One way around early withdrawal penalties

Dear Liz: My son is 52 and has been unemployed for three years. He has been forced to withdraw money from his 401(k) and pay early withdrawal penalties on it to pay his mortgage and other bills. Is there such a thing as a hardship exception to avoid this tax bill?

Answer: There’s a way to avoid the 10% federal penalty, but not income tax, on early withdrawals from retirement accounts when someone is under 591/2 (the usual age when penalties end). The distributions must be made as part of a series of “substantially equal periodic payments” made using that person’s life expectancy. When these distributions are taken from a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), the person making them must be “separated from service” — in other words, not employed by the company offering the plan.

Your son wouldn’t be able to withdraw big chunks of his savings, however. Someone his age who has a $100,000 balance in a retirement plan could take out about $3,000 per year without penalty. Revenue Ruling 2002-62, available on the IRS site, lists the methods people can use to determine these periodic payments. If he might benefit from this approach, it would be smart to have a tax pro review his calculations.

Uncle Sam can help with education costs

Dear Liz: I have rental property, own my home outright, am contributing to a 401(k) and have a pension, so finances are not a big issue. I do have an adult son in law school and would like to know the most fiscally prudent way to pay for it. Are there limits on gifts, and can the money be tax deductible since it is an investment to increase his future earnings?

Answer: Interest on student loans is generally tax deductible for the person who takes out the loan if his or her income is below certain limits (the deduction begins to phase out at $50,000 adjusted gross income for single filers and $100,000 for joint filers), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

Education tax credits also can help offset college costs. The American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, but law school expenses could qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, Luscombe said. The credit starts to phase out at $53,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $107,000 for joint filers, he said.

If you don’t qualify for other credits and your son is under age 24, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses if your income is below certain limits (modified adjusted gross income of $160,000 if married filing jointly or $80,000 if single), Luscombe said. You can find out the details in IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.

Another potential tax benefit has to do with the gift tax. You can avoid the hassle of filing a gift tax return, or using up any portion of your gift tax exclusion, if you pay tuition or medical bills for someone else. You have to pay the provider directly — you can’t cut a check to the person receiving the services.

Normally, you’d have to file a gift tax return if you gave any recipient more than the gift tax exclusion limit, which is $14,000 in 2013. You wouldn’t be subject to an actual gift tax, however, until the sum of the contributions over that $14,000 limit exceeded your lifetime gift exemption. The gift exemption is currently $5.25 million, so the gift tax is an issue that few people face.

If you are that rich and generous, then you’ll probably want to discuss your situation with a qualified estate planning attorney to find the best ways to give.

Parent’s medical bills may be tax deduction

Dear Liz: The writer who wrote in about her mother’s medical bills should check to see if she took those bills as a schedule A deduction on her 2010 and 2011 federal tax returns. She still has time to amend those returns, if that is useful.

Answer: That’s a terrific suggestion. The writer’s mother may qualify as her dependent if the writer covered more than half of the mother’s necessary living expenses, including in-home care, and the mother’s situation met certain other requirements, such as not having gross income in excess of IRS limits. Gross income does not include nontaxable Social Security checks or other tax-exempt income. The limits for gross income were $3,650 in 2010, $3,700 in 2011, $3,800 in 2012 and is $3,900 for 2013, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

Even if the mother didn’t qualify as a dependent, a deduction may still be possible, Luscombe said. As long as the writer provided more than one-half of the mother’s support, the writer might still be able to claim a deduction for medical expenses if all of the writer’s medical expenses, including those paid for the mother, exceed 7.5% of the writer’s adjusted gross income in 2010 and 2011. (The medical expense deduction threshold increased from 7.5% to 10% in 2013 for those under age 65.)

Who owes taxes after death?

Dear Liz: My brother passed away, and for one of his bank accounts, he had named me as his beneficiary. Do I have to pay taxes on the $100,000 I received? Is it subject to a gift tax?

Answer: Estate taxes are paid by estates, not by inheritors, said estate attorney Burton A. Mitchell of Los Angeles firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell. The vast majority of estates don’t owe taxes anyway, now that the estate tax exemption limit is over $5 million.

Some states have estate taxes with lower exemption limits, and a few have what are called “inheritance” taxes, which are levied based on the relationship of the heir to the deceased, Mitchell said. The more distant the relation, the higher the tax rate. Siblings typically face a higher rate than spouses or children. Ask the executor of your brother’s estate whether any of these taxes apply.

Gift taxes, meanwhile, are the responsibility of the giver and again aren’t an issue for the vast majority of people. Your brother would have had to give away more than $5 million in his lifetime for federal gift taxes to be an issue.

Your inheritance may, however, be subject to creditors’ claims if your brother didn’t leave enough money to satisfy his debts, Mitchell said. Check with the executor of his estate and consult an attorney if necessary.

Missed deadline could limit inherited Roth IRA’s benefits

Dear Liz: I inherited my brother’s Roth IRA about three years ago. I find it hard to get any information about non-spousal inherited Roths. Can you tell me more about this type of Roth IRA?

