Q&A: Rolling 401(k) into an IRA

Dear Liz: I’m leaving my job later this month and am trying to decide what to do with my 401(k) account. Some of my friends say to leave it where it is, and others say to roll it into a traditional individual retirement account or Roth IRA. Which is best?

Answer: You can’t roll a 401(k) directly into a Roth IRA. You would first need to roll it into a traditional IRA, then convert that to a Roth and pay the (often considerable) tax bill.

But let’s back up a bit. There are few reasons you might want to leave the money where it is, if you’re happy with your employer’s plan. Many large-company plans offer access to low-cost institutional funds that are cheaper than what you might find as a retail customer with an IRA.

Money in a 401(k) also has unlimited protection from creditors in case you’re ever sued or wind up filing for bankruptcy. When the money is in an IRA, the protection is typically limited to $1 million.

If you’re not happy with your old employer’s plan, you could transfer the account to your new employer’s plan if that’s allowed. If not, you can roll the 401(k) into an IRA, but choose your IRA provider carefully.

You’ll want access to a good array of low-cost mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). The costs you pay to invest make a huge difference in how much you eventually accumulate, so it’s important to keep those expenses down.

If you want help managing the money, many discount brokerages offer access to financial planners and some, including Vanguard and Charles Schwab, offer low-cost digital investment advice services. The services, also known as “robo-advisors,” use computer algorithms to invest and monitor your portfolio.

You’ll want to arrange a direct rollover, in which the money is transferred from your 401(k) account into the new IRA.

Avoid an indirect rollover, in which the 401(k) company sends a check to you. You would have 60 days to get the money into an IRA, but you’d have to come up with the cash to cover the 20% that’s withheld in such transfers. You would get that cash back when you file your taxes, but it’s an unnecessary hassle you can avoid with a direct rollover.

Before you decide to convert an IRA to a Roth, consult a tax professional.

Conversions can make sense if you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, which is often the case with young investors, and you can tap some account other than the IRA to pay the income taxes. But these can be complex calculations, so you should run your plan past an expert.

Q&A: Home remodel

Dear Liz: I would like to add on and remodel so my home will be nice for me when I retire in a few years (probably around age 65).

I have a recently refinanced 30-year mortgage at 4.1%, but I’ve been making additional principal payments on a 20-year schedule. I think I can do what I want for around $200,000. (But of course it may be more.)

Post-construction, I’m estimating that the house would have a market value of $800,000 to $900,000, but the real motivation is to have new heating and air conditioning, new windows and floors, and electrical wiring.

I think I deserve it, despite the major disruption that remodeling provides. My question is: Do I do this with cash, or should I finance it?

If things work out as planned, I’ll have a pension of around $7,000 a month that should take care of my living expenses (including the ability to pay a bit of a higher mortgage), and I have about $350,000 in post-tax savings.

I additionally have about $500,000 in pretax retirement accounts that I plan to draw off of for inflation as the years go by.

I have never been comfortable with a lot of risk — I’ve never even had a car payment — but I probably could have amassed more if I hadn’t been so financially conservative.

Answer: You’re contemplating adding a considerable amount of debt at a time in life when most people are eager to pay theirs off.

They want to reduce their living expenses and the amount they have to pull from retirement funds. Being debt-free is one way to reduce the chances of running short of money after you quit working.

That’s not to say debt in retirement is always bad — especially for people like you, who have enough pension income to cover living expenses plus a good amount of other savings.

Your investments, if properly deployed, are likely to earn a better return than the after-tax cost of your debt. That said, your conservative nature could make it hard for you to sleep at night if you face significant house payments after you stop working.

You should discuss your options with a fee-only financial planner who can evaluate your entire financial situation.

You can discuss tapping your savings for the remodel, taking on more debt, changing the scope of what you want or moving. If what you’re after is a more modern home, it may make more sense to move than to endure the expense and disruption of a major remodel.

If you do remodel, consider adding features that will allow you to age in place more safely, such as installing grab bars, widening hallways and doorways, improving lighting and eliminating steps where possible.

The National Assn. of Home Builders has an Aging-in-Place Remodeling Checklist on its site, at www.nahb.org.

Q&A: Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I will be retiring at the end of 2016. He will be 70 and will start taking his Social Security; I will be 65 soon after.

Thanks to your advice, I plan to sign up to get 50% of his Social Security benefit when I’m 66 (my full retirement age) and switch to my own benefit later.

