Tag Archives: Registered Retirement Savings Plan

Part 1: Tax deductions, credits you need to know about

In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes, but as my father-in-law used to say, there is no reason why you should pay any more than you have to. A Government of Canada website provides a table with the 94 deductions and tax credits you may be able to claim to reduce the amount of tax you must pay.

You will also find information on where to claim these amounts on your income tax and benefit return or a related form or schedule. You can sort the table by line number or topic, and you can filter by key word. While your electronic tax program will prompt you to consider each of these, it is important to understand what you may be entitled to so you can find and retain the required supporting documentation.

Here are some common deductions and tax credits you should be aware of. Part 2 of this blog will be posted later this month.

  1. Line 208 – SPP, RRSP and PRPP deduction: Deductible Saskatchewan Pension Plan (SPP), registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) and pooled registered pension plan (PRPP) contributions can be used to reduce your tax. Any income you earn in SPP, your RRSP or PRPP is exempt from tax as long as the funds remain in the plan. However, you typically have to pay tax when you receive payments from these plans. For more information about RRSPs and PRPPs, see How much can I contribute and deduct? Members of SPP can contribute $6,000/year beginning in 2017 if they have sufficient RRSP contribution room.
  2. Line 314 – Pension income amount: You may be able to claim up to $2,000 if you reported eligible pension, superannuation, or annuity payments on line 115, line 116, or line 129 of your return. For a detailed list of eligible pension and annuity income, go to the Eligible Pension and Annuity Income (less than 65 years of age) chart or the Eligible Pension and Annuity Income (65 years of age or older) chart.
  3. Line 210 – Deduction for elected split-pension amount: If the transferring spouse or common-law partner has agreed with the receiving spouse or common-law partner to jointly elect to split his/her eligible pension income by completing Form T1032, Joint Election to Split Pension Income, the transferring spouse or common-law partner can deduct on this line the elected split-pension amount from line G of Form T1032. Only one joint election can be made for a tax year. If both you and your spouse or common-law partner have eligible pension income, you will have to decide who will act as the transferring spouse or common-law partner electing to allocate part of his/her eligible pension income to the receiving spouse or common-law partner.
  4. Line 301 – Age amount: Claim this amount if you were 65 years of age or older on December 31, 2017, and your net income (line 236 of your return) is less than $84,597.
    Remember to claim the corresponding provincial or territorial non-refundable tax credit to which you are entitled, on line 5808 of your provincial or territorial Form 428.
    If your net income was:

  5. Lines 330 and 331 – Eligible medical expenses: You can claim medical expenses paid for yourself, your spouse or common-law partner and certain related persons. Generally, total eligible medical expenses must first be reduced by 3% of your net income or $2,237, whichever is less. You can find a helpful video and a list of eligible common medical expenses here.

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Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

April 2: Best from the blogosphere

With the abolition of mandatory retirement in Canada, when you opt to actually leave the world of paid work for good is your own decision. There are financial milestones that may influence you  such as when you think you have saved enough to support yourself in retirement, but when you are ready to let go is also dependent on many more intangible factors.

After all, you not only need to retire from your job or your encore career, but you have must have something to retire to. For example, in the last several years I have joined a choir, been elected to the choir board and started taking classes at the Life Learning Institute at Ryerson in Toronto. Yet I’m still not quite prepared to give up my part-time business as a personal finance writer.

I was reminded of this conundrum reading a personal column by David Sheffield in the Globe and Mail recently. He wrote, “Turning to the wise oracle of our time, Google, I search: When do you know that it is time to retire? Most answers are financially focused: ‘When you have saved 25 times your anticipated annual expenditures.’ One site tackles how to be emotionally ready to quit work: ‘The ideal time to retire is when the unfinished business in your life begins to feel more important than the work you are doing.’”

The changing face of retirement by Julie Cazzin appeared in Macleans. She cites a 2014 survey by Philip Cross at the Fraser Institute. Based on the study, Cross believes Canadians are actually financially—and psychologically—preparing themselves to retire successfully, regardless of their vision of retirement.

“The perception that they are not doing so is encouraged by two common errors by analysts,” notes Cross. “The first is a failure to take proper account of the large amounts of saving being done by government and firms for future pensions …. And the second is an exclusive focus on the traditional ‘three pillars’ of the pension system, which include Old Age Security (OAS), the Canada and Quebec Pension plans (CPP/QPP), and voluntary pensions like RRSPs.”

