Canada: The 21-Year Rule Is Taxing On Family Trusts

Last Updated: March 31 2011
Article by Angela Ross

Family trusts are popular estate and succession planning vehicles for good reason: they can be versatile and effective tools to help manage family wealth and taxes. But many Canadian family trusts are now well into their second decade and need attention to avoid significant—even devastating—tax bills triggered by the Income Tax Act's "21-year rule."

"This rule," says Angela Ross, associate partner, tax services, PwC, "states in general that any family trust, whether it is created during someone's lifetime or on the death of a person, has to treat itself as having disposed of its property every 21 years."

In Canada, when someone dies, they are seen as having disposed of their property (except property left to their spouse) at fair market value and their estate pays taxes on any gains realized on that property. Any property then acquired by their child will again be deemed disposed on the death of that child. Were it not for the "21-year rule," a family trust could hold property for multiple generations without ever incurring tax on the death of a generation.

So every 21 years in a family trust's "life," the CRA looks at the property in a trust as if it were the property of someone who had just died. "When the 21 years are up, if the trust holds property on that date, it is deemed to have disposed of the property at its current market value and has to pay taxes on it. Say the trust owns property that had an original cost of $10 but its value on the 21-year anniversary is $100. That trust will be deemed to have realized a $90 capital gain."

As we enter 2011, many Canadian family trusts are approaching the 21st anniversary of their creation and families need to be aware that in most cases, with proper, advanced planning, steps can be taken to defer the tax. "A trust can generally transfer its assets to Canadian resident beneficiaries on a tax-deferred basis prior to the 21-year anniversary, meaning it can transfer its assets to beneficiaries without triggering the tax on the gain," says Ross. "So if the trust owns property with a cost of $10, and at 20 years, its fair market value is $100, the trust can transfer the entire asset to its Canadian resident beneficiaries at its $10 price. The trust disposition would reflect $10 of proceeds and not the $90 gain. The taxes on the $90 capital gain can be deferred until that beneficiary sells or dies."

Ross advises family trusts to begin planning for the transfer at least a year in advance of the 21-year anniversary—although in more complex cases two or more years will be needed. Some important points to keep in mind include:

  • With the exception of Canadian real estate held in a trust, the general rule is you can't transfer the trust's assets at cost to beneficiaries who are not Canadian residents. But even if you have non-Canadian resident beneficiaries, depending on the terms of the trust and situation, it may be possible to do some planning to get the assets out for the benefit of that non-resident. It can be very complicated, so start early.
  • If timed properly and you have the right tax scenario, you can transfer the trust's assets to grandchildren rather than your children and thus defer the taxes for another generation.
  • In the case of a family trust owning a business that is transferring shares to children or grandchildren, it's prudent to have a shareholders' agreement in place before the children or grandchildren receive the shares.
  • Even if your family trust is nowhere near 21 years old, having it reviewed carefully by an expert now can be a smart move. "There are a few provisions in the Tax Act that could prevent you from doing the rollout before 21 years," says Ross. "Most important is 75(2)—the revocable trust provision. It applies if the trust received property from any person who is a capital beneficiary of the trust or is a person who decides when the trust property is disposed of or to whom it eventually goes. It's a brutal provision that may prevent the rollout of any assets to beneficiaries before 21 years and it's one people need to be aware of." Although there's nothing that can be done to change it, with enough time, it's possible to develop strategies to fund the eventual tax liability. "The sooner you know you have this issue, the better," says Ross. "Alternative planning may be possible. You could implement a reorganization at say 10 years to stop the growth in a bad trust and potentially start the growth in a good trust and minimize the tax hit that's going to happen at 21 years."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.