But will my own Social Security be less because I won’t be earning any money between age 66 and 70? If so, would I be just as well off taking my own benefit at 66 or should I still wait until I’m 70? Money needs will not be an issue.

Answer: Your benefit will grow 8% every year you put off filing for your own retirement checks between age 66 and age 70. That’s a powerful incentive to delay, especially when you can get spousal benefits in the meantime.

If you did work after age 66, your benefit might increase a bit more depending on how much you earned.

Your Social Security benefit is based on your 35 highest-earning years, so a higher-earning year late in life could replace a lower-earning year earlier in life.

Your continued employment would have the biggest effect if those lower-earning years showed no or very little income.

Q&A: Homeowners association fees

Dear Liz: I am a single woman 10 to 15 years away from retirement. My town home will be paid off next month. Does it make better financial sense to sell my town home to avoid significant monthly homeowners association fees and invest in a single-family home?

Answer: It depends. Many single-family homes, particularly in newer developments, also have sizable HOA fees. Even when that’s not the case, you can face significantly higher repair and maintenance costs with a single-family home compared to a town home.

You also need to factor in the costs of selling your home and moving. Real estate commissions can eat up 5% to 7% of the value of your home, and moving expenses can add thousands of dollars to your costs.

Now would be an excellent time to consult a fee-only financial planner who can review your plans for retirement and discuss your alternatives.

Mistakes you make in the years immediately before and after retirement can be particularly devastating, so make sure you have an objective second opinion.

Q&A: How to get millennials to save for retirement

Dear Liz: We have 90 employees, many of them millennials, and only about 30% take advantage of our retirement plan. What resources and advice can I use to get our employees to take control of their retirement future?

Answer: The youngest generation of adults and near-adults vividly remembers the stock market crash and financial turmoil of 2008-09. So they’re understandably wary of investing, plus more of them are dealing with student loan debt than previous generations. Getting them to focus on investing in their futures can be difficult.

That said, employers have discovered that one of the most effective ways of getting this and other generations into retirement plans is to enroll them automatically. Status quo bias — the human tendency to accept the current situation rather than struggle to change — pays off in this case, since once in the plan few people decide to opt out. You can take further advantage of this inertia by offering an auto-escalation feature that increases employees’ contributions 1% or so each year.

Company matches, simpler investment choices such as target-date funds and access to advice (human or computerized) also can increase participation. If your plan provider isn’t offering you suggestions for increasing enrollment, it may be time to look for a new one that can.

Q&A: Social Security eligibility

Dear Liz: I have a few Social Security credits but not enough for full Social Security benefits. My husband receives a check monthly. He is 79 and I am 75. Am I eligible for any benefits at this time?

Answer: You’ve been eligible for full spousal benefits since you turned 65. You could have gotten a reduced amount as early as age 62. You’ve missed out on thousands of dollars of benefits that were yours to claim.

People need 40 credits with Social Security to apply for their own retirement benefits. Typically that means working a minimum of 10 years. But you didn’t have to work at all to receive spousal benefits based on your husband’s employment record. At your own full retirement age (which is now 66, but was 65 until recently), you could have received a monthly check equal to 50% of your husband’s benefit.

Once you file, you only can get six months of retroactive benefits. There’s nothing that can be done about the rest of the benefits you’ve missed, but perhaps this letter will alert other spouses that they may qualify for Social Security even if they haven’t worked much outside the home.

Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I am a federal government retiree with a very small retirement account in the Thrift Savings Plan. Where can I invest my small savings so it can safely grow? The balance has not changed for over six months now. If I keep it in the Thrift Savings Plan, what fund is the safest?

Answer: “Safe growth” is an oxymoron. If your balance isn’t changing, then you’re probably in the safest option — which means you won’t see much if any growth in the future, either.

You probably chose TSP’s G Fund, which invests in Treasury securities. You won’t lose money, but you probably won’t earn enough to offset inflation. If you want your money to grow, you need to have at least some of your retirement account in stocks.

Fortunately, the plan offers several “L” or lifestyle funds geared to when you expect to begin withdrawals. L funds offer professional management and a mix of investments that grow more conservative as that date approaches. Retirees who are tapping their accounts typically invest in the L Income fund, which has about 20% of its balance in stocks. If you are five years or more away from using the funds, the next most conservative lifestyle option is L 2020, which has half of its total invested in stocks.

