Making the RRSP decision when you turn 71

The age at which Canadians retire and begin deriving income from government and private pensions and private retirement savings has become something of a moving target. At one time, reaching one’s 65th birthday marked the transition from working life to full retirement, and, usually, receipt of a monthly employee pension, along with government-sponsored retirement benefits. That is no longer the unvarying reality. The age at which Canadians retire can now span a decade or more, and retirement is more likely to be a gradual transition than a single event.

Today, Canadians can choose to begin receiving benefits from government-sponsored retirement benefit programs between the ages of 60 and 70. Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits can begin as early as age 60, and taxpayers can start collecting Old Age Security benefits at age 65. Receipt of income from either of those government sponsored retirement income plans can also be deferred until the age of 70.

There is, however, one retirement income “deadline” which is not flexible and must be adhered to by every Canadian who has saved for retirement through a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP). All holders of such plans are required to close out their RRSP by the end of the calendar year in which they turn 71 years of age – no exceptions and no extensions. The decision which must be made on how to do so is a very big one, as the course of action chosen will affect the individual’s income for the remainder of his or her life.

While the actual decision is a complex one, the options available to a taxpayer who must collapse an RRSP are actually quite few in number – three, to be precise. They are as follows:

  • collapse the RRSP and include all of the proceeds in income for that year;
  • collapse the RRSP and transfer all proceeds to a registered retirement income fund (RRIF); and/or
  • collapse the RRSP and purchase an annuity with the proceeds.

It’s not hard to see that the first option doesn’t have much to recommend it. Collapsing an RRSP without transferring the balance to an RRIF or purchasing an annuity means that every dollar in the RRSP will be treated as taxable income for that year. In some cases, where a substantial six-figure amount has been saved in the RRSP, that can mean losing nearly half of the RRSP proceeds to income tax. And, while any balance of proceeds left can then be invested, tax will be payable on all investment income earned.

As a practical matter, then, the choices come down to two: an RRIF or an annuity. And, as is the case with most tax and financial planning decisions, the best choice will be driven by one’s personal financial and family circumstances, risk tolerance, cost of living, and the availability of other sources of income to meet such living costs.

The annuity route has the great advantages of simplicity and reliability. In exchange for a lump sum amount paid by the taxpayer, the issuer of that annuity agrees to pay the taxpayer a specific sum of money, usually once a month, for the remainder of his or her life. Annuities can also provide a guarantee period, in which the annuity payments continue for a specified time period (five years, 10 years), even if the taxpayer dies during that time. The amount of monthly income which can be received depends, of course, on the amount paid in, but also on the gender and, especially, the age of the taxpayer.

The other factor influencing the amount of income which can be received from an annuity is current interest rates. For many years, interest rates have been so low that an annuity purchase had very little to recommend it. Over the past 14 months, however, the Bank of Canada has raised interest rates several times, and annuity payment rates have risen as a result. Currently, annuity rates for each $100,000 paid to the annuity issuer by a taxpayer who is 70 years of age range from $636 to $672 per month for a male taxpayer and from $588 to $621 for a female taxpayer (the actual rate is set by the company which issues the annuity). Those rates do not include any guarantee period.

For taxpayers whose primary objective is to obtain a guaranteed life-long income stream without the responsibility of making any investment decisions or the need to take any investment risk, an annuity can be an attractive option. There are, however, some potential downsides to be considered. First, an annuity can never be reversed. Once the taxpayer has signed the annuity contract and transferred the funds, he or she is locked into that annuity arrangement for the remainder of his or her life, regardless of any change in circumstances that might mean an annuity is no longer suitable. Second, unless the annuity contract includes a guarantee period, there is no way of knowing how many payments the taxpayer will receive. If he or she dies within a short period of time after the annuity is put in place, there is no refund of amounts invested – once the initial transfer is made at the time the annuity is purchased, all funds transferred belong to the annuity company. Third, most annuity payment schedules do not keep up with inflation – while it is possible to obtain an annuity in which payments are indexed, having that feature will mean a substantially lower monthly payout amount. Finally, where the amount paid to obtain the annuity represents most or all of the taxpayer’s assets, entering into the annuity arrangement means that the taxpayer will not be leaving an estate for his or heirs.

