Q&A: At retirement, should you roll your 401(k) into your IRA? Think about these factors

Dear Liz: I turned 70 last week and therefore I am leaving my part-time job after about 13 years. No big deal, but now that I am retiring I have a 401(k) worth about $60,000 and an IRA that is somewhere around $50,000. Should I roll my 401(k) account into my IRA or just let it sit there collecting dust? I do understand that at age 70½ I am supposed to start withdrawing some of the funds, but am not sure how much. It seems 70 years creeped up on me.

Answer: Years have a nasty habit of doing that.

You mentioned that you’re retiring because you’ve achieved a certain age. Few jobs have mandatory retirement ages, though. If you don’t retire, you can continue putting off required minimum distributions from your 401(k). You would still have to take minimum distributions from your IRA, unless your employer allows you to roll that money into your 401(k) plan.

But we’ll assume you’re happy with your decision. Rolling your 401(k) into your IRA isn’t necessarily the best option. What you should do next depends on the details of both accounts.

Most large-company 401(k)s allow retirees to take regular distributions, including required minimum distributions, from the plans. These plans also tend to offer low-cost institutional funds that may be a much better deal than those you can access as a retail investor with an IRA. If you’ve got a good 401(k) that allows retirement distributions, there may be no need to move your money.

If your employer’s plan doesn’t allow such distributions, don’t automatically assume your current IRA provider is the best choice, especially if it’s a full-service brokerage or insurance company. Compare the fees of the investment options with what’s available from a discount brokerage. Transferring all your retirement money to a lower-cost provider can help you keep more money in your pocket.

Calculating your required minimum distributions isn’t difficult. The IRS has tables on its website, and in Publication 590, to help you figure out how much money to withdraw. Various sites have calculators as well.

One caveat: If you keep your IRA and 401(k) separate, you’ll have to calculate required minimum distribution separately for each account and withdraw those amounts from each account, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for taxes and accounting at Wolters Kluwer. That’s different from the rules when you have multiple IRAs. When you have more than one IRA, you calculate the required minimum distribution based on the total of all your IRAs but are allowed to take the distribution itself from any one of them.

Q&A: When rolling your 401(k) into an IRA isn’t a good idea

Dear Liz: I have just retired. I have a 401(k) from work. Do I keep it as is or do I roll it over into an IRA?

Answer: Investment companies and their representatives like to push the idea of rollovers as the best option, but that may profit them more than it does you.

Leaving your money in your employer’s 401(k) has several potential advantages. Many 401(k)s offer access to institutional funds, which can be much cheaper than the retail funds available to IRA investors. Workplace retirement plans also offer unlimited protection from creditors if you’re sued or forced to file bankruptcy. An IRA’s bankruptcy exemption is limited to $1,283,025, and protection from creditors’ claims varies by state. (In California, for example, only amounts “necessary for support” are out of reach of creditors.)

If you retired early, you can access your 401(k) without penalty at age 55. The typical age to avoid penalties from IRA withdrawals is 59½.

You may opt for a rollover if your 401(k) offers only expensive or poorly performing options. Even if you decide to roll over the rest of your 401(k), though, get a tax pro’s advice before you roll over any company stock. You may be better off transferring the stock to a taxable account now so you can let future appreciation qualify for capital gains rates. Ask your tax pro how best to take advantage of this “net unrealized appreciation.”

Q&A: Don’t get tripped up by invalid Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: A friend told me that when he takes out his required minimum distribution from his traditional IRA and pays the tax, he then puts the money in his Roth IRA. I believe since this was not earned income, this was wrong. Who’s right?

Answer: The money contributed to an IRA doesn’t have to be earnings, necessarily, but your friend or his spouse must have income earned from working to make an eligible contribution. Earned income includes wages, salary, tips, bonuses, professional fees or small business profits. Earned income does not include Social Security benefits, pension or annuity checks and distributions from retirement accounts.

Another restriction is that contributions can’t be greater than the amount of earned income. If your friend or his spouse earned $3,000 last year, that’s all he’d be allowed to contribute — not the $6,500 maximum allowed for people 50 and over.

The ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out when someone’s modified adjusted gross income exceeds certain amounts. In 2017, single filers’ ability to contribute phased out between $118,000 and $133,000. For married couples filing jointly, the phase out began at $186,000 and ended at $196,000.

The penalty for ineligible contributions is 6% of the ineligible amount. The penalty is owed each year the taxpayer allows the lapse without correcting the oversight. If your friend has been doing this for several years, the penalty will be pretty painful.

He could cross his fingers and hope the IRS doesn’t notice, but the error isn’t that hard for the agency to catch. The IRS would simply need to compare Form 5498, which IRA custodians issue to report contributions, to your friend’s income and the sources of that income to know whether he was eligible to put money in an IRA.

Q&A: How to balance using retirement savings wisely with enjoying what you’ve earned

Dear Liz: I am 82, and my husband is 85. We are retired military, so we have a middling pension and some Social Security. Our monthly income of about $5,000 covers our monthly expenses. We rent in an independent living senior community. We have excellent health benefits via Tricare for Life. We both worked hard and are very thrifty. We have no debts.

We have savings of about $320,000. Our kids say we should spend some of our savings on cruises and things, but we just can’t let go! Are we in danger of running out of money? I am getting tired of always cooking and would like to eat out now and then. We do not want to be a burden for our kids and grandkids.

Answer: Your kids have the right idea. While you can, you should be enjoying some of the pleasures you’ve earned. You’re also smart to be careful.

You face at least two major threats to your financial stability. One is a reduction in income when one of you dies. The survivor will receive one Social Security check instead of two, and the pension income could go away or be reduced, depending on the payment option chosen at retirement.

The other threat is the potential need for custodial care. A long stay in a nursing home or a prolonged period where you need help at home could eat through most if not all your savings. Custodial care that helps people perform daily activities such as bathing, dressing, eating or toileting is not covered by Medicare or other health insurance, including Medicare supplements or wraparounds like the plan you have. Instead, Medicare covers limited periods of skilled nursing care, which typically requires licensed nurses to provide, while supplemental and wraparound policies can help pay co-insurance for such care.

There is a government program that pays for custodial care, called Medicaid. To qualify, the person needing care typically must have no more than $2,000 in assets. The spouse is allowed to have up to $120,900, although the limit can be lower depending on the state.

A visit with a fee-only financial planner could help you determine how much you need to prepare for these events. With that information, you should have a better idea of how much more you can safely spend.

Q&A: Retirement can bring some complex tax questions

Dear Liz: I was in the twilight of my career when the Roth became available, and I contributed the maximum for those few years before retirement. After retirement, I dropped to the 15% tax bracket, so I did Roth conversions of my regular IRA to fill out that tax bracket until I was age 70½. My reasoning was that I would likely be in the 25% tax bracket when I started my required minimum distributions from my IRA, and that turned out to be true.

The scary part is that the tax-deferred money in the rollover IRA has continued to increase each year in total in spite of the required minimum distributions. My tax preparer says he has clients who would be happy with my problem, so I should tread softly with my tax complaints.

One thing I regret is funding a nondeductible IRA for a few years before the availability of the Roth IRA. The nondeductible contributions only represent about 1% of the total. That means I can’t access that money I have already paid taxes on unless I have depleted all of my tax-deferred monies. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: Absolutely. Listen to your tax preparer. Most retirees would love to have these problems-that-aren’t-really-problems.

You were smart to “fill out” your tax bracket by converting portions of your IRAs. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it involves converting just enough from an IRA to make up the difference between someone’s taxable income and the top of his or her tax bracket.

The top of the 15% bracket is $75,900 in 2017, so a married couple with a $50,000 taxable income, for example, would convert $25,900 of their IRAs to Roths. They would pay a 15% tax on the amount converted (plus any state and local taxes), but the Roth would grow tax-free from then on and no minimum distributions would be required.

These conversions can be a great idea if people suspect they’ll be in a higher tax bracket in retirement.

Now on to your complaint about getting back the already taxed contributions to your regular IRA. Withdrawals from regular IRAs are taxed proportionately.