He notes that the research frequently does not take into account the trillions of dollars of assets people hold outside of formal pension vehicles, most notably in home equity and non-taxable accounts. Also, he says the literature on the economics of retirement does not acknowledge the largely undocumented network of family and friends that lend physical, emotional and financial support to retirees.

Retire Happy’s Jim Yih addresses the question How do you know when it is the right time to retire?  After being in the retirement planning field for over 25 years, Yih believes sometimes readiness has more to do with instinct, feelings and lifestyle than with money. “I’ve seen people with good pensions and people who have saved a lot of money but are not really ready to retire.  Sometimes it’s because they love their jobs,” he says. “Others hate their jobs but don’t have a life to retire to.  Some people are on the fence.  They are ready to retire but worry about being bored or missing their friends from work.”

If you are still struggling with how to finance your retirement, take a look at Morneau Shepell partner Fred Vettese’s article in the March/April issue of Plans & Trusts. Vettese reports that few people are aware it can be financially advantageous to delay the start of CPP benefits. In fact, less than 1% of all workers wait until the age of 70 to start their CPP pension. However, doing so can increase its value by a guaranteed 8.4% a year, or 42% in total. And by deferring CPP, he notes that workers can transfer investment risk and longevity risk to the government.

Tim Stobbs, the long-time author of Canadian Dream Free at 45 attained financial independence and left his corporate position several months ago. In a recent blog he discusses how his focus has shifted from growing his net worth to managing his cash flow. His goal is to leave his capital untouched and live on dividend, interest and small business income from his wife’s home daycare. He explains how he simulates a pay cheque by setting up auto transfers twice a month to the main chequing account from his high interest savings account.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Taxable, non-taxable employee benefits

When you are interviewing for a new a new job, perks like company-paid gym memberships, tuition reimbursement or a free cellphone may seem really attractive and influence you to accept the position. However, it is important to keep in mind that come tax time, all or part of the value of these employee benefits may be included in taxable income on your T4 slip.

Here are 10 things that may form part of your compensation and how they are viewed by CRA.

  1. Group benefits: Amounts your employer pays for your life, accident and critical illness insurance coverage are taxable benefits. But when the company pays all or part of the cost of your extended health care, dental plan, short-term disability (STD) or long-term disability (LTD) insurance you do generally not pay tax on the premiums. If you collect on your STD or LTD insurance you will pay taxes if any part of the premiums were employer-paid.
  2. Pensions/Group RRSPs: Your company’s contributions to your pension plan are not taxable. However, your employer’s contributions to your Group RRSP account are viewed as additional taxable income by CRA. But you can deduct RRSP contributions (up to $26,010 for 2017) so you will not actually have to pay taxes on Group RRSP contributions made by your employer on your behalf.
  3. Service and recognition awards: Cash, gift certificates and things like gifts of stock certificates and gold coins are always taxable benefits. However, you can receive tangible tax-free gifts or awards worth up to $500 annually in some specified circumstances, such as a wedding or outstanding service award. In addition, once every five years you can receive a tax-free, non-cash long-service or anniversary award worth $500 or less
  4. Clubs and Recreational Facilities – If your employer pays or subsidizes the cost of membership or attendance at a recreational facility such as a gym, pool, golf course, etc. it is considered a taxable benefit. But if the company provides a free or subsidized onsite facility available to all employees, it is not a taxable benefit.
  5. Tuition reimbursement: If you get a scholarship or bursary from your employer it will be a taxable benefit unless you took the program to maintain or upgrade your employment skills. For example, if you need an executive MBA to be promoted, no tax is payable on the value of company-paid tuition. Where the company gives your child a scholarship or bursary, generally neither you nor your son or daughter who gets the scholarship has to pay taxes on the amount.
  6. Transit Passes: Transit passes are a taxable benefit unless the employee works in a transit-related business (such as a bus, train, or ferry service business).
  7. Child Care Expenses are a taxable benefit unless child care is provided to all employees in the business at little or no cost.
  8. Mobile phone or internet: Charges paid by the company for the business use of your cellphone and internet are not taxable. If your phone or internet is used in part for personal reasons, that portion of the bill should be reported on your T4 as a taxable benefit. However, if the cost of the basic plan has a reasonable fixed cost and your use does not result in charges over the cost of basic service, CRA will not consider any part of the use taxable.
  9. Subsidized meals: If the company cafeteria sells subsidized meals to employees, this will not be considered a taxable benefit as long as employees pay a reasonable amount that covers the cost of food preparation and service.
  10. Discounts on merchandise: Generally, if your employer sells merchandise to you at a discount, the benefit you get is not considered taxable. A document posted on the CRA website in late 2017 suggested that CRA’s interpretation changed, but National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier subsequently announced there have been no changes to the laws governing taxable benefits to retail employees.

