RRSPs and RRIFs on death

Wealth Transfer Strategy 8

Most Canadians are familiar with the tax advantages of using registered savings plans to save for their retirement years. Contributions to registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) are deductible and any growth or income earned on the underlying investment in the RRSP or registered retirement income fund (RRIF) isn’t taxed until withdrawn.

What may be less clear is what happens on the death of an RRSP or RRIF owner. Frequently asked questions have been addressed to provide more clarity in an area that may not be entirely understood.

Why am I receiving a T4RSP or T4RIF?¹

Under Canadian income tax laws, an individuals are considered to have disposed of their assets, including RRSPs and RRIFs, for fair market values at the time of death. The T4RSP or T4RIF sent to your legal representative or executor² will indicate the fair market value of your RRSP or RRIF at the date of your death.

It’s the responsibility of your estate, and ultimately your estate beneficiaries,³ to pay income taxes on the RRSP or RRIF disposition at death, as there are generally no taxes withheld on amounts paid directly to a beneficiary named on the registered savings plan. This is something to take into consideration when developing your estate plan and determining how to distribute your assets at death.

What are the income tax implications?

The value of your RRSP or RRIF, as indicated on the T4RSP or T4RIF slip, must be included in your income for the year of death. This amount is fully taxable as regular income. However, as discussed later, there are ways to reduce or eliminate your taxes payable on income from your RRSP or RRIF on death.

What about income earned after the date of death?

An RRSP or RRIF remains tax-sheltered throughout the year of death and the following calendar year. An additional tax slip is issued to report any increase in the value of the RRSP or RRIF from the date of death to the date of payout. This increase in value is taxable to the named beneficiaries or to the estate, although these taxes can be reduced or eliminated if certain criteria are met.

The potential to reduce or eliminate taxes on income earned in an RRSP or RRIF after the date of death only applies to income realized up to December 31 of the year after the year of death. For example, if an individual died on June 1, 2021, the registered plan would remain tax sheltered up to December 31, 2022. If the registered plan remains in place beyond this date, the income earned after December 31, 2022 becomes taxable in the hands of the beneficiaries or the estate.

One exception to this rule is when an RRSP or RRIF is provided by an insurance company. The income earned after December 31, 2022 from a life insurance company RRSP or RRIF will receive the same tax treatment described above no matter when the death proceeds are paid.

It’s also possible to have any post-death decreases in the value of the RRSP or RRIF carried back and deducted against the year of death RRSP or RRIF income inclusion.

How can the income tax bill on death be reduced?

It’s possible to minimize the RRSP or RRIF income inclusion on death and on income earned in the RRSP or RRIF up to December 31 of the year after death if the deceased’s RRSP or RRIF is left to a qualifying survivor. The beneficiary of the RRSP or RRIF can be named directly on the plan document or in the deceased’s will. Sometimes, the deceased’s will may state that a particular person is the beneficiary of a certain amount of the estate, which includes the deceased’s RRSP or RRIF (if there are no named beneficiaries on the RRSP or RRIF, or if the beneficiaries predeceased the annuitant).⁴

If the beneficiary is a qualifying survivor, it’s possible to have the value of the RRSP or RRIF taxable to the beneficiary. This same tax treatment results whether a qualifying survivor is named directly on the plan documents or is a named beneficiary in the will. If you’re not sure whether this applies to you, talk to your legal or tax advisor.

Who is a qualifying survivor?

A qualifying survivor can be a:

  • spouse or common-law partner⁵
  • financially dependent infirm child or grandchild
  • financially dependent child or grandchild.

Spouse or common-law partner

If the beneficiary of the RRSP or RRIF is a spouse or common-law partner, it’s possible to transfer the assets directly to that person’s RRSP, RRIF or eligible annuity as a tax-deferred rollover. If the surviving spouse or partner is under age 71, the RRSP or RRIF can be transferred to that survivor’s RRSP; otherwise, the assets must be transferred to the survivor’s RRIF or eligible annuity. The actual transfer of the deceased's RRSP or RRIF to the survivor's RRSP, RRIF, or eligible annuity must be completed in the year the survivor receives the deceased’s RRSP or RRIF, or within 60 days after the end of that year.

