Deciding when to start receiving Old Age Security benefits

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The baby boom generation, which is now in or near retirement, has always been able to factor receiving Old Age Security benefits, once they turn 65, into their retirement income plans. While receipt of such benefits can be still be assumed by the majority of Canadian retirees, the age at which such income will commence is no longer a fixed number. Retirees are now faced with a choice about when they want those benefits to start. For the past four years, Canadians have had the option of deferring receipt of their Old Age Security benefits, for months or for years past the age of 65, and that election to defer continues to be available. The difficulty that can arise is how to determine, on an individual basis, whether it makes sense to defer receipt of OAS benefits and, if so, for how long. It’s a consequential choice and decision, since any election made to defer is irrevocable.

Under the rules now in place, Canadians who are eligible to receive OAS benefits can 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 would increase 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%.

The decision of whether to defer receipt of OAS benefits and for how long is very much an individual one — there really aren’t any “one size fits all” rules. There are, however, some general considerations which are common to most taxpayers:

  • The first consideration in determining when to begin receiving OAS benefits is how much total income will be required, at the age of 65 by determining what other sources of income are available to meet those needs, both currently and in the future.  Once income needs and sources and the 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.  Taxpayers need to be aware of the following income tax thresholds and cut-offs.
    • Income in the first federal tax bracket is taxed at 15%, while income in the second bracket is taxed at 20.5%. For 2017, that second income tax bracket begins when taxable income reaches $45,916.
    • The Canadian tax system provides (for 2017) a non-refundable tax credit of $7,225 for taxpayers who are over the age of 65 at the end of the tax year. That amount of that credit is reduced once the taxpayer’s net income for the year exceeds $36,430, and disappears entirely for taxpayers with net income over $84,597.
    • Individuals can receive a GST/HST refundable tax credit, which is paid quarterly. For 2017, the full credit is payable to individual taxpayers whose family net income is less than $36,429.
    • 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.   For the July 2017 to June 2018 benefit period, taxpayers whose income for 2016 was more than $73,756 will have a portion of their OAS benefit entitlement “clawed-back”. OAS entitlement for that time period is entirely eliminated where taxpayer income for 2016 was more than $119,615.

The goal 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, or the need to repay OAS benefits received. Taxpayers who are trying to decide when to begin receiving OAS benefits could, depending on their circumstances, be affected by one or more of the following considerations.

  • What other sources of income are currently available?
  • Is the taxpayer eligible for Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits, and at what age will those benefits commence?
  • Does the taxpayer have private retirement savings through an RRSP?

Finally, not all the factors in deciding how to structure retirement income are based on purely financial and tax considerations. There are other, more personal issues and choices which come into play. Those include the state of one’s health at age 65 and the consequent implications for longevity, which might argue for accelerating receipt of any available income. Conversely, individuals who have a family history of longevity and who plan to continue working for as long as they can may be better off deferring receipt of retirement income where such deferral is possible.

Many Canadians put off plans, like a desire to travel, until their retirement years. Realistically, from a health standpoint, such plans are more likely to be possible earlier rather than later in retirement. The early years of retirement are usually the most active ones, and consequently are the years in which expenses for activities are likely to be highest. Having plans for significant expenditures in the early retirement years might argue for accelerating income into those years, when it can be used to make those plans a reality.

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. Finally, taxpayers who have a Canada Pension Plan Statement of Contributions which outlines their CPP entitlement at age 65 will be able to determine the monthly benefit which would be payable where CPP retirement benefits commence at different ages between 60 and 70.

The Retirement Income Calculator can be found at https://www.canada.ca/en/services/benefits/publicpensions/cpp/retirement-income-calculator.html

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