This chart illustrates whether taxable allowances and benefits are subject to CPP and EI withholdings. The employer’s Guide: Taxable Benefits and Allowances, including What’s New? Can be found here.

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Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Interview: Evelyn Jacks talks taxes*

 

Click here to listen
Click here to listen

Today I’m interviewing Evelyn Jacks for SavewithSPP.com. Evelyn is the founder and president of Knowledge Bureau, a virtual campus focused on professional development of tax and financial advisors. She was recently named one of Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence. She is also one of Canada’s most prolific and best-selling authors of 51 personal tax and wealth management books, and a highly respected financial commentator and speaker.

Every year there are income tax changes and they impact individuals filing personal tax returns. First of all, I’d like to highlight some of 2017 changes that listeners should keep an eye on when they’re getting ready to complete their tax return.

Q: Evelyn, taxpayers with children are going to see a major change in tax credits for 2017. Can you bring us up to date on what these changes are? 
A: Yes, absolutely. The most notable changes found in the past are that the children’s arts amount which was the non-refundable tax credit on the Federal tax return has been eliminated and in addition, the refundable tax credit for the children’s fitness amount is gone.

On the employer’s side, the government has also discontinued a 25% investment tax credit for child care spaces of March 22, 2017. These are quite significant changes, especially because on the federal return, there are no other places, with the exception of disabled children, to claim minor children.

Q: What has happened to tax credits for tuition, education, and textbook amounts?
A: Again here, we’re seeing some significant changes. As of January 1, 2017, only the tuition credit can be claimed on the Federal tax return and then only if the total exceeds $100 in the year. What’s happened is that the finance department has removed the monthly education amount of $400 for full time students and $120 for part-time students, as well as the monthly text book amount, which was $65 for full-time students and $20 for part-time students.

However, when you look at the tax return you are still going to see references to the tuition education and textbook amount found in Schedule 11. That’s important because, students can still carry forward any unused amount from all three components of this credit from prior years.

The other thing I should mention is that the provinces all have education credits but that’s changing too, so, in Saskatchewan, for example, there has been an elimination of both the tuition and education credits as of July 1, 2017. Therefore, on the Saskatchewan provincial return you can only claim those credits for half of the year.

Q: Now, the public transit credit is also gone. What’s the effective date on that? 
A: On the Federal side, we saw that credit eliminated as of July 1, 2017. So again, it’s a situation where you’re going to have to keep your receipts and make the claim, just for half the year in 2017.

Q: In your view, what was the Liberal government’s rationale for eliminating these credits, and what did taxpayers get in return?
A: Well, the government is really undergoing quite a significant tax reform at the moment. When they came in with their first tax changes after the election, one of the first things they did was reduce the middle-income tax rate, for income between about $46,000 and about $92,000, from 22% to 20.5%. In addition,  they created an upper income tax bracket increasing the tax rate from 29%-33% on income over $202,800. The third thing they did was they introduced the more generous child benefits.

In fact, that benefit has recently been indexed for the beneficiaries starting in July 2018. If your family net income is under $35,450 then you’ll be able to receive over $500 a month for each child under the age of 6, and around $450 a month for each child age 6-17. These are quite lucrative amounts but they require the filing of a tax return and the combining of net family income.

Q: The eligibility for medical tax credits for fertility treatments has been expanded retroactively. Please explain those changes and what actions taxpayers who are impacted should take to realize the full benefit of these changes.
A: Yes, starting in 2017 and subsequent years, the expenses for medical treatments to conceive a child will be deductible even if the treatments are not required because of a medical condition, which was the criteria in the past. If the expenses ocurred in a year from 2008 forward they can still be adjusted, because we have a 10 year adjustment period that we can take advantage of.

