Dear Liz: I am a CPA and fairly knowledgeable about investing, but I have a question about my IRAs. I am 58 and my husband is in his mid-80s. We both are retired with federal pensions and no debt other than a mortgage. My plan is to start taking money annually from my traditional IRA in two or three years. I want to reduce the required minimum distribution I will need to start taking at age 701/2 and lessen the tax impact at that time. Should I put these annual withdrawals in my regular investment account or should I put them in the Roth IRA? My goal is to lessen the tax impact on my only child when he ultimately inherits this money. Does my plan make sense?
Answer: Your letter is proof that our tax code is too complex if it can stymie even a CPA. Still, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where you’d be better off accelerating withdrawals from an IRA and putting them in a taxable account.
A required minimum distribution “is merely a requirement to take the money out anyway,” said Certified Financial Planner Michael Kitces, an expert in taxation. “All you’re doing by taking money out early to ‘avoid’ an RMD [required minimum distribution] is voluntarily inflicting an even more severe and earlier RMD on yourself.”
In other words, you’d be giving up future tax-advantaged growth of your money for no good reason.
What might make sense, in some circumstances, is moving the money to a Roth. You can’t make contributions to a Roth if you’re not working, because Roths require contributions be made from “earned income.” What you can do is convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, either all at once or over time. You have to pay taxes on amounts you convert, but then the money can grow tax-free inside the Roth and doesn’t have to be withdrawn again during your lifetime, since Roths don’t have required minimum distributions. Whether you should convert depends on a number of factors, including your current and future tax rates and those of your child.
“In other words, if your tax rate is 25% and your child’s is 15%, just let them inherit the [traditional IRA] account and pay the lower tax burden,” said Kitces, who has blogged about the Roth vs. traditional IRA decision at http://www.kitces.com. “In reverse, though, if the parents’ tax rate is lower … then yes, it’s absolutely better to convert at the parents’ rates than the child’s. In either scenario, the fundamental goal remains the same — get the money out when the tax rate is lowest.”
If you do decide to convert, remember that the conversion itself could put you in a higher tax bracket.
“It will be important not to convert so much that it drives up the tax rate to the point where it defeats the value in the first place,” Kitces said. “Which means the optimal strategy, if it’s to convert anything at all, will be to do partial Roth conversions to fill lower tax brackets but avoid being pushed into the upper ones.”
Dear Liz: My husband and I are self-employed. As we pay our bills, we are often a few thousand dollars short as we wait to be paid by our clients. Until now, we’ve been using a home equity line of credit to bridge the gap. We are ultra-responsible about paying it back. But our current 10-year draw period ends this month, and our lender has denied us either a new HELOC or a refinance. Is there another product that would help us? It would be sad if the only way to maintain our life is to sell our house, but that might be where we are if we can’t find some small line of credit.
Answer: Talk to the bank that has your business checking and savings accounts about the possibility of opening a line of credit. This is a standard tool for businesses of all sizes, but can be particularly helpful for small-business owners who have cash flow challenges. The interest rates on business credit lines are typically low, and you may be offered higher limits over time as you use the account responsibly.
If your bank isn’t interested in helping you, ask other entrepreneurs to help you find a more business-friendly financial institution. A community bank may be more flexible and more interested in winning your business than bigger, name-brand banks, but the experiences of fellow small-business owners can guide you to the best options in your community.
Dear Liz: I found your recent discussion of Roth IRAs informative. But I’ve been told that one of the main advantages of a Roth vs. a traditional IRA is that a Roth is a safer investment when it comes to creditors trying to attack it. How can that be? Is one type of IRA safer than another?
Answer: The short answer is no.
Employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s, typically have unlimited protection from creditors in Bankruptcy Court. The exceptions: The IRS and former spouses can make claims on such plans.
Individual retirement accounts, including IRAs and Roth IRAs, lack the protection afforded by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. But the bankruptcy reform law that went into effect in 2005 protects IRAs of all kinds up to a certain limit (which in April rose to $1,245,475).
