Avoiding the tax traps that can eat away at retirement income.


When it comes to retirement costs, most people think about food, shelter, travel and entertainment. Yet, there’s a more common expense that requires some very detailed planning: taxes.

When it comes to taxes, we need to recognize it is often life’s single greatest expense.

Advisors are called upon increasingly to help investors navigate the tricky world of taxes and to help them build a sustainable, tax-efficient income stream in retirement.

Tax-efficient income planning is really where many advisors are most focused today.

A recent CIBC report shows about three-quarters of Canadians worry about having enough money in retirement, yet most don’t understand how retirement income is taxed.

A top concern among clients is avoiding so-called “tax traps” that can lead to paying more taxes than necessary, reducing the longevity of their retirement funds.


Advisors can help clients pay less in taxes by assessing their overall portfolio and suggesting different strategies, such as the size and timing of withdrawals in retirement and taking advantage of available income-splitting opportunities.

The planning starts when investors are in their working years and evolves as they enter their golden years. For instance, the advice might be for someone to maximize their use of the registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) and defer paying taxes when their income is higher in their working years and letting the money grow, then withdrawing it at a lower tax bracket, which is often the case in retirement.

Having too much invested in an RRSP can also be an issue, especially if a retiree has a large expense and no other savings vehicles to cover the cost. Withdrawing too much from an RRSP in a single year can result in a larger tax hit, and a potential claw back of Old Age Security (OAS) benefits when income climbs over a set threshold ($79,854 for the 2021 taxation year)

Ideally, advisors help retirees plan by forecasting how RRSP and subsequent registered retirement income fund (RRIF) withdrawals fit with other fully taxable income sources such as the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), OAS, more lightly taxed sources such as stock dividends, as well as non-taxable income sources like the tax-free savings account (TFSA).

Wise Advisors will encourage clients to think about their TFSA as a health care spending reserve account in retirement, as it is the most tax efficient way to cover large expenses such as enhanced home care and medications.

Increasingly, the TFSA is becoming a central planning tool to serve many different retirement needs, as it can supplement income without affecting government benefits and represents a tax-free asset for the estate.

Clients with large RRSPs may also want to consider withdrawing more than they might need in certain years, and then contributing those excess funds to a TFSA, even if it means paying a bit more taxes. The challenge, however, is that most clients want to pay the least amount of tax and can be reluctant to make these higher withdrawals.

Advisors can navigate this with a detailed tax plan, illustrating how paying more taxes on registered withdrawals today helps avoid larger tax bills later in retirement. It’s also a concern when RRSPs are converted to RRIFs, which have growing mandatory withdrawal rates as people age.


Tax planning for couples can also be complex. It’s rare that couples have equal incomes in retirement, and pay similar amounts of taxes, so the onus is on advisors to come up with strategies to help balance out uneven income streams.

Declaring income into the hands of the spouse in a lower rate bracket will maximize after-tax cash flow in retirement and helping make their money last as long as possible.

Canadian tax rules provide several opportunities for married or common-law couples to split income from sources such as workplace pensions, CPP and RRIFs, which help to reduce the overall family tax bill.

With pension income splitting, higher-income-earning spouses can transfer up to 50 per cent of their eligible company pension income to their lower-income-earning spouses. (In Quebec, this only applies for provincial tax purposes if the taxpayer is 65 or older.) Spouses can also split income from their RRIFs with their partners, but they need to be 65 or older.

Spousal RRSPs are also an option for couples with varying incomes to save for retirement and split income to reduce taxes but should be setting up well ahead of retirement.

Another option is a spousal loan, in which the person with sizable non-registered investments lends capital to the other spouse at a prescribed rate set by the Canada Revenue Agency, currently 1 per cent. The spouse receiving the loan would then invest the money and pay tax on income generated from those assets at a lower rate than the spouse with more assets. This is a strategy that definitely gets traction in a low-interest-rate environment.


Even the best-laid plans can be derailed by unknowns about clients’ entire financial picture. Clients need to give a full view of all their assets, when working with advisors.

Real property, inheritances and even small business assets are other often overlooked sources that can affect tax-efficient plans devised by advisors negatively because they would be unaware of these assets’ existence. An example is a discount brokerage account that a client may not disclose unless advisors ask explicitly. The more the advisor is aware of these, the less likely the client is going to hit a tax trap.

Much like clients themselves, advisors are best served by planning and asking the right questions to ensure nothing is missed well before retirement

Part of their role involves helping clients understand taxation and, in turn, how their decisions regarding their assets can affect sustainable, after-tax income streams during retirement. Although most advisors recognize tax traps and know how to avoid them, their clients may not.

Having even a basic knowledge can help Clients  avoid most tax-related traps at any stage in life.”