Q: What, if any, other surprises might tax payers have when they start filling out their 2017 tax return?
A: Well, there are a lot of things that change every year including indexing of various tax credits, tax rates and claw back zones. But I think the one big change that I’d really like to point out is the caregiver credit. It’s new for 2017, and it replaces three credits from the past: the family caregiver tax credit, the caregiver tax credit, and the tax credit for infirm dependents. So now one caregiver can get credit.

The second thing is that there are two different amounts: one that I call a mini-credit of $2,150, and one that I’m going to call the maxi-credit of $6,883. So on the mini-credit side you must claim this. It’s the only credit you can claim for an infirm or disabled minor child. But not necessarily one who receives a disability tax credit, but someone who is infirm as it relates to normal development of other children on both a physical or a mental basis.

A person that can claim this mini-credit is someone for whom you are a claiming a spousal amount or an equivalent to spouse amount. Now, the maxi-credit generally is claimed for an eligible dependent who is over the age of 18. But in some cases, if you have a spouse with a low income, you can claim a top-up credit of up to $1,683.

So you’re going to have to take a close look at Schedule 5 on the tax return and at net income allowance, particularly for low income earning spouses, to make a complicated tax calculation. What you need to remember is that your dependents no longer need to live with you. You cannot claim this amount for someone age 65, who is healthy, which is what you could do before under the caregiver amount.

Q: It sounds very complicated. Can taxpayers typically rely on their tax software to guide them and ensure they get all the credits and deductions they are entitled to? In what circumstances do you think that they should seek professional advice?
A: Well, you know, I’m a big fan of tax software because these programs, first of all, take the worry out of the math for you, and some of the math calculations, particularly as you are calculating federal and provincial taxes is very complicated. But the tax program is not necessarily going to prepare the tax return to your best advantage. There are lots of ways to do the math correctly. What you are aiming for is to calculate to your family’s overall benefit, and to do some tax planning as well.

For example, there are a number of carry-forward provisions that people may not be aware of, or they don’t enter properly. You can carry forward charitable donations to up to five years. You can carry forward capital losses in stock market investments indefinitely to offset capital gains in your future.

The other thing is that starting in 2017, you absolutely have to file the refund titled T2091, a designation of principle residence form, even if you sell a tax-exempt principle residence. Anyone who sells property starting in 2017 has to fill in this complicated form. The tax software may or may not tell you about that, and if you miss it you could be issued a penalty of up to $8000. That could really hurt.

Q: What are the most frequent errors or omissions tax payers typically make when completing or filing their income tax return?
A: Any expense that is discretionary, so, I’m thinking of child care expenses and other kinds of expenses where people have out-of-pocket costs. Moving expense are really lucrative, for example. Also, missed medical expenses are very common.

Q: If you had three pieces of advice to offer tax payers to help ensure they file a correct tax return, and get all the credits and deductions they are entitled to, what would they be?
A: The first thing is to catch up on any delinquent filed returns. The option to benefit from the long available disclosure program is actually changing and it will close for some people, effective March 1, 2018. So if you chronically ignore your filing obligations, not only will you be unable to avoid tax-evasion policies, you may not be able to avoid interest relief in some harsher cases. That’s really important. Catch up if you’re behind.

The second thing is to make a RRSP contribution by March 1st this year because that RRSP contribution will reduce your family net income, which will increase things like your child’s health benefits, your GST credit or other refundable or non-refundable tax credits. The RRSP contribution is your ticket to bigger benefits or bigger tax refunds.

The last thing I would say, the average income tax refund in Canada is $1,735, which is a lot of money. That’s just your overpayment of taxes. Most people don’t realize that’s an interest-free loan that you give to the government. Turn that around, and put that money to work for you. Invest it in a TFSA because that’s going to allow you to earn tax- free investment savings for your future, or if you have children in the family, why not take advantage of the lucrative Canada Education Savings Grants and the Canada Learning Bonds by investing in an RESP. There’s lots of ways for people to leverage the money that they pre-paid to the tax department.

That’s really helpful Evelyn. Thank you very, very much. It was a pleasure to chat with you today.

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity.

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This is an edited transcript of an interview recorded 2/07/2018.

Canadians can receive easy-to-understand interpretations of breaking tax and investment news by subscribing to Knowledge Bureau Report at www.knowledgebureau.com.   Look for the Newsroom Tab. You can also follow Evelyn Jacks on twitter @evelynjacks.