Q&A: Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I need a clarification because I’m getting conflicting answers from Social Security.

I know if you start Social Security benefits early, you get them at a reduced rate. When your spouse dies, is your survivor benefit reduced as well? My friend’s mother never worked, but started collecting spousal benefits at 62. Does she get reduced or full benefit when her husband dies?

Answer: Her survivor’s benefit is not reduced because she started spousal benefits early. It may be reduced, however, if her husband started retirement benefits early or if she starts survivor’s benefits before her own full retirement age.

Survivor’s checks are based on what the husband either was receiving or had earned. If the husband starts retirement benefits before his own full retirement age (currently 66), his checks are reduced, which also reduces what his widow could receive as a survivor.

If he delays retirement past 66, he earns 8% annual “delayed retirement credits” — an increase both would get.

If he dies before full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor benefit would be based on what he would have received at full retirement age. If he dies after full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor check is based on the larger amount he had earned (in other words, his benefit at full retirement age, plus any delayed retirement credits).

How much of the husband’s benefit his widow would get depends on when she starts claiming her survivor’s benefit.

If she starts at the earliest possible age of 60 (or 50 if she’s disabled, or any age if there are children under 16), her survivor’s benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start.

If she waits until her full retirement age, by contrast, the survivor’s benefit would be equal to what her husband was receiving or had earned. Waiting to start survivor benefits until after her full retirement age doesn’t increase her check, however.

Q&A: IRA contributions and tax deductions

Dear Liz: I am changing jobs because of a layoff. I contributed to my former employer’s 401(k) to the extent possible. My new employer also offers a 401(k), but I won’t be eligible for a year.

I want to use an IRA in the meantime. I do not understand how I should answer the question on the tax form about whether my employer offers a retirement plan when I am determining how much of my IRA contribution I can deduct. My employer does, obviously, but I can’t participate yet. Advice, please?

Answer: You’re smart to continue your retirement savings while you wait to become eligible for the new employer’s 401(k). Missing even one year of contributions could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost retirement income.

When you’re not covered by an employer plan, all of your contribution to an IRA is typically deductible.

When you are covered, your contribution’s deductibility is subject to income limits. In 2015, the ability to deduct an IRA contribution phases out between modified adjusted gross incomes of $61,000 to $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

To be considered covered by an employer plan, you have to be an active participant, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. That means money has to be put into your account by you or your employer or both.

Here’s the twist: You’re considered covered for the whole tax year if you participated in a plan during any part of that year. So the IRS will consider you an active participant for 2015 because you were contributing to your former employer’s plan for part of this year.

If you start contributing to your new employer’s plan when you become eligible next year, you’ll be considered covered for 2016 as well.

You could decide not to contribute to the new employer’s plan until 2017 to preserve your IRA’s deductibility, but it probably makes more sense to start contributing to the new plan to get both the tax break and any match.

If your contribution to an IRA isn’t deductible, consider making a contribution to a Roth IRA instead.

In retirement, withdrawals from a regular IRA will be subject to income taxes while withdrawals from a Roth IRA will be tax free. In 2015, your ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between modified gross incomes of $116,000 to $131,000 if you’re single and $183,000 to $193,000 if you’re married.

Q&A: Delaying Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’d like to get something straightened out. Between things that you and other columnists have said, we laymen have been told that if we wait until we’re 70 to start taking Social Security, we’ll get 8% more for each year we delay, and a total of 40% more than if we start taking it at our retirement age.

But the retirement age is 66, not 65. So there’s a four-year difference, which would produce an increase of only 32%. Even if the yearly increase is exponential (compounded), the total increase after four years would be 36%. So where does that 40% figure come from?

Answer: It didn’t come from this column, so it probably came from someone who was writing when 65 was the full retirement age.

As you note, the full retirement age is now 66 and will move up to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Delayed Social Security benefits max out at age 70, so there are fewer years in which a benefit can earn a guaranteed 8% annual return for each year it’s put off. Delayed retirement credits aren’t compounded, but the return is still better than you could get guaranteed anywhere else.

That doesn’t mean delaying Social Security past full retirement age is always the right choice. Social Security claiming strategies are complex, with a lot of moving parts, particularly if you’re married.

Before filing your application, you should use at least one of the free calculators (AARP has a good one on its site) and consider using a paid version, such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, if you want to tweak some of the assumptions or if you have a particularly complicated situation.