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. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Income Tax Implications of Divorce Where You Own a Home and a Cottage

A few months ago, I was at a party when one of the party-goers started chatting to me about their
divorce. I ended up fielding various financial questions for which I referred them back to the matrimonial lawyer (I should have known they were not talking to me because of my bubbly personality).

But all was not lost. One of the questions they asked me about was the income tax implications of transferring their principal residence to their name, and the cottage to their spouse, as part of their divorce. As these transfers are often “messed up” and/or ignored in divorce agreements, I realized they had a least provided me a future blog topic. So today, I discuss the implications of transferring your home or cottage to your spouse upon divorce.

Principal Residence Exemption

In general, where you have lived in your home since its purchase, any gain upon the sale of that home is tax exempt because of the principal residence exemption (“PRE”). Where you own a house and cottage, things get more complicated, as you and your spouse may only designate one residence between you for purposes of the PRE, for each tax year after 1981 (prior to 1982, each spouse could designate one principal residence and thus you could possibly claim the PRE on both your home and cottage).

If you are happily married and own a home and cottage, in general, when you dispose of the properties, you would allocate the PRE to the property with the largest yearly capital gain. This calculation can be complex and typically leaves one property as taxable, or at least partially taxable (i.e. you may have owned your home 5 years before you purchased your cottage, so you have 5 years of PRE to claim on your home).

Where a couple is divorcing, how you allocate the PRE claim on your cottage and home is often problematic.

Spousal Rollover on Divorce

Unless you elect otherwise, where you transfer capital property, the Income Tax Act provides for a tax-free rollover to your former spouse if the transfer is in settlement of their property rights (transfers by title pursuant to a court order or provincial legislation also are provided for). In plain English, you can transfer, say a cottage, to your former spouse with no immediate income tax consequences, although, they assume the cost base of that cottage.

The Issue

One would think that based on the PRE and the tax-free spousal rollover, that where a divorcing couple has a home and cottage, things should be simple. However, since a couple can only claim one PRE during the marriage (other than when a spouse who was throughout the year living apart from and was separated under a judicial or written separation agreement) that is definitely not the case. This one PRE rule per couple is clearly noted in this interesting case, Balanko v The Queen.

Consequently, it is vital that the right to the PRE or the allocation of the PRE must be accounted for in any marriage settlement, for both purposes of the actual claim, and the related income tax one of the spouses may incur. If the use of the exemption is not addressed in the separation agreement, it is then a first-come, first-served claim.

In this article, the authors on page 1122 suggest that you consider at the time of separation or divorce that you complete a principal residence designation Form T2091.


Say Tom and Katie are seeking a divorce and jointly own a family home (the home cost $300,000 and is now worth $1,000,000) and cottage (the cottage cost $500,000 and is now worth $1,000,000). In their divorce settlement, they agree that Tom will take the home and Katie the cottage (in real life, the house and cottage values and related income tax costs may be disproportionate and the value and tax discrepancy is equalized in some manner). This cross transfer of title can be done tax-free as discussed above; Tom assumes a cost base of $300,000 on the family home, and Katie a cost base of $500,000 on the cottage.

Katie has plans to sell the cottage immediately and to buy a new house. Katie’s lawyer and tax advisor decide to keep silent on the issue as to who can claim the PRE, since they know she will claim it first. Should Katie claim the PRE, Tom could be stuck with a tax liability approaching $175,000 when he eventually sells the home.

Luckily for Tom, he has hired sharp advisors. They raise the issues during the divorce negotiations. After some back and forth, the parties agree that Katie will claim the PRE; however, Tom is entitled to an extra $87,500 in family assets to equalize him for his future income tax liability.

If you and your spouse have a home and cottage and are unfortunately in divorce proceedings, or in a dissolving marriage, it is imperative your family lawyer and/or tax advisor consider/negotiate which spouse will be entitled to the PRE and whether a PR designation and/or tax equalization payment needs to be considered.

This blog post is for general information purposes only. The author is not a lawyer and the discussion above does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. The information above is provided solely to raise awareness of the issue. Readers are advised to seek specific legal advice regarding any specific legal issues.

This site provides general information on various tax issues and other matters. The information is not intended to constitute professional advice and may not be appropriate for a specific individual or fact situation. It is written by the author solely in their personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which they are affiliated. It is not intended to constitute professional advice, and neither the author nor the firm with which the author is associated shall accept any liability in respect of any reliance on the information contained herein. Readers should always consult with their professional advisors in respect of their particular situation. Please note the blog post is time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.


  1. I would talk to you at a Party Mark, but you already knew that.

    I have seen this happen a few times, and most folks just assume it is simple to do, but I now wonder whether these folks really did know the implications when they split up the cottage and the family home? I guess, I shall see?

    Well stated good sir!

    1. Thx BCM, but since you have met me, I would think you would avoid talking to me at a party:)