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Financial tips for blended families

Opening the communication channels is key when helping couples in blended family situations.   This communication should absolutely start on Day 1 for blended families, and should be part of the account opening process. A good advisor will ask probing questions beyond the checklist of mandatory questions to first open an account.  

With new blended families, it is not always easy to have open communication with both parties. Often, they have different advisors and different financial institutions.   If this is the case, then it is common for the couple to maintain the status quo with their separate finances.   I always encourage couples in blended families to come in together, even when they are maintaining separate finances. Once this happens, and once there is open discussion and communication, then progress can be made on a variety of financial decisions.

Often there is a disparity between the value of assets, or net worth, of each party. Rarely are the assets equal. One party may have more equity in real estate, while the other has more stock and bond investments.  

Making objective financial decisions can be challenged by the simple notion that “blood is thicker than water.”   For example, many parents want to provide for their children from a previous marriage. However, this can conflict with the many tax benefits provided for married or common-law relationships. This conflict is especially challenging when it comes to estate planning. Below I have listed a few common assets and basic challenges couples in blended families may face.

Non-Registered Account:  The term taxable account or non-registered can be used inter-changeably. Often young people do not have non-registered accounts as they are busy paying off mortgages and/or contributing to their registered accounts, such as RRSPs.   Older couples with adult children are more likely to have taxable accounts when they enter a blended family.   When a person has non-registered investments just in their name, this is called an Individual Account.   The monthly statements and confirmation slips have just the one person’s name on it, and the year-end tax slips (i.e. T5 and T3 slips) are in same one individual’s name.  

Couples in a first marriage, and who have built up equity together, will open up a taxable account called Joint With Right of Survivorship (JTWROS). This type of account has many benefits for couples, including income-splitting. The primary benefits of these joint accounts are probate is avoided, income tax continues to be deferred, such as for unrealized capital gains, and simplicity of paperwork after the first spouse passes away.  

Some couples have two JTRWOS with each person being primary on their own respective account. By primary I mean their name is first on the account and their social insurance number is on all tax slips. This enables couples to still keep funds separate, but it will still provide the same above benefits.

Tenants in Common:  Another option for taxable accounts is Tenants In Common. With Tenants in Common a taxable account is set up with two or more owners, where the ownership percentages do not have to be equal. Upon the passing of any owner, their portion represents part of their estate, and the other owners do not have the right of survivorship.   Many of the benefits of JTWROS are lost with Tenants In Common, but for some couples this may be the right decision. A couple that would like to combine their assets to pay household bills, could simply allocate the ownership based on the amount originally contributed. If Spouse ”A” puts in $300,000, and Spouse “B” puts in $700,000 then the allocation for ownership could be 30 per cent for Spouse A and 70 per cent for Spouse B.   If either spouse passes away, their Will would dictate how their proportionate share is divided.  

Registered Accounts:  The two most common types of registered accounts are Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSP) and Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSA). RRSP and TFSA accounts can only be in one person’s name.  

However, with both of these types of accounts you are able to name a beneficiary. With couples in a first marriage and building equity together, your spouse is likely always named the beneficiary on registered accounts.   At the time of death, Canada Revenue Agency allows the owner of an RRSP (called an annuitant) to transfer their RRSP to their surviving spouse or common-law partner, on a tax-deferred basis. If there are financially dependent children because of physical or mental impairments, then it also may be possible to transfer the annuitant’s RRSP on a tax-deferred basis. Outside of these two situations, the annuitant’s RRSP is fully taxable in the year of death.

A person who has a spouse, and chooses to name an adult child the beneficiary should understand the tax consequences. If you name your spouse the beneficiary, your spouse receives 100 per cent of the value until the funds are pulled out gradually (taxed when taken out). If you name someone other than a spouse, the funds are deemed taxable in one large lump sum, so the marginal tax bracket of 45.8 per cent could easily be reached. Many people would cringe if they could see the amount of tax paid to CRA from RRSP accounts resulting from a lack of planning.  

Although the TFSA has no immediate tax issues on death, there are still some benefits to naming your spouse or common-law partner the beneficiary.   As an example, let’s look at a blended family with Spouses C and D. Spouse C has $48,000 in a TFSA and Spouse D Has $52,000.

Spouse C has the option of naming the Estate the beneficiary, naming Spouse D the beneficiary, or naming another individual such as a child or children from a previous marriage. If Spouse C names the Estate the beneficiary, then the account would likely have to be probated to validate the Will. The Will would provide us direction as to who the beneficiary of the TFSA will be. If Spouse C named Spouse D the beneficiary, then we can roll over the entire $48,000 into Spouse D’s TFSA account (without using contribution room). After the roll over, Spouse D would have a TFSA valued at $100,000 – all of which is fully tax sheltered. The roll over can be done once we receive a copy of the death certificate – and no probate is required for the transfer of assets. The only time individuals are permitted to put more into their TFSA accounts, other than their standard annual limits and replenishing amounts withdrawn in an earlier year, is when their spouse or common–law partner passes away and they are named the beneficiary.

If Spouse C named the children from the first marriage the beneficiary, then Spouse D does not get the additional room and the children could receive the funds but would not be able to roll this amount into their own respective TFSA accounts without using their available room.  

While there are many solutions available for blended families, it is important to talk about these options and then document the plan.   Gathering all the information and creating a plan that both parties are content with can take some time. A plan should include all standard types of assets such as personal residence and vehicles, as well as liabilities. One of my most rewarding moments as a Portfolio Manager is assisting my clients with their plan. A plan ultimately provides peace of mind for clients in what is often viewed as a complex situation that was either too sensitive to talk about or simply not addressed.