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Deciding when to start receiving Old Age Security benefits (May 2021)

The Old Age Security (OAS) program is the only aspect of Canada’s retirement income system which does not require a direct contribution from recipients of program benefits. Rather, the OAS program is funded through general tax revenues, and eligibility to receive OAS is based solely on Canadian residency. Anyone who is 65 years of age or older and has lived in Canada for at least 40 years after the age of 18 is eligible to receive the maximum benefit. For the second quarter of 2021 (April to June 2021), that maximum monthly benefit is $618.45.

For many years, OAS was automatically paid to eligible recipients once they reached the age of 65. However, since July 2013, Canadians who are eligible to receive OAS benefits have been able to defer receipt of those benefits for up to five years, when they turn 70 years of age. For each month that an individual Canadian defers receipt of those benefits, the amount of benefit eventually received increases by 0.6%. The longer the period of deferral, the greater the amount of monthly benefit eventually received. Where receipt of OAS benefits is deferred for a full 5 years, until age 70, the monthly benefit received is increased by 36%. It can, however, be difficult to determine, on an individual basis, whether and to what extent it would make sense to defer receipt of OAS benefits. Some of the difficulty in deciding whether to defer — and for how long — lies in the fact there are no hard and fast rules, and the decision is very much an individual one. Fortunately, however, there are a number of factors which each individual can consider when making that decision.

The first such factor is how much total income will be required, at the age of 65, to finance current needs. It’s also necessary to determine what other sources of income (employment income from full-time or part-time work, Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits, employer-sponsored pension plan benefits, annuity payments, and withdrawals from registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) and registered retirement income fund (RRIFs)) are available to meet those needs, both currently and in the future, and when receipt of those income amounts can or will commence or cease. Once income needs and the sources and possible timing of each is clear, it’s necessary to consider the income tax implications of the structuring and timing of those sources of income. The ultimate goal, as it is at any age, is to ensure sufficient income to finance a comfortable lifestyle while at the same time minimizing both the tax bite and the potential loss of tax credits.

In making those calculations, the following income tax thresholds and benefit cut-off figures are a starting point.

  • Income in the first federal tax bracket is taxed at 15%, while income in the second bracket is taxed at 20.5%. For 2021, that second income tax bracket begins when taxable income reaches $49,020.

  • The Canadian tax system provides (for 2021) a non-refundable tax credit of $7,713 for taxpayers who are age 65 or older at the end of the tax year. That amount of that credit is reduced once the taxpayer’s net income for the year exceeds $38,893.

  • Individuals can receive a GST/HST refundable tax credit, which is paid quarterly. For 2021, the full credit is payable to individual taxpayers whose family net income is less than $38,892.

  • Taxpayers who receive Old Age Security benefits and have income over a specified amount are required to repay a portion of those benefits, through a mechanism known as the “OAS recovery tax”, or clawback. Taxpayers whose income for 2021 is more than $79,845 will have a portion of their future OAS benefits “clawed-back”.

What other sources of income are currently available?

More and more, Canadians are not automatically leaving the work force at the age of 65. Those who continue to work at paid employment and whose employment income is sufficient to finance their chosen lifestyle may well prefer to defer receipt of OAS. Similarly, a taxpayer who begins receiving benefits from an employer’s pension plan when he or she turns 65, may be able to postpone receipt of OAS benefits.

Is the taxpayer eligible for Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits, and at what age will those benefits commence?

Nearly all Canadians who were employed or self-employed after the age of 18 paid into the Canada Pension Plan and are eligible to receive CPP retirement benefits. While such retirement benefits can be received as early as age 60, receipt can also be deferred and received any time up to the age of 70. As is the case with OAS benefits, CPP retirement benefits increase with each month that receipt of those benefits is deferred. Taxpayers who are eligible for both OAS and CPP will need to consider the impact of accelerating or deferring the receipt of each benefit in structuring retirement income.

Does the taxpayer have private retirement savings through an RRSP?

Taxpayers who were not members of an employer-sponsored pension plan during their working lives generally save for retirement through a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP). While taxpayers can choose to withdraw amounts from such plans at any age, they are required to collapse their RRSPs by the end of the year in which they turn 71, and to begin receiving income from those savings. There are a number of options available for structuring that income, and, whatever the option chosen (usually, converting the RRSP into a registered retirement income fund or RRIF, or purchasing an annuity) will mean that the taxpayer will begin receiving income amounts from those RRSP funds in the following year. Taxpayers who have significant retirement savings in RRSPs should, in determining when to begin receiving OAS benefits, consider that they will have an additional (taxable) income amount for each year after they turn 71.

The ability to defer receipt of OAS benefits does provide Canadians with more flexibility when it comes to structuring retirement income. The price of that flexibility is increased complexity, particularly where, as is the case for most retirees, multiple sources of income and the timing of each of those income sources must be considered, and none can be considered in isolation from the others.

Individuals who are facing that decision-making process will find some assistance on the Service Canada website. That website provides a Retirement Income Calculator, which, based on information input by the user, will calculate the amount of OAS which would be payable at different ages. The calculator will also determine, based on current RRSP savings, the monthly income amount which those RRSP funds will provide during retirement. To use the calculator, it is necessary to know the amount of Canada Pension Plan benefit which will be received, and the taxpayer can obtain that information by calling Service Canada at 1-800 277-9914.

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