Jun 27

June 2018 Newsletter

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When you are turning 71 – the big RRSP decision

For several generations, reaching one’s 65th birthday marked the transition from working life to full retirement, and, usually, receipt of a monthly employee pension, along with government-sponsored retirement benefits. That is no longer the reality. The age at which Canadians retire can now span a decade or more, and retirement is more likely to be a gradual transition than a single event.

Today, Canadians can choose to begin receiving benefits from government-sponsored retirement benefit programs between the ages of 60 and 70. Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits can begin as early as age 60, and taxpayers can start collecting Old Age Security benefits at age 65. Receipt of income from either of those government- sponsored retirement income plans can also be deferred until the age of 70, but no later.

As well, the employer-sponsored pension plan is no longer available as a source of guaranteed retirement income for the majority of retirees. Instead, such retirees have (hopefully) saved for retirement through a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP). Holders of such plans are required to collapse their RRSP by the end of the year in which they turn 71 years of age. And, the decision made on what to do with the funds within that RRSP will affect the individual’s income for the remainder of his or her life.

While the actual decision is a complex one, the options available to a taxpayer who must collapse an RRSP are actually quite few in number — three, to be precise. They are as follows:

  • collapse the RRSP and include all of the proceeds in income for that year;
  • collapse the RRSP and transfer all proceeds to a registered retirement income fund (RRIF); and/or
  • collapse the RRSP and purchase an annuity with the proceeds.

It’s not hard to see that the first option doesn’t have much to recommend it. Collapsing an RRSP without transferring the balance to a RRIF or purchasing an annuity means that every dollar in the RRSP will be treated as taxable income for that year. In most cases, that will mean losing nearly half of the RRSP proceeds to income tax. And, while any amount left can then be invested, tax will be payable on all investment income earned.

As a practical matter, then, the choices come down to two: a RRIF or an annuity. And, as is the case with most tax and financial planning decisions, the best choice will be driven by one’s personal financial and family circumstances, risk tolerance, cost of living, and the availability of other sources of income to meet that cost of living.

The annuity route has the great advantages of simplicity and reliability. In exchange for a lump sum amount paid by the taxpayer, the annuity issuer agrees to pay the taxpayer a specific sum of money, usually once a month, for the remainder of the annuitant’s life. Annuities can also provide a guarantee period, in which the annuity payments continue for a specified time period (5 years, 10 years), even if the taxpayer dies during that time. The amount of monthly income which can be received depends, of course, on the amount paid in, but also on the gender and, especially, the age of the taxpayer. Currently, annuity rates for each $100,000 paid to the annuity issuer by a taxpayer who is 70 years of age range from $579 to $643 per month for a male taxpayer and from $515 to $572 for a female taxpayer (the actual rate is set by the company which issues the annuity). Those rates do not include any guarantee period.

For taxpayers whose primary objective is to obtain a guaranteed life-long income stream without the responsibility of making any investment decisions or the need to take any investment risk, an annuity can be an attractive option. There are however, some potential downsides to be considered. First, an annuity can never be reversed. Once the taxpayer has signed the annuity contract and transferred the funds, he or she is locked into that annuity arrangement for the remainder of his or her life, regardless of any change in circumstances that might mean an annuity is no longer suitable. Second, unless the annuity contract includes a guarantee period, there is no way of knowing how many payments the taxpayer will receive. If he or she dies within a short period of time after the annuity is put in place, there is no refund of amounts invested — once the initial transfer is made at the time the annuity is purchased, all funds transferred belong to the annuity company. Third, most annuity payment schedules do not keep up with inflation — while it is possible to obtain an annuity in which payments are indexed, having that feature will mean a substantially lower monthly payout amount. Finally, where the amount paid to obtain the annuity represents most or all of the taxpayer’s assets, entering into the annuity arrangement means that the taxpayer will not be leaving an estate for his or heirs.

