How is my Canadian RRSP Taxed in the U.S.?

I have good and bad news for those of you that live in the U.S. but have a Canadian RRSP from when you lived in Canada. The good news is that there is a really good chance your taxation here in the states will be lower than if you took the same distributions in Canada. The bad news, trying to figure out just how much taxes you will pay, can be a pain in the butt. This article is meant to discuss the taxation of your RRSP, while living here in the U.S.  

DISCLAIMER: I strongly suggest talking to your international tax expert before taking any RRSP distributions.

Can I keep my RRSP while I live in the U.S.?

A few years back the IRS made it very clear that not only can you keep your RRSP, you don’t need to fill out a bunch of forms and declare the assets each year. You can read more about the ruling here. Although you typically can’t contribute to a RRSP while living in the U.S., keeping the assets in the RRSP while working here in the U.S. may be your best strategy.

Foreign tax credits

If you are living in the U.S. as a citizen or resident, you need to file taxes on any worldwide income. Which means that if you take a RRSP withdrawal, you will need to include that as income and you need to pay taxes on the income in Canada and the U.S. So, you have to pay taxes two times?! Not necessarily. In order to avoid double taxation, you are able to take a tax credit for any Canadian taxes that you pay in the year. For example, let’s say that you take a $20,000 withdrawal from your RRSP. You will have $5,000, more on this later, withheld to pay Canadian taxes. The $20,000 will be added to your income here in the U.S.  You will then be able to take a credit for up to $5,000 on your U.S. taxes, hopefully offsetting the higher income you now have to report on your taxes. Confused yet? Well, we’re just getting started.

The amount of the foreign tax credit that you can apply is the lesser amount of foreign taxes paid or the U.S. tax liability on the foreign income. For example, if you have a $5,000 tax credit but only had $2,000 of U.S. tax liability, you would only be able to use $2,000 of your tax credit. The remaining $3,000 can be used to offset prior or future tax liability for up to ten years. Of course, using the tax credit on previous tax returns, would require you to complete an amended return. Now that I have thoroughly confused you, let’s talk about the actual taxation of RRSP distributions.

Federal Taxation of RRSP distributions

If you are living in the U.S. and take a distribution from your RRSP, there is an automatic 25% withheld to pay Canadian taxes. For example, as I discussed above a $20,000 withdrawal would require $5,000 to be withheld for taxes and you would receive $15,000. This 25% should be good for your Canadian tax liability but may or may not be enough to cover your U.S. federal taxes. Below are the 2020 tax tables if you file single or married filing jointly (MFJ).

Source:  Tax Foundation

As I mentioned before, you have to include all worldwide income here in the U.S.  This worldwide income is added onto your adjusted gross income (AGI) and you are taxed here at the same rate as if you earned it here. Of course, the foreign tax credit helps offset this extra income. So, if your marginal tax bracket is under 25%, you should have no additional taxes due as the foreign tax credit is higher than your actual tax liability. If your marginal tax bracket is over 25%, you will actually owe additional taxes on the withdrawal than what was withheld. For example, if you are in the 32% tax bracket, but you only get a credit for 25% of your withdrawal, you will need to pay another 7% to the government in taxes.

I know, not confusing at all. We haven’t even gotten to state taxes.

State taxes on RRSP distributions

It can vary from state to state but in all likelihood, you will also have to pay state taxes on the income. Of course there are some states that don’t have income taxes,  but here in Michigan you will need to pay state taxes on the RRSP income. Michigan relies on the federal 1040 to determine state taxes. Foreign income, including RRSP withdrawals, flow right into the 1040. In Michigan, the state tax rate is 4.25%.

Taxation on RRIF distributions

If you have an RRSP, you have the option to convert to an RRIF and start yearly distributions. The benefit of doing this is that there is only a 15% foreign tax withholding on the RRIF. This is a significant benefit, especially if you are in the lower 10% or 12% tax rate. Instead of paying taxes at 25% on RRSP withdrawals, and not use all of your foreign tax credit, you can just pay taxes at 15%. Now for folks in the higher tax brackets, there is not as much of a benefit. This is because you will probably have to pay additional taxes, if your tax bracket is over 15%.  Again, let’s say that you are in the 32% marginal tax bracket. Yes, you are only having 15% withheld to pay for Canadian taxes, however, this distribution needs to be added to your income and you will have to pay U.S. taxes at 32%.

A quick summary:  

RRSP Distributions – 25% Foreign Tax Withholding

Tax RateTotal Taxes Paid
Under 25% Marginal Tax Bracket25%
Over 25% Marginal Tax BracketMarginal Tax Bracket

RRIF Distributions – 15% Foreign Tax Withholding

Tax RateTotal Taxes Paid
Under 15% Marginal Tax Bracket15%
Over 15% Marginal Tax BracketMarginal Tax Bracket

Taxes are confusing and dealing with taxes from two countries can be downright brutal.  The good news is that moving from Canada to the U.S. is probably the most tax beneficial thing that you can do.  Lower taxes and the proper use of foreign tax credits can make distributions from the RRSP and RRIF not as painful as you may think.  

Foreign Tax Credit Limits

Although many times foreign tax credits will cover your U.S. tax liability, this is not always the case. There are limits on how much foreign tax credits a person can use to offset their U.S. income.

From the IRS website:

Foreign Tax Credit Limit

Your foreign tax credit cannot be more than your total U.S. tax liability multiplied by a fraction. The numerator of the fraction is your taxable income from sources outside the United States. The denominator is your total taxable income from U.S. and foreign sources.

For example, let’s say that you have $10,000 in withdrawals from an RRSP, and $50,000 total taxable income on the year. In this case, 20% of your taxable income came from foreign sources. In this example, you cannot offset more than 20% of your taxable income using foreign tax credits. Using the same example, let’s say that the same person has a $10,000 tax liability. In this case, the foreign tax credit can’t offset more than 20% of the tax liability or $2,000.

If you are in a higher marginal tax bracket and the RRSP withdrawal is fairly small, you may not be able to take the full tax credit to offset your U.S. tax liability. This creates a situation in which your RRSP withdrawal is “double taxed”.

Need Cross-Border Planning Help?

RetireMitten Financial LLC specializes in cross-border financial planning. Do you have U.S. and Canadian accounts but are confused trying to determine a distribution strategy? Schedule a meeting below and have a conversation with a financial planner that truly understands your situation.

4 comments

  1. When I take distributions from my Canadian RSP, the withholding rate is only 10% regardless of the amount of the distribution so long as it is between the minimum and the maximum amounts.
    But I have a question: my understanding is that RSP distributions are only taxable in the United States to the extent that income was earned on the RSP since becoming a resident for tax purposes in the United States (cost basis).

    1. Hi Nabil,
      Thanks for the queestion. I would strongly consider talking to your tax planner about this question. I work closely with a cross-border CPA and his interpretation is the full amount is taxable, unless you did a deemed distribution upon coming to the U.S. However, I know of other tax preparers interpretation is that only the amount earned in the U.S. is taxable in the U.S. I have a hard time justifying why only the gains in the U.S. are taxable in the U.S. CPP/OAS and other pensions earned in Canada are fully taxed here in the U.S. so I don’t see why RRSPs are different. However, I do know of people that use this “cost basis” tax strategy and never have had a problem.

      Thanks,
      Bryan

    2. The article says withholding is either 15% or 25%, and that is consistent with what I’ve been able to find. Can you explain why you only have 10% withheld. Are you filing a non-resident return in Canada to get that rate?

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