 

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Group vs Individual RESPs: What’s the difference ?

The “holy trinity” of tax-assisted savings plans available to Canadians are TFSAs, RRSPs and RESPs. RESPs (Registered Educational Savings Plans) are primarily designed to help families to save for post-secondary education.

Each year, on every dollar up to $2,500 (to a life time maximum of $50,000) that you contributed to an RESP for a child’s education after high school, a basic amount of the Canada Education Savings Grant of 20% may be provided. Depending on the child’s family income, he/she could also qualify for an additional amount of CESG on the first $500 deposited, which means $100 more if the 2017 net family income was $45,916 or less and up to $50 if the 2017 net family income was between $45,916 and $91,831.

In total, the CESG could add up to $600 on $2,500 saved in a year. However, there is a lifetime CESG limit of $7,200. This includes both the basic and additional CESG. Lower income families may also be eligible for the Canada Learning Bond (CLB) that could amount to an additional $2,000 over the life of the plan.

Contributions to RESPs are not tax deductible, but the money in the account accumulates tax-free. Contributions can be withdrawn without tax consequences and when your child enrolls in a university or college program, educational assistance payments made up of the investment earnings and government grant money in the RESP are taxable in the hands of the student, generally at a very low rate.

When our children were young, we purchased Group RESPs for them and their grandparents also purchased additional units. I was so impressed with the program that I even took a year before transitioning from family law to pension law and sold RESPs.

Each child collected about $8,000 from the plan over four years of university, which helped them to graduate debt free. Fortunately, both my daughter and my son took four straight years of university education so there was no problem collecting the maximum amounts available to them minus administrative fees.

However, I’ve come to realize the potential downside of Group RESPs so we started contributing $200/month to a self-administered plan with CIBC Investor’s Edge for our granddaughter soon after she was born. She is now 5 ½ and as I write this, there is already $22,000 in the account.

Our decision to self-administer Daphne’s RESP was influenced in part by what I learned from other personal finance bloggers about the potential downside of group plans.

Robb Engen notes that group plans tend to have strict contribution and withdrawal schedules, meaning that if your plans change – a big possibility over 18 plus years – you could forfeit your enrollment fee or affect how much money your child can withdraw when he/she needs it for school.

With a Group RESP, contributions, government grants and investment earning for children the same age as yours are pooled and the amount minus fees is divided among the total number of students who are in school that year. Typically the pool is invested in very low risk GICs and bonds.

In contrast, there are no fees in our self-administered plan other than $6.95 when we make a trade. The funds are invested in a balanced portfolio of three low fee ETFs. We can easily monitor online how the portfolio is growing and as Daphne gets closer to university age we can shift to a more cautious approach.

Macleans recently reported that the total annual average cost of post-secondary education in Canada for a student living off-campus at a Canadian university is $19,498.75 and it will be much higher by the time your child or grandchild is ready to go off to college. So learn as much as you can about RESPs, get your child a social insurance number, set up a program and start saving.

However, as Engen suggests before you choose a group or individual RESP provider make sure you read the fine print and ask about:

  • Fees for opening an RESP;
  • Fees for withdrawing money from a RESP;
  • Fees for managing the RESP;
  • Fees for services and commissions;
  • What happens if you can’t make regular payments;
  • What happens if your child doesn’t continue his or her education; and
  • If you have to close the account early, do you have to pay fees and penalties; do you get back the money you contributed; do you lose interest and can you transfer the money to another RESP or different account type.

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Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information on http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

SPP contribution levels rise, says General Manager Katherine Strutt*

 

Click here to listen
Click here to listen

Today, I’m very pleased to be talking to Katherine Strutt, general manager of the Saskatchewan Pension Plan. She has some exciting news to share with us about enhancements to the program, including an increase to the SPP maximum annual contribution level effective immediately for the 2017 tax year.

SPP is the only plan of its kind in Canada — a retirement savings plan, which does not require an employee/employer relationship. As a result, it can be of particular benefit to individuals with little or no access to a pension plan.

Welcome, Katherine.

Thank you, Sheryl.

Q: For the last seven years the maximum annual contribution SPP members with RRSP contribution room could make was $2,500. How has that changed?
A: As you indicated, the maximum annual contribution limit was increased to $6,000 effective January 29, 2018, and it can be used for the 2017 tax year. However, members must still have available RRSP room in order to contribute the full $6,000 but the limit is now indexed as well, starting in 2019.

