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What to Do If Your Kids Are Not Too Cool for School Part Three: All About In Trust For Accounts

A good education can be invaluable, but it seldom comes for free. In these days of rising housing costs, interest rates and taxes, it is getting harder and harder for some families to help younger family members get that education. In my last article, I devoted a few thousand words to the most common way of funding these pursuits – Registered Educational Savings Plans or “RESPs”.   Today’s missive focuses on another way to help fund an education, even for families that have already maxed out RESPs: In-Trust for Accounts or “ITF Accounts.”

Despite their benefits, RESPs may not be a one-stop solution, particularly if Junior has Ivy League aspirations or educational pursuits that seem to span decades. For other families, the  numerous rules surrounding RESPs and penalties that can arise if a child doesn’t go to school or use up all of their grants and gains, may cause them to look for a more flexible alternative.

That’s why families look at other educational funding strategies as either an alternative to or in addition to RESPs. ITF Account are one of those choices and, on first blush, there seems like there is a lot to like:  less initial paperwork, no funding limits and more flexibility on the back end should junior wishes to busk rather than earn a baccalaureate. The tax savings while junior is a minor also offer appear to offer tantalizing tax savings – accounts funded through an inheritance, a gift from a foreign relative or by the Canada Child Tax Benefit allow all income and gains to be taxed on the child’s return, although ITF Accounts funded from other sources usually tax income (but not capital gains) in the hands of the contributor while the child is a minor.

Unfortunately, despite the surface appeal, there are some significant drawbacks to ITF Accounts and some practical complications that might get in the way of some of the theoretical tax savings. Read on and decide for yourself whether ITF Accounts are an ingenious solution or a problem just waiting to happen. Before I begin, a quick shoutout to Canadian Moneysaver Magazine reader Claire Scribner for her invaluable questions and comments!

 Basic Principals

From a legal and tax perspective, ITF Accounts are informal trusts, which means that they operate according to the same basic principles of those elaborately detailed written trusts that I’ll talk about in my next article, but without all the structure, details, costs and paperwork that goes along with their more glamorous cousins.  That means that there is someone managing the assets (“the trustee”), on behalf of the person who is entitled to the benefits of the account (the “beneficiary”). Thus, many parents are the trustees of ITFs for which their children are beneficiaries. Theoretically, ITFs should be taxed inside the trust and all income or realized gains not distributed or deemed to be distributed taxed at the highest margin rate for the trustee’s province.

Is It Really AN ITF Account?

As is so often true, however, life is more complicated than it may appear at first glance.  First, it may be debated whether you’ve actually created a trust at all by the CRA since certain legal formalities are required and ITF Accounts rely on solely the account opening documents rather than the lengthy trust documents that go with a formal trust.  It could be that you’ve merely opened a non-registered account earmarked for the child that should be taxed in your name or you’re acting as agent for the child and their babysitting funds rather than as a trustee. If all of this sounds confusing, then you’re not alone. If you want to establish a true ITF account, you’d want to confirm the intention to gift, the items to be gifted and identity of the person entitled to benefit from the largesse. The account opening documents should hopefully clarify the trustee and the beneficiary. Ultimately, this can be a lot to expect from ticking some boxes and filling in a few blanks.

Moreover, the CRA would also look at who has been paying the tax on ITF Accounts. Since ITFs generally don’t apply for a trust number (which is like a SIN number for trusts) and minors cannot establish their own investment accounts, ITFs are typically opened using the trustee’s SIN number.  As a result, all tax slips for the ITF will also be issued in the trustee’s name. That means that if the trustee doesn’t report the income and gains on their own tax return, the CRA automatically picks up on that and starts sending out nasty reassessment notices.  Although an accountant friend of mine advises that it may be possible to then go back and forth with the CRA about this every year, the hassle factor and potential accounting costs if someone else is doing this may not be worth it, particularly if the ITF is not a large account and / or the income would have otherwise been taxed in the adult’s hands anyway (such as if a parent funded the ITF).  As a result, despite the best of intentions, if the trustee has been paying tax on the income and gains, that might be enough for CRA to deny that a true ITF had been created.

In some cases, in fact, this denial may be a blessing in disguise. If the account is treated like a trust and none of the income or gains have been paid out of the trust or promissory notes for these amounts payable to the child issued, the CRA can argue that the income and gains should be taxed in as trust, which means at the highest marginal rate inr the trustee’s province of residence. In other words, the ITF account might become a tax albatross rather than a tax saver.

For those willing to go the extra mile and fight this battle, such as when many years of tax savings still lie ahead and you think you’ll be able to tax even income in the child’s hands, I suggest that the trustee treats the ITF like a formal trust, which requires the following:

  • All taxable income or gains should either be taken out of the account and spent on the youngster, or the trustee writes formal promissory notes on behalf of the ITF to the beneficiary for these amounts that are immediately cashable, although mom and dad are still entitled to blithely ignore junior’s demands for the cash until (s)he come of age.   This hopefully prevents the CRA from taxing the income in the trust at that province’s highest marginal tax rate.
  • Document your intentions to create a trust through a separate document when opening the ITF Account and be consistent in stipulating who pays the tax on the income and gains each year.
  • Investigate getting a formal trust number from the CRA and using that number for the ITF’s bank or investment accounts rather than the trustee’s personal SIN number. Expect a lot of questions from those financial institutions and hassle regarding where the money has come from and request for details.
  • Assuming you survive the administrative quagmire of actually opening accounts in the ITF’s name, be prepared to file annual trust tax returns on behalf of the ITF.  The rules and disclosure requirements for trusts are in the process of changing significantly. At this point, the proposed legislation suggests that ITF Accounts worth less than $50,000 owning things like GICs and publicly traded securities may not always have to file tax and information returns, depending on their activity that year, but this may change.
  • If hoping to get all income taxed in junior’s name under one of the previously listed exceptions to the general rule, don’t commingle (a word I try to fit into daily conversation) money qualifying for an exception with money that does not or risk having income taxed in the trustee’s hands.
  • Keep records, records and more records. This means tracking the source of the ITF funds, particularly claiming an exception to the general tax treatment of income, as well of the expenses mom and dad paid on junior’s behalf that the trust is reimbursing.

