February 2019 Newsletter
New Quarterly Newsletters
Two quarterly newsletters have been added—one dealing with personal issues, and one dealing with corporate issues.
Two quarterly newsletters have been added—one dealing with personal issues, and one dealing with corporate issues. They can be accessed below.
More Debt … and More Interest
The fact that debt levels of Canadian households have been increasing over the past decade and a half can’t really be called news anymore. In particular, the ratio of debt-to-household-income, which stood at 93% in 2005, has risen steadily since then and, as of the third quarter of 2018, reached (another) new record of 177.5%. In other words, the average Canadian household owed $1.78 for every dollar of disposable (after-tax) income. (The Statistics Canada publication reporting those findings can be found on the StatsCan website at https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/181214/dq181214a-eng.htm.)
Repeated announcements of yet another increase in the average debt-to-household income ratio have become almost routine over the past 15 years — the latest statistics are reported in the media and concern is expressed by financial planners and, sometimes, government and banking officials, but there has not been any sustained change in consumer behavior. Starting a year and a half ago, however, something did change. Debt didn’t just get bigger, it got more expensive — five successive times. In June of 2016 the Bank Rate set by the Bank of Canada, on which financial institutions base their lending rates, was 0.75%, and had not changed in the previous two years. Starting in July 2016, that rate was increased in five separate announcements over the next 18 months and, as of January 2019, it stands at 2%.
Like most economic events, the explosive growth in the average debt of Canadian households over the past fifteen years can’t be attributed to a single cause. What’s undeniable however, is that two of the major causes of that growth in debt were first, interest rates which were the lowest on record since before the Great Depression and second, a remarkable run-up in Canadian residential real estate values. Money was cheap and, when debt was secured against home equity, it was frequently incurred in the belief that the increased amount of such debt would soon be covered, or outstripped, by an increase in the value of the underlying real estate. And, since interest rates were so low, the cost of carrying that increased debt was very manageable.
To some extent, both those circumstances have changed. Canadian real estate values are still high by historic standards and, while those values have softened in some areas of the country, there has been nothing like the “crash” in such real estate prices which happened in the late 1980s. However, the era of ultra-cheap money seems to be over, and interest rates are clearly on the increase. While it’s impossible to say how high interest rates will go, and how quickly, it’s prudent to assume at least that rates won’t be going down any time soon.
As the Bank of Canada has announced successive increases in the bank rate, financial institutions have inevitably responded by increasing the interest rates charged on all forms of borrowing. In other words, even if the amount of debt carried by Canadian families hasn’t changed in the last 18 months, the cost of carrying that debt has certainly gone up. The effect of such change is measurable: as noted by the credit reporting agency Equifax, the proportion of Canadians who pay off their credit cards in full each month has declined (as measured on a year-over-year basis) each month since August 2017.
There is no instant fix for anyone who has taken on debt and is now finding that repaying (or even servicing) that debt has become more difficult, or even impossible. There are, however, steps which can be taken to get that debt under control and even, eventually, to be become debt-free. And, there is help available through debt and credit counselling provided by any number of non-profit agencies. Those agencies work with individuals, and with their creditor(s), to create both a realistic budget and a manageable debt repayment schedule. More information on the credit counselling process, and a listing of such non-profit agencies can be found at http://creditcounsellingcanada.ca/.
Responding to a Tax Instalment Reminder from The CRA
Sometime during the month of February, millions of Canadians will receive mail from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). That mail, a “Tax Instalment Reminder”, will set out the amount of instalment payments of income tax to be paid by the recipient taxpayer by March 15 and June 17 of this year.