The second option open to taxpayers is to collapse the RRSP and transfer the entire balance to a registered retirement income fund, or RRIF. A RRIF operates in much the same way as an RRSP, with two major differences. First, it’s not possible to contribute funds to a RRIF. Second, the taxpayer is required to withdraw an amount from his or her RRIF (and to pay tax on that amount) each year. That minimum withdrawal amount is a percentage of the outstanding balance, with that percentage figure determined by the taxpayer’s age at the beginning of the year. While the taxpayer can always withdraw more in a year, or make lump sum withdrawals (and pay tax on those withdrawals), he or she cannot withdraw less than the minimum required withdrawal for his or her age group.

Where a taxpayer holds savings in a RRIF, he or she can invest those funds in the same investment vehicles as were used while the funds were held in an RRSP and those funds can continue to grow on a tax-sheltered basis, in the same way as funds in an RRSP. While the ability to continue holding investments that can grow on a tax-sheltered basis provides the taxpayer with a lot of flexibility, and the potential for growth in value, those benefits have a price in the form of investment risk. As is the case with all investments, the investments held within a RRIF can increase in value — or decrease — and the taxpayer carries the entire investment risk. When things go the way every investor wants them to, investment income is earned while the taxpayer’s underlying capital is maintained but, of course, that result is never guaranteed.

On the death of a RRIF annuitant, any funds remaining in the RRIF can pass to the annuitant’s spouse on a tax-free basis. Where there is no spouse, the remaining funds in the RRIF will be income to the RRIF annuitant in the year of death, and any balance after tax is paid will become part of his or her estate, available for distribution to beneficiaries.

While the above discussion of RRIFs versus annuities focuses on the benefits and downsides of each, it is not necessary (and in most cases not advisable) to limit the options to an either/or choice. It is possible to achieve, to a degree, the seemingly irreconcilable goals of lifetime income security and the potential for capital (and estate) growth. Combining the two alternatives — annuity and RRIF — either now or in the future, can go a long way toward satisfying both objectives.

For everyone, in retirement or not, all spending is a combination of non-discretionary and discretionary items. The first category is made up mostly of expenditures for income tax, housing (whether rent or the cost of maintaining a house), food, insurance costs, and (especially for older Canadians) the cost of out-of-pocket medical expenses. The second category of discretionary expenses includes entertainment, travel, and the cost of any hobbies or interests pursued. A strategy which utilizes a portion of RRSP savings to create a secure lifelong income stream to cover non-discretionary costs can remove the worry of outliving one’s money, while the balance of savings can be invested through a RRIF, for growth and to provide the income for non-discretionary spending.

Such a secure income stream can, of course, be created by purchasing an annuity. As well, although most taxpayers don’t necessarily think of them in that way, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security have many of the attributes of an annuity, with the added benefit that both are indexed to inflation. By age 71, all taxpayers who are eligible for CPP and OAS will have begun receiving those monthly benefits. Consequently, in making the RRIF/annuity decision at that age, taxpayers should include in their calculations the extent to which CPP and OAS benefits will pay for their non-discretionary living costs.

As of June 2018, the maximum OAS benefit for most Canadians (specifically, those who have lived in Canada for 40 years after the age of 18) is about $590 per month. The amount of CPP benefits receivable by the taxpayer will vary, depending on his or her work history, but the maximum current benefit which can be received at age 65 is about $1,050. (Where receipt of either benefit is deferred past the age of 65, those amounts go up.) As a result, a single taxpayer who receives the maximum CPP and OAS benefits at age 65 will have just under $20,000 in annual income (just over $1,600 per month). And, for a married couple, of course, the combined total annual income received from CPP and OAS can approach $40,000 annually, or $3,200 per month. While $20,000 a year isn’t enough to provide a comfortable retirement, for those who go into retirement in good financial shape — meaning, generally, without any debt — it can go a long way toward meeting non-discretionary living costs. In other words, most Canadians who are facing the annuity versus RRIF decision already have a source of income which is effectively guaranteed for their lifetime and which is indexed to inflation. Taxpayers who are considering the purchase of an annuity to create the income stream required to cover non-discretionary expenses should first determine how much of those expenses can already be met by the combination of their (and their spouse’s) CPP and OAS benefits. The amount of any annuity purchase can then be set to cover off any shortfall.