Some other Potential Benefits of ITF Accounts

Although having capital gains and, perhaps, income taxed in the youngster’s hands can be a wonderful thing, particularly it’s still many years before (s)he’s old enough to buy their first drink, ITF Accounts may provide some other benefits in the right circumstances, including:

  • Protecting assets for the child if the parents get divorced or, perhaps, against creditors, since the money in the ITF no longer belongs to the person funding the account. If it doesn’t legally belong to the trustee and (s)he didn’t fund the account 10 minutes before filing for bankruptcy, ITF Accounts should ultimately live to fund another day.
  • Avoiding Will challenges, taxation, probate fees and unexpected results at the trustee’s death. Although ITF Accounts can have other problems if a trustee dies within money still in a child’s ITF Account, it should still belong to the child beneficiary, regardless of the deceased’s Will.  If the money was just kept in a separate non-registered account in the dead trustee’s name, it would be distributed according to the deceased’s Will.  Accordingly, unless the trustee’s Will specifically says that the non-registered account passes to the child, it would be distributed as part of the residue of the estate where it might pass into unintended hands, could be scooped up by estate creditors or tied up in Will challenge litigation.

Why ITF Accounts Keep Lawyers up at Night

Even if you thrill at the thought of the extra paperwork and never turn down the chance to bicker with the CRA, there are many other reasons why you may wish to give an ITF Account a hard pass. Here are some of those scary contingencies:

  • Loss of flexibility and control. Once the money is gifted, the money belongs to the child. That means that before your child is old enough to drink in the US, they have the absolute right to demand their money and spend it as they wish. Accordingly, if you’re worried if your child has a thing for fast cars and trips to Maui, an ITF Account might be a ticking timebomb. On a related note, the money cannot be used for anyone but the child, no matter what life surprises await. A non-registered account without the tax advantages of an ITF Account allows the parents or grandparents to retain control of the money if the child goes off the deep end or it turns out later that the money would ultimately be better spent on themselves or another family member.
  • Estate complications on the child’s death. If the child dies with money in the ITF Account, it becomes part of that child’s estate. Since most children can’t or don’t have valid Wills, that means that the money will be distributed according to the laws of intestacy in that province. In addition to potentially paying probate fees and expensive court applications in order for someone to manage that estate for the dearly, the money may end up in the wrong hands. For example, how would you feel about your ex-spouse getting 50% of the ITF Account you funded by working overtime and forgoing vacations if your child died without dependants or a spouse?
  • Complications on the trustee’s death. Unless the trustee’s own Will stipulates who manages the ITF account, the task will generally fall to his or her own executor. This person may not be right person for the job, particularly in blended family situations when your new wife ends up managing the account a stepkid.
  • Potential liability for inappropriate investment decisions. Admittedly, this is a stretch, particularly for smaller accounts. All the same, I strongly recommend against a penny-stock heavy strategy, as trust law says that all investment decisions should be reasonable ones depending on the timeline and intention for the account.  

The Bottom Line

While ITF Accounts can play a valuable role in educational funding in the right circumstances, I don’t see them as the best alternative in many others. I am far more comfortable with them in the following circumstances:

  • The child is already close to university age and has already demonstrated that they have their act together. 
  • The person funding the account is okay with the child using the money for other purposes should the child not go to university or have money left over afterwards.
  • The funder has ample other resources should life through them a curveball.
  • The account size isn’t so small that it’s not worth the hassle or complications and not so large that it would be a catastrophe if things went wrong. For larger amounts, a formal trust is a far safer option that cover off what happens if things don’t work out and provides the trustee with far more control, including not requiring a full payout at age 19 or allowing distributions to other beneficiaries in some circumstances, such as a single educational trust for a group of children or grandchildren rather than pinning all of your hopes on a single child / grandchild.
  • The trustee is a details person.
  • Income and capital gains will both be taxed in the child’s hands (or the account is set up to minimize taxable income until the child is an adult) and would otherwise be taxed in the gifter or trustee’s hands at a much higher rate so that there will be enough tax savings to make the risk and hassle worthwhile.

What To Do If Your Kids Aren’t Too Cool For School: Educational Funding Strategies for Tax Stingy Families

It takes a lot to pay for an education these days, without even considering all of the bonus expenses in addition to paying for tuition and textbooks. And it’s been getting harder. Tuition costs have been consistently increasing at a rate higher than inflation and some of the previous tax-efficient funding options, such as paying dividends to students over 18 from the family business, are no longer on the table in most instances. Adding to the pain, tax rates for higher income earns have increased drastically over the last 5 years, making it that much harder for these families to accumulate and grow enough sufficient funds to put the next generation through school, particularly when saving for multiple children. And let’s not even talk about how the cost of housing eats into many family’s savings plans. Although a good education can be priceless, actually paying for it may be beyond the means of many. Alternatively, the resulting student debt can leave many struggling students financially crippled and stressed for years to come.

Although there is no universal silver bullet that can save the day or convert pennies into portfolios, there are some strategies that can at least make life slightly easier and more affordable in some cases. In others, however, the savings can be far more profound.

Basic Principles

As is so true with many planning strategies, the earlier you can put things in motion, the more significant the potential benefits. Just like any other savings strategy, the more time the money is left to percolate and grow, the larger the benefits.  Obviously, this isn’t always possible. But if the problem is simply a lack of knowledge of some of the options available, then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. If any of today’s or my future offerings resonate with you, your pocketbook and your reality, I encourage you to take the next step, whether that means gathering more information or actually putting one of these ideas into motion.

Planners typically start by looking at the big picture before drilling down into the minutiae and, because no one likes to feel like they’re not fitting in, I will do the same. Before weighing the different ways of funding junior’s liberal arts degree, here are some BIG PICTURE musings I suggest contemplating first.

