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Wealth Transfer Between Generations: 5 Legacy Planning Tips for Grandparents

By Diane Amato

Published August 23, 2022 • 9 Min Read

As a grandparent, there are few joys more pure and boundless than your grandchildren. Enjoying their youth, watching them grow and planning for their future are distinct pleasures for you to indulge in — and creating a lasting legacy for them is an opportunity you take to heart. But what is the best way to put money aside for them?

When it comes to intergenerational wealth transfer, there are several options and strategies to consider.

Go To Grandma Episodes:

Here are their tips and tricks to help you make the most informed decisions when it comes to transferring wealth and estate planning.

1. Setting aside money for education

A Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) is a go-to option for parents and grandparents thinking about how to save for a child or grandchild’s future education. A tax-deferred savings vehicle, an RESP allows you to save for a student’s post-secondary education faster.

“What makes an RESP such a great savings vehicle for a child’s education is that the contributions made, although not tax deductible, grow tax-free until the funds are withdrawn,” explains Woo. “And depending on eligibility, government incentives and grants such as the Canada Education Savings Grant may further enhance any savings you put into that RESP.” When the funds are taken out for education, withdrawals are taxed in the student’s hands, often resulting in little or no tax.

While a natural savings choice for many reasons, RESPs do come with some limitations. Woo encourages Canadian grandparents to consider specific questions:

  • What’s the purpose of the gift you’re leaving? “It may be stating the obvious, but funds set aside in an RESP can only be used by your grandchild for post-secondary education,” she explains. “So if your grandchild chooses not to go to university or college, the government incentives will have to be forfeited and any contributions made returned to the contributor.”

  • Is your grandchild a resident of Canada — and likely to remain in Canada as they grow up? “Contributions can only be made to an RESP for grandchildren who are residents of Canada at the time of the contribution,” says Woo. “If your grandchild becomes a non-resident after contributions are made, they may not be able to benefit from all the funds that you’ve saved and accumulated in that RESP.”

  • How much do you plan to set aside for your grandchildren? “It’s important to note that RESPs are subject to a lifetime contribution limit of $50,000 per grandchild. So if the total contributions made for that grandchild already exceed the $50,000 limit, any additional contributions made could be subject to a penalty of 1% per month on the excess amount contributed,” cautions Woo.

2. Setting up a trust

If any of your answers to the above questions suggest an RESP may not be the best option for your wealth transfer objectives, a trust may be a more appropriate savings vehicle. This may be particularly true if you would like the flexibility of having your grandchildren benefit from using the funds you plan to set aside for purposes beyond post-secondary education, or if your grandchild has specific financial needs or a disability.

“The benefit of using a trust to set aside money for grandchildren is that the terms of the trust agreement can be customized by you to specify when and for what purpose the funds may be distributed to your grandchild,” explains Woo. “Trusts can also leave control around the disbursement of the funds in the grandparents’ hands while they are alive.”

For instance, if you name yourself as an initial trustee, the trust can continue to be administered and managed under the eye of an appointed trustee long after your passing. There’s also no limit or cap on the amount you can contribute to a trust, and a Canadian trust can be set up even if your grandchildren are residents outside of Canada. “Although tax advice should be obtained to understand the potential tax implications of distributing funds to a non-resident grandchild,” Woo adds.

It’s worth noting, however, that the benefit of setting up a trust must be weighed with the costs of setting up and operating the trust on an ongoing basis. A lawyer would be required to draft the trust agreement and there’s an annual cost of filing tax returns as well as other income tax considerations that should be factored into this decision.

“A trust is really better suited to circumstances where grandparents wish to put aside a more significant sum of money to benefit their grandchildren’s post-secondary education, and where the objective is to have some flexibility to allow their grandchildren to use the funds for other purposes,” says Woo.

3. Gifting money during your lifetime

One of the most straightforward approaches to intergenerational wealth transfer is through outright gifts during your lifetime. After all, you may enjoy seeing the benefits of your gift paying off — such as witnessing the purchase of a home, achieving a post-secondary degree or launching a business.

