Manitoba

Winnipeg woman declared dead by CRA twice in 10 months — but she's alive

Dave Gibeault opened his mail last week to find a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency calling for him to pay back hundreds of dollars in GST credits paid to his mother because she was dead when it was received — but she's very much alive.

Son with power of attorney has spent hours on the phone with Canada Revenue Agency trying to fix problem

Dave Gibeault has power of attorney for his mother, Mary Gibeault. She has been declared dead by the Canada Revenue Agency twice in 10 months. (Submitted by Dave Gibeault)

A Winnipeg senior has been declared dead by Canada Revenue Agency twice in a period of 10 months, even though she's alive and living in a personal care home.

This is the second time in 10 months that Dave Gibeault, the woman's son, has received a letter addressed to the "Estate of the late Mary Gibeault."

When the first letter arrived in March of 2021, the man from St. Andrews, Man., knew there was an error because he visits her in a Winnipeg personal care home daily.

"I see her every day, I take care of her, so my fear wasn't that she had died," he told CBC News. "The first thing I thought of was I have an uphill battle in front of me."

He certainly did.

Dave Gibeault received this letter asking him to repay money paid to his mother from the CRA in March, and it took weeks on the phone and two requests for documents proving that he has power of attorney to correct the error, he said. (Submitted by Dave Gibeault)

"It took several weeks and a whole lot of frustration [to get her reclassified as alive]. Hours and hours and hours on the phone, and lost income as a result," Gibeault said, noting that he had to provide proof that he has power of attorney twice.

Causes of such mistakes can vary, CRA says

Gibeault said he thought his problems with the revenue agency were behind him until he got a second letter last week.

"So very frustrating. I know this is going to be another uphill battle. But what they're asking for, they're not going to get. I'm not going to pay them back money that she's entitled to," he said.

The CRA can't comment on individual cases for privacy reasons, but regrets the error, the agency's spokesperson, Hannah Wardell, said in an email on Thursday.

The CRA says people incorrectly labelled as dead could be caused by human error, a miscommunication between government departments, or most often, a mistake made when a return is filed on behalf of a deceased person with an incorrect SIN number. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The cause of such a mistake can vary, she said. It could be human error, a miscommunication between government departments, or most often a mistake made when a return is filed on behalf of a deceased person with an incorrect social insurance number.

"Although rare, it is possible that multiple errors could appear on the same taxpayer's account if the CRA receives incorrect information from more than one source," Wardell said.

"We take these situations seriously, and continue to validate and analyze these errors and implement changes as necessary, to ensure that, wherever possible, these types of errors are prevented."

When an error is made, the CRA simply removes the date of death from the person's file and their CRA account is restored. This also reverses any letters or changes to taxes or benefits that were issued in error, Wardell said.

Dave Gibeault received a letter from the CRA earlier this month addressed to 'the estate of the late Mary Gibeault.' Mary is alive and in a personal care home. (Submitted by Dave Gibeault)

The reversal is immediate, but it can sometimes take a few weeks for letters to be reissued and adjustments to be recalculated.

In 2020, about 0.03 per cent of all the date of death updates were recorded in error.

"Despite safeguards to ensure accuracy of its files, on very rare occasions an individual may erroneously be declared deceased with respect to their records with the Government of Canada," Wardell said in an email.

Thousands wrongly declared dead by CRA

This isn't the first time a mistake like this has happened. Between 2007 and 2013, 5,489 Canadians were erroneously entered as deceased in CRA's system, according to the Office of the Taxpayers' Ombudsperson.

In 2014, the ombudsperson was tasked by the Minister of National Revenue of the time to release a report on the problem and made eight recommendations to fix it.

That's exactly what Dave Gibeault is worried about.

"This is a much bigger scope problem than just one person, and not everybody has an advocate that's going to go and fight for them. So there's a whole lot of people that are not getting their benefits," he said.

Wardell said the CRA has put into place a number of safeguards to lower the likelihood of this error from occurring. It has revised forms and procedures to make it less likely that a person can make an error in their tax filing, and is collaborating with other government departments to validate records.

"While the issue still occurs, the prevalence is notably reducing," Wardell said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

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