  • The Early Bird Gets the Educational Worm

As is so true with many planning strategies, the earlier you can put things in motion, the more significant the potential benefits. Just like any other savings strategy, the more time the money is left to percolate and grow, the larger the benefits.  Obviously, this isn’t always possible. But if the problem is simply a lack of knowledge of some of the options available, then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. If any of today’s or my future offerings resonate with you, your pocketbook and your reality, I encourage you to take the next step, whether that means gathering more information or actually putting one of these ideas into motion.

  • Sometimes Education Can Be a Family Affair

This point ties in nicely with the last one. For many parents, there are far more pressing financial concerns than funding a child’s university education 15 years hence.  Paying the mortgage, maximizing RRSPs, saving for that first home, ensuring they have enough insurance in place to protect the family upon death or disability, paying off their own student debt or simply keeping their own financial head above the water may all take priority over hopefully sending junior to Harvard or trade school someday. That’s where other family members may be able to lend a hand. Many of my grandparent clients are passionate about ensuring that those cute little people that are part of their gene pool are given every opportunity to achieve their educational dreams and career aspirations. While I strongly encourage these grandparents or other family members to first ensure that their own financial nests are well feathered with a large margin of error, if this is not a concern, then they might want to take a more active role in ensuring that young Dick or Jane will be able to afford school when the time comes.

In some cases, grandparents are reluctant to pry into what they see as their children’s financial affairs.  And, in other instances, I have seen parents who are reluctant to talk about these issues with their own parents if money is tight or to accept assistance when offered. In both cases, the ultimate losers might be the grandkids. Accordingly, although I know this isn’t always possible or even desirable, I encourage both parents and grandparents to consider proactively discuss plans for educating that those fingerpainting youngsters who may one day want to become astrophysicists. In fact, feel free to share this article with parents or children as a springboard to making this happen.

  • One Size Doesn’t Fit All

One of my pet financial planning peeves (yes, I know that this makes me sound like a geek) is reading articles that seem to suggest not only that there is one way to skin a cat but telling you which cat to skin first. Admittedly, some suggestions like “get a Will” are hard to contest, but this is not one of those instances. Each family is different, both in terms of their finances, but also in terms of their needs, goals, values, problems and interpersonal dynamics. 

Figure out your own priorities and values and then act accordingly. And, in some cases, this may mean requiring the child to fund their own education in full or part rather than making life too easy for them or sacrificing some of your other financial needs or goals.

Meet the Players

I will eventually devout a separate article to each of 4 different ways of savings for a child’s education but wanted to first introduce you to the entire cast of characters before shining a separate spotlight on each.  Accordingly, the summaries below are not intended to provide you with a complete list of the good, bad and ugly. As a final warning, this article is written based on the assumption that all parties involved are Canadian residents and citizens. If this is not the case, you’ll need to discuss how this affects your potential plans, particularly if someone is a U.S. citizen or resident.

  • Registered Educational Savings Plans (“RESPs”)

A Registered Educational Savings Plan provides 20% government matching on qualified contributions and allows income and gain within the plan to grow tax-free along the way, with the government grant money (“CESG”) and all plan profits / income taxed in the name of the student upon withdrawal if still in school. The original contributions, which were made with after-tax dollars, are tax-free upon withdrawal, while the grants and gains will be taxed as income. There is a lifetime funding limit of $50,000 in contributions per child and the government CESG are capped at $500 per year, but with an extra $500 in catchup grants per year, to a lifetime CESG grant maximum of $7,200.

The government grants and tax-free compounding make this a very enticing option for many families, but yearly funding caps and maximum funding limit per child both get in the way of maximizing the size of RESPs by the time the children finish high school, which can be of concern if the student has Ivy League potential or has plans to be in school for a long, long time. Accordingly, in some cases, the RESP may be part of the solution but not a complete answer to the question. Moreover, if the child doesn’t use up all of the taxable money, it may need to be taxed in the hands of the parents, with an extra 20% added on, but up to $50,000 can be rolled into an RRSP if the funding parent has enough leftover room, although that parent won’t get the normal tax deduction associated generated by RRSP contributions when taking advantage of this option.

  • In Trust For Accounts (“ITF Accounts”)

ITF accounts are considered as informal trusts, which means that they don’t have the written trust deed, contingency planning and specifications that go with a formal trust, but they also avoid the resulting setup and ongoing administration costs. There is no limit on how much can go into these accounts, nor when. As well, all capital gains earned in this account will always be taxed in the child’s hands at the child’s rate, but any income (think interest or dividends) will be taxed in the contributor’s hands while the child is under 18, unless the money in the account came from an inheritance left for that child or the Canada Child Tax Benefit, in which case the income would be taxed in the child’s name.

Although taxation is not deferred in ITF accounts, if the youngster is not a child model or the proud owner of a very lucrative paper route (assuming those still exist), there would likely be no or a minimal tax hit on all income taxed in the child’s hands.. Because dividends are far more tax efficient than interest income, which is how RESP taxable withdrawals are essentially classified, there may be less of a tax hit and more tax flexibility over these funds after the child is 18. Moreover, there is no restriction on how the money is used, so if the child wants to be a student of life rather than a podiatrist, there aren’t the same potential tax problems faced when a RESP is set up in that child’s name.

On the other hand, there are some significant potential problems with all that flexibility I just discussed. In fact, as soon as the child reaches the age of majority in their province of residence, they have the legal right to demand the money and do what they want with it. Just like for most formal trusts, once the money is contributed to an ITF account, it is no longer owned by the gifter. Accordingly, if the child wants to spend all of the carefully accumulated cash on a fast car, designer clothes and a trip to Maui, then that child might be off to the mall.

