Jonathan Chevreau posted today on a BMO Retirement Institute survey finding that boomers expect to receive huge amounts of inheritance money to pay for their retirement.
A quick skim of the Passing it on study reminded me that in the case of inheritances "what you see is not what you will get". The example box on page four of the report shows how an estate worth $350,000 at death can be chopped in no time down to $223,500. That's even before lawyer and executor fees, or probate fees (taxes) get taken out. The reason is that instead of inheritance taxes Canada has a nifty little tax rule called deemed disposition, whereby upon death a person is considered to have sold all property at fair market value and to have cashed in all registered plans like RRSPs, RRIFs, LIRAs, LRIFs etc. There is an exception that a spouse can transfer the registered plans into his or her name without tax being triggered, but eventually the spouse too will die. Sooner or later there will tax to pay and since everything enters the person's income all in the same year, for almost everyone that will mean falling into a much higher, if not the highest, tax bracket.
Think about it, how many people die penniless, their registered plans depleted to nothing? You and I may withdraw RRSP money during retirement at lower marginal tax rates than while we were working but it is pretty sure that come death, our estate will be paying top rates. The government will end not only recouping its tax deductions but may well end up with more tax! That's the secret weapon. If you are dead, you may not care about paying unfairly high taxes on your estate and it is certainly difficult to complain at that point, or to vote against the government.
I've tried getting stats out of Stats Can and the Canada Revenue Agency about the extent of the issue - e.g. what is the average size of registered plans at death - but none seem to be readily available. (An indicator that this issue is real is suggested by Stats Can's table Private Pension Assets of Family Units, which shows that elderly families in 2005 had a median of $186,000 in private pension assets. Another table shows that the net worth of families 65 and older was a median $303,000, of which maybe half might be a tax-exempt principal residence, but the rest would mostly be in some form of taxable savings.) Better it not be too well known, I guess. People might get upset. The problem may get worse over the years as the decline of defined benefit plans means RRSP-type savings become more and more important.
This issue is one reason I am using my TFSA first since that account is "tax pre-paid" for contributions and any gains are tax free, even at death. It is also a reason to take money out of the RRSP when my tax rates are low.
Finally it is a good reason to donate money to charity since the tax credit effectively would mean no tax to pay even at the top marginal rate on the donated amount. Maybe that's why significant numbers of seniors are planning to donate parts of their estate to charity, not to bequeath it all to family.