Les Leyne: Taxpayer trapped by the ‘-’ in her name

A hybrid British Columbian/Albertan had what she thought was an easy, sensible legal option to avoid paying thousands of dollars in speculation tax every year.

All that Merge Gupta-Sunderji had to do was switch her official place of residence, from Calgary to Victoria. Easy to do, since she owns a condo here and spends more than half her time living in it.

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Becoming a British Columbian would have voided the speculation tax on the condo, since it would become her primary residence. But the idea got caught up on this: “-”.

It’s the hyphen in her last name. It stalled the whole effort for months. Amazing what a tiny little piece of type can do to the bureaucratic mill.

After all that time, a solution might finally be at hand. The Health Ministry said Monday that a policy change last week will solve the problem. Ministry and Insurance Corporation of B.C. systems are being meshed to better cope with the hyphen problem, which was prompting complaints.

It took four ministries to accomplish the change, which took effect Sept. 4. That’s a measure of how complicated the hyphen was.

Gupta-Sunderji had been trying since April to make the change, but ran into roadblocks, stalls and the kind of black holes where logic goes to die.

Her hyphenated name is her legal name and has been since she got married 27 years ago. It’s on her passport and every piece of ID she owns.

But when she filed her hyphenated paperwork with the B.C. government, the gears ground to a halt.

She said she was told she had to elect to use her maiden name or married name, but not a hyphenated name.

“It’s blowing my mind.”

Gupta-Sunderji makes her living as professional public speaker and author in the field of leadership. She writes a regular column in the Globe and Mail. All her expertise in business leadership and problem-solving couldn’t help her in getting a change-of-address form filled out.

To become a B.C. citizen she needed to present her name, but her name didn’t fit B.C.’s requirements.

She said she was perplexed. “I have built an entire professional reputation with this last name, so it really is more than just principle.”

She bought the condo two years ago.

When the speculation tax was unveiled, it became clear that maintaining official residency in Alberta was going to cost her a bundle every year. So she started the process of becoming a B.C. citizen and ran into the hyphen problem.

The Health Ministry said it has to do with discrepancies between ICBC and Health Information B.C. policies. With changes to the policies, many people with name mismatches will be able to get ID, the ministry said.

“We continue to work to find solutions for other British Columbians who have other types of name mismatches or have different names on different ID documents.”

That would ease the need for Gupta-Sunderji to go through the expensive, time-consuming chore of legally changing her name — if the policy change applies to her.

Gupta-Sunderji said she was advised by the Vital Statistics office to legally change her name.

“But I ran into a snag there as well.”

To change your name in B.C. you need to have been a B.C. resident for three months. But she can’t become an official B.C. resident because her name isn’t recognized.

She backed up and tried another angle. In Calgary, she approached the idea of changing her name there. “They laughed at me, because my name is already legal in Alberta. The irony has not escaped me.”

Pending word on the policy change, she’s counting the days until the new year, when the speculation tax kicks in. Several thousand dollars is riding on whether the paperwork gets done.

If she becomes a British Columbian,, she saves paying the speculation tax. But B.C. would stand to make a lot more from her paying income tax here.

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