All About Estates

Direct Designation Estate Donations

A direct designation gift of RRIF or life insurance proceeds is an estate donation, but lawyers and executors have little or no role to play. Normal procedural and disclosure rules don’t apply. How do charities ensure they receive their intended gift? How does the estate receive its tax receipt?

Direct Designation Donations

Deemed or direct designation gifts were introduced in the Income Tax Act in 2000 to address a fairness issue. Prior to 2000, if a donor named a charity as beneficiary on registered fund plan documents or a life insurance policy there would be no tax benefits for the estate.

Registered retirement funds (RRSP and RRIFs) were especially problematic. A direct designation gift would not generate a donation tax receipt, but the deemed disposition on death would trigger a tax liability for the estate. Family beneficiaries would pay twice for a bequest to charity.

Pre 2000, the planning solution was to make the estate a beneficiary in plan documents and insurance contracts. The will would then name the charity. This two-step process worked fine but could lead to privacy issues for the testator. In certain provinces the donation would be subject to probate fees.

The direct designation rules aligned the tax benefits of all gifts at death, including a gift by will. Initially some provinces didn’t allow charities to be named on registered plan documents but that has been sorted out over time. In 2016, the creation of the umbrella concept of an estate donation in 118.1(5) further knit together the regime.

Making a registered fund or life insurance direct designation gift is relatively easy. The donor just needs to name the charity as a beneficiary on the plan documents or life insurance policy. While coordination with the will is advised, it isn’t always done. This can lead to estate administration challenges.

Administration Issues

There are a few estate administration issues for charities and executors.

The charity is typically informed of the donation after the death of the donor. The notification comes from the advisor who holds the registered fund or sold the life insurance policy. The extent of the information provided to the charity is typically that it is owed X amount. The sum may be provided without supporting documentation. Charities are wise to ask for a copy of the plan documents or life insurance policy, as well as confirmation of the value at death. There is no legal obligation to provide this information, but most advisors are helpful. Often these distributions happen faster than gifts by will.

The charity also needs to issue a donation tax receipt to the estate of the deceased. The identity and contact information of the executor may require detective work to find out. Best to contact the executor directly and not work through the advisor or agent.

For executors, the existence of charity beneficiaries of direct designation donations may be a mystery. There is likely no reference in the will. These funds or policies may only be identified when there is an account search. The key issue is ensuring the tax receipt is received. If the tax receipt arrives soon after death it can be filed on the Terminal T1, which reduces tax liability for the estate upfront.

Other factors

Sometimes privacy is the goal of donors of direct designation gifts. They don’t want the charity to receive detailed estate information. Conversely, they may not want beneficiaries under the will to find out about charitable gifts. This is an issue estate trustees will need to navigate on a case-by-case basis.

Direct designation estate donations have some advantages. They are not especially complex to administer post-mortem, but it helps if all parties ask a few extra questions to connect the planning dots.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


  1. Ken Ramsay

    November 17, 2022 - 4:05 pm

    Hello Malcolm

    I believe there are still some problems in Quebec with the direct designation process. The usual advice is to name the estate as beneficiary and disburse through the will.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      November 17, 2022 - 8:25 pm

      Ken – Thanks for the share about Quebec legislation. I must admit I don’t follow this matter closely. I will do some digging on the topic. Malcolm

      • Peggy Killeen

        November 22, 2022 - 4:30 pm

        I was about to ask the question about Quebec too, would appreciate any more information you may find, Malcolm.

        • Malcolm Burrows

          November 22, 2022 - 5:01 pm

          Hi Peggy –
          Thanks for your note. Unfortunate that Quebec has not provided the ability for RRSP/RRIF owners to make designations to charities. I believe charities are caught because only individuals receive direct designations, not corporations, or trusts, or, as a result, charities. I have no idea how we could educate the province to make this change. Malcolm

  2. Rowena Griffiths

    November 18, 2022 - 2:11 pm

    Thanks for this Malcolm. This also emphasizes how important it is as charities to develop relationships with donors and their advisory team if at all possible. Certainly ends up being a win-win situation all around.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      November 18, 2022 - 2:19 pm

      Rowena – Totally agree. Charities need to be professional and proactive in their dealing with both donors and their advisory teams. Malcolm

  3. Ian Lewer

    November 18, 2022 - 2:57 pm

    What is a ‘best practice’ to find the information about the Executor? If I received a bequest from a RRIF from financial advisor XYZ, they may not even know who the named executor is? But me (as the charitable organization) needs to send the charitable tax receipt to the estate? Curious 🙂

    • Malcolm Burrows

      November 18, 2022 - 3:34 pm

      Hi Ian – Good question. Provincial probate (Certificate of an estate trustee with a will) records are public and contain executor information. I must admit it has been a while since I made an access request. Maybe lawyers or trust officers could weigh about this process. Your question underscores the challenge for charities to deliver the donation tax receipt in certain situations. Malcolm

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