On another note, if the ITF account wasn’t funded with the previously mentioned inheritance or Canadian Child Tax Benefit dollars, then any dividends or interest will be taxed in mom and dad’s name at their rates until the year the child turns 18. As a result, if the funder is in a higher tax bracket, the money will not compound nearly as much as within an RESP. Although many of us love, love, love eligible dividends, for people in the highest tax bracket, we could still be looking at over 40% taxation in some provinces.

Finally, if anything happens to the child or the person in charge of the account, there could be a mess. As the funds belong to the child, it will become part of the child’s estate, which could mean the wrong person eventually inheriting. If something happened to the person managing the money, then that person’s executor would take over management of the ITF account, which may not be ideal, unless perhaps the deceased’s Will specified who would be handed the reigns. 

Ultimately, these accounts can work well when the stars align but you will need to ask yourself whether you inhabit such a world or, at least, what you can do to minimize risk. Ultimately, I  suggest investigating other options when larger sums are involved or the youngster in question has a habit of playing with matches, playing online poker or buying $500 jeans with rips in them.

  • Formal Trusts

As also a practicing Wills and Estates lawyer, I admit to having trusts on the brain. But hear me out. In this instance, there are a couple ways that trusts can go a long way towards paying for a few university degrees or trade certifications.

Put simply, a trust a separate entity for tax purposes set up with specific assets and instructions, particularly how the assets are to be distributed. Many trusts are set up to allow the person administering the trust (the “trustee”) maximum discretion as to who gets what.  If done correctly, the income and gains from the trust investments can be taxed in the hands of the recipients (the “beneficiaries”) rather than the original owner. And if the beneficiaries are earning no or minimal income, the tax savings over time can be massive.

  1. Trusts Created and Funded by Living People

The trusts I draft for parents trying to pay for their children’s current or future educations require mom and dad (or whoever else sets up the trust) to loan the money to be invested inside the trust at a minimum government rate (currently 1%) that is fixed for the life of the loan. Without these low-interest loans, income would be attributed back to the contributor while the child was under 18 just like for most ITF accounts. With the required loan in place, mom and dad, can allocate income and gains earned in the trust to their progeny or other family members with impunity.

If the child is already incurring significant expenses, the trust can essentially repay mom and dad for covering these expenses on behalf of the wee ones or pay those costs directly. If there is excess income or gains, the trust could instead pay these amounts to the parents to be taxed in their names or essentially write the kid an interest-free IOU or Promissory Note and leave the money in the trust to compound. Down the road, such as when the child starts university, these IOUs can be paid out tax-free to the child to cover education costs.

Besides set up and annual costs, one of the biggest concerns if what happens if the child goes off the rails. If all of the annual income has been paid out to cover ongoing expenses, then the child has no right to demand anything else from the trust. On the other hand, just like for an ITF account, the child can demand repayment of any Promissory Notes owing when an adult without restriction. Similarly, if the child died prior to cashing in the Promissory Notes, they would become part of the child’s estate, which might see the money eventually end up in an unintended place. Accordingly, it may be a good idea for the child to write a Will or have a Power of Attorney in place when the amounts start to get significant.

I’ll have a lot more to say on this type of trust in a separate article, but I hope this teaser is enough to give you an idea of the potential benefits. And it’s not only mom and dad who might end up loaning money to the trust – grandma and grandpa might be the ones loaning the cash, which might help them keep more of their OAS pensions by reducing the amount of income that might otherwise be reported in their hands, or allow them to drawn down their RRIFs if worried about a big tax bill at death. And, if grandma and grandpa are setting up this type of trust, they might add additional beneficiaries, such as both children and grandchildren, while also stipulating how the money gets divided at their death.

  1. Trusts Created in Wills

Grandparents hoping to help fund a child’s education if no longer around may set up trusts in their Will to make this happen. For smaller amounts, it isn’t usually feasible, but for larger amounts or if creating a single trust for multiple grandchildren, this might be a very tax efficient way of educating the young.  And, unlike the trusts mentioned in the previous section, there is no 1% loan requirement so 100% of the net income can be allocated to the grandkids.

In addition,  I am helping grandparents fund their grandchildren’s education in another way by setting up Wills where they leave their children their inheritances in trusts rather than in cash. These trusts allow the children to control what happens to the inheritance but also names their own children (i.e., the grandkids)  as discretionary beneficiaries for income splitting purposes. As a result, the child can make their inheritance go further by allocating income and gains to their own children so it is taxed at child’s rates.  That parent could control the capital of the trust and could prevent too much money from getting into the grandchild’s hands too soon by only paying out enough income to cover expenses if the trust was drafted to be flexible, unlike an ITF. On the other hand, the trust could instead provide specific instructions regarding funding the grandchild or grandchildren’s education if grandma and grandpa wanted to make sure that their children abide by their wishes.

As a final benefit, the trust could stipulate that the grandchildren inherited whatever was left down the road when their parent also benefiting from the trust died. By contrast, if that parent had inherited directly, (s)he would typically leave the remainder to their spouse instead, which can lead to many unintended circumstances, particularly if that surviving spouse is a poor money manager, remarries or has other children. Needless to say, many grandparents aren’t too keen on those alternative outcomes.

Again, there is a lot more to be said on the subjects of trusts. This article is merely intended to whet your appetite and to seek out additional information from your legal advisor if this option sounds intriguing.

  • Permanent Life Insurance on Children

Buying life insurance on the young is simply too ghoulish for some and I understand that completely. On the other hand, there are many practical reasons for buying policies on children or grandchildren that you may wish to explore. For example, permanent life insurance can be a very tax efficient long-term savings vehicle. Certain policies allow additional contributions that compound more or less tax-free, and the policies can be transferred to adult children or grandchildren without triggering tax so that any withdrawals (such as when the child decides to go to grad school and the RESP is now only an empty husk) can be taxed in the child’s hands. Moreover, unlike ITF accounts, the policies still belong to mom and dad until they officially roll the policies over to the children, which may provide far more peace of mind that setting up an ITF account shortly after a child’s birth and rolling the dice on the child’s future good behaviour.

