Tax-Free Savings Account
The Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) is an account that provides tax benefits for saving in Canada. Investment income, including capital gains and dividends, earned in a TFSA is not taxed, even when withdrawn. Contributions to a TFSA are not deductible for income tax purposes, unlike contributions to Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs).
Despite the name, a TFSA does not necessarily need to be a cash savings account. Like RRSPs, a TFSA may contain cash and/or other investments such as mutual funds, certain stocks, bonds, or Guaranteed Investment Certificates (GICs).
This measure was supported by the C.D. Howe Institute, which stated; “This tax policy gem is very good news for Canadians, and Mr. Flaherty and his government deserve credit for a novel program”. Furthermore, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Bankers Association, Bank of Montreal economist Doug Porter, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation also supported this tax policy.
The TFSA is an investment option for Canadian residents 18 years and older wanting to save. The account-holder can contribute up to $5,500 a year. Income earned on contributions is not taxed. The TFSA's flexible structure allows the holder to withdraw money from the account at any time, free of taxes. In essence, the account-holder can withdraw any amount out of the account, free from capital gains and/or withdrawal taxes.
One mechanism in the design of the TFSA is the carry-over aspect. Any unused space under the $5,500 cap can be carried forward to subsequent years, without any upward limit.
How TFSAs differ from RRSPs
The tax treatment of a TFSA is the opposite of a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP). For RRSPs, there is a tax deduction for contributions to a RRSP, and withdrawals of contributions and investment income are all taxable. In contrast, there is no tax deduction for contributions to TFSA, and there is no tax on withdrawals of investment income or contributions from the account.
Unlike RRSPs, which must be withdrawn before the holder turns 71, the TFSA does not expire.
If an account-holder withdraws funds from a TFSA, his or her contribution room is increased by that amount in the tax year after the withdrawal. In an RRSP, the contribution room is not increased to reflect withdrawals.
The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) describes the difference between a TFSA and an RRSP as follows: "An RRSP is primarily intended for retirement. The TFSA is like an RRSP for everything else in your life."
A TFSA can hold any investments that are RRSP-eligible, including publicly traded shares on eligible exchanges, eligible shares of private corporations, certain debt obligations, installment receipts, money denominated in any currency, trust interests including mutual funds and real estate investment trusts, annuity contracts, warrants, rights and options, registered investments, royalty units, partnership units, and depository receipts.
The maximum annual contribution room was $5,000 per year for each year before 2013. This was increased to $5,500 per calendar year beginning in 2013.
People are entitled to make contributions up to these amounts for each year they are aged 18 and older and a resident of Canada:
- 2009: $5,000
- 2010: $5,000
- 2011: $5,000
- 2012: $5,000
- 2013: $5,500
- 2014: $5,500
The allowed sum of contributions as of 2014 is therefore $31,000.
On June 1, 2010, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) mailed about 72,000 overcontribution letters to TFSA holders, representing about 1.5% of all 4.7 million TFSA-holders. The letters and calculations were based on information CRA received from financial institutions.
As a result of this mailing, financial institutions received many calls from confused clients. The TFSA holders did not realize that withdrawals from the TFSA increase the available contribution room not in the current calendar year, but the next calendar year.
For example, if you contributed $5,000 to a TFSA in January 2009, withdrew it all in July, and then later recontributed the $5,000 in November 2009, this would put you in an overcontribution position because the $5,000 July withdrawal does not create further room until 2010. This rule has caused much confusion.
The CRA recommended taxpayers still send in their payment penalty with the TFSA return and a letter explaining the situation by June 30, 2010. The CRA stated it would review this information on a case by case basis. If relief was granted, the CRA said they would return the payment. As of June 2010, the CRA has received about 10,000 responses to its letter from taxpayers.
TFSA holders can wait until they receive a Notice of Assessment, expected to be issued in August 2010, and then either file a formal Notice of Objection or apply for administrative relief by writing to the CRA. The risk of waiting, however, is that a late-filing penalty as well as interest may be charged by the CRA.
Foreign dividend withholding tax
Unlike a RRSP, a TFSA is not considered by the United States Internal Revenue Service to be a pension plan. Therefore, the tax treaty between the U.S. and Canada foregoing the U.S. withholding tax on dividends in registered pension plans does not apply to TFSA accounts, subjecting Canadians in most cases to a 15% U.S. tax withheld on dividends paid on shares of U.S. corporations. The tax withheld cannot be credited against other payable taxes as would be the case with non-registered accounts.
To get around this problem, one exchange-traded fund manager, Horizons ETFs Group, offers an ETF that uses swap contracts to replicate the return of the underlying dividend-paying stocks in the fund without actually holding any of those stocks. However, due to the fees charged by the counterparty to the swap agreement, as well as the fund's own management fee, its expenses exceed the actual withholding tax payable for the underlying stocks, if those were to be held directly in the TFSA.
Risks for U.S. Citizens
TFSAs held in Canadian Mutual funds are generally considered by the IRS to be investments in a Passive foreign investment company (PFIC), and must be reported as such (on form 8621) by U.S. citizens. PFICs can be very disadvantageous as, absent certain elections, "excess" distributions are always taxed at the highest marginal rate. Also, income is averaged over the duration of the investment, and interest is then charged from the date the income is deemed to have occurred, resulting in effective tax rates as high as 50% or more. 
Similar accounts in other countries
- Canada Revenue Agency (2014-02-14). "TFSA: Types of investments". CRA.gc.ca. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
- “Get ready for new Tax-Free Savings Account”, Oakville Today, 2008-06-19. Retrieved on 2008-06-20.
- “TFSA’s: the biggest thing since RRSP’s”, National Post, 2008-02-27. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- “Budget: Report Card”, National Post, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- “Federal Budget Prudent for Today’s Economic Conditions”, Canadian Bankers Association, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- “Budget: Report Card”, National Post, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- “2008 Budget”, The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- "A New Tax Savings Plan & Modest Spending Growth”, Canadian Taxpayers Association, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.
- "Tories Introduce Tax-Free Savings Account", CTV, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-20.
- "Tax Measures: Supplementary Information", Department of Finance, 2008-02-26. Retrieved on 2008-06-20.
- "The Tax-Free Savings Account". Canada Revenue Agency. Retrieved 30 December 2012.
- Borzykowski, Bryan (12 June 2013). "TFSA: More than a place to park cash". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
- Your tax, RRSP questions answered The Globe and Mail, 1 December 2010
- ‘Where should I hold U.S. dividend stocks?’ Financial Post, 16 April 2013
- Understanding Swap-Based ETFs MoneySense, 6 June 2011
- Foreign dividend withholding tax and your TFSA The Globe and Mail, 4 April 2013
- More Swap Talk With Horizons Canadian Couch Potato, 10 June 2011
- HXS Horizons S&P 500 Index ETF horizonsetfs.com, retrieved 12 January 2014
- How the 'TIFSA' can be your tax free nest egg
- "Cashing in on TFSAs". Benefits Canada. May 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-17.