Tax-free Savings Plans

Perhaps not since the hula hoop, pet rocks and the latest Indiana Jones movie has something caused such buzz on Main Street. Everyone is talking about the new tax-free savings accounts (“TFSA”) created by this Budget. Have Finance Minister Flaherty and the minority Conservatives executed a political coup de tax in time for an upcoming election call?

Starting in 2009, resident individuals at least age 18 may establish one or more TFSAs through Canadian financial institutions. Similar to RRSPs, new contribution room accumulates annually but is not tied to generating “earned” income. The annual limit starts at $5,000 and is scheduled to be indexed in the future. You may have contributed up to your accumulated room at any time in your life. Excess contributions are subject to a 1% penalty, as with RRSPs.

Like RESPs, and unlike RRSPs, the capital contribution does not generate a tax break, nor is the withdrawal of capital taxed. Unlike either of them — and here’s the excitement — the accumulating investment income that the account earns is also not taxed upon withdrawal.

Aside from this generous tax treatment, the investment rules of TFSAs generally will be the same as those that govern RRSPs, including the point that borrowing to contribute does not create deductible interest. Unlike RRSPs, however, the assets in a TFSA can serve as collateral for borrowing.

Unlike RESPs (and special purpose education and home-buying in RRSPs), TFSA funds can be withdrawn for absolutely any purpose in life.

Unlike RRSPs and RESPs, you may withdraw funds from the TFSA and replace them later. In effect, then, your accumulating room is a life-time amount that can be held in the account.

Existing attribution rules between spouses are irrelevant because TFSAs are tax-free; therefore, one spouse can fund the other’s TFSA contributions.

The tax treatment of TFSAs upon death will parallel RRSPs. The account can transfer directly as a named beneficiary, or indirectly through the will, to a surviving spouse and retain the tax-free character. Otherwise, the income earned in the account after death becomes taxable upon death.

Again, like RRSPs, TFSAs can be transferred in marital breakup.

Unlike RRSPs and RESPs, there are no age implications to TFSAs (other than age 18). An interesting twist is that individuals who cease Canadian residency may maintain their TFSAs and continue to earn income free of Canadian tax. No contributions may be made, however, and no annual new room will accrue. There may be tax issues, however, in the new country of residence.

The tax-exempt nature of investment income in a TFSA merits some thought and strategizing. This same analysis has long been forged between sheltered and non-sheltered accounts and historically provided some useful guidelines. With TFSAs, there is now a third type of account to consider, and the analysis starts anew. For starters, interest income would be the most favourably treated in a TFSA as compared to the other two accounts. Capital gains would be better off, also, in a TFSA as zero, as opposed to half or all, of a gain is taxable. Eligible dividends are already well treated in non-sheltered accounts for middle income investors, but those tax credits are foregone in both TFSAs and sheltered accounts. Foreign dividends will continue to attract foreign tax in TFSAs and non-sheltered accounts and not in sheltered accounts. These credits will not be usable in TFSAs.

For more information, please see the Insight articles Tax-free Savings Accounts – Part 2 and Tax-free Savings Accounts – Part 3 (Smart Investing) .

Investors

We have long held to the adage that a simplistic tax system cannot be super-imposed on a complex society, and once again that holds true.

The unit trust saga finally led to the long-overdue overhaul of the tax integration of personal and corporate taxation with the introduction of a more-complex-but-fairer dividend system. Now that it is clearer that those two systems must inter-connect, we see the first causal effect. Last Fall, the government set in motion a drop in corporate tax rates, and so, the dividend tax credit system must change by corollary. The gross-up and credit system for “eligible dividends” is now scheduled for three ramp-downs in response to the lower corporate tax rates.

What remains unsolved here with a series of changes like this is the mixed pot of general rate corporate after-tax earnings that accumulates over time and is taxed at different rates historically, yet subject to one integration system.

RESPs

There are minor adjustments to the RESP system, one related to contributions and the other related to withdrawals.

Presently, there is a twenty-one year window for contributions from the inception of the plan, and the plan must be wound up within twenty-five years. Also, no contributions can be made for a beneficiary who is twenty-one or older.

All three of these time limits are now extended by a further ten years, effective in 2008. Note that the dollar limits have not been changed, only these various timing issues.

There has been a minor change on the withdrawal side. Students may make qualifying withdrawals for up to six months after the completion of their qualifying study program.

Registered Disability Savings Plan

This was a major thrust of the Federal budget of the Spring of 2007. It is expected that the institutional processes necessary in the banking community will be in place later in 2008.

The law-makers uncovered a small flaw in the previous proposals, which is plugged with an amendment.

Presently, this plan requires that the beneficiary is, and continues to be, recognized under a disability tax credit certificate. The plan must be de-registered, and the funds disbursed to the beneficiary, if this condition fails. It became apparent that the beneficiary controls this condition, and might let the disability certification lapse, thus triggering payout of the plan, perhaps against the wishes and intent of the funding parent.

Thus, the condition is being relaxed to say that the beneficiary’s condition must qualify for the certificate, although such certificate may not factually be in good standing.