So you wanna be a Snowbird, eh?

The thought of spending up to six months in a warm and sunny U.S. sunbelt state, perhaps even Mexico, during Canada’s unfriendly winter season is becoming increasingly popular for millions of Canadians over 50 — retired or not. And it’s a trend that continues to grow every year as Canada’s population ages.

Because Canadians are living and staying healthier longer, retirement can easily stretch over 30 years. With proper planning, the Snowbird lifestyle can be the most active, stimulating, satisfying and enjoyable experience of one’s later years.

Many Snowbirds leave in early November, returning the end of April. Others don’t depart until the beginning of the New Year. Either way, they can enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of climate. However, there are many matters to deal with if you’re planning on spending up to six months in the U.S. or Mexico as a Snowbird. Issues to consider include family, friends, finances, fluctuations in currency exchange rates, investments, taxes, immigration, customs, housing, travel, safety and security — and the all important issue of medical insurance. Attention must be paid as well to all important matters such as money managementfinancial planning, wills, estate planning, and the need of reliable, professional advice. This last point is critical.

As everyone’s situation is different, and because regulations and laws can change very quickly or even without notice, you want to get specialized feedback from professional advisors.

Following are general guidelines only, but they can help get you started in the right direction.

Deciding where to Snowbird
As you might expect, the U.S. is the most popular Snowbird destination. A common language and culture, familiarity, proximity, and accessibility make it the destination of choice for the vast majority of Canadian Snowbirds.

Deciding where to locate in the U.S. can be a challenging, sometimes daunting task considering the plethora of choices available. The most popular Sunbelt states are Florida, Arizona, California and Texas, although surprisingly enough, Nevada is gaining in popularity. You might want to be based in one area and take varied sightseeing trips for a day or several days on a regular basis. Or possibly you may want to become a recreational vehicle (RV) owner and wander through various states. There are many factors to consider, depending on your interests and needs. What about climate? Maybe you prefer the ocean, mountains, or desert? Favor city life or rural ambience? Friends can also be a factor drawing you to one place or another.

There are numerous free state tourism booklets and information available for the asking. Also, check your local library for videos of the states and specific cities you’re considering. Chat with other people you know who are Snowbirds from those locations. Before making a decision to buy a condo, house, mobile home or RV, it’s prudent to rent for the first season to see if you like it. Alternatively, if you already have an RV, you’ve got the freedom to check many places out to see which areas most appeal to you.

Living in the south during the winter can also be very affordable but, naturally, expenses vary from region to region. One obvious plus will be a saving on heating costs. Another financial plus is that you’re entitled to a tax credit, under the “medical expenses” category of your tax return, for the cost of your out-of-country emergency medical insurance. It’s these types of economic pluses that make the idea of wintering in the south so attractive.

There are an increasing number of Canadians who prefer to spend the winter months in various parts of Mexico. Mexico is rich with culture and diversity, and over a million Canadian tourists visit each year. There are several locations popular as retirement havens for Canadian and American retirees alike.

A taxing relationship: Keeping the IRS happy
Cross-border tax issues can be confusing, especially if you have property or other investments in the U.S. Even if you’re not required to pay tax, you could be subject to U.S. filing requirements if your visits to the U.S. exceed 182 days over three years. This is based on a formula counting the current year visits in full, the previous years as one-third days, and one-sixth of days for the year preceding that. Contact a professional accountant familiar both with cross-border tax issues as well as dealing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. All of the major international chartered accountancy firms have this type of expertise. If you’re thinking of renting out your sunbelt home when you’re back in Canada, there are U.S. and Canadian tax implications to consider.

Travel insurance: Don’t leave home without it
If you have a serious injury or illness while in the U.S and require emergency medical attention, you’ll be financially devastated without purchasing adequate out-of-country emergency medical insurance before leaving Canada. The necessity for this extra insurance protection is simple: Provincial health insurance plans vary by province, and coverage outside Canada is nominal, e.g. $75 to $400+ Canadian funds per day for hospital care in the U.S., depending on your province. This is just a drop in the bucket when certain surgical procedures can cost $100,000 U.S or more.

Where there’s a will there’s a way
As a rule of thumb, if you have a valid and enforceable will in your province it would usually be deemed valid in the state that you own property. However, a Power of Attorney in your province would most likely not be accepted in the U.S. for various reasons. Therefore, if you want a Power of Attorney to cover U.S. property, seek the advice of a real estate lawyer in that state. Under recent changes to the Canada-U.S. tax treaty, your estate in the case of your death can offset the U.S. taxes against capital gains taxes owed in Canada. Also, there are exemptions up to a certain amount, and you can defer estate tax if your spouse is a beneficiary. With proper tax planning, Canadians can also defer Canadian capital gains tax on death by leaving the property to a spouse or a spousal tax, among other strategies.

A few final words…
Despite the many potential benefits, the Snowbird lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If it’s a retirement option you’re considering seriously, try it for a month or so by renting an apartment, condo…even a trailer. Above all, tread gently into these seemingly warm, attractive waters — doing your homework before taking the plunge could make the difference between a Snowbirding heaven ….or hell.