Taking advantage of pension income splitting

Income tax is a big-ticket item for most retired Canadians. Especially for those who are no longer paying a mortgage, the annual tax bill may be the single biggest expenditure they are required to make each year. Fortunately, the Canadian tax system provides a number of tax deductions and credits available only to those over the age of 65 (like the age credit) or only to those receiving the kinds of income usually received by retirees (like the pension income credit), in order to help minimize that tax burden. And in most cases, the availability of those credits is flagged, either on the income tax form which must be completed each spring or on the accompanying income tax guide.

There is, however, another income-tax-saving strategy which is not nearly as well known. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the benefits of that strategy (and the ease with which it can be accomplished) aren’t readily apparent from either the tax return form or the annual income tax guide. That tax saving strategy is pension income splitting and it’s likely the case that many taxpayers who could benefit aren’t familiar with the strategy, especially if they are not receiving professional tax planning or tax return preparation advice.

That’s a particularly unfortunate reality because pension income splitting has the potential to generate more tax savings among taxpayers over the age of 65 (and certainly those over the age of 71, for whom RRSP contributions are no longer possible) than just about any other tax planning strategy available to retirees. In addition, it’s one of the very few tax planning strategies which requires no expenditure of funds on the part of the taxpayer and which can be implemented after the end of the tax year, at the time the return for that tax year is filed.

When described in those terms, pension income splitting can sound like one of those “too good to be true” tax scams, but that’s not the case. Essentially, what pension income splitting offers is a government-sanctioned opportunity for Canadian residents who are married (and, usually, where the spouse whose income is being split is aged 65 or older) to make a notional (meaning that no money actually has to change hands) reallocation of private pension income between them on their annual tax returns, and to benefit from a lower overall family tax bill as a result.

Pension income splitting, like all forms of income splitting, works because Canada has what is called a “progressive” tax system, in which the applicable tax rate goes up as income rises. For 2023, the federal tax rate applied to about the first $53,000 of taxable income is 15%, while the federal rate applied to approximately the next $53,000 of such income is 20.5%. So, an individual who has $106,000 in taxable income would pay federal tax of about $18,815. If that $106,000 was divided equally between such individual and his or her spouse, each would have $53,000 in taxable income and federal tax payable of $7,950 each. The total federal family tax bill would be $15,900, for a federal tax saving of just under $3,000.

The general rule with respect to pension income splitting is that a taxpayer who receives private pension income during the year is entitled to allocate up to half that income (without any dollar limit) to his or her spouse for tax purposes. In this context, private pension income means a pension received from a former employer and, where the income recipient is age 65 or older, payments from an annuity, a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP), or a registered retirement income fund (RRIF). Government source pensions, like the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Québec Pension Plan (QPP), or Old Age Security (OAS) payments do not qualify for pension income splitting, regardless of the age of the recipient.

The mechanics of pension income splitting are relatively simple. There is no need to transfer funds between spouses or to make any change in the actual payment or receipt of qualifying pension amounts, and no need to notify a pension administrator. Taxpayers who wish to split eligible pension income received by either of them must each file Form T1032, Joint Election to Split Pension Income (T1032 E (23)), with their annual tax return. That form, which is not included in the annual tax return package, can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/forms-publications/forms/t1032.html or can be ordered in large print format by calling 1-800-959 8281.

On the T1032, the taxpayer receiving the private pension income and the spouse with whom that income is to be split must make a joint election to be filed with their respective tax returns for 2023. Since the splitting of pension income affects the income and therefore the tax liability of both spouses, the election must be made and the form filed by both spouses – an election filed by only one spouse or the other won’t suffice. In addition to filing the T1032, the spouse who is the actual recipient of the pension income to be split must deduct from income the amount of eligible pension income which is being allocated to their spouse. That deduction is taken on Line 21000 of the 2023 return. And, conversely, the spouse to whom the eligible pension income is being allocated is required to add that amount to their income on the return, this time on Line 11600. Essentially, to benefit from pension income splitting, all that’s needed is for each spouse to file a single form with the CRA and to make a single entry on their 2023 tax return.

By the end of February or early March, taxpayers will have received (or downloaded) the information slips which summarize the income received from various sources during 2023. At that time, couples who might benefit from this strategy can review those information slips and calculate the extent to which they can make a dent in their overall tax bill for the year through a little judicious pension income splitting.

Those wishing to obtain more information on pension income splitting than is available in the 2023 General Income Tax and Benefit Guide should refer to the CRA website at http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/pensionsplitting/, where more detailed information is available.