When contemplating giving what’s known as a ‘lifetime gift,’ an important consideration to bear in mind is that you give up all control of the assets you contribute. A common worry with this option is the fear that the grandchild may make poor financial decisions or spend carelessly, without consideration for the future you have envisioned for them. This is where ongoing communication and education around money management become key!

Remember that when you gift money during your lifetime, you reduce the funds available for your own lifestyle and retirement goals. To pursue this option, it’s crucial to be confident in your own current and future financial position.

As Elaine Blades shares in her conversation with Kathy Buckworth, no one knows what’s ahead, which makes determining whether you can afford to give money away a difficult task. “In addition to unexpected contingencies, like encountering major home repairs or losing a job,” she says. “We’re living longer.” Moreover, final years may not be healthy years, potentially making them very costly if significant care is required. “So it’s important to keep in mind what is sometimes referred to as ‘the health gap’ when we’re considering just how much money we may need to care for ourselves in the future.”

Blades also adds that it’s important to seek professional advice in respect to any income tax consequences to both the giver and receiver when gifting this way.

4. Leaving an inheritance

For many Canadians, a common reason to wait before passing down wealth through an inheritance is to ensure there are sufficient funds to maintain the lifestyle they want in retirement. Also, if grandchildren aren’t in a position where they need the money immediately, it may be worth waiting to pass on wealth via a Will.

Blades explains that while it’s most typical for grandparents to leave assets to their adult children, in some cases they skip a generation and leave their wealth to the grandchildren directly. “Sometimes, it’s where the children are doing very well financially and quite frankly, don’t need the inheritance,” she says. “In that case, it may make sense from a tax, creditor and/or family law planning perspective, or to help cement a legacy, to bypass the children and instead leave funds or other assets such as the family cottage directly to the grandchildren.”

However, having a clear and up-to-date Will in place is key to making this option work. Approximately half of Canadians do not have a Will in place, and dying without a Will means dying “intestate,” which essentially means you can’t choose who your beneficiaries will be or who will administer your estate. You also lose the power to plan the estate to minimize taxes.

Because life is full of changes, it’s important to review your Will regularly to ensure it continues to meet your wishes and intentions. Blades also recommends sharing certain aspects of your Will with interested parties while you’re still alive, particularly if they fit into any of the following scenarios:

  • If the inheritance comes with obligations, like the upkeep of a family cottage or business

  • If elements of the estate plan may be unexpected or cause tension or confusion among beneficiaries

  • If your children or grandchildren would benefit from understanding what they’ll inherit so they can prepare — by meeting with tax, legal and investment advisors, for example.

“The last thing you want is for the inheritance to be squandered as a result of immaturity or lack of knowledge,” she explains.

5. Naming a beneficiary

Another method for wealth transfer is through the use of beneficiary designations on registered plans, such as Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) and Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) as well as life insurance policies.

The main benefit to this option is that assets pass directly to the beneficiaries without having to go through the estate and also without incurring probate fees or estate administration tax.

Just be sure to keep the beneficiary designations consistent with what’s laid out in your Will to avoid complications and delays with this option.

The bottom line on transferring your wealth

Whether your situation is simple or complex, it’s worth taking the time to understand the best wealth transfer options for both yourself and your family, and balance your needs of today with your wishes for your family’s future.

Planning and communication are equally crucial when exploring your options — the more you do of each, the better your chances for a happy and successful outcome.

“It’s important to consider your objectives and your family circumstances when determining how to best save for your grandchildren’s future,” says Woo. “And since every family has specific needs and circumstances, I’d recommend you consult your advisor to further explore the right options for you.”

Learn More about Transferring Wealth

To hear more about transferring wealth to your children and grandchildren from Tracey Woo, have a listen to Take 5 With RBC at the 20:10 mark of the Go-To Grandma episode “Grand Plans.”

Learn More about Estate Planning

Head to the 22:00 mark of “Take It Outside” for more of Elaine Blades’ insights on estate planning.

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This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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