My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant and a partner with a National Accounting Firm in Toronto. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are written solely in my personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which I am affiliated. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humor/sarcasm. You've been warned.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Transferring Property Among Family Members - A Potential Income Tax Nightmare

In today’s blog post, I will discuss the income tax implications relating to the transfer of property among family members. These transfers often create significant income tax issues and can be either errors of commission or errors of omission. Over my 25 years as an accountant, I have been referred some unbelievably messed up situations involving intra-family transfers of property. Most of these referrals come about because someone has read an article and decides they are now probate experts or real estate lawyers have decided they are also tax lawyers. 

Transfers of Property - Why They Are Undertaken


Many individuals transfer capital properties (real estate and common shares, being the most common) in and amongst their families like hot cakes. Some of the reasons for undertaking these transfers include: (1) the transferor has creditor issues and believes that if certain properties are transferred, the properties will become creditor protected (2) the transferor wishes to reduce probate fees on his or her death and (3) the transferor wishes to either gift the property, transfer beneficial title or income split with lower-income family members.

I will not discuss the first reason today because it is legal in nature. But be aware, Section 160(1) of the Income Tax Act can make you legally responsible for the transferor's income tax liability and there may be fraudulent conveyance issues amongst other matters.

Transfers of Property - Income Tax Implications


When a property is transferred without consideration (i.e. as gift or to just transfer property into another person's name), the transferor is generally deemed to have sold the property for proceeds equal to its fair market value (“FMV”). If the property has increased in value since the time the transferor first acquired the property, a capital gain will be realized and there will be taxes to be paid even though ownership of the property has stayed within the family. For example, if mom owns a rental property worth $500,000 which she purchased for $100,000 and she transfers it to her daughter, mom is deemed to have a $400,000 capital gain, even though she did not receive any money.

There is one common exception to the deemed disposition rule. The Income Tax Act permits transfers between spouses to take place at the transferor’s adjusted cost base instead of at the FMV of the capital property.

This difference is best illustrated by an example: Mary owns shares of Bell Canada which she purchased 5 years ago at $50. The FMV of the shares today is $75. If Mary transferred the shares of Bell Canada to her brother, Bob, she would realize a capital gain of $25. If instead Mary transferred the shares of Bell Canada to her husband, Doug, the shares would be transferred at Mary’s adjusted cost base of $50 and no capital gain would be realized. It must be noted that if Doug sells the shares in the future, Mary would be required to report the capital gain realized at that time (i.e. the proceeds Doug receives from selling the shares less Mary’s original cost of $50) and Mary would be required to report any dividends received by Doug on those shares from the date of transfer.

As noted in the example above, when transfers are made to spouses or children who are minors (under the age of 18), the income attribution rules can apply and any income generated by the transferred properties is attributed back to the transferor (the exception being there is no attribution on capital gains earned by a minor). The application of this rule is reflected in that Mary must report the capital gain and any dividends received by Doug. If the transferred property is sold, there is often attribution even on the substituted property.

We have discussed where property is transferred to a non-arm’s length person that the vendor is deemed to have sold the property at its FMV. However, what happens when the non-arm’s length person has paid no consideration or consideration less than the FMV? The answer is that in all cases other than gifts, bequests and inheritances, the transferees cost is the amount they actually paid for the property and there is no adjustment to FMV, a very punitive result.

In English, what these last two sentences are saying is that if you legally gift something, the cost base and proceeds of disposition are the FMV. But if say your brother pays you $5,000 for shares worth $50,000, you will be deemed to sell the shares for $50,000, but your brothers cost will now only be $5,000; whereas if you gifted the shares, his cost base would be $50,000. A strange result considering he actually paid you. This generally results in “double taxation” when the property is ultimately sold by the transferee (your brother in this case), as you were deemed to sell at $50,000 and your brothers gain is measured from only $5,000 and not the FMV of $50,000.

Transfers of a Principal Residence - The Ultimate Potential Tax Nightmare


I have seen several cases where a parent decides to change the ownership of his or her principal residence such that it is to be held jointly by the parent and one or more of their children. In the case of a parent changing ownership of say half of their principal residence to one of their children, the parent is deemed to have disposed of ½ of the property. This initial transfer is tax-free, since it is the parent’s principal residence. However, a transfer into joint ownership can often create an unforeseen tax problem when the property is eventually sold. Subsequent to the change in ownership, the child will own ½ the principal residence. When the property is eventually sold, the gain realized by the parent on his or her half of the property is exempt from tax since it qualifies for the principal residence exemption; however, since the child now owns half of the property, the child is subject to tax on any capital gain realized on their half of the property (i.e. 50% of the difference between the sale price and the FMV at the time the parent transferred the property to the child, assuming the child has a principal residence of their own).

An example of the above is discussed in this Toronto Star story that outlines a $700,000 tax mistake made by one parent in gifting their principal residence to their children.

 

 

 

Transfers for Probate Purposes


As noted in the first paragraph, many troublesome family transfers are done to avoid probate tax. Since I wrote on this topic previously and this post is somewhat overlapping, I will just provide you the link to that blog post titled Probate Fee Planning - Income Tax, Estate and Legal Issues to consider.

Many people are far too cavalier when transferring property among family members. It should be clear by now that extreme care should be taken before undertaking any transfer of real estate, shares or investments to a family member. I strongly urge you to consult with your accountant or to engage an accountant when contemplating a family transfer or you may be penny wise but $700,000 tax foolish.

The blogs posted on The Blunt Bean Counter provide information of a general nature. These posts should not be considered specific advice; as each reader's personal financial situation is unique and fact specific. Please contact a professional advisor prior to implementing or acting upon any of the information contained in one of the blogs.