While the options available to a taxpayer at age 71 with respect to the structuring of future retirement income are relatively straightforward, the number of factors to be considered in assessing those factors and making that decision are not. All of that makes for a situation in which consulting with an independent financial adviser on the right mix of choices and investments isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessary one.

Getting tax relief for the cost of getting around

It’s something of an article of faith among Canadians that, as temperatures rise in the spring, gas prices rise along with them. Whether that’s the case every year or not, this year statistics certainly support that conclusion. In mid-May, Statistics Canada released its monthly Consumer Price Index, which showed that gasoline prices were up by 14.2%. As of the third week of May, the per-litre cost of gas across the country ranged from 125.2 cents per litre (in Manitoba) to 148.5 cents per litre (in British Columbia). On May 23, the average price across Canada was 135.2 cents per litre, an increase of more than 25 cents per litre from last year’s average on that date.

While in some cases Canadians can reduce the impact of gas price increases by reducing the amount of driving they do, the practical reality is that, for most of us, driving a car every day can’t be avoided, and gasoline is consequently a non-discretionary expense. That’s especially true for those who must drive to work each day and, increasingly, that drive is becoming a longer and longer one, as individuals and families move further and further from their workplace location in search of affordable housing. Finally, for many Canadians a car is their only transportation option, when they live in places that are not served by public transit, or the available transit isn’t a practical daily option.

Unfortunately, for most taxpayers, there’s no relief provided by our tax system to help alleviate the cost of driving as the cost of driving to work and back home, as well as the cost of driving that isn’t work-related, is considered a personal expense for which no deduction or credit can be claimed, no matter how great the cost. That said, there are some (fairly narrow) circumstances in which employees can claim a deduction for the cost of work-related travel.

Those circumstances exist where an employee is required, as part of his or her terms of employment, to use a personal vehicle for work-related travel. For instance, an employee might, as part of his or her job, be required to see clients at their own premises for the purpose of meetings or other work-related activities and be expected to use his or her own vehicle to get to such meetings. If the employer is prepared to certify on a Form T2200 that the employee was ordinarily required to work away from his employer’s place of business or in different places, that he or she is required to pay his or her own motor vehicle expenses and that no tax-free allowance was provided by the employer for such expenses, the employee can deduct actual expenses incurred for such work-related travel. Those deductible expenses include the following:

  • fuel (gasoline, propane, oil);
  • maintenance and repairs;
  • insurance;
  • license and registration fees;
  • interest paid on a loan to purchase the vehicle;
  • eligible leasing costs for the vehicle; and
  • depreciation, in the form of capital cost allowance.

In almost all instances, a taxpayer will use the same vehicle for both personal and work-related driving. Where that’s the case, only the portion of expenses incurred for work-related driving can be deducted and the employee must keep a record of both the total kilometres driven and the kilometres driven for work-related purposes. And, of course, receipts must be kept to document all expenses incurred and claimed.

While no limits (other than the general limit of reasonableness) are placed on the amount of costs which can be deducted in the first four categories listed above, there are limits and restrictions with respect to allowable deductions for interest, eligible leasing costs, and depreciation claims. The rules governing those claims and the tax treatment of employee automobile allowances and available deductions for employment-related automobile use generally are outlined on the Canada Revenue Agency website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/ncm-tx/rtrn/cmpltng/ddctns/lns206-236/229/slry/mtrvhcl-eng.html.

In larger urban centres, and in the nearby cities and suburbs which are served by inter-city transit, many commuters utilize that transit as a way of avoiding both the stress of a drive to work in rush hour traffic and the associated costs. And, for a time, such commuters were able to claim a tax credit to help mitigate the cost of using such transit. Unfortunately, the federal public transit tax credit was eliminated in 2017, such that it could be claimed only for costs incurred for transit use before July 1, 2017. It was not possible to carry the credit over and claim it in a subsequent taxation year, so the last claim anyone could make for the public transit tax credit was on the 2017 annual tax return.

