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Fly little snowbird fly

As the leaves start to fall and most of us are hunkering down to prepare for the onslaught of yet another winter, Albertans Delores and Cliff Gilbertson are packing up their sunscreen and joining the more than a million Canadians who winter in the southern United States every year.
Arizona a popular snowbird destination
Arizona a popular snowbird destination

As the leaves start to fall and most of us are hunkering down to prepare for the onslaught of yet another winter, Albertans Delores and Cliff Gilbertson are packing up their sunscreen and joining the more than a million Canadians who winter in the southern United States every year.

For five years they have bid adios to their home in chilly Sherwood Park to spend close to the maximum 183 allowable days each year at Rock Shadows, an over-55 mobile RV resort in Apache Junction, Ariz. Apache Junction is a desert community that is located about 55 kilometres east of Phoenix and has a year-round population of 42,000, a number that swells to 77,000 during the winter months.

Delores says she fell in love with the area almost immediately.

"We went there first to visit a cousin and before we even came home, we bought a place," she laughed. "We love everything about it - the weather, the amenities, the pool and all the activities they have."

Though Cliff is not yet retired - he continues to fly in and out of Fort McMurray every two weeks for work - Delores says waiting for him to come home is much more pleasant in the sunny Arizona climes than in the frigid north.

"It's so nice to lay by the pool and do lunches," she said, adding she and Cliff find they can live in Arizona more affordably than in Sherwood Park. "The shopping is great and so cheap," she explained. "And food is so much cheaper. It's almost a big saving to be living down here."

Calgary couple Jacquie and Charles Ruigrok picked Florida to spend half the year after Charles retired from the oil business in 2007.

"I don't like the desert," explained Jacquie of their decision to buy a place at the Villages, a retirement lifestyle resort in the centre of the state, midway between the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, about an hour north of Orlando. "At the time we were living in Fort McMurray and Florida just felt like a good fit for us."

Jacquie added many of the Villages' residents are Canadian, the majority hailing from Ontario and Quebec.

"We like the location because it's close to Orlando, Disney and so on, and we picked inland in part because we had friends who had been wiped out by hurricanes, so this was a major consideration," she said.

The couple has made numerous friends and say they love the feeling of community in the complex.

"There's a great social club and as soon as you move in, someone is banging on your door to get you involved in something," Jacquie said.

Both the Gilbertsons and the Ruigroks say they are careful not to overstay their welcome south of the border, something that has taken on particular importance since this past summer.

Both Canadian and U.S. authorities have made a dramatic shift in the way they determine the residency of the individuals who divide their time between the two countries. In June of this year, the two countries implemented the Entry/Exit Initiative of the Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan in which they now share information on people entering and leaving the countries.

"Basically what has changed is that they both started counting days," explained Roy Berg, a lawyer and expert on U.S. tax law and estate planning with Moodys Gartner Tax Law in Calgary. "Up till then they counted when you entered the country, but not when you left."

Berg warns snowbirds that the penalties for staying longer than the allowable 183 days in a calendar year could be severe.

"Basically there are five bad things that could happen," he said, explaining that Canadians who stay for up to 365 days could be banned from the U.S. for three years and anyone caught remaining in the country for more than a year, will likely be thrown out for 10 years.

Other consequences include liability for U.S. income on worldwide income and liability for US estate tax on the fair market value of worldwide assets, liability for Canadian departure tax, and loss of provincial health care.

Berg said it's important to take the time to understand the rules and count days carefully.

"You have to know the rules and the triggers because otherwise there are big, bad consequences," he said.

Delores says she and Cliff are meticulously careful.

"We stay for as long as we can but we also save a few days just in case because we do have relatives in the States and you just never know," she said.

Both couples agree there's only one down side to wintering far from home.

"I miss Christmas with my kids," Delores said. "But we do Christmas with them before we leave, so it's not all that bad."

The Ruigroks agree and say they either fly home for Christmas or bring their kids down to Florida.

"It's a good lifestyle," Jacquie said. "At this time of year I always start to get excited to go down there."

Delores does too.

"I count my blessings every single day that I get to go down to Apache Junction," she said. "I really can't imagine it any other way."