Answer: It may be unfortunate that you didn’t ask sooner.

When a spouse inherits a Roth IRA, he can roll it into his own Roth IRA, and it’s as if he or she was the owner of the inherited funds all along. There’s no minimum distribution requirement, so the money can continue to grow.

If you’re not a spouse, you have the option of transferring it into an account titled as an inherited Roth IRA. You also have the option of taking distributions over your lifetime — which means keeping the bulk of the money growing for you tax-free — but to do that you must begin taking required minimum distributions by Dec. 31 of the year after the year in which the owner died.

If you didn’t start these required distributions on time, you have to withdraw all the assets in the account by Dec. 31 of the fifth year after the year your brother died, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. You won’t have to pay taxes on this withdrawal, but it would have been better to let the money continue to grow tax-free in the account.

Don’t rush to pay taxes

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.”

Estate taxes no longer a worry for most people

Dear Liz: My father passed away two years ago and my mother recently died as well. I will be getting about $50,000 from the sale of their house. Everyone tells me the tax on this will be very high, so I need advice about how not to give my parents’ money to the government. Their grandchildren should be able to see a legacy of their grandparents.

Answer: You need to stop listening to “everyone,” since these people clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.

You have to be pretty rich to worry about estate taxes these days. The money you inherit wouldn’t be subject to federal estate taxes unless your parents’ estates exceeded the federal exemption limit (which is currently more than $5 million per person). Some states have lower limits and a few have “inheritance taxes,” which base the tax rate on who is inheriting (spouses are typically exempt, and lineal descendants such as children pay a lower rate than others).

The vast majority of inheritors, however, won’t face any of these taxes. You should check with a tax pro, but chances are good your inheritance won’t incur a tax bill and you’ll be able to pass the entire amount along to your children without taxes as well if you wish.

401(k) loans can get really expensive

Dear Liz: I bought my condo in 2009. I took out a loan on my 401(k) account to use for the down payment. I left my job in early 2012, and at the time didn’t have the money to pay back the loan, so the balance was treated as a distribution. I now owe the IRS $10,000 and don’t have the money to pay them, nor can I afford monthly payments beyond about $50. I can’t borrow any money from a family member or friend. My tax guy suggested (another) 401(k) loan, but I’m really reluctant to go deeper into debt. Any suggestions?

Answer: Thank you for providing a vivid example of why people should think twice before dipping into retirement funds to buy a house. Not only are you facing a steep tax bill, but the money you withdrew can’t be restored to your account, so you’re losing all the tax-deferred gains that cash could have earned over the coming decades. You can figure that every $10,000 withdrawn costs you at least $100,000 in lost future retirement funds, assuming an 8% average annual return on investment over 30 years. If you’re 40 years from retirement, the toll can be twice as large.

So it would be good, if at all possible, to leave your retirement funds alone from now on. That means you need to come up with the cash to pay what you owe, and $50 a month doesn’t cut it. To use an IRS payment plan, you’ll need to come up with about $140 a month to pay your bill off within the required 72 months.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to trim your spending so you can free up more money to pay this bill. These ways include, but aren’t limited to: ending your pay TV subscription, preparing meals at home instead of eating out, trading your smartphone for a dumber one or at least switching to a prepaid plan, selling or storing your car and using public transportation, or selling your condo and moving to a cheaper place.

When people have virtually no discretionary income left after paying bills, and they’re employed, the culprits are often their housing or transportation costs, or both. Reducing these can be painful but may be necessary if you want to get on more solid financial footing.

Should you borrow to pay a tax bill?

Dear Liz: Help! We’ve just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband’s IRA to pay for our son’s college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I’m 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill? Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I’ve saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at zero percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9%. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70% equity. Which is best?

Answer: Let’s take No. 2 off the table, shall we? If you learn nothing else from this experience, it should be that tapping retirement funds can trigger a big (and often unnecessary) tax bill.

Selling your house over an $11,000 bill is overkill, so let’s eliminate that option as well. Which leads us to three remaining possibilities: Use cash, borrow from a credit card or borrow from the IRS.

Borrowing incurs costs. That zero percent credit offer almost certainly comes with a fee, which is usually 3% to 5% of the total. If you can’t pay the balance within a year, you start incurring interest charges.

The short-term rate the IRS charges for installment loans is pretty low — lately it’s been around 3% — but you also typically incur late-payment penalties. The penalty typically is one-half of 1% of the tax you owe each month or part of a month until the bill is paid in full. If you file by the return due date, that rate drops to one-quarter of 1% for any month in which an installment agreement is in effect. The maximum penalty is 25% of the tax due.

How much either option will cost you depends on how long you take to pay the bill. The cost for cashing out the CD is, by contrast, almost zero. Whatever tiny amount of interest you’re getting is far less than what borrowing would cost you. If you should get laid off before you rebuild your emergency fund, your access to cheap credit could come in handy.

Going forward, let your son pay for his college expenses and conserve what’s left of your resources for retirement.