No amount of tax relief is going to make driving, especially for a lengthy daily commute, an inexpensive proposition. But, that said, seeking out and claiming every possible deduction and credit available under our tax rules can at least help to minimize the pain.

Deciphering your Notice of Assessment

By the middle of May 2018, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had processed just over 26 million individual income tax returns filed for the 2017 tax year. Just over 14 million of those returns resulted in a refund to the taxpayer, while about 5.5 million returns filed and processed required payment of a tax balance by the taxpayer. Finally, about 4.4 million returns were what are called “nil” returns — returns where no tax is owing and no refund claimed, but the taxpayer is filing in order to provide income information which will be used to determine his or her eligibility for tax credit payments (like the federal Canada Child Benefit or the HST credit ).

No matter what the outcome of the filing, all returns filed with and processed by the CRA have one thing in common: they result in the issuance of a Notice of Assessment (NOA) by the Agency, outlining the taxpayer’s income, deductions, credits, and tax payable for the 2017 tax year, whether the taxpayer will be receiving a refund or whether he or she has a balance owing and, in either case, the amount involved. The amount of any refund or tax payable will appear in a box at the bottom of page 1, under the heading “Account Summary”. On page 2 of the NOA, the CRA lists the most important figures resulting from their assessment, including the taxpayer’s total income, net income, taxable income, total federal and provincial non-refundable tax credits, total income tax payable, total income tax withheld at source and the amount of any refund or balance owing. Page 2 also includes an explanation of any changes made by the CRA to the taxpayer’s return during the assessment process and provides information on unused credits (like tuition and education credits) which the taxpayer had earned and can carry forward and claim in future years. On page 3 of the NOA, the taxpayer will find information on his or her total RRSP contribution room (i.e., maximum allowable RRSP contribution) for 2018. Finally, page 4 provides information on how to contact the CRA with questions about the information provided on the NOA, on how to change the return filed and on how to dispute the CRA’s assessment of the individual’s tax liability.

In most cases, the information contained in the Notice of Assessment is the same as that provided by the taxpayer in his or her return, perhaps with a few arithmetical corrections made by the CRA. In a minority of cases, the information presented in the Notice of Assessment will differ from that provided by the taxpayer in his or her return. Where that difference means an unanticipated refund, or a refund larger than the one expected, it’s a good day for the taxpayer. In some cases, however, the Notice of Assessment will inform the taxpayer of an unexpected amount of tax owed.

When that happens, the taxpayer must figure out why, and to decide whether or not to dispute the CRA’s conclusions. Many such discrepancies are the result of an error made by the taxpayer in completing the return. A lot of information from a variety of sources is reported on even the most straightforward of returns and it’s easy to overlook, for instance, a T5 slip reporting less than fifty dollars in interest income earned. Even though most returns are now prepared using tax software (for 2017 returns, over 87% of returns were prepared using such software) which minimizes the chance of arithmetical errors, mistakes can still occur. Such tax software relies, in the first instance, on information input by the user with respect to amounts found on T4, T5, and other information slips. No matter how good the software, it can’t account for income information which the taxpayer hasn’t included in the inputs. In other cases, the taxpayer might transpose figures when entering them, such that an income amount of $18,456 on the T4 becomes $14,856 on the tax return. Once again, the tax software has no way of knowing that the information input was incorrect and will calculate tax owing on the basis of the figures provided.

Where there is additional tax owing because of an error or omission made by the taxpayer in completing the return, and the CRA’s figures are correct, disputing the assessment doesn’t really make sense. There is, as well, a persistent tax “myth” that if a taxpayer doesn’t receive an information slip (T4 or T5, as the case might be) for income received during the year, that income doesn’t have to be reported and therefore isn’t taxable. The myth, however, is just that. All taxpayers are responsible for reporting all income received and paying tax on that income, and the fact that an information slip was lost, mislaid, or never received doesn’t change anything. The CRA receives a copy of all information slips issued to Canadian taxpayers, and its systems will cross-check to ensure that all income is accurately reported.

