Retirement tax tips

Tax can become a retiree’s biggest expense. Here are strategies to pay less in your golden years



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During the wealth-accumulation years, the RRSP is a key tool, both to minimize income tax on taxable income (especially salaries) and to accumulate a retirement nest egg. Indeed, for those driven primarily by the immediate tax reduction, the byproduct of a retirement nest egg may even come as a pleasant surprise.

However, it eventually comes as a shock to new retirees to discover tax may become one of their biggest expenses, surpassing even food or housing costs. This often occurs the year you turn 71 and convert an RRSP into a Registered Retirement Income Fund or RRIF. (This isn’t necessarily mandatory, as you can also choose to annuitize or cash out, although few do the latter because of the harsh immediate tax consequences.)

In practice, most retirees choose the RRIF route, even though Ottawa mandates forced annual (and taxable) withdrawals that start at 5.28% at age 71 (for RRIFs set up after 1992), hit 6.82% at age 80, 11.92% at 90 and 20% at and beyond 95. That’s less than previously required but still probably means breaking slowly into capital: after all, Ottawa’s “generosity” with the earlier RRSP tax refunds was always balanced by the knowledge the tax piper must eventually be paid: naturally, these RRIF withdrawals are fully taxable like salaried income or interest income.

Depending on how much taxable income you generate, you may even find yourself starting to lose some Old Age Security (OAS) benefits from the dreaded “clawback.” This starts to kick in with taxable income of $73,756 in 2016 and will reach $74,789 in 2017.

This coming tax hit is eminently predictable, so some financial planners tell clients to consider taking voluntary early RRSP withdrawals if they are no longer in a top tax bracket in their sixties. Those who have left full-time employment and are working part-time in “semi-retirement” may be tempted to “bask” in their relatively low tax bracket.

But this may mean missing out on the advantages of starting to withdraw some RRSP money out at more favorable tax rates. Doug Dahmer, president of Burlington-based Emeritus Retirement Income Specialists Inc., is a vocal advocate of using early RRSP withdrawals to replace the cash flow you might originally have received had you started to collect benefits from the Canada Pension Plan as early as 60. As we know from Dahmer’s CPP optimization consultation (, delaying CPP is equivalent to having a guaranteed annual 8.4% return on your RRSP for each extra year you delay receipt of benefits. What you lose on RRSP growth is more than made up by eventual higher CPP benefits, especially if you wait until 70. “This ensures you get the bird in hand along with the one in the bush,” Dahmer quips.

We have talked in past columns about “topping up to bracket:” a strategy for maximizing what I call “low-taxed” dollars. You certainly want to receive the annual $11,474 (in 2016) of the tax-free zone called the Basic Personal Amount, plus for those who qualify, the $2,000 annual Pension Credit; and for those 65 or older the $7,125 federal Age Credit (in 2016) further expands the tax-free or very low tax zone that many new or semi-retirees may occupy between their 60s and 71.

Keep in mind that, according to KPMG, the federal tax rate is just 15% up to $45,282 of income, rising to 20.5%, then 26% at $90,564, then 29% at $140,389 and 33% at $200,001 or more. To that you must add provincial taxes, which are as low as around 5% in some province’s bottom brackets (British Columbia and Ontario included) but likewise rise with incomes (sometimes surtaxes also kick in, as is the case in both Ontario and Prince Edward Island).

So if you are in the bottom tax bracket in your 60s and have a bit of “room” left to take in more lowly-taxed income, you may wish to start withdrawing money early from your RRSP, even though you will be paying a bit of tax on it earlier than you might have projected.

You may even decide you want to set up your RRIF earlier than age 71. A semi-retiree could set up a RRIF to generate regular (and taxable) income monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or once a year. You may need the extra income to supplement CPP, OAS after 65, or modest employer pensions. According to CIBC Wood Gundy, for RRIFs set up after 1992, the minimum RRIF withdrawal rate at age 65 is 4%, reaching 5% at 70, then 5.28% at 71 and so on.

A special situation occurs when one spouse is much younger than the other and/or expected to live longer. In this circumstance, Dahmer says you need to consider the eventual loss of the opportunity to split RRSP income; the consolidation of RRSP balances with the surviving spouse requires looking at tax strategically about whether earlier withdrawals are advisable.

Be careful setting up a RRIF in your 60s: once committed, you have to keep to the schedule: while it’s possible to reverse this decision before age 71, you have to go through hoops to do so. That’s why some advisors, like KCM Wealth Management Inc.’s Adrian Mastracci, find it more flexible to take lump sums out of your RRSP periodically.

Amounts up to $5,000 will generate withholding tax of 10%, which rises to 20% between $5,000 and $15,000, and to 30% for chunks over $15,000. However, don’t make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion you can pay only 10% tax by withdrawing only small RRSP chunks of less than $5,000.

Estimate what your eventual tax liability will be before choosing the withdrawal amount: personally, if I figure on being in the 20% bracket, I’d want to be taxed up front at 20% to avoid a nasty surprise come tax-filing time. (In fact, just a few weeks ago, in part because we have to replace the roof on our home, I took out a lump sum at just that tax rate.)

After decades of the RRSP contribution habit, I admit it goes against the grain to start decumulating. But I’d rather pay a little tax now prematurely than a lot of tax later.

