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Tax and financial planning for the pandemic

2020-07-12

While the standard (and accurate) advice is that tax and financial planning are best approached as activities to be carried on throughout the year, it’s also the case that a mid-year tax and financial checkup makes good sense, and that’s especially the case this year.

For most Canadians, 2020 has been a year of financial uncertainty and, in many cases, significant financial stress. Millions of Canadians became suddenly unemployed when pandemic-related states of emergency were declared in mid-March and businesses closed. Many others lost income when schools closed and they needed to stay home to care for their children. By June 21, 2020, the federal government had processed over 18 million applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the $500 per week benefit which was paid (and in some cases continues to be paid) to those who suffered a pandemic-related loss of income. Of those who received CERB benefits, some may be returning to work in the near future, while others may have no idea when (or whether) their former positions will become available to them again.

All of this makes for significant financial uncertainly. And while much of the near financial future for most Canadians may still be uncertain, it’s nonetheless both possible and advisable to take stock of one’s financial and tax position to date, especially in relation to the financial and tax changes resulting from the pandemic. The first step this year should be an assessment of how the financial consequences of the pandemic have affected one’s tax position for 2020.

Tax considerations for CERB recipients

Most of the millions of Canadians who received CERB benefits are likely unaware that such benefits represent taxable income for 2020 and that no income tax was deducted from benefits paid. That tax will have to be paid when the return for 2020 is filed in the spring of 2021.

The standard CERB benefit is $500 per week and such benefits may be received for a maximum of 24 weeks. Canadians who collect CERB for the maximum allowable 24-week period will therefore be paid $12,000. For those with incomes up to about $50,000 the federal tax rate levied on CERB amounts received will be 15%. Where a taxpayer’s income for this year is between $50,000 and $100,000 the applicable federal tax rate is 20.5%. Each province will also impose tax on CERB amounts, with the rate varying by province. A listing of federal, provincial, and territorial tax rates for 2020 can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/individuals/frequently-asked-questions-individuals/canadian-income-tax-rates-individuals-current-previous-years.html#provincial.

While no one likes to find out that a tax amount is owed when the annual tax return is filed, that will be especially unwelcome news to those who are already dealing with income loss from unemployment. The best course of action to avoid that scenario is to start now to make provision for the taxes which will be owed on CERB amounts received.

The simplest way to do so, of course, is to begin to set aside funds which will be needed to pay the tax bill next spring. However, as with most savings goals, it’s easier to make such a commitment than to fulfill it.

Taxpayers who have returned to work and are once again receiving a paycheque have another option — they can have the amount of tax withheld from that paycheque increased to cover the tax which will be payable on CERB amounts received. Usually, the employee can simply request that his or her employer increase the amount of tax withheld from each paycheque and remitted to the federal government on the employee’s behalf.

In some cases, taxpayers won’t be able to fulfill their tax obligations from current income sources and will have to dip into savings. Generally speaking, where there is a choice, it is best to use funds that are held in non-registered savings plans, like a savings account. Where such funds aren’t available, a withdrawal from a Tax-Free Savings Account is the next best option. Amounts withdrawn from a TFSA will not be included in taxable income and, where the withdrawal is made before the end of 2020, the amount withdrawn can be replaced, where finances allow, in 2021. Taking funds out of a registered retirement savings plan should be a last resort, as any amount withdrawn will be added to income and will itself increase the tax bill for the year and, unlike a TFSA, amounts withdrawn from an RRSP cannot be replaced. Borrowing to pay taxes owed is an option, but taxpayers should be aware that interest paid on money borrowed for that purpose is not deductible.

Considerations for retirees

For those who are already retired, or those close to retirement, watching the value of their retirement savings take a sharp drop during the month of March was more than a little stressful. Recognizing the disproportionate effect that the market downturn had on such taxpayers, the federal government made some changes, for this year only, to help cushion the blow.

The changes announced affect those taxpayers over the age of 71 who have a Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF). The usual rules governing such RRIFs require that holders withdraw a specified percentage of the balance in the RRIF each year, with the required percentage based on the taxpayer’s age.

The difficulty which arose was that the rules require that the RRIF balance used to calculate the required withdrawal is the balance as of the beginning of the calendar year. For nearly every RRIF holder in Canada, that balance was much higher at the beginning of 2020 than it is now, so that the required withdrawal would represent a disproportionate share of RRIF. As well, where it was necessary to sell investments in order to make the withdrawal, those investments would have to be sold at a diminished, post-downturn value.

In recognition of all of these circumstances, the federal government announced that the required RRIF withdrawal would be reduced, for 2020 only, to 75% of the usual amount. For example, where a taxpayer would normally be required to withdraw $2,000 from his or her RRIF in 2020, the required withdrawal will now be $1,500.

There is no particular rule for when a taxpayer must make the required annual withdrawal from his or her RRIF. While some RRIF holders make that withdrawal at the beginning of the calendar year, others opt for monthly withdrawals throughout the year and still others wait until the last minute and make the required withdrawal at year end.

The rule change will have different impacts depending on how a particular taxpayer’s withdrawal is structured for this year. Perhaps most important, for those who made their full required 2020 withdrawal before the rule change was announced in March, it’s not possible to recontribute the “excess” 25%. Those who withdraw in equal monthly amounts throughout the year and who wish to reduce their 2020 withdrawal by the allowable 25% can take steps to adjust that monthly withdrawal to reflect the reduced amount and, of course, those who withdraw at the end of year can similarly change their planned withdrawal.

It’s important to remember two points: first, there is no requirement that RRIF holders alter their withdrawal amounts for 2020. The option to reduce the usual required withdrawal by 25% is just that — an option. Those whose cash flow requirements can accommodate a reduced withdrawal can take advantage of the available option while others who may need the funds to meet living expenses can make the full withdrawal as originally planned. Second, in all cases any withdrawals made from a RRIF are taxable income to the RRIF holder. Examples of how the change will apply can be found on the federal government website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/registered-plans-administrators/registered-retirement-savings-plans-registered-retirement-income-funds-rrsps-rrifs/economic-statement-measure-annuitants-rrsp-rrif.html.

Finally, there is another bit of good tax news for retirees this year. In July, all Canadians who currently receive Old Age Security benefits will receive an additional one-time payment of $300 to help offset additional costs they may have incurred as the result of the pandemic. Those OAS recipients who also qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement will receive a one-time payment of $500. While OAS amounts received are usually included in taxable income, this one-time supplement of $300 or $500 will be tax-free.

Although we’re just halfway through the calendar year, 2020 has already been a very stressful year for many Canadians from a financial perspective. Planning now to take account of changed financial and tax circumstances arising from the current situation will help ensure that those stresses don’t included an unexpected tax headache.

The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.