There are, however, instances in which the CRA and the taxpayer are in disagreement over substantive issues, and those issues most often involve claims for deductions or credits. For instance, the CRA may have disallowed an individual’s claim for a medical expense, or for a deduction claimed for a business expenditure, which the taxpayer believes to be legitimate. When that happens, the taxpayer must decide whether to dispute the assessment.

Before making that decision, and whatever the nature of the dispute, the first step is always to contact the CRA for an explanation of the reasons why the change was made. While the information provided in the NOA is a good summary of the taxpayer’s tax situation for the year, it may not always be clear to the taxpayer precisely why there is an increase in the amount of tax which he or she must pay for the year. It is no longer possible to have a face-to-face meeting with a CRA representative at a Tax Services Office to obtain such information, as in-person services were discontinued a few years ago. Taxpayers who want more information about their Notice of Assessment must now call or write to the CRA. The first step to be taken would be a call to the Individual Income Tax Enquiries line at 1-800-959-8281, to obtain more detailed information. If that call doesn’t resolve the taxpayer’s questions, he or she can write to or fax the Tax Centre which processed the return. The name of that Tax Centre can be found in the top left hand corner of the first page of the Notice of Assessment, and fax numbers and mailing addresses for the Tax Centres are available on the CRA website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/cntct/prv/txcntr-eng.html. Communication with a Tax Centre can only be done by fax or mail, as phone numbers for Tax Centres are not available to the public.

Claiming a deduction for moving expenses 

While the Canadian real estate market seems, by all accounts, to have retreated from the record pace it was setting in 2017, there is still plenty of activity. According the statistics released by the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA), more than 35,000 homes were sold across Canada in the month of April alone. And that means that an equal number of households will be moving in the upcoming months.

Individuals and families move for any number of reasons, and those moves can be local or long distance. Whatever the reason for the move, or the distance to the new location, all moves have two things in common — stress and cost. Even where the move is a desired one — moving to attend university, or because of the purchase of a first home — moving represents the upheaval of one’s life and, where the move is for a long distance, or involves a large family home, the costs can be very significant. There is not much that can diminish the stress of moving, but the associated costs can be offset somewhat by a tax deduction which may be claimed for many of those costs.

While its common to refer simply to the “moving expense deduction”, as though it were available in all circumstances, the reality is that there is no general deduction available for moving costs. In order to be tax deductible, such moving costs must be incurred in specific and relatively narrow circumstances. Our tax system allows taxpayers to claim a deduction only where the move is made to get the taxpayer closer to his or her new place of work, whether that work is a transfer, a new job, or self-employment. Specifically, moving expenses can be deducted where the move is made to bring the taxpayer at least 40 kilometres closer to his or her new place of work. That requirement is satisfied where, for instance, a taxpayer moves from Toronto to Ottawa to take a new job. It’s also met where a taxpayer is transferred by his or her employer to another job in a different location and the taxpayer’s move will bring him or her at least 40 kilometres closer to the new work location. It’s not met where an individual or family move up the property ladder by selling and purchasing a new home in the same town or city.

It’s not, as well, actually necessary to be a homeowner in order to claim moving expenses. The list of moving-related expenses which may be deducted is basically the same for everyone — homeowner or tenant — who meets the 40-kilometre requirement. Students who are moving to take a summer job (even if that move is back to the family home) can also make a claim for moving expenses where that move meets the 40-kilometre requirement.

It’s important to remember, however, that even where the 40-kilometre requirement is met, it is possible to deduct moving costs only from employment or self-employment (business) income earned at the new location — there is no deduction possible from other types of income, like investment income or employment insurance benefits.

The general rule is that a taxpayer can claim reasonable amounts that were paid for moving himself or herself, family members, and household effects. In all cases, the moving expenses must be deducted from employment or self-employment income earned at the new location. Where the move takes place later in the year, and moving costs are significant, it is possible that the amount of income earned at the new location in the year of the move will be less than deductible moving expenses incurred. In such instances, those expenses can be carried over and deducted from income earned at the new location in future years.

