has to work overtime. The value of the meal has to be "reasonable," which means $17 or less.

The employee must also have worked at least two hours of overtime immediately before or after the scheduled work hours. Plus, the overtime has to be infrequent or occasional.

3. Non-cash gifts under $500

Your employer is allowed to give you gifts and awards worth up to $500 a year without attracting a tax hit. That is provided the gifts aren't in cash and you aren't related to your employer. So that bottle of scotch at Christmas is tax-free, if not hangover-free.

Perks like gym memberships and frequent flyer and reward points earned on work-related trips are also considered non-taxable in the hands of the employee - but there are some restrictions so read the fine print. (iStock)
In addition, your employer can give you a non-cash long-service or anniversary award. As long as the total value is $500 or less, it's a non-taxable benefit.

The award can't be for less than five years of service and it must have been five years since the last long-service award.

Christmas parties are also considered non-taxable benefits, as long as the cost per employee is less than $100.

"Parties costing more than that will generally be considered to be beyond the 'privilege' point and may result in taxable benefits," the accounting firm Grant Thornton says in its 2014-2015 tax planning guide.

4. Post-secondary scholarships for your kids

If your employer pays your tuition for a course that doesn't benefit the company, it would be considered a taxable benefit in your hands although not if the course is intended to develop or upgrade skills that you need in order to do your job or take on future assignments.

If your employer gives your child a scholarship, it's not considered a taxable benefit to you (the employee) either, as long as it's used for post-secondary education (not for primary or secondary school). The scholarship award must instead be declared by your child. But chances are he or she will be in a much lower tax bracket than you are.

5. Contributions to a private health services plan (PHSP)

Many people still don't know about PHSPs, also known as health spending accounts, but they can be a great way for a small business to provide their employees with coverage for drugs, medical expenses like dental bills and hospital costs that aren't covered under provincial health plans. 

The premiums are a tax-deductible expense for the business and are non-taxable to the employee (except in Quebec). 

Employer-paid premiums that go toward a group sickness or accident insurance plan used to be non-taxable benefits for employees. But the March 29, 2012, federal budget did away with that arrangement. Starting with the 2012 tax year, they're considered taxable benefits for the employee.

6. Moving expenses

If you had to move because your employer transferred you, the expenses related to that move can be reimbursed by your employer without attracting a tax hit. Those expenses can include:

  • Moving costs and storage expenses.
  • Vehicle expenses, meals and accommodation associated with moving you and members of your household to your new residence.
  • Real estate commissions and legal fees to purchase the new residence when the old residence has been sold.
  • Mortgage prepayment and lease cancellation fees.
  • Costs of disconnecting and reconnecting utilities.

All of the above expenses are non-taxable if your employer asks for receipts or if you otherwise have to account for your expenses. But if your employer just gave you a cash payment and you didn't need to account for how the money was used (what's called a non-accountable moving allowance), it's only a non-taxable benefit if it's for $650 or less and you certify that the amount was used entirely for moving expenses. If it's for more $650, it becomes a taxable benefit.

One additional point: if your employer required you to relocate and you had to sell your old home at a loss, your employer can reimburse up to $15,000 of that loss without it being a taxable benefit. If the loss and reimbursement are more than $15,000, only half of the excess is considered a taxable benefit.

7. Home computers used for work

The cost of a home computer that is used primarily to benefit your employer is a non-taxable benefit as long as home computers are made available to all employees.

8. Company T-shirts, mugs etc.

Company swag such as T-shirts, mugs, trophies and other items of nominal value that you get from your employer are not taxable. Neither is the free coffee and cookies your boss occasionally provides.

9. Recreation costs and club memberships

You won't be taxed if your employer pays your membership fees at a club as long as the primary intent of being a member is to benefit the employer's business. According to the 2015 KPMG tax-planning guide, the employer likely won't be able to deduct these expenses, however.

If your employer owns recreation facilities that are used by employees, using the facilities is also not considered a taxable benefit.