Receiving an “Instalment Reminder” from the CRA won’t be a surprise for many recipients who have paid tax by instalments during previous tax years. For others, however, the need to make tax payments by instalment is a new and unfamiliar concept. That’s because for most Canadians — certainly most Canadians who earn their income through employment — the payment of income tax throughout the year is an automatic and largely invisible process, requiring no particular action on the part of the employee/taxpayer. Federal and provincial income taxes, along with Canada Pension Plan (CPP) contributions and Employment Insurance (EI) premiums, are deducted from each employee’s income and the amount deposited to an employee’s bank account is the net amount remaining after such taxes, contributions and premiums are deducted and remitted on the employee’s behalf to the CRA. While no one likes having to pay taxes, having those taxes paid “off the top” in such an automatic way is, relatively speaking, painless. Such is not, however, the case for the sizeable minority of Canadians who pay their income taxes by way of tax instalments
The CRA’s decision to send an Instalment Reminder to certain taxpayers isn’t an arbitrary one. Rather, an Instalment Reminder is generated when sufficient income tax has not been deducted from payments made to that taxpayer throughout the year. Put more technically, an instalment reminder will be issued by the CRA where the amount of tax which was or will be owed when filing the annual tax return is more than $3,000 in the current (2019) tax year and either of the two previous (2017 or 2018) tax years. Essentially, the requirement to pay by instalments will be triggered where the amount of tax withheld from the taxpayer’s income throughout the year is at least $3,000 less than their total tax owed for 2019 and either 2017 or 2018. For residents of Quebec, that threshold amount is $1,800.
Such obligation arises on a regular basis for those who are self-employed, or course, and generally for those whose income is largely derived from investments. The group of recipients of a tax instalment reminder often also includes retired Canadians, especially the newly retired, for two reasons. First, while most employees have income from only a single source – their paycheque – retirees often have multiple sources of income, including Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) payments, private retirement savings and, sometimes, employer-provided pensions. And, while income tax is deducted automatically from one’s paycheque, that’s not the case for most sources of retirement income. Relatively few new retirees realize that it’s necessary to make arrangements to have tax deducted “at source” from either their government source income (like CPP or OAS payments) or private retirement income like pensions or registered retirement income fund withdrawals, and to make sure that the total amount of those deductions is sufficient to pay the total tax bill for the year. It is that group of individuals, who may be surprised and puzzled by the arrival of an unfamiliar “Instalment Reminder” from the CRA. However, no matter what kind of income a taxpayer has received, or why sufficient tax has not been deducted at source, the options open to a taxpayer who receives such an Instalment Reminder are the same.
First, the taxpayer can pay the amounts specified on the Reminder, by the March and June payment due dates. Choosing this option will mean that the taxpayer will not face any interest or penalty charges, even if the amount paid by instalments throughout the year turns out to be less than the taxes actually payable for 2019. If the total of instalment payments made during 2019 turn out to more than the taxpayer’s total tax liability for the year, he or she will of course receive a refund when the annual tax return is filed in the spring of 2020.
Second, the taxpayer can make instalment payments based on the amount of tax which was owed for the 2018 tax year. Where a taxpayer’s income has not changed significantly between 2018 and 2019 and his or her available deductions and credits remain the same, the likelihood is that total tax liability for 2019 will be slightly less than it was in 2018, as the result of the indexation of both income tax brackets and tax credit amounts.
Third, the taxpayer can estimate the amount of tax which he or she will owe for 2019 and can pay instalments based on that estimate. Where a taxpayer’s income will decrease significantly from 2018 to 2019, such that his or her tax bill will also be substantially reduced, this option can make the most sense.
A taxpayer who elects to follow the second or third options outlined above will not face any interest or penalty charges if there is no tax payable when the return for the 2019 tax year is filed in the spring of 2020. However, should instalments paid have been late or insufficient, the CRA will impose interest charges, at rates which are higher than current commercial rates. (The rate charged for the first quarter of 2019 — until March 31, 2019 — is 6%.) As well, where interest charges are levied, such interest is compounded daily, meaning that on each successive day, interest is levied on the previous day’s interest. It’s also possible for the CRA to levy penalties for overdue or insufficient instalments, but that is done only where the amount of instalment interest charged for the year is more than $1,000.