Q: If a member contributes $6,000 until age 65 how much will his or her pension be?
A: We estimated that someone contributing for 25 years and retiring at age 65 can end up with a pension of about $2,446 a monthbased on an 8% return over the period. However, we encourage people to use the wealth calculator on our website because they can insert their own assumptions. And if they want a more detailed estimate they can call our office.

Q: Can a spouse contribute for his or her partner if that person doesn’t have earned income and how much can the contribution be?
A: The SPP is a unique pension plan in that spousal contributions are acceptable. So, for instance, my spouse has to be a member. But I can contribute to his account and my account up to $6,000 each if I have the available RRSP room. If I’m making a spousal contribution, the money goes into his account, but I get the tax receipt. Other pension plans don’t offer that option. You could have a spousal RRSP, but with SPP you can actually have a spousal pension plan.

Q: Oh, that’s really fantastic. So actually, in effect, in a one-income family, the wage earner would get $12,000 contribution room for the year.
A: Yes, as long as they have available RRSP room, that’s for sure.

Q: That’s a really neat feature. And to confirm, members can contribute the full $6,000 for the 2017 tax year?
A: Yes, they can. Because we’re in the stub period right now, any contribution made between now and March 1st can qualify for the 2017 tax year.

Q: Have you had any feedback on the increased contribution level? If members are just finding out about the increase now, how much of an uptake do you expect given that, you know, maybe they haven’t saved the money or they haven’t allowed for it?

A: We’ve already had some members that have done it. I can’t tell you how many, but I was checking some deposits yesterday, and I saw that some people have already topped up their contributions. We anticipate that people who contribute on a monthly basis will start increasing their monthly contributions because they have an opportunity to do so. But it will be really hard to know until after March 1st how many people actually topped up their 2017 contributions.

The response has been very, very positive from members. They have wanted this for a long time. The new indexing feature is also very attractive as the $6,000 contribution will increase along with changes to the YMPE (yearly maximum pensionable earnings) every year.

Q: How much can a member transfer into the plan from another RRSP? Has that amount changed?
A: No, that amount has not changed. That remains at $10,000. But the board is continuing to lobby to get that limit raised.

Q: Another change announced at the same time is that work is beginning immediately on a variable pension option at retirement. Can you explain to me what that means and why it will be attractive to many members?
A: We have a lot of members who want to stay with us when they retire, but they’re not particularly interested in an annuity because annuity rates are low, and they do not want to lock their money in. They prefer a variable benefit type of option, but until now their only way of getting one has been to transfer their balance out of the SPP to another financial institution.

The new variable benefit payable directly out of our fund will be similar to  prescribed registered retirement income funds, to which people currently can transfer their account balances.

It will provide members with flexibility and control over when and how much retirement income to withdraw, and investment earnings will continue to grow on a tax-sheltered basis. Those members who want to stay and get the benefit of the low MER and the good, solid returns I think will be attracted to this new option.

Some members may wish to annuitize a portion of their account and retain the balance as a variable benefit. This will ensure they have some fixed income, but also the flexibility to withdraw additional amounts for a major expense like a trip, for instance.

Q: Now, what’s the difference between contributing to an RRSP and SPP?
A: In some respects, they’re very similar in that contributions to the SPP are part of your total RRSP contribution limit. One of the biggest advantages I think that SPP has is it is a pure pension plan. It’s not a temporary savings account. It’s meant to provide you income in your retirement.

All of the funds of the members, are pooled for investment purposes, and you get access to top money managers no matter what your account balance is or how much you contribute. Typically those services are only available to higher net worth individuals, but members of SPP get that opportunity regardless of their income level.

And the low MER (management expense ratio) that in 2017 was 83 basis points, or 0.83 is a significant feature of SPP. Solid returns, and the pure pension plan, I think those are things that make us different from an RRSP. We are like a company pension plan, if you are lucky enough to have access to a company pension plan. That’s what we provide to people regardless of whether or not their employer is involved.

Q: If a member still has RRSP contribution room after maxing out SPP contributions, can he or she make additional RRSP contributions in the same year?
A: You bet. Your limit is what CRA gives you, and how you invest that is up to you. So for instance, people that are part of a pension plan might have some additional available RRSP room left over. They can also then contribute to the SPP and get a benefit from their own personal account, in addition to what they are getting from their workplace pension.