Just as for the other introductions, there numerous other details to discuss, but let’s leave that for another day.


Paying for a child’s education can be daunting task for some and near impossible one for others.  And it’s been getting harder. On the other hand, with the right plan and proper execution, things can at least get a little bit easier. The next articles in this series will both flesh out the details on the options summarized above and also provide suggestions on how to optimize each approach. Next time, I’ll share some strategies to maximize RESPs.

Warming Hearts Through Estate Freezes

Imagine ordering a large drink late in a steamy August afternoon after just completing a day’s toil in the sun. After several thirsty minutes waiting, watch in rapturous delight as the waitress finally brings over a tall, frosted glass, beaded with moisture . . . only to discover that it’s mostly ice. For lawyers and financial planners like me, that’s what I see when calculating actual size of the estate many of my clients will leave to their heirs after paying taxes. Although there are many ways to cut down on the ice quotient, the one I want to talk about today is called the “estate freeze.”

In simple terms, a freeze operates to cap or “freeze” the amount of unrealized capital gains on company assets that is taxed on when the grim reaper comes calling for that freezing shareholder. The freezer swaps the common shares that have grown in value for one or more classes of fixed value preferred shares that maintain control over the company but won’t participate in future growth. Instead, the company issues new common shares that are currently without value to the next generation or to a trust that the freezer controls and, when a holding company’s portfolio skyrockets higher or an active business’ widget sales go through the roof, those new common shares soak up all the new growth. Although the freezer will still need to pay tax on any unrealized gains on the preferred shares (s)he owns after their last gasp, (s)he will have at least minimized the tax (although not emotional) pain for those left behind.

Obviously, timing when to do the freeze makes a profound difference to the tax savings the freezer’s estate will eventually enjoy. If the company doesn’t continue to grow in the future or if the freezer dies within a year or two of implementing the freeze and the new common shares haven’t yet had a chance to significantly increase in value, then the whole exercise was likely a waste of time. On the other hand, for a company that doubles in value over 5 years, the savings to the deceased’s estate can be over $250,000 on every million dollars of gains that would have otherwise been taxed in their hands at this point. If amount of capital gains that are included in income and are taxed increases in the future, as many worry, the savings could be even more. For example, if the inclusion rate for capital gains increases from 50% to 75%, a properly done freeze could save the estate $375,000 per million dollars of capital gains avoided.

When to Consider Getting Chilly

Whether a freeze is worth considering depends on a host of factors. Perhaps the biggest are how much have your company shares already increased in value and how much will they continue to grow before your death if you leave well enough alone, as noted earlier. As a friend of mine once said, ask yourself if the juice (i.e., the benefit) is worth the squeeze (the cost and effort involved in extracting the relevant breakfast beverage.) The best candidates for a freeze own active businesses that they are looking to either pass down to the next generation or sell to an outsider. In the first case, minimizing the tax bill at death may make the difference between a business staying in the family poised for continued success or either a forced sale to pay the taxes owing at death or hamstringing heirs with large bank loans in order to pay that bill.

If the goal is instead to minimize taxes on an eventual sale, capping the original shareholders’ share value and transferring future gains to other shareholders allows more family members to claim the lifetime capital gains exemption on their shares upon sale. Every shareholder can avoid most of the tax on almost $900,000 in increases to the value of their shares at this point (the exempted amount increases yearly due to inflation) if they and the business satisfy certain criteria. By doing a freeze to transfer future growth to spouses and children, etc. after your own shares have unrealized gains of about $900,000 can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings in some cases. For example, someone doing a freeze when her shares have grown by $900,000 in value in favour of her husband and 3 children in the expectation that the company would be worth $4,500,000 upon sale may be able to avoid capital gains tax entirely at that time. In that example, the new common shares owned in a family trust would be worth and could be apportioned equally amongst her hubby and children so each could shelter $900,000 of growth, with mom using up her exemption on the $900,000 in shares she retained after the freeze.

By contrast, if she does nothing, remains the sole shareholder and owns $4,500,000 worth of shares at sale, the tax bill could easily exceed $900,000 at today’s levels and far more if the inclusion rate for capital gains climbs in the future. As an added bonus, in some cases, a freeze might help a family save tax along the way by allowing them to sprinkle dividends to qualifying adult family members who actively work in the business but whose salaries aren’t enough to optimize the family’s annual tax savings.

On a related note, a freeze requires an accountant or business valuator to put a value on the company at the time of the freeze. Businesses hit hard by Covid may be able to turn this to their benefit if they are confident that the blip in value is short-lived by doing the freeze based on the current Covid-influenced levels so the new common shares can reap the rewards when the economy and business value both improve.

On the other hand, freezes are not just for active businesses. Doing a freeze for your holding company can still save your family a host of potential taxes on your eventual passing, particularly if combined with some of the other options I talk about in my next article on “wasting freezes” and share redemptions on death using life insurance. As I will also discuss, investors with large non-registered portfolios or perhaps rental properties might even consider setting up a new holding company, then rolling those assets into the company on a tax deferred basis (but do watch out for property transfer tax) to cap the future tax bill owing at death. This strategy works best if the plan is for the children to keep the assets, such as a real estate portfolio, for the long term after your death but can even mean huge savings if that isn’t the plan in some cases. If nothing else, it may provide your heirs with the flexibility to wait a few years after your death for the real estate or stock market to improve rather than forcing them to sell as soon as you’re in the ground in order to cover your final tax bill.

Reasons for Giving Freezes the Cold Shoulder

Admittedly, freezes are not for everyone. Besides taking into account the cost of doing the freeze and any additional annual expenses that might result, particularly if creating a family trust to hold the new common shares or setting up a new holding company, I suggest taking the following into account:

• A freeze may only delay the day of reckoning. Although shifting part of the potential tax bill from one generation of taxpayers to another is often great tax planning, it might not be so beneficial if the kids will need to wind up the company in short order anyway. It still may be worth proceeding if the freeze provides the heirs with some discretion regarding when to sell assets like real estate or if there are still tax savings to be had despite the desire to wind thing up shortly after your death.