Most Canadian taxpayers are understandably disinclined to pay their taxes any sooner than absolutely necessary. However, ignoring an Instalment Reminder is never in the taxpayer’s best interests. Those who don’t wish to involve themselves in the intricacies of tax calculations can simply pay the amounts specified in the Reminder. The more technical-minded (or those who want to ensure that they are paying no more than absolutely required, and are willing to take the risk of having to pay interest on any shortfall) can avail themselves of the second or third options outlined above.
RRSPs and TFSAs — Making the Annual Contribution
For most taxpayers, the annual deadline for making an RRSP contribution comes at a very inconvenient time. At the end of February, many Canadians are still trying to pay off the bills from holiday spending, the first income tax instalment payment is due two weeks later on March 15 and the need to pay any tax balance for the year just ended comes just 6 weeks after that, on April 30. And, while the best advice on how to avoid such a cash flow crunch is to make RRSP contributions on a regular basis throughout the year, that’s more of a goal than a reality for the majority of Canadians.
Whether convenient or not, the deadline for making RRSP contributions which can be claimed on the return for 2018 is Friday March 1, 2019. The maximum allowable current year contribution which can be made by any individual taxpayer for 2018 is 18% of that taxpayer’s earned income for the 2017 year, to a statutory maximum of $26,230.
Those are the basic rules governing RRSP contributions for the 2018 tax year. For most Canadians, however, those rules are just the starting point of the calculation, as millions of Canadian taxpayers have what is termed “additional contribution room” carried forward from previous taxation years. That additional contribution room arises because the taxpayer either did not make an RRSP contribution in each previous year, or made one which was less than his or her maximum allowable contribution for the year. For many taxpayers that additional contribution room can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and the taxpayer is entitled to use as much or as little of that additional contribution room as he or she wishes for the current tax year.
It’s apparent from the forgoing that determining one’s maximum allowable contribution for 2018 will take a bit of research. The first step in determining one’s total (current year and carryforward) contribution room for 2018 is to consult the last Notice of Assessment which was received from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Every taxpayer who filed a return for the 2017 taxation year will have received a Notice of Assessment from the CRA, and the amount of that taxpayer’s allowable RRSP contribution room for 2018 will be summarized on page 2 of that notice. Taxpayers who have discarded (or can’t find) their Notice of Assessment can obtain the same information by calling the CRA’s Telephone Information Phone Service (TIPS) line at 1-800-267-6999. An automated service at that line will provide the required information, once the taxpayer has provided his or her social insurance number, month, and year of birth and the amount of income from his or her 2017 tax return. Those who don’t wish to use an automated service can call the CRA’s Individual Income Tax Enquiries Line at 1-800-959 8281, and speak to a client services agent, who will also request such identifying information before providing any taxpayer-specific data. Finally, for those who have registered for the CRA’s My Account service, the needed information will be available online.
One question that doesn’t often get asked by taxpayers is whether it actually makes sense to make an RRSP contribution. The wisdom of making annual contributions to one’s RRSP has become an almost unquestioned tenet of tax and retirement planning, but there are situations in which other savings vehicles — particularly the Tax-Free Savings Account, or TFSA — may be the better short-term or long-term option or even, in some cases, the only one available.
When it comes to making a contribution to one’s TFSA, the good news is the timelines and deadlines are much more flexible than those which govern RRSP contributions. A contribution to one’s TFSA can be made at any time of the year, and contributions not made during the current year can be carried forward and made in any subsequent year.
On the other hand, determining one’s total TFSA contribution room is significantly more complex than figuring out one’s allowable RRSP contribution amount, for two reasons. First, the maximum TFSA amount has changed several times (increasing and decreasing) since the program was introduced in 2009. Second, and more important, individuals who withdraw funds from a TFSA can re-contribute those funds, but not until the year following the one in which the withdrawal is made. Especially where a taxpayer has several TFSA accounts, and/or a history of making contributions, withdrawals and re-contributions, it can be difficult to determine just where that taxpayer stands with respect to his or her maximum allowable TFSA contribution for 2019.