Q: MySPP also went live in late January. Can you tell me some of the features of MySPP, and what member reaction has been to gaining online access to SPP data?
A: The reaction from members has been very positive. They’ve been asking for this for a while, and we did a bit of a soft roll out the end of January with a great response. Then members are going to be getting information with their statements, and we expect an even bigger uptake.

Once they’ve set up an account, they can go in and see the personal information we have on file for them, who they’ve named as their beneficiary, when the last time was that they made a contribution and what their account balance is. Furthermore, if they’ve misplaced a tax receipt or can’t find their statement, they can see those things online.

Retired members can get T4A information and see when their pension payments went into their accounts. So it’s a first step, and we think it’s a really positive one, and we’re getting some really good feedback from our members.

Q: Finally, to summarize in your own words, why do you think the annual increase in the SPP contribution level, introduction of a variable benefit and MySPP makes Saskatchewan Pension Plan a better pension plan than ever for Canadians aged 18 to 71?
A: Well, I think that by having an increased contribution limit that is indexed, the program might be more relevant to people. It certainly will be a bonus I think to employers who wanted to match their employee contributions but were running up against the old limit. This will give them more opportunity to do so.

It will also improve the sustainability of SPP over the long term as people are investing more. The variable benefit we’ve introduced will give retiring members more options, and it will allow them to keep going with this tried and true organization well into their retirement.

MySPP  allows members access to their account information whenever they wish, 24/7 on all their devices. That will be attractive to younger prospective members.

Exciting times. Thank you, Katherine. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you again.

Thanks so much, Sheryl.

*This is an edited transcript of an interview recorded 1/31/2018.

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.

Great West Life pilots employer RRSP match for student loans

Canadians enter the workforce with an average of nearly $27,000 in student loan debt. Such high amounts of debt typically take 10 years to repay, which means many delay saving for traditional life goals like home ownership, starting a family or retirement.

“So often it’s a choice between paying down student debt or making contributions to a retirement plan, but there is only so much wallet share available and student loans have to be paid off first, “ says Great-West Life Senior VP of Group Customer Experience and Marketing Brad Fedorchuk.

That’s why in January 2018 GWL is piloting a first in Canada — a voluntary retirement and savings program with select invited employers in their distribution network and their eligible employees. As participating members pay down their Canadian and provincial government student  loans, they will receive an employer-matched contribution to their group retirement savings plan. The goal of the program is to allow members to save for retirement while they focus on paying down their student debt.

Employees will send documentation verifying their outstanding student loan to GWL plus quarterly statements confirming payments have been made. “Once we have verification of student debt repayment, we’ll create a report for the employer so employer matching RRSP payments can be made, Fedorchuk says.

The level of matching (i.e. dollar for dollar; 50 cents for every dollar) and any annual cap on matching will be based on the provisions of the existing group RRSP program. He continues, “Details still have to be worked out, but we envisage this program as a self-selected alternative to group RRSP matching for employees paying down student loans.”

With Americans owing over $1.45 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers, student debt repayment is emerging as one of the most popular new employee benefits. Some U.S. employers also assist students to pay off loans faster by helping them to consolidate or refinance their loans at a lower interest rate.

Although only 4% of U.S. companies offered student debt pay as down a benefit at the end of 2016, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and employees are typically responsible for income taxes on the assistance received, it is expected that this percentage will grow. Fidelity, PwC, Aetna, Penguin Random House, Nvidia, First Republic and Staples are notable examples of early adopters, Forbes reports.

One advantage of GWL’s Canadian program is that by matching student debt repayments in the group RRSP, contributions are tax-sheltered. Also, subject to any limitations in the group RRSP plan design, employees can withdraw funds to participate in the Home Buyers’ Plan to buy or build a qualifying home for themselves or for a related person with a disability.

Fedorchuk acknowledges that it may be a challenge to encourage students to continue saving in the group RRSP when their student loans are paid off. Nevertheless, he believes that the pool of money accumulated in their RRSPs that they would not have had absent this program will be compelling. “Hopefully we can incent employees to continue contributing and receiving the match instead of shifting their monthly payments into ‘fun money,’ he says.

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Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.