The second option open to taxpayers is to collapse the RRSP and transfer the entire balance to a registered retirement income fund, or RRIF. An RRIF operates in much the same way as an RRSP, with two major differences. First, it’s not possible to contribute funds to an RRIF. Second, the taxpayer is required to withdraw an amount from his or her RRIF (and to pay tax on that amount) each year. That minimum withdrawal amount is a percentage of the outstanding balance, with that percentage figure determined by the taxpayer’s age at the beginning of the year. While the taxpayer can always withdraw more in a year (and pay tax on that withdrawal), he or she cannot withdraw less than the minimum required withdrawal for his or her age group.

Where a taxpayer holds savings in an RRIF, he or she can invest those funds in the same investment vehicles as were used while the funds were held in an RRSP. And, as with an RRSP, investment income earned by funds held inside an RRIF are not taxed as they are earned. While the ability to continue holding investments that can grow on a tax-sheltered basis provides the taxpayer with a lot of flexibility, that flexibility has a price in the form of investment risk. As is the case with all investments, the investments held within an RRIF can increase in value – or decrease – and the taxpayer carries the entire investment risk. When things go the way every investor wants them to, investment income is earned while the taxpayer’s underlying capital is maintained, but that result is never guaranteed.

On the death of an RRIF annuitant, any funds remaining in the RRIF can pass to the annuitant’s spouse on a tax-free basis. Where there is no spouse, the remaining funds in the RRIF will be income to the RRIF annuitant in the year of death, and any balance will become part of his or her estate.

While the above discussion of RRIFs versus annuities focuses on the benefits and downsides of each, it’s not necessary, and in most cases not advisable, to limit the options to an either/or choice. It is possible to achieve, to a degree, the seemingly irreconcilable goals of lifetime income security and capital (and estate) growth. Combining the two alternatives – annuity and RRIF – either now or in the future can go a long way toward satisfying both objectives.

For everyone, in retirement or not, spending is a combination of non-discretionary and discretionary items. The first category is made up mostly of expenditures for income tax, housing (whether rent or the cost of maintaining a house), food, insurance costs, and (especially for older Canadians) the cost of out-of-pocket medical expenses. The second category of discretionary expenses includes entertainment, travel, and the cost of any hobbies or interests pursued. A strategy which utilizes a portion of RRSP savings to create a secure lifelong income stream to cover non-discretionary costs can remove the worry of outliving one’s money, while the balance of savings can be invested for growth and to provide the income for discretionary spending.

Such a secure income stream can, of course, be created by purchasing an annuity. As well, although most taxpayers don’t think of them in that way, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security have many of the attributes of an annuity, with the added benefit that both are indexed to inflation. By age 71, all taxpayers who are eligible for CPP and OAS will have begun receiving those monthly benefits. Consequently, in making the RRIF/annuity decision at that age, taxpayers should include in their calculations the extent to which CPP and OAS benefits will pay for their non-discretionary living costs.

As of July 2023, the maximum OAS benefit for most Canadians (specifically, those who have lived in Canada for 40 years after the age of 18) is about $699 per month. The amount of CPP benefits receivable by the taxpayer will vary, depending on his or her work history, but the maximum current benefit which can be received at age 65 is about $1,306. As a result, a single taxpayer who receives the maximum CPP and OAS benefits at age 65 will have just over $24,000 in annual income (about $2005 per month). And, for a married couple, of course, the total annual income received from CPP and OAS can be about $48,000 annually, or $4,010 per month. While $24,000 a year isn’t usually enough to provide a comfortable retirement, for those who go into retirement in good financial shape – meaning, generally, without any debt – it can go a long way toward meeting non-discretionary living costs. In other words, most Canadians who are facing the annuity versus RRIF decision already have a source of income which is effectively guaranteed for their lifetime and which is indexed to inflation. Taxpayers who are considering the purchase of an annuity to create the income stream required to cover non-discretionary expenses should first determine how much of those expenses can already be met by the combination of their (and their spouse’s) CPP and OAS benefits. The amount of any annuity purchase can then be set to cover off any shortfall.

While the options available to a taxpayer at age 71 with respect to the structuring of future retirement income are relatively straightforward, the number of factors to be considered in assessing those factors and making that decision are not. All of that makes for a situation in which consulting with an independent financial advisor on the right mix of choices and investments isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessary one.