In this case, there’s no help to be had from a Notice of Assessment, as the CRA no longer provides TFSA contribution information on that form. Information on one’s current year TFSA contribution limit can, however, be obtained from the CRA website, from the TIPS line at 1-800-267-6999 or its Individual Income Tax Enquiries line at 1-800-959-8281, as outlined above. It should be noted, however, that information on one’s 2019 TFSA contribution limit won’t be available through the TIPS line until mid-February 2019.
Determining which savings vehicle is the better option for a particular taxpayer will depend, for the most part, on the taxpayer’s current and future tax situation, the purpose for which the funds are being saved, and the taxpayer’s particular sources of retirement income.
Taxpayers who are saving toward a shorter-term goal, like next year’s vacation or even a down payment on a home should direct those savings into a TFSA. While choosing to save through an RRSP will provide a tax deduction on that year’s return and, possibly, a tax refund, tax will still have to be paid when the funds are withdrawn from the RRSP in a year or two. And, more significantly from a long-term point of view, repeatedly using an RRSP as a short-term savings vehicle will eventually erode one’s ability to save for retirement, as RRSP contributions which are withdrawn cannot be replaced. While the amounts involved may seem small, the loss of contribution room and the compounding of invested amounts over 25 or 30 years or more can make a significant dent in one’s ability to save for retirement.
Taxpayers who are expecting their income to rise significantly within a few years (e.g., students in post-secondary or professional education or training programs) can save some tax by contributing to a TFSA while they are in school and their income (and therefore their tax rate) is low, allowing the funds to compound on a tax-free basis, and then withdrawing the funds tax-free once they’re working, when their tax rate will be higher. At that time, the withdrawn funds can be used to make an RRSP contribution, which will be deducted from income which would be taxed at that higher tax rate. And, if a need for funds should arise in the meantime, a tax-free TFSA withdrawal can always be made.
Taxpayers who are currently in the work force and who are members of a registered pension plan (RPP) may find that saving through a TFSA is their only practical option. As outlined above, the starting point for calculating one’s current year contribution limit maximum amount which can be contributed to an RRSP and deducted on the tax return for 2018 is calculated as 18% of earned income for 2017. However, the maximum allowable contribution is reduced, for members of RPPs, by the amount of benefits accrued during the year under that pension plan. Where the RPP is a particularly generous one, RRSP contribution room may, as a result, be minimal, and a TFSA contribution the logical savings alternative.
Canadians aged 71 and older will find the RRSP vs. TFSA question irrelevant, as the last date on which taxpayers can make RRSP contributions is December 31st of the year in which they turn 71. Many of those taxpayers will, however, have converted their RRSP savings to a registered retirement income fund (RRIF) and anyone who has done so is required to withdraw (and be taxed on) a specified percentage of those RRIF funds every year. Particularly where required RRIF withdrawals exceed the RRIF holder’s current cash flow needs, that income can be contributed to a TFSA. Although the RRIF withdrawals made must still be included in income for the year and taxed as such, transferring the funds to a TFSA will allow them to continue compounding free of tax and no additional tax will be payable when and if the funds are withdrawn. And, unlike RRIF or RRSP withdrawals, monies withdrawn in the future from a TFSA will not affect the planholder’s eligibility for Old Age Security benefits or for the federal age credit.
RRSPs and TFSAs are the most significant tax-free or tax-deferred savings vehicles available to Canadian taxpayers, and both have a place in most financial and retirement plans. To help taxpayers to make informed choices about their savings options, the CRA provides a number of dedicated webpages about both RRSPs and TFSAs, and those can be found on the CRA website at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/rrsp-reer/menu-eng.html and www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/tfsa-celi/menu-eng.html and www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/tfsa-celi/menu-eng.html.
Taking Advantage of Pension Income Splitting
Income tax is a big-ticket item for most retired Canadians. Especially for those who are no longer paying a mortgage, the annual tax bill may be the single biggest expenditure they are required to make each year. Fortunately, the Canadian tax system provides a number of tax deductions and credits available only to those over the age of 65 (like the age credit) or only to those receiving the kinds of income usually received by retirees (like the pension income credit), in order to help minimize that tax burden. And, in most cases, the availability of those credits is flagged, either on the income tax form which must be completed each spring or on the accompanying income tax guide.
