Income Splitting Strategies With Family Trusts: Pay Your Children’s Tuition Fees With Tax-Free Money

By Thomas Fellhauer

There are many types of income splitting strategies which are used in Canada. All of them are based on the fact that in Canada each person is taxed separately. As a result, there are significant tax savings where income is divided among family members.  It works particularly well with children who are 18 years old or older and are full-time students.  It is possible to put together a strategy where your children’s tuition fees and education costs are completely paid for with tax-free money.

Tax rates go up progressively as your income goes up. For example, in British Columbia in 2013, once your total taxable income is over $135,000 per year, you are in the top tax bracket of 43.7%. However, if your total income is less than $37,000 per year, you pay tax at the rate of only 20%. And depending on your personal exemptions, if your income is in the lowest tax bracket, you may not pay any tax at all. So there are definitely significant tax savings if income is earned by a family member in a lower tax bracket.

For example, imagine a family of four: 2 parents, and 2 children who are 18 years old or older. If one of the parents earned all the family income (say $200,000 per year), the family tax bill would be over $67,000. However, if each of the 4 family members earned $50,000 each ($200,000 in total), the family tax bill would only be around $35,000. That’s a tax savings of over $32,000 per year and to many families in Canada, this creates a large incentive to try to split income amongst family members.

And if you add to this the ability of children who are full-time students to claim all of the available credits for education and tuition fees, the total tax paid by the family is even less.

The Canadian Government allows a certain amount of income splitting but to do it properly, it has to comply with all the tax rules and needs to be done very carefully with great attention to detail.

One of the best and most flexible income splitting strategies involves paying dividends through a discretionary family trust. It works best for families that carry on an active business, but can also work reasonably well with investment assets.

It is very popular for any type of business that can be carried on through a limited company. Many people who are self-employed or carry on a professional practice (e.g. doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, etc.) are able to carry on their business or practice through a limited company. That is the key.

By way of a general overview, the way it works is that a discretionary family trust is set up for the family and this family trust buys shares of the family limited company. As the business earns profits, the limited company is required to pay corporate tax on its profit. However, in British Columbia, an active business pays tax at the low rate of 13.5% on its profits (up to $500,000 of profits per year). That’s a very low rate and then allows the remaining 86.5% of profits remaining (profits after tax) to be paid out by way of dividends to the family trust.

Typically the family trust “flows through” these dividends to family members who are the lowest tax bracket so that they pay the least amount of tax. As long as the family trust flows through the dividends and doesn’t keep them, the family trust pays no tax.

If there are family members who earn no other income (e.g. full-time students), the tax on these dividends can be very low or even zero. In fact, it is possible for a full-time student to earn over $30,000 per year in dividends from the family trust and pay no tax at all. As a result of these tax rates, this strategy can be a very effective way to pay for a child’s post-secondary education using tax free dollars.

It’s even better than the Canada Education Savings Grant available through an RESP.

These types of income splitting strategies using dividends have been challenged by the Canada Revenue Agency on numerous occasions in the past. Finally, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1998 in Neuman that income splitting using dividends was acceptable.

Today, the Canada Revenue Agency still reviews these kinds of income splitting strategies, but their audit focus is on ensuring that the arrangements have been properly implemented and documented so that they comply with all of the detailed rules contained in the Income Tax Act. So income splitting with a family trust is an excellent strategy, but you must make sure it is set up properly and you have dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s.

Tom Fellhauer heads up the Tax Group at Pushor Mitchell LLP.  You can contact Tom at (250)869-1165, or at fellhauer@pushormitchell.com