Problems with pension splitting

January 15, 2015 | Last updated on September 15, 2023
3 min read

Pension splitting allows you to split up to half of your pension income with a spouse or partner. This can result in substantial tax savings if your spouse is in a lower tax bracket. Pension splitting can also preserve your OAS benefits, which might be clawed back if your partner’s income is above the clawback threshold.

What type of income qualifies to be split? Generally, any pension income that qualifies for the $2,000 federal pension income credit. This would include annuity-type pension payments from a pension plan (regardless of age) and, once you reach age 65, RRIF or Life Income Fund (LIF) withdrawals.

It does not, however, include RRSP withdrawals. This last point was the subject of a Tax Court of Canada decision (Tremblay v The Queen, 2013 TCC 186) released in June 2013. Paul Tremblay appealed his 2009 and 2010 tax assessments. When he filed his 2009 and 2010 tax returns, he and his spouse jointly elected to transfer half his RRSP withdrawals to her in each of the two years. He moved $4,523.40 in 2009 and $7,219.81 in 2010. CRA reassessed Tremblay and denied the pension income transfers in both years.

The funds came from a self-directed RRSP, established in 1994, which had been invested in a variety of GICs for various terms at various interest rates.

Tremblay’s position was that these GICs “are actually annuities that he bought through his self-directed RRSP and that the amounts withdrawn from his RRSP are thus eligible to be split with his wife as pension income.” He even referred to the GICs as annuity certificates on the basis that the interest on them was payable annually.

Unfortunately, Tremblay’s RRSP withdrawals did not qualify under the Income Tax Act’s definition of pension income. The Income Tax Act’s wording is particular, and qualifying amounts for someone who’s reached age 65 include:

  • a payment in respect of a life annuity out of or under a superannuation plan;
  • a payment in respect of a pension plan or a specified pension plan;
  • an annuity payment under a RRSP; and
  • a payment out of or under a RRIF.

The Tax Court judge concluded the withdrawals made by Tremblay from his self-directed RRSP do “not constitute any type of payment provided for in the definition.” The court suggested that had Tremblay converted his RRSP to a RRIF, since he was 65 years of age, the withdrawals could then have been considered pension income eligible to be split with his spouse. Yet the evidence showed he didn’t want to convert the RRSP into a RRIF as “he intended to use the funds for things like travel.”

Finally, the judge addressed Tremblay’s annuity argument, saying the type of investments inside the RRSP is irrelevant. Rather, in determining whether or not an “annuity payment under an RRSP” has been made, you need to look at the situation after the money is withdrawn from the RRSP, not before.

If Tremblay had used his RRSP funds to purchase a registered annuity or a RRIF, then the subsequent withdrawals would have qualified as pension income and been eligible to be split.

If you are 65 and want to pension split, you should first convert an RRSP to a registered annuity or RRIF before withdrawing funds.