Short of bankruptcy, the amount of your IRAs or Roth IRAs that creditors can access depends on state law.
If there’s any chance you’ll be filing for bankruptcy or the target of a creditor lawsuit, you should talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney about your options.
Dear Liz: None of the Web-based tools I’ve seen really get at the heart of the problem of how much I really need in retirement. For example, if I am diligent and save 20% of my income (I earn over $150,000), why would I need to replace 95% or even 80% of my income to maintain my standard of living in retirement? If I subtract the 20% going to savings, another 10% for the costs of working (clothes, lunches, gas) and reduce my income tax 5%, shouldn’t I be living the same lifestyle at 65% of my current income? Now, if I have a pension that will replace 10% of my pay, and if Social Security benefits for my spouse and me replace 30%, don’t my investments have to produce only the remaining 25%? Or am I missing something?
Answer: The further you are from retirement, the harder it can be to predict how much you’ll need when you get there.
Financial planners often use an income replacement rate of 70% to 80% as a starting point. It’s just that, though. Planners will tell you some of their clients’ spending actually increases in the early years of retirement as they travel and indulge in other expensive hobbies. Those who are frugal or used to living well below their means are often able to retire comfortably with a much lower income replacement rate.
A big wild card is the cost of medical and nursing care in your later years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey shows average overall spending tends to drop after retirement and continues to decline as people age. Serious illness or a nursing home bill can cause spending to surge late in life, however, leading to a U-shaped spending pattern for many.
Taxes also are hard to predict. While most people drop into a lower tax bracket once they stop working, those with substantial retirement incomes and investments may not. Tax rates themselves could rise in the future, even if your income doesn’t.
Social Security benefits may change, as well. Although it’s highly unlikely the program will disappear, some proposals for changing Social Security reduce checks for higher earners.
Once you’re within a decade or so of retirement, you should have a better handle on what you’ll spend once you quit work. Before that point, err on the side of caution. Assuming a higher income replacement rate gives you wiggle room once you’ve retired — or the option to retire earlier if it turns out you need less.
Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I’d like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son’s college education.
Answer: Since you weren’t married, you don’t have the option of treating this inherited account as your own. That would have allowed you to delay withdrawals until after you turned 70 1/2 , if you wanted.
The fact that this is a non-spouse inherited IRA, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bound by the five-year rule. That rule requires the IRA be distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of the original retirement account owner’s death. You may also have the option of beginning distributions based on your life expectancy. That would allow the bulk of the money to remain in the IRA, continuing to earn tax-deferred returns, and is usually a better choice.
Whether you have this second option depends on the terms of the IRA and the original 401(k) plan.
“It is important to check the IRA terms rather than rely on oral statements since the five-year option may be pushed when it is not required,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. “It is also important to make a determination on the availability on the life-expectancy rule in the year after death since distributions must start under the life-expectancy rule in that year. Waiting too long could force one into the five-year rule by default.”
Dear Liz: I am confused. I have always thought there was one FICO score, prepared by a private company. I thought each credit agency also had its own credit score but it was not scaled the same as FICO. Your recent column said one can buy two of the three FICO scores (Equifax and TransUnion), and the third (Experian) will soon offer its FICO through the MyFICO website. Please clarify.
Answer: It’s no wonder you’re confused. Many of the companies marketing credit scores don’t make it clear that there are many types of credit scores, and even many types of FICOs, which is the leading credit scoring formula.
The credit bureaus typically sell their own proprietary scores to individuals, either “consumer education” scores that lenders might not use or some version of the VantageScore, a credit scoring formula that was created as a rival to the FICO. Older versions of the VantageScore ranged from 500 to 990, but the latest version has the same 300-to-850 scale as the FICO.
The bureaus also sell FICO scores of various types to lenders. The FICO formulas were created by a separate company, Fair Isaac. Bureaus apply the proprietary FICO formula to the data in your credit reports to create your FICO scores.