The amount of your after-tax contributions is compared to the total of all your IRAs, and a proportionate amount escapes tax. So if nondeductible contributions represent 1% of the total, you’ll pay tax on 99% of the withdrawal. You’re accessing a tiny bit of your after-tax contributions with each withdrawal.

If you don’t manage to withdraw all the money, that’s not the worst thing in the world. It means you didn’t outlive your funds. Your heirs will inherit your tax basis so they’ll access whatever you couldn’t.

Q&A: Roth IRA offers key tax feature

Dear Liz: In an article that ran in my local newspaper, you stated that, “Roths allow you to withdraw the amount you’ve contributed at any time without triggering income taxes or penalties.” I suggest that you review Pub. 590-B, where you will be reminded that, with some exceptions, withdrawals from a Roth IRA within the first five years will result in a 10% penalty.

Answer: The five-year rule applies only to earnings, not contributions. The IRS publication you reference states on page 30, “You do not include in your gross income qualified distributions or distributions that are a return of your regular contributions from your Roth IRA(s).” There’s a helpful diagram on page 32 that explains when a distribution is made within five years of the year in which the Roth is opened, the “portion of the distribution allocable to earnings may be subject to tax and it may be subject to the 10% additional tax.” (Emphases added.)

Retirement distribution rules can be complex and it’s easy to make a mistake. But the fact that people can withdraw their Roth contributions at any time without taxes or penalties is not some obscure facet of these retirement accounts. It’s a central feature.

Unlike regular IRAs, where withdrawals are taxed proportionate to their earnings, a withdrawal from a Roth IRA is deemed to be from nondeductible contributions first. People have to withdraw more than they contributed to face a tax bill or penalties. If they’re over 59½ and the account has been open five years, their withdrawal of earnings will be tax-free and penalty-free.

Q&A: How to avoid outliving your retirement savings

Dear Liz: The wife and I are both 65. We both work, with a combined income of $125,000, of which we spend almost all. We have $550,000 in IRAs and $1 million in other investments, plus home equity of about $500,000. We’ll get $3,800 from Social Security if we start next year but plan to work until age 67. Should we wait until then to claim?

Answer: Both of you needn’t wait, but one of you should — the one who has the larger benefit.

As a married couple, you can get two checks — either two retirement benefits, or a retirement benefit and a spousal benefit that can equal up to half the primary retirement benefit. When one of you dies, the survivor will receive only one benefit, which will be the larger of the two checks you received as a couple.

It makes sense to maximize that benefit by waiting as long as possible to claim so that it can grow. After your full retirement age, which is currently 66, unclaimed retirement benefits grow by 8% each year you wait, until maxing out at age 70.

You have substantial investments that should sustain a comfortable retirement, but plenty of things could go wrong.

The fact you’re spending all your current income is worrisome. If you don’t ratchet back your consumption a bit at retirement, you may draw down your investments at a rate that isn’t sustainable. (Depending on your investment mix, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% or 4% usually is considered “safe,” or the most you should take to minimize the odds of running out of money.)

Even if you do rein in your regular spending, bad markets or unexpected expenses could cause you to exhaust your savings faster than you expect. The longer you live, the greater the odds you’ll run short of money. Maximizing one of your Social Security benefits can be a smart way to ensure you, or your survivor, have more income when you may need it most.

Before you retire, you should consult a fee-only financial planner about the best ways to tap your retirement accounts and claim Social Security.

Q&A: Volunteering can fill a void for unhappy retirees

Dear Liz: I was very disappointed in your response to the reader who was unable to cope with unplanned retirement. The reader has sufficient assets but was unable to manage the loss of purpose. This is common, and maintaining purpose is one of the most important components of a healthy retirement.

You did not mention volunteer work as an option, and that is a shame. There are hundreds of organizations that need volunteers of all skill levels, and they come in every shape and size you can imagine.

There are social services, cultural, civic, social justice, child development, healthcare and senior organizations that exist only because of their volunteers. You can volunteer long term or short term, or even on occasion.

I have just spent the last five months running a series of events connecting retirees to organizations who need volunteers. My own retirement will be completely focused on doing all of the volunteer work I did not have time for while working.