There is, however, another income tax saving strategy which is not nearly as well-known. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the benefits of that strategy (and the ease with which it can be accomplished) aren’t readily apparent from either the tax return form or the annual income tax guide. That tax saving strategy is pension income splitting, and it’s likely the case that many taxpayers who could benefit aren’t familiar with the strategy, especially if they are not receiving professional tax planning or tax return preparation advice.
That’s a particularly unfortunate reality because pension income splitting has the potential to generate more tax savings among taxpayers over the age of 65 (and certainly those over the age of 71, for whom RRSP contributions are no longer possible) than just about any other tax planning strategy available to retirees. In addition, it’s one of the very few tax planning strategies which require no expenditure of funds on the part of the taxpayer, and which can be implemented after the end of the tax year, at the time the return for that tax year is filed.
When described in those terms, pension income splitting can sound like one of those “too good to be true” tax scams, but that’s not the case. Essentially, what pension income splitting offers is a government-sanctioned opportunity for Canadian residents who are married (and, usually, where recipient spouse is aged 65 or older) to make a notional reallocation of private pension income between them on their annual tax returns, and to benefit from a lower overall family tax bill as a result.
Pension income splitting, like all forms of income splitting, works because Canada has what is called a “progressive” tax system, in which the applicable tax rate goes up as income rises. For 2018, the federal tax rate applied to about the first $47,000 of taxable income is 15%, while the federal rate applied to the next $46,000 of such income is 20.5%. So, an individual who has $90,000 in taxable income would pay federal tax of about $15,900: if that $90,000 was divided equally between such individual and his or her spouse, each would have $45,000 in taxable income and the total federal family tax bill would be $13,500.
The general rule with respect to pension income splitting is that a taxpayer who receives private pension income during the year is entitled to allocate up to half that income (without any dollar limit) to his or her spouse for tax purposes. In this context, private pension income means a pension received from a former employer and, where the income recipient is age 65 or older, payments from an annuity, a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) or a registered retirement income fund (RRIF). Government source pensions, like the Canada Pension Plan or Old Age Security payments do not qualify for pension income splitting, regardless of the age of the recipient.
The mechanics of pension income splitting are relatively simple. There is no need to transfer funds between spouses or to make any change in the actual payment or receipt of qualifying pension amounts, and no need to notify a pension administrator. Taxpayers who wish to split eligible pension income received by either of them must each file Form T1032, Joint Election to Split Pension Income for 2018, with their annual tax return. That form, which is not included in the annual tax return package, can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/E/pbg/tf/t1032/README.html or can be ordered by calling 1-800-959 8281.
On the T1032, the taxpayer receiving the private pension income and the spouse with whom that income is to be split must make a joint election to be filed with their respective tax returns for 2018. Since the splitting of pension income affects the income and therefore the tax liability of both spouses, the election must be made and the form filed by both spouses — an election filed by only one spouse or the other won’t suffice. In addition to filing the T1032, the spouse who is actual recipient of the pension income to be split must deduct from income the pension income amount allocated to his or her spouse. That deduction is taken on Line 210 of his or her 2018 return. And, conversely, the spouse to whom the pension income amount is being allocated is required to add that amount to his or her income on the return, this time on Line 116. Essentially, to benefit from pension income splitting, all that’s needed is for each spouse to file a single form with the CRA and to make a single entry on his or her 2018 tax return.
By the end of February or early March, taxpayers will have received (or downloaded) the information slips which summarize the income received from various sources during 2018. At that time, couples who might benefit from this strategy can review those information slips and calculate the extent to which they can make a dent in their overall tax bill for the year through a little judicious income splitting.
Those wishing to obtain more information on pension income splitting than is available in the 2018 General Income Tax and Benefit Guide should refer to the CRA website at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/pensionsplitting/ where more detailed information is available