RRSP/RRIF Spousal Transfers on Death – Not so Automatic – Be Careful you don’t Create a Family War

Most people are aware that upon their death, their RRSP/RRIF can automatically transfer tax-free to their spouse’s RRSP/RRIF if their spouse is the beneficiary of their plan. The advantage of this spousal rollover is that the income tax on the value of the RRSP/RRIF is deferred until the surviving spouse passes away.

However, if the surviving spouse has other ideas and does not transfer the proceeds of the RRSP/RRIF to a plan of their own, the possibility exists that they could end up keeping the proceeds of the plan while leaving the related income tax liability to be paid by the deceased’s estate. While this can be an issue for any family, for blended families, this has the potential to ignite World War 3.

I recently attended the Ontario Tax Conference. The participants were lawyers and accountants, most of whom specialize in income tax. I know a room full of accountants and lawyers talking tax, what could be more torturous. However, there was actually a very outgoing and passionate presenter by the name of Christine Van Cauwenberghe of the Investors Group.

Christine presented the technical details relating to this issue, from the mechanics of the “refund of premiums” to the administrative withholding requirements for financial institutions. But, in simple terms, this is what you need to understand.

When you designate your spouse as the beneficiary of your RRSP/RRIF, they will receive the proceeds of your RRSP/RRIF directly. It will then be his/her responsibility to transfer the entire proceeds to their RRSP/RRIF. If they do that, the bank issues the tax receipts in their name and there are no income tax consequences, end of story.

However, your spouse has no legal obligation to transfer these funds to their RRSP/RRIF. In fact, where your spouse rather use the funds immediately, does not get along with your natural children or is from a second or third marriage and has his/her own children and/or does not get along with their step-children, they may decide to take the money themselves and not transfer the funds to their plan. In these circumstances, the tax receipt for the RRSP/RRIF will then be issued to the deceased’s estate. While the spouse may be held jointly and severally liable by the CRA for the related income tax, if the estate has enough assets, the CRA will typically go after the estate for the taxes, not the spouse.

In order to avoid this potential minefield, Christine suggests that you designate your estate as the beneficiary of your RRSP/RRIF, with a clause that provides two alternative options:

Option 1: The beneficiary (your spouse) chooses to elect with the executor(s) to have the RRSP/RRIF amount taxed in their own name as a refund of premiums. Under this option, the spouse receives the entire RRSP/RRIF proceeds and typically transfers the proceeds to their RRSP/RRIF and the estate assists in filing an election. The required election form is Form T2019, however, you would probably not want to name a specific form in the will, only that there is an option to elect.

Option 2: If the spouse does not agree to the joint election, then they are only entitled to an allocation of the RRSP/RRIF funds net of the associated income tax liability to be incurred by the estate.

A disadvantage of designating your estate as the beneficiary of your RRSP/RRIF is that the funds will be subject to probate in most provinces. Some people feel that the probate fees (1.5% of the value of the RRSP/RRIF in Ontario) are a relatively small cost in order to prevent the potentially disastrous result of your spouse taking the entire proceeds of your RRSP/RRIF and leaving the estate to pay the related income tax.

If your spouse and children do not get along, or you have a blended family, you may wish to review this issue with the lawyer who drafted your will.

Continue reading →