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, October 28, 2019

What To Do When Your Spouse Dies Before You – Part 2, Taxes

Two weeks ago we discussed the administrative steps people need to take when their spouse dies.

The truth is, there is more to this topic than the administrative steps we listed in that post. Surviving spouses also need to navigate several high-stakes tax issues, some of which are specific to a surviving spouse. Our blog from two weeks ago tackled the administrative piece – today we dig deep to analyze the steps related to tax.

It should be noted that for income tax purposes, “spouse” includes not only a married couple but also common-law and same-sex couples.

When the surviving spouse avoids tax

On death, a taxpayer is deemed to dispose of all of their assets at their fair market value. This means that tax must be paid on any accrued capital gains to the date of death. For your RRSP, the value at the time of death is included as income on the deceased's terminal tax return.

However, where the assets are transferred under the terms of the will to their surviving spouse or a qualifying spousal trust, the deemed disposition at fair market value is avoided and the assets transferred to the spouse take place at their adjusted cost base (the same deferral can occur for a RRSP where the spouse is a designated beneficiary of the RRSP or a beneficiary under the will and an election is made). If the assets are not transferred to the surviving spouse or qualifying spousal trust, there is a deemed disposition and tax must be paid on the accrued gains and/or value of the RRSP.

As the deemed disposition rules are complicated, I think an example at this juncture may help clarify how these rules work.

 Let’s consider the case of Tom and Mary. Tom unfortunately died while preparing his 2018 income tax return and transfers all his assets to his wife, Mary, under his will. He owned 1000 shares of Bell Canada stock. He had paid $10 per share for them (a $10,000 cost), but they are now worth $30 per share ($30,000 fair market value).

In this case, the shares roll over to Mary at $10,000. She effectively steps into Tom’s cost base of $10 per share, and there are no current income tax consequences. However, Mary will pay tax on the deferred capital gain on the Bell Canada shares at the earliest of when she actually disposes of the Bell Canada shares or dies. 

Saying no to the rollover

Tax-free transfers sound good on paper, and this one is no different. But sometimes the surviving spouse should consider saying no to the automatic rollover. They can do this by “electing out” – a procedure that is highly specific to a surviving spouse and involves triggering taxable capital gains.

The surviving spouse should consider this path in several scenarios. Common ones are when the deceased spouse had:
  • a very low tax rate - for example, they had low income in the year of death, or they died early in the year and only have a month or two of income
  • unused capital losses carried forward
  • alternative minimum tax carryforward
The election is made on a security-by-security basis (i.e., you can select anywhere from one Bell Canada share to all thousand shares) at the fair market value (or stock price) of Bell Canada at the date of death.

Once the election is made, the surviving spouse inherits the higher tax cost base from the deceased spouse. Put simply, where the election is made, the surviving spouse’s tax cost will be the fair market value of the asset as of the date of death of their spouse.

To explain, let’s return to our Bell Canada example from above. if it was determined that for tax purposes to elect to trigger the entire Bell Canada capital gain $20,000 ($30,000 fair market value less $10,000 cost) because your deceased spouse had capital losses, the surviving spouse would have a cost base of $30,000 going forward on these shares, instead of the $10,000 cost base if no election was made.

In some circumstances it may make sense to elect to trigger a capital loss or losses at death instead of a capital gain. This would be for example to offset capital gains on the terminal return. There are various technicalities to this election, so speak to your advisor.

The election may also be applicable if the deceased spouse owned shares in a qualified small business corporation. It may make to elect to trigger a gain to utilize the capital gains exemption, which is $866,912 in 2019. This is a highly complex mechanism, so again, speak with your advisor. 

Family farms

If your spouse owned part of a family farm you may also wish to speak to a professional who is familiar with farming to determine the best course of action. 

Filing an income tax return

Finally, you will need to file at minimum a terminal income tax return for the deceased from January 1 to the date of death. You may have other filing option such as a rights and things tax return. I will post a blog in the next few weeks with more detail on filing returns at death.

The tax and administration issues are immense when a spouse dies. For the surviving spouse, they represent a huge burden. The above will hopefully assist you in understanding these issues. However, I strongly urge you to obtain professional legal and tax assistance immediately in the event of your spouse’s passing.

The content on this blog has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in general terms and should be seen as broad guidance only. The blog cannot be relied upon to cover specific situations and you should not act, or refrain from acting, upon the information contained therein without obtaining specific professional advice. Please contact BDO Canada LLP to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances. BDO Canada LLP, its partners, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability or duty of care for any loss arising from any action taken or not taken by anyone in reliance on the information on this blog or for any decision based on it.

Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation.

BDO Canada LLP, a Canadian limited liability partnership, is a member of BDO International Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, and forms part of the international BDO network of independent member firms. BDO is the brand name for the BDO network and for each of the BDO Member Firms.


  1. How does this apply to Québec residents?
    Are there some unique considerations that apply if one resides there?
    What kind of professional should one consult for advice related to Québec scenarios?

    1. Hi Unknown

      Sorry, I live in Ontario so I have no idea about the issues for Quebec residents. I would speak to a tax tax professional located in Quebec- my firm BBO has several Quebec locations and/or you can ask friends for a referral to a small or mid size firm if that is a better fit.

  2. Hi, I was wondering if the automatic rollover applies to rental property transferred to the surviving spouse in a will. Also, does the asset need to be specifically described in the will. i.e. a list of assets transferred or can it be a general statement about all assets/worldly possessions transferred to the surviving spouse like you see in most wills.


    1. Hi Anon

      The rollover would typically apply to a rental property. I am not an estate lawyer so I cannot comment on the proper way to draft a will. In my work experience I have seen it done both ways.