Retirement is an excellent time to make your contribution to the community that helped you along the way.

Answer: Several people wrote in to suggest volunteering was the answer to the reader’s unhappiness with an involuntary retirement. Volunteering may indeed fill her time, but her point was that she found fulfillment in paid work. She rightly warned others that they need to think through what they might lose by retiring too early.

People may get more than paychecks for their labor. They can get recognition, respect, a feeling of achievement and a sense of mission. What they do may be a significant part of who they are — perhaps far more than they realize.

If they give that up without sufficient thought and planning, they may feel as if they’ve gone from a “somebody” to a “nobody” overnight. That can be a terribly hard adjustment that volunteering may not alleviate. Here’s another perspective:

Dear Liz: Your recent writing about considering when to retire and the dangers of a too-early retirement rings a big bell.

I am a psychotherapist who has worked with a number of people who were either considering retirement or who took early retirement. For those who took early retirement, the emotional problems associated with the large amount of both time and space in their lives after retirement, which they never fully considered, have been very surprising and upsetting for them.

To those working every day at jobs they don’t love, retirement seems like a great thing. But the reality of an open, unstructured life can present an array of problems — financial, relational and emotional — for the newly retired.

People should think about this decision carefully because it is hard to re-create a steady job. Or, even better, have a long hard conversation about it with someone close to you or a specialist like me.

Answer: Excellent advice. In addition to traditional therapists, there is a growing field of professionals who combine financial advice with psychological counseling. People can get referrals from the Financial Therapy Assn. at www.financialtherapyassociation.org.

Q&A: How to figure out the right time for retirement

Dear Liz: I hear so much talk about waiting to collect Social Security. What are good reasons to start collecting Social Security at age 62? I recently retired from the military with a monthly retirement of $4,400. I plan to work a civilian job until I’m 62 (eight more years).

I’m in fairly good health now, but decades of military service and multiple deployments overseas put a lot of miles on my chassis. I truly hope I do, but I don’t know if I will live until I’m 80 or 90 years old.

Answer: None of us knows how much more time we have on this Earth. The primary reason for delaying Social Security is to decrease the odds of running short of money if we (or our spouses) happen to live a long time.

Think of it as a kind of longevity insurance because the longer you live, the more likely you are to use up your savings and to rely on your Social Security check for most, if not all, of your income. The wealthier you are — in savings and in pensions — the less important it may be to delay Social Security.

Your military pension provides a substantial monthly check and (presumably) survivor benefits for your spouse. These benefits will rise with inflation. You also have retiree health insurance at reasonable rates. You’re better off than most people approaching early retirement.

Still, your pension may not cover all your expenses and it’s not clear how much you have in other savings. Also, consider that your survivor would get about half (or less) of your pension check if you die first. So you may still want to hedge your bets by waiting at least until your full retirement age of 67 to start Social Security.

In addition to increasing your benefit, delaying to that age means you won’t be subject to the earnings test that can reduce your check by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit (currently $17,040). You may think now that you’ll be ready to stop working at 62, but many early retirees find they miss the stimulation and social contact work provides.

Q&A: When considering retirement, money isn’t the only factor

Dear Liz: You answer many questions about whether people are ready to retire. But there’s one other thing to consider besides money, and this is more important.

Folks need to seriously ask themselves whether they can handle being retired. I know I can’t stand it.

I have more than enough assets, plus a pension, plus healthcare, plus no debts or bills. I’m young and healthy. But I find happiness in work.

Unfortunately, I had to leave my job owing to conditions outside of my control. I now live in a beautiful house at the beach, with all my money and all the things I like to do — and I’m miserable. I’m looking for a part-time job. I live in a small community and there aren’t many jobs, but I’m hopeful to find one.

Tell your readers that it’s not only the advice of a financial planner, but also some good soul-searching that they’ll need, especially if someone is a manager or a highly educated professional. You can’t just give that up and go from full time to no time. At least work part time before retiring to make sure it’s what you want.

Answer: That’s excellent advice. Not everyone derives meaning and purpose from work, but many do, and an abrupt adjustment can be painful. Good luck in your search for a job that gives you a reason to get up in the morning.