If this is done, the surviving spouse or common-law partner will report the value of the deceased’s RRSP or RRIF on their tax return for the year (this value will be reported on a T4RSP or T4RIF slip). The surviving spouse or common-law partner will then claim an offsetting deduction for the qualifying transfer under paragraph 60(l) of the Income Tax Act (Canada) to their own RRSP, RRIF, or eligible annuity. Any future withdrawals or payments from the RRSP, RRIF, or eligible annuity will be taxable to the surviving spouse or common-law partner.

In the case of a RRIF, a successor annuitant may have been named in the plan or the will. This means that the existing RRIF continues and the surviving spouse or common-law partner simply receives the same periodic payments as the deceased had received from the RRIF. No special taxation issues arise on death when a successor annuitant is named; instead, the successor is taxed on any payments made from the RRIF to the successor each year.

Infirm, financially dependent child or grandchild

If an RRSP or RRIF is left to a child or grandchild who was financially dependent on the deceased taxpayer for reasons of mental or physical infirmity, the RRSP or RRIF doesn’t have to be taxed in the hands of the deceased. In this situation, the infirm child or grandchild can transfer the assets to their own RRSP or RRIF. The transfer must take place in the year the RRSP or RRIF is received, or within the first 60 days of the next year. If this is done, the dependent infirm child or grandchild will only be taxed on any withdrawals made in the future.

The infirm child or grandchild may also choose to purchase an eligible annuity with the RRSP or RRIF, and annuity payments will also be taxed to the child or grandchild. Alternatively, where the infirm child or grandchild is a beneficiary of a registered disability savings plan (RDSP), the amount can be transferred to that RDSP, up to the lifetime contribution limit of $200,000. Such transfers aren’t eligible for Canada disability savings grants (CDSGs).

An infirm child or grandchild is generally considered to be financially dependent on the deceased if the child or grandchild depended on the deceased and the child or grandchild’s income in the previous year was less than the basic personal amount plus the disability amount for that previous year. If the income is above this amount, the child or grandchild may still qualify as financially dependent, but only if financial dependency can be demonstrated based on the particular facts of the situation.

Minors, financially dependent child or grandchild

If an RRSP or RRIF is left to a minor child or grandchild who was financially dependent on the deceased, the value of the RRSP or RRIF can be taxed to the child or grandchild and not to the deceased. Where the minor child or grandchild uses the RRSP or RRIF funds to purchase a term certain annuity (maximum term to age 18), only the annuity payments will be taxed as they’re received in that minor’s hands.

As with transfers to other qualifying survivors, the transfer must take place in the year the RRSP or RRIF proceeds are received, or within the first 60 days of the following year. Depending on the age of the minor child or grandchild, this may only defer tax for a short time. However, since the minor usually has little or no other income, this may provide the opportunity to have the income taxed at a lower tax rate than it would have been on the deceased’s final tax return.

A minor is generally considered to be financially dependent if the minor depended on the deceased and the minor’s income for the previous taxation year was less than the basic personal amount for that previous year.

Adult child or grandchild 

If an RRSP or RRIF is left to an adult child or grandchild who’s financially dependent, it’s possible to include the fair market value of the RRSP or RRIF in the child or grandchild’s income instead of the deceased’s income. However, the adult child or grandchild won’t be able to purchase an eligible term certain annuity as this option is only available to a minor child or grandchild up to age 18. Although there’s no available product to reinvest the RRSP or RRIF to receive a tax-deferred rollover, there’s a strong likelihood the adult child or grandchild will pay less tax on the RRSP or RRIF’s fair market value income inclusion versus the deceased due to having a lower marginal tax rate.