Jonathan Chevreau founded the Financial Independence Hub and can be reached at His new book (written with Mike Drak) can be found at Read more of his Retired Money column

—An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the federal tax brackets. That line has been updated with correct information.— 

14 comments on “Retirement tax tips

  1. Being someone who has a pension and considerable investment income in retirement, I find the advise given by articles like these that usually say top up to the next bracket if you are in a bottom bracket to be unhelpful. Should I try topping up to my higher bracket? How do I control my variable investment income to make sure I don’t exceed this top bracket (avoid selling any stock at a profit?).


    • If you are making too much investment gains to stay within your current tax bracket, that is what I would call “a good problem”. Wish I had those kinds of problems.


  2. I am concerned with articles of this nature when GIS is not mentioned when drawing funds from a RRIF over and above the mandatory amount. 50% claw back occurs from Guaranteed Income Supplement for low income seniors. A RRIF is not a good emergency fund situation for anyone receiving GIS. A TFSA, if at all possible to manage is the way to go. A TFSA does not affect the GIS allotment.


    • Yet


  3. Please note the new federal tax brackets for 2016 ,,,,
    Federal tax rates for 2016

    •15% on the first $45,282 of taxable income, +
    •20.5% on the next $45,281 of taxable income (on the portion of taxable income over $45,282 up to $90,563), +
    •26% on the next $49,825 of taxable income (on the portion of taxable income over $90,563 up to $140,388), +
    •29% on the next $59,612 of taxable income (on the portion of taxable income over $140,388 up to $200,000), +
    •33% of taxable income over $200,000.


  4. You say
    “Depending on how much taxable income you generate, you may even find yourself starting to lose some Old Age Security (OAS) benefits from the dreaded “clawback.” This starts to kick in with TAXABLE income of $73,756 in 2016 and will reach $74,789 in 2017.
    I think that it is NET income


  5. I posted a comment but it is not there?


  6. My focus is to live off dividend income plus OAS and CPP. (No company pension.) I will be in the lower tax bracket when I reach 65 this year; under $44,701. Are there situations where having too much dividend income is a problem such that one cannot use all the Dividend Tax Credits, so some credits are wasted, as in un-used? Perhaps an article on us lower income people may be appropriate.


    • Unused DTCs are not carried over, they are lost. I don’t understand how receiving the max div’s that you can while paying no tax (due to DTC) is a problem (other than Ont Health Tax Prem). Don’t forget the Fed Age non-refundable credit that will kick in when you turn 65. As per the article, you may want to plan to take in more income (RRSP w/d’s) to use up your Non-ref’l credits, thereby changing potentially tax’l income down the road into non-taxable income (hard to say for sure w/o knowing all of your income/ded’n/credit facts), then perhaps moving that income into a TFSA if appropriate in your circumstances. Please remember, also for the wealthier gentleman CC who commented above re “someone who has a pension and considerable investment income” that articles like these are for general knowledge purposes only, you should always consult your own financial advisor for your own specific tax/income/estate planning.


  7. It is NET and not TAXABLE income that determines the claw back


  8. It is NET not TAXABLE income that determines the clawback


  9. Can you please explain the issue around the lost opportunity of splitting RRSP income? I am 51 and working full time while my husband is 64 and basically retired. He has signed up to collect CPP when he turns 65 next year, but I am wondering if we should drain our RRSPs (his and our spousal) first. His life expectancy is a good long one, judging by family history and personal health.


  10. In your article, you said “delaying CPP is equivalent to having a guaranteed annual 8.4% return on your RRSP for each extra year you delay receipt of benefits” which is not entirely correct. Even the gov’t CPP website doesn’t mention the following. I found this distinction in the MoneySense magazine last summer.

    If you have been retired for 8 years or more, the non-contribution grace period is gone and a 2.5% annual penalty is added to your CPP until you apply for CPP payments. In my case, I retired at 57 and am now 65, and will be started to be penalized by 2.5% annually. Furthermore, my Superannuation pension wished me an Happy Birthday by reducing it by $1,500/month, supposedly to be compensated by OAS and CPP if I apply for them at 65. Doesn’t that sound like what our local turncoats MPP and MP did to us, by sending us a Christmas and Happy New Year card, and then stabbing us in the back with the Carbon and Cap & Trade taxes plus more to come.

    If I wait to apply for my CPP benefits (1 year up to age 70), I do not get a guaranteed annual increase of 8.4% as you said but 5.9% (8.4% – 2.5% penalty). Why should I wait now especially since my accumulated CPP contributions allowed me to receive $1,070 out of the $1,090 maximum allowed (more or less)? Because in my case, my wife passed away in 2012 and I have been receiving a $540/month CPP survivor benefit since then. If I apply for my CPP now, the CPP survivor benefit will be added to my CPP benefit to become not $1,630 but capped at the $1,090 maximum allowed, which is wrong because my late wife had been contributing to CPP all her working life. This is another gov’t kick below the belt, added to my new wife never receiving any Superannuation Survivor benefits if I pass away before her, since we got married while I was retired and receiving my Superannuation.

    Finally, when I do get my higher CPP at 70, the RRIF payments will soon start to kick in, clawing back all my OAS, even though I have been pension-income splitting 50-50 with my new wife since we got married 3 years ago. I was told that delaying CPP until 70 brings one’s break-even point in CPP payments to the early 80s in age. In my case, since I continued receiving my wife’s CPP survivor benefits until 70, my break-even will be sometime at 76. This means that all extra CPP benefits coming from delaying applying for CPP payments, will be pure new money for me from age 76 on…


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