Individuals usually can’t purchase their FICO scores directly from the credit bureaus. People can, however, buy their FICOs from the MyFICO website, which now offers FICOs from all three bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. (For a few years Experian had refused to sell its FICOs to individuals, but that’s now changed.)
Something else you should know is that the FICOs you see may be different from the ones lenders see. The underlying data in your credit reports may change between the time you see your scores and the time the lenders see them. Or the lenders may buy FICO scores that are tweaked for their industry, such as for credit cards or auto loans. Another possibility is that lenders may use a different (usually older) version of the formula from the ones used to create the MyFICO scores.
Still, the scores you get from MyFICO at least should be in the same ballpark as the ones your lenders use. The same might not be true of any credit score that’s not specifically labeled FICO.
Dear Liz: Everyone talks about Roth IRAs and how beneficial they are. But I am self-employed, my husband contributes 16% toward his 401(k), our house is paid off, and we no longer have dependents to deduct on our 1040 tax return. My contribution to my traditional IRA is the only tax deduction we have left. Should I consider a Roth anyway? If so, why?
Answer: A Roth would give you a tax-free bucket of money to spend in retirement. That would give you more flexibility to manage your tax bill than if all your money were in 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, where your withdrawals typically are taxable. Also, there are no minimum distribution requirements for a Roth. If you don’t need the money, you can pass it on to your heirs. Other retirement funds require you to start taking money out after you turn 701/2. If you need to crack into your nest egg early, on the other hand, you’ll face no penalties or taxes when you withdraw amounts equal to your original contributions.
So is it worth giving up your IRA tax deduction now to get those benefits? If you have a ton of money saved, you want to leave a legacy for your kids and you’re likely to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement, the answer may be yes. If you’re like most people, though, your tax bracket will drop once you retire. That means you’d be giving up a valuable tax break now for a tax benefit that may be worth less in the future.
You may not have to make a choice, however, between tax breaks now and tax breaks later if you have more than $5,500 (the current annual IRA limit) to contribute. Since you’re self-employed, you may be able to put up to $51,000 in a tax-deductible Simplified Employee Pension or SEP-IRA. At the same time, you could contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth (assuming your income as a married couple is within or below the phase-out range for 2013 of $178,000 to $188,000).
This would be a great issue to discuss with a tax pro.
Dear Liz: I just read your reply to the woman who was struggling to make ends meet with her part-time job. She was wondering whether she should sell her house and move in with her mother. I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough to ask you how on Earth you can recommend with a clear conscience that someone move back in with a parent because she can’t pay her bills.
Why should she be able to mooch off Mom and expect her to take her Social Security check to pick up the slack? I was in basically the same situation when I was 39, except that I had three kids and my ex passed away within a week of our divorce, so I got no child support. I still managed to find a full-time job, maybe not the job of my dreams, but it paid well and allowed me to keep the house and continue to raise the kids. I built up a good retirement, which I felt I had earned and was enjoying very much, until my adult son went through a bad divorce and “temporarily” moved himself back into my home.
I’ve tried to help him get back on his feet and moving again, but so far all that has happened is my credit cards are getting out of control, my home equity line of credit is maxed out, my property has been damaged, and my life is now miserable, as I share my once-lovely home with an ungrateful jerk, his girlfriend and three cats. I can’t figure out how to get him out, and I can see no end in sight. I’m not saying this woman would do the same, but it’s still not fair to expect her mom’s life to be disrupted, no matter how nice the lady is.
Answer: The other reader was considering going back to school to get training that would qualify her for a full-time job. Selling her home and moving in with her mother would allow her to keep her current part-time job while she went to school. There was no suggestion that Mom would pick up her bills — only that she would share her home for a finite period.
So the other reader’s situation probably isn’t like yours. But perhaps it’s easier to get mad at a stranger than to acknowledge that you helped create this mess and you’re the only one who can fix it.
Schedule a meeting with an attorney familiar with landlord-tenant laws in your state so you’ll understand the best way to evict your freeloader. Then do.
Perhaps your parents did a better job of setting boundaries with you than you did with your son, but it’s not too late to reclaim your retirement, your house and your life.