• A freeze only works if the company continues to grow or you use the aftermath of the freeze to decrease the value of the freeze shares. If you plan to draw down the value of any company during retirement and suspect that it will eventually be worth less than it is now, then a freeze is not for you. The only exceptions may be if you also do a “wasting freeze” during retirement, as I discuss in my next article, to more actively transfer some of the capital gain tax bill to the next generation.

• Are you too young? If doing a freeze using a family trust, realize that the trust has an effective lifespan of 21 years in this situation, as all unrealized gains inside the trust are taxed on its 21st anniversary. Although the shares can be transferred out of the trust on a tax-free rollover basis at any time prior to then, some parents may not be keen to gift the shares directly to the children at that point, particularly children with rocky marriages, financial issues or similar problems. On the other hand, 21 years is a long time for children to get their act together and the parents can always just allocate the common shares to back themselves if that has not happened. This would undo the benefits of the freeze but it is always good to have this option if life does not turn out as expected.

• How much does control matter? How solid are your children’s lives? Practically speaking, doing a freeze doesn’t mean having to give up control of the company if the freezers retain all of the voting shares and control the family trust that also owns the new common shares. This allows them to continue with business as usual inside the company and to continue to pay themselves as many dividends and as much salary as their hearts desire and the Income Tax Act allows. If shares are gifted to the children directly, there is less control, which increases the chances of problems if a child is divorced or has creditor issues. Even if the shares are held in a trust, there are at least theoretically potential problems if one of your children divorces. One way of minimizing that risk is making it a precondition of the freeze than any married children get prenuptial or marriage agreements excluding the value of any shares from any divorce settlement.

• Are there other tax fighting weapons in the armoury? A freeze can be a silver bullet in the right circumstances but a empty shell in others compared to some of the other tax minimizing options available. Corporate life insurance can help minimize, reduce or pay the final tax bill, particularly if there is a big tax-free payout on the first death. Loaning money to a family trust (assuming most of your capital gain assets are outside of a company) at 1% so you can actually sprinkle income to your descendants now can be a really effective strategy in many situations. Even if you have to pay more tax now to get a critical mass of assets into the trust, it might be a blessing in disguise if the taxable amount of capital gains increases in the future anyway. Unfortunately, the trust idea may not be a particularly useful one if most of your assets are held corporately.


The tax bill faced by many estates on their corporate assets or non-registered holdings often takes a very big gulp out of what taxpayers want to pass along to their heirs, but proper estate planning can often reduce that large gulp into a small sip. Implementing an estate freeze many years prior your final passing may be one way of making that happen. In my next article, I’ll discuss some ways to supercharge the benefits of a freeze to hopefully make that final sip of taxes into a mere moistening of the lips.

Covid Contemplations: What to Do If You Have Been Socially Distanced by your Finances

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In this eerie time of social distancing, medical mayhem and financial carnage, I feel like a background character in a cheesy made-for-tv movie starring B-grade actors from the 70’s. Unfortunately,  the chaos and risk are all too real, although the consequences and aftermath remain a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

For those of you, however, who are trying make sense of their financial picture, I do have a few suggestions to lessen the financial pain and some things to keep in mind when you are deciding what to do next.

Consider Future Tax Issues When Making Your Financial Decisions Today

When reading some of the tax-planning options I discuss below, particularly those about harvesting capital losses, it’s also really important to consider how things might look a few years down the road when Covid19 is hopefully a distant and not particularly fond memory, like door-to-door salesmen and (fingers crossed) manbuns. I simply can’t imagine a future that doesn’t include significant tax hikes, particularly for those in the higher tax brackets or for most people in their year of death. I also worry if this might also include increasing the inclusion rate for capital gains from 50% or, for those of you not up on tax-speak, what percentage of any realized capital gains is actually included as taxable income and what part is tax-free. Keep in mind that this was something tax types were stressing about even before this all came down.

In the past, as much as 75% of capital gains were taxed on sale. If the inclusion rate goes to 75% again, this would mean paying 50% more tax on gains than we are right now! For example, if you had a $10,000 capital gain and were in the 40% tax bracket, you’d have to pay $2,000 in tax at the 50% inclusion rate ($10,000 x.50 x.40). If it goes to 75%, then you’re out of pocket $3,000 ($10,000 x .75 x.40). Hopefully, if the inclusion rate is increased, it’s not quite so drastic – I just used 75% as an example since it was a number our government had charged previously. Essentially, just like when setting any other tax rates, they can pick any number they want, limited only by the fact that they want to get re-elected and probably don’t particularly enjoy having their likeness burned in effigy.

A) Capital Gains

For those of you with unrealized capital gains from those bank stocks you bought in the days of disco, there are some planning opportunities available for you, particularly if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket than usual this year anyway.  Here are some of the reasons why you might want to trigger some of those gains now:

  • Your other sources of income are also affected this year and you’ll be in a lower tax bracket than usual. Although paying taxes ahead of schedule is not something I love doing, you might be better biting the bullet now vs. selling in a few years during the new tax reality. It also may also mean not having as much money in the market to capture any future market recovery and receive dividend payments if you have to divert some of your capital to pay the tax bill next year unless you have offsetting capital losses so consider this carefully. On the other hand, it’s not like you need to pay the tax bill today – this is a bill you won’t need to cover until April 2021.
  • You have other stocks that are underwater and would generate capital losses upon sale. You could apply those losses against those gains so you won’t have to pay the tax man this year and can keep all of your capital invested to hopefully participate in any recovery and generate income while you wait.
  • You have losses from previous years already on the books to use up so you won’t actually be triggering a tax bill. Triggering gains at the current inclusion rate, even if you aren’t actually paying any tax on them because of your offsetting losses, will still save you tax in the future if inclusion rates change going forward as I explain later in this article.
  • You are worried and were going to take some money off the table anyway.
  • Your portfolio wasn’t properly diversified, previously, it would have meant paying too much tax to rebalance previously. Now that values might have declined, that tax bill isn’t so high and the tax pain isn’t too great. Although you are selling when markets are down, you will also be purchasing your new investments at a discount. This works even better if you have some of those offsetting losses we also discussed.
  • Your risk tolerance has changed, or you no longer like your current mix of investments anyway.
  • Your capital gains are inside your company and you are really worried about the inclusion rate for gains increasing going forward. If this happens, corporate investors will suffer another hit. Our tax system allows companies to pay out the non-taxable portion of capital gains tax-free to its shareholders (i.e. currently the 50% that isn’t taxed). If the inclusion rate went to, say, 75%, then shareholders would only be able to take out 25% of the gain tax-free, which is half of what they can do now. When coupled with the higher tax rates we’ll likely be paying in general going forward, this might be enough incentive to lock in those tax-free payments now, particularly if the business owner isn’t making as much money from other sources that year anyway. If this might be you, then you might hold off on selling company-owned investments that have losses, as realized losses offset how much of the gains you can withdraw tax-free.
  • You are looking at other uses for your money, such as permanent life insurance, income-splitting it with a spouse or through a family trust, paying down debt or perhaps helping the children out a bit more now than you’d previously anticipated.

As a final point, it is also important to remember that if you do sell a stock that is in a capital gain position but you still love it, there is nothing that stops you from buying it back whenever your heart desires. Although you must wait 30 days after selling a loser before repurchasing it, there is no such rules when reconnecting with a former flame that you previously sold at a profit.

Capital Losses

When deciding whether or not to trigger capital losses, here are some of the things to keep in mind when making decisions:

  • If tax rates and the inclusion rate both increase in the future, triggering capital losses in later years to offset future gains might save you more money over time than triggering them now, particularly if you’re ultimately going to be in a higher tax bracket in the future anyway.

 We talked earlier about how the inclusion rate works for capital gains and how an increase of the inclusion rate from 50% to 75% would mean including $7,500 of every $10,000 capital gain as taxable income rather than just $5,000. The same is true for capital losses – if the inclusion rate was increased from 50% to 75%, this means that you get to deduct $7,500 per $10,000 of bad decisions rather than only $5,000.

It all comes down to when you trigger the losses. Typically, when inclusion rates are increased, those increases don’t apply to losses already on the books. For example, if you trigger a $10,000 gain in a dystopian future reality where inclusion rates are 75% but had an unused $10,000 capital loss on the books from this year, the two would no longer cancel each other out. Because you triggered the loss at a time when the inclusion rate was only 50%, you would only get to deduct $5,000 of that total loss of $10,000 but had to include $7,500 of the $10,000 gain as income, meaning you would still need to pay tax on $2,500. It’s always possible that the government could increase the inclusion rate for past losses if they decide to increase the inclusion rate for new gains. Personally, I think it’s more likely to find discount hand sanitizer  and toilet paper on sale next week than for that to happen.

  • If you want to trigger capital gains this year for some of the reasons discussed above, i.e. you’re going to be temporarily in a lower tax bracket and are okay paying some tax now at current rates, you won’t want to trigger any capital losses this year, as they have to applied against this year’s gains.
  • Triggering losses now will give you more flexible for rebalancing your non-registered portfolios going forward since you can apply these losses against future gains so that you can rebalance without tax consequences until those losses are used up.
  • You have some big capital gains from the last 3 years and want to carry back this year’s losses to get back some of last year’s taxes. You’ll have to wait until you file your 2020 tax return to do this, but it might be worth the wait if you were in a high tax bracket then and don’t expect to be in the same place going forward.
  • You adopt the bird-in-the hand approach and want to deal with today’s taxes and inclusion rates rather than guessing about how things might look in the future. Likewise, you might expect some of your losers to rebound and might want to just lock in the losses now for flexibility’s sake even if this means having more taxable capital gains in the future if your reinvested dollars make money.

As a final thought, it is important to remember that you,  your spouse, your company, etc. must wait 30 days to repurchase any investments you sell in order to be able to realize your capital loss. If you are still really bullish on the investment’s long-term future, then you could look at similar alternatives, at least until the 30 days have expired, unless you’re happy to sit on the sidelines for the short term.

Find Some Balance

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Somewhat ironically, some of my client’s biggest financial planning headaches a few weeks ago was not being able to rebalance their portfolios without triggering big tax bills. In many cases, this meant having a disproportionately large share of their investments in perhaps a few stocks that had been in their lives longer than their children.  Adding to the risk,  many clients owned several similar stocks in the same sector with the same problem, such as perhaps 3 or 4 Canadian bank stocks they’d first started acquiring when the first Trudeau was doing his thing.

All that has now changed. Although you may still love your BMO or Royal Bank shares, it may now be possible to trim those positions in favour of a new infatuation. It doesn’t mean abandoning all of those legacy stocks, but merely hedging your bets. Although playing the field is not a great recipe for romantic success, investing is an entirely different kettle of fish. Rather than just looking at the tax side of things, you might be better off focusing on building a properly diversified portfolio that fits like a glove even if it means cutting an extra cheque to Ottawa in order to make this happen.

If you are looking to rebalance, perhaps this is the time to add a few new types of investments to your portfolio, particularly:

  • some that don’t trade on the stock market and hopefully haven’t taken as strong a gut punch to their prices as public market stocks have suffered;
  • expanding your portfolio geographically beyond just Canadian dividend payers and some companies from down in Trumpland;
  • investments that offer some downside protect through options or the ability to short-sell or which are designed to allegedly make money in any market conditions, although this doesn’t always happen.

The current buzzword is that people should “invest like a pension” and strive for less risk and smoother returns by expanding their mix of investments. Although even pension funds or companies that invest like them have taken a kick to the teeth this last month, their extra levels of diversification have generally helped them some of those extra body blows that the average Joe has endured.

