Like Pablum, pacemakers, and Wonderbras, Registered Disability Saving Plans are a testament to commonsensical Canadian innovation. I was thrilled when the folks in Ottawa created this program to help people provide for disabled family members. Basically, the government matches your contributions up to 300%, depending on your family income, with an annual maximum of $3,500 and lifetime limit of $70,000. They’re even more generous for lower-income families, offering up to $1,000 a year in Canada Disability Savings Bonds whether you’re contributing money to your plan or not.
“Free money!,” I thought, rushing to the bank to open an account for my son, who qualified for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC), a requirement to participate in this program. Both of my kids have special needs, and I’ve filled out many forms over the years that made me cry, cataloguing their various challenges for schools, camps, medical specialists, and on and on. The Disability Tax Credit form, TT2201, was particularly unpleasant, requiring my son’s doctor to confirm that “at least 90% of the time” my son could not feed himself or perform other basic daily activities his peers had mastered years ago. At the time, no one could tell me what to expect longer term, no therapy seemed to help, and so saving for the possibility of a lifetime of one-on-one support seemed wise.
Over the years, my son—thank goodness—has overcome many of his challenges. His DTC eligibility expired when he turned 18 and with it, his eligibility for the RDSP. Because our plan wasn’t yet 10 years old, we needed to repay the government’s contributions. I wasn’t sure of the exact mechanics, but I’d kept track of the amounts and believed we owed them just under $7,000. About six months before his big birthday, I called the bank to check my calculations. After a long wait on hold, someone confirmed that my number was indeed correct.
After my son’s birthday, we decided to spend some of this money on tuition for summer school. When I called the bank to request a cheque, I was informed that the full amount was not available; the bank was withholding $12,463 (!!!) owed to Revenue Canada. When challenged, the banker insisted his calculation was correct. Yet when asked for the details, he could provide none. His confidence, however, was unshakeable. Certain I was wrong and he was right, he offered to submit a request and mail me ‘a notional breakdown’ explaining my error. Not by email, though, so we could resolve this problem in real time, but by Canada Post, and not until after the cheques had been sent, one to Ottawa and the second, much smaller one, to my son.
Stunned at the prospect of having to retrieve our money from the tax department at some later date, I spent the next hour or so working my way up the bank’s phone tree until I found a banker who agreed that my number was right and theirs was dramatically wrong. Unfortunately, he could only acknowledge the mistake; he couldn’t actually correct it. That took another week or so, after which he called me back to let me know the bank had granted us access to our money. The cheque was in the mail.
Eventually it arrived—better late than never—but payable to me, not my son. Concerned the money would be taxed in my hands, at my much higher rate, I once again called the bank and hung out on hold. When I finally made contact with a human, he wasn’t sure, but called me back later that day with an answer: the bank’s back office had assured him it was in fact impossible to issue a T4 to anyone other than the beneficiary. I crossed my fingers, hopeful the bankers were right this time. RDSPs, I was learning, were not their area of expertise.
Almost predictably, in March I received a T4A in my name for $5,000 or so of “pension income” related to my son’s RDSP. Once again, I called the bank, and once again was put on hold for what seemed like forever. Once again I spoke to someone who offered no explanation, no correction—nothing more than “a note on my file.” I didn’t want a note; I wanted the mistake corrected before I filed my tax return. So once again, I faced down the phone tree, holding and pleading and steaming with frustration. Eventually I was connected with a “wealth manager” in Montreal who, a week or so later, called to say the problem was solved. Almost instantly the correct tax documents arrived by email.
Throughout this experience, I wondered how this might have played out had I not kept track of the government’s contributions, or had I not known that the money should be taxed in my son’s hands. Our situation is probably unusual because we unwound the account before 10 years had passed. But also because I’d kept track of our contributions, so I knew the bank’s numbers were off by more than $5,000. How many stressed-out parents or RDSP beneficiaries—many of whom have intellectual disabilities—would know to keep track of what they owed Revenue Canada?
Unless you have an independent financial advisor who’s familiar with these products, I’d say proceed with caution. Keep careful records, take names, and don’t believe everything your bank tells you. Once our account was open, we were on our own.