If an RRSP or RRIF is left to an adult child or grandchild who’s not financially dependent, or mentally or physically infirm, there’s no tax deferral available by naming the adult child or grandchild as beneficiary. The RRSP or RRIF will be fully taxable on the final tax return of the deceased, and the RRSP or RRIF will be paid to the adult child or grandchild named as beneficiary.

An adult child or grandchild is generally considered to be financially dependant if the child or grandchild depended on the deceased, and the child or grandchild’s income for the previous tax year was less than the basic personal amount for that year.

What happens if the estate of the deceased was named as beneficiary?

If the estate is named as beneficiary of the RRSP or RRIF, generally, the fair market value of the RRSP or RRIF is included in income on the deceased’s final tax return. However, where an amount is paid from an RRSP or RRIF to the estate and a beneficiary of the estate is a qualifying survivor, the legal representative of the estate, along with the beneficiary, may file a joint election to treat the RRSP or RRIF proceeds as being paid directly to that qualifying survivor. If this joint election is filed with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), the deceased and the qualifying survivors will receive the same tax treatment as if the qualifying survivors had been named directly on the RRSP or RRIF.

In other words, the tax bill on death can be rolled over tax deferred if that qualifying survivor transfers assets into an RRSP, RRIF, eligible annuity, or term certain annuity to a maximum age of 18, where applicable. The qualifying survivor must be a beneficiary of the estate for an amount at least equal to the value of the RRSP or RRIF for this rollover to occur.

To benefit from the RRSP rollover provisions, you must fill out form T2019⁶ (Death of an RRSP Annuitant — Refund of Premiums) and have it signed by both the legal representative of the deceased and the qualifying survivor. For a RRIF, complete form T1090⁷ (Death of a RRIF Annuitant — Designated Benefit or Joint Designation on the Death of a PRPP Member). These forms can be found on the CRA website at www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency.html.

Caution: Unless there’s a specific reason for having assets flow through your estate, such as to use tax losses or deductions, or apply any special instructions contained in the will, it may be prudent to name a beneficiary, other than your estate, directly on the RRSP or RRIF. Having assets flow through your estate may subject them to claims by your estate creditors, as well as probate and other estate administration fees.

Where can I get more information about tax rules on death?

The CRA’s website contains information about tax rules on death, including specific rules that apply to RRSPs, RRIFs, and their beneficiaries. As tax rules on death can be complicated, you may want to consult your tax or legal advisor for advice tailored to your specific situation.

Ideal candidates

Individuals with an RRSP or RRIF who:

  • want to understand income tax implications on death
  • want to minimize or reduce their income tax bill on death
  • could use more information on the differences between the naming of certain beneficiaries.

Take action

If this applies to you:

  • contact your advisor
  • make sure your will and beneficiary designations produce the intended tax consequences for your RRSPs and RRIFs on death.
  • review your estate plan, including your RRSPs and RRIFs, with a tax or legal advisor.

Québec residents receive another form, RL2, used to file their tax returns with Revenu Québec. In Québec, an executor is referred to as a liquidator. In Québec, an estate beneficiary or a beneficiary named under a will is referred to as an heir. As well, the reference to a beneficiary of a contract is also referred to as a beneficiary. In Québec, it’s only possible to designate a beneficiary on a payout or deferred annuity RRSP or RRIF issued by an insurance company. For Québec residents, because civil union spouses aren’t recognized from a federal income tax point of view, they’ll be recognized under the definition of a common-law partner in Québec if they satisfy certain criteria. The Québec equivalent to the T2019 is the TP930. The Québec equivalent to the T1090 is the TP961.8.

The commentary in this publication is for general information only and should not be considered investment or tax advice to any party. Individuals should seek the advice of professionals to ensure that any action taken with respect to this information is appropriate to their specific situation. Manulife, Manulife Investment Management, the Stylized M Design, and Manulife Investment Management & Stylized M Design are trademarks of The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company and are used by it, and by its affiliates under license.

MK2417E 07/21 

Tax, Retirement & Estate Planning Services Team

Tax, Retirement & Estate Planning Services Team

Manulife Investment Management

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