Look to Refinance Loans

For those of us with mortgages, one of the consolation prizes (albeit one on par with a getting a participation ribbon for finishing  58th place in a 5 km race) are much lower borrowing rates. If you have loans of any type, get professional advice regarding whether it makes sense to redo those loans at current rates despite any penalties that might apply.  For those of us with variable loans, the monthly savings can be really significant and will hopefully help ease the pain for years to come.

For those of us with family trusts and loans at 2%, start planning to refinance those loans at 1% this July, as it appears very likely that the minimum loan rate will drop back to 1% at that time.  This will also apply to spouse loans as well, so it’s worth looking at updating those too. Despite the hassle, it’s recommended that you actually physically repay past loans and then re-advance the funds.

This will allow more future investment income to be taxed in low-income family members’ hands and less in yours at your higher rates.

Consider Setting Up a Family Trust or a Spousal Loan

If the rates do drop to 1% in July (this will be clear by the end of April and is based on a government formula that suggests that this will happen with room to spare), then those of us with large unregistered investment portfolios have the opportunity to income-split a lot more successfully with spouses, children and other lower income family members. Noting the current yields on many investments and the hope of stocks eventually recapture some of their past glories, the tax savings from loans to family investment trusts or spouses are even more mouthwatering. Until now, the unrealized gains on the higher income spouse’s portfolios may have been a deal breaker, as it meant paying too much tax to free up the capital to loan to your spouse or trust. For better or for worse, this may no longer be the case, both because of reduced gains and perhaps if the higher income spouse is in a lower tax bracket this year.

Be Prudent If Investing New Money into the Market Today

Although current yields on many investments are (apologies to my vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian readers) as mouthwatering as prime rib on a cold winter’s day, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the market. Although it is a personal decision as to whether you wish to deploy any dry powder you may have to take advantage of these eye-popping yields, do keep in mind that we might not have seen the bottom and it’s hard to determine how the fallout will affect different stocks and industries. Consequently, you may wish to keep in mind some of the following if you’re contemplating dipping a toe back into today’s rather frothy investment waters:

  • Consider dollar cost averaging rather than trying to do market timing. We don’t know if we’ve hit the bottom so you may benefit from easing money bank into the market over a number of weeks or months rather than going “all in” on what your fortune teller says is your lucky day.
  • Yield is a wonderful thing. If you do want to put new cash into the market, take advantage of those high yields rather than counting on future gains. The income will reduce the risk and can be redeployed back into the market if you so desire or can be a way of providing more money for your family during a time when many family budgets will be stretched extremely thin. Because of the current calamity, even blue-chip stocks have yields formerly reserved for junk bonds. As a result, there is no need to travel too far down the risk spectrum just to get a few more percentage points when safer stocks are already paying you handsomely
  • Be sure that you have a sufficient contingency fund set aside to cover you and your family’s expenses so you’re not stuck having to sell some of those investments you just purchased at the worst possible time. If in doubt, bump  up the size of the contingency fund.
  • Be even more conservative if you are borrowing to invest. Although rates are astonishingly low right now, leveraged investing only works if you can pay back your loans when the time comes. Accordingly, think long and hard before proceeding and reread my last three bullets at least twice. I strongly suggest staying away from margin accounts at this point as a margin call might ultimately be the financial kiss of death. If you do borrow to invest, carefully investigate the spread between secured lines of credits and borrowing using a traditional mortgage. Despite the decrease in rates, there can still be a big difference in cost between borrowing using a HLOC or using a mortgage. Although the mortgage option is less flexible and requires you to also pay down some of the principal with each payment, it might still be the way to go.
  • Diversify, diversify, diversify. Because the fallout is still so uncertain, spread your money over many different sectors and investments. It’s better to take some of the risk off the table by hedging your bets. Rather than waiting for fair weather and your ship to come in, consider funding a fleet of smaller boats that will see you safely into the future even if some of them don’t ever reach the shore.

Look into Estate Freezes

An estate freeze is a strategy that involves owners of private companies swapping their common shares for fixed value preferred shares. New common shares are then issued to other family members or to a family trust and all future increases in company value will be taxed in their hands. Private business owners do this sort of thing this for a couple reasons:

  • To increase how much capital gains can be sheltered from tax if the business is sold. If the existing shareholders won’t be able to shelter all the gains from tax upon sale under their own lifetime capital gains exemptions, having new growth taxed in other’s hands allows these other family members to dip into their own exemptions to increase tax sheltering at that time.
  • To minimize the tax bill on their deaths by capping the value of their shares and transferring future growth to younger generations.

Despite not owning a private company, are you the proud owner of a non-registered investment or real estate portfolio that you want to pass along to your kids, grandkids or favourite financial planner? An estate freeze might still be the thing for you. Transferring those assets into your company on a tax-free rollover basis in exchange for fixed value preferred shares lets any future growth accrue inside a family trust or in your heirs’ hands rather than yours.  As a result, when your time comes, you can pass into the great beyond knowing that your final tax bill is a lot smaller and your heirs’ inheritance that much larger than might have been the case.

In most of this instances, estate freezes only work if the new common shares subsequently grow in value.  Accordingly, doing a freeze this year when share prices for most private and public companies are at Black Friday prices can mean tremendous tax savings in years to come if values do bounce back, particularly if tax rates and the inclusion rate are both higher in the future.

Learn About Your Options

Keep informed about government programs and tax changes that might help you and your family, such as EI, reduced RRIF withdrawal requirements, extensions to tax filing and installment payments, changes to your bank rates, mortgage or loan deferral options and so much more.


I am hoping that one day, hopefully soon, we can look back on today’s events in the same way many of us look back on 2008 and 2009 and perhaps how my parents viewed my teenage years – incredibly trying and stressful, but something we all survived and put behind us.  I’ve tried to give you a lot to think about but there are so many moving parts and uncertainty that this is probably a good time to get professional advice before taking any big steps. In the meantime, let’s just focus on being good to each other and realizing that we’re all in it together.