Within the general rule, there are a number of specific inclusions, exclusions, and limitations. The following is a list of expenses which can be claimed by the taxpayer without specific dollar figure restrictions (but subject, as always, to the overriding requirement of “reasonableness”).

  • traveling expenses, including vehicle expenses, meals and accommodation, to move the taxpayer and members of his or her family to their new residence (note that not all members of the household have to travel together or at the same time);
  • transportation and storage costs (such as packing, hauling, movers, in-transit storage, and insurance) for household effects, including such items as boats and trailers;
  • costs for up to 15 days for meals and temporary accommodation near the old and the new residences for the taxpayer and members of the household;
  • lease cancellation charges (but not rent) on the old residence;
  • legal or notary fees incurred for the purchase of the new residence, together with any taxes paid for the transfer or registration of title to the new residence (excluding GST or HST);
  • the cost of selling the old residence, including advertising, notary or legal fees, real estate commissions, and any mortgage penalties paid when a mortgage is paid off before maturity; and
  • the cost of changing an address on legal documents, replacing driving licences and non-commercial vehicle permits (except insurance), and costs related to utility hook-ups and disconnections.

It sometimes happens that a move to the new home takes place before the old residence is sold. In most such circumstances, the taxpayer is entitled to deduct up to $5,000 in costs incurred for the maintenance of that residence while it is vacant and efforts are being made to sell it. Specifically, costs including interest, property taxes, insurance premiums, and heat and utilities expenses paid to maintain the old residence while efforts were being made to sell it may be deducted. If any family members are still living at the old residence, or it is being rented, no deduction is available. As well, a claim for such home maintenance expenses is not allowed where the taxpayer delayed selling, for investment purposes or until the real estate market improved.

It may seem from the forgoing that virtually all moving-related costs will be deductible; however, there are some costs for which the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) will not permit a deduction to be claimed, as follows:

  • expenses for work done to make the old residence more saleable;
  • any loss incurred on the sale of the old residence;
  • expenses for job-hunting or house-hunting trips to another city (for example, costs to travel to job interviews or meet with real estate agents);
  • expenses incurred to clean or repair a rental residence to meet the landlord’s standards;
  • costs to replace such personal-use items as drapery and carpets;
  • mail forwarding costs; and
  • mortgage default insurance.

To claim a deduction for any eligible costs incurred, supporting receipts must be obtained. While the receipts do not have to be filed with the return on which the related deduction is claimed, they must be kept in case the CRA wants to review them.

Anyone who has ever moved knows that there are an endless number of details to be dealt with. In some cases, the administrative burden of claiming moving-related expenses can be minimized by choosing to claim a standardized amount for certain types of expenses. Specifically, the CRA allows taxpayers to claim a fixed amount, without the need for detailed receipts, for travel and meal expenses related to a move. Using that standardized, or flat rate method, taxpayers may claim up to $17 per meal, to a maximum of $51 per day, for each person in the household. Similarly, the taxpayer can claim a set per-kilometre amount for kilometres driven in connection with the move. The per-kilometre amount ranges from 45 cents for Alberta to 60.5 cents for the Yukon Territory. In all cases, it is the province or territory in which the travel begins which determines the applicable rate.

These standardized travel and meal expense rates are those which were in effect for the 2017 taxation year — the CRA will be posting the rates for 2018 on its website early in 2019, in time for the tax filing season.

Once eligibility for the moving expense deduction is established, the rules which govern the calculation of the available deduction are not complex, but they are very detailed. The best summary of those rules is found on the form used to claim such expenses — the T1-M, which was updated and re-issued by the CRA in January of this year. The current version of the form can be found on the CRA’s website at https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/cra-arc/formspubs/pbg/t1-m/t1-m-17e.pdf, and more information is available at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/ncm-tx/rtrn/cmpltng/ddctns/lns206-236/219/menu-eng.html. Details of the allowable amounts which may be claimed for standardized moving-related meal and travel expenses can be found on the same website at www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/ncm-tx/rtrn/cmpltng/ddctns/lns248-260/255/rts-eng.html.