Q&A: Why do 401(k) and IRA contributions have such different rules?

Dear Liz: Can you please explain to me why the IRS allows an employee in a workplace 401(k) to contribute $19,000 but a wage earner without a 401(k) can contribute only $6,000 to an IRA? This seems grossly unfair. Why does one group get to save three times as much for retirement?

Answer: Congress works in mysterious ways, and this is far from the only weird byproduct of tax law.

The 401(k) and the IRA were created through different mechanisms.

The 401(k)’s birth was almost accidental. Benefits consultant Ted Benna created the first 401(k) savings plan in 1981, using a creative interpretation of a section of IRS code. Benna crafted the plan to provide an alternative to cash bonuses, not to replace traditional pensions — although that’s what it ended up doing.

IRAs, by contrast, were created deliberately by Congress in 1974 to provide a way for people to save independent of their employers.

Raising the IRA limit would be costly to the budget, while decreasing 401(k) limits would be unpopular, since so many people rely on them for the bulk of their retirement savings.

You aren’t, however, limited to saving only $6,000 annually for retirement. You can always save more in a taxable account. You wouldn’t get the tax deduction for contributions, but your investments can qualify for favorable long-term capital gains treatment if you hold them for at least one year.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Free investments can come at a cost. Also in the news: How to not be your own worst enemy when investing, 5 things to cut your tax bill by December 31st, and how to increase your 401(k) or IRA contributions for 2019.

Free Investments Can Come at a Cost
Free doesn’t always mean without cost.

Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy When Investing
Look for help.

Do These 5 Things by Dec. 31 to Cut Your Tax Bill
You’ve still got time.

Increase Your 401(k) or IRA Contributions for 2019
Boost your retirement savings.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How much you should contribute to an IRA and how often. Also in the news: Creating a meaningful financial plan, what you should tell your financial advisor, and how to avoid drunk shopping binges.

How Much Should I Contribute to an IRA — and How Often?
Establishing a schedule.

Ask Why, Not What for a Meaningful Financial Plan
Setting the tone.

What You Should Tell Your Financial Advisor
Important information to share.

How to Avoid Drunk Shopping Binges
Valuable advice.

Q&A: If you’re putting money in a 401(k) and an IRA at the same time, be ready for the taxes

Dear Liz: I recently returned to a regular 9-to-5 job after freelancing for several years. I contributed the maximum amount to an IRA while self-employed and continued to do so after starting my new job. I was surprised to learn when doing my taxes this year that I could not deduct my IRA contributions because I was also contributing to my company’s 401(k) plan.

Other than increase my 401(k) contributions at the expense of future IRA funding, are there any actions I can take?

Answer: The ability to deduct IRA contributions when contributing to a workplace retirement plan phases out once your modified adjusted gross income reaches certain limits. For single filers, the deduction starts to phase out at $63,000 and disappears at $73,000. For married couples filing jointly, the phase-out is from $101,000 to $121,000.

Your next move depends on your goals and situation. If you’re primarily concerned with reducing your current tax bill and you’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, as most people will, then you should funnel more money into your 401(k) rather than funding your IRA.

If, however, you expect to be in the same or higher bracket in retirement, or if you want more flexibility to control your tax bill in your later years, consider contributing to a Roth IRA in addition to your 401(k). Roths don’t offer an up-front deduction, but withdrawals in retirement are tax free. Also, unlike 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, there are no minimum required withdrawals in retirement.

There are income limits on the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. For single people, the ability to contribute phases out between modified adjusted gross incomes of $120,000 to $135,000 in 2018. For married couples filing jointly, the phase-out is between $189,000 and $199,000.

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: Can creditors get your IRA funds?

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that workplace retirement plans offer unlimited protection from creditors but that IRAs are protected only up to $1,283,025. When I transferred my 401(k) to a rollover IRA, the advisors at the brokerage assured me that the rolled-over money also enjoys the unlimited protection. Your article seems to imply otherwise. Can you clarify what is the correct rule?

Answer: Two sets of rules apply, which causes a fair amount of confusion.

In bankruptcy court, your transferred money would be protected. Money rolled into an IRA from a workplace plan such as a 401(k) enjoys unlimited protection from creditors in bankruptcy filings. Outside of bankruptcy court, however, creditor protection is determined by your state’s laws, which may not be as generous. If someone successfully sues you and wins a judgment, for example, your IRA could be at risk.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How debt settlement can make a bad money situation worse. Also in the news: Using an IRA as a legal, last-minute way to lower your taxes, 4 reasons why it’s smart to buy a used cell phone, and how to budget as a freelancer.

Debt Settlement Can Make a Bad Money Situation Worse
Not the perfect solution.

An IRA Is a Legal, Last-Minute Way to Lower Your Taxes
There’s still time for 2017 taxes.

4 Reasons It’s Smart to Buy a Used Cell Phone
Saving on new-to-you tech.

How to Budget as a Freelancer
Budgeting when income isn’t reliable.

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: IRA distributions and the tax man

Dear Liz: I am 79, in fairly good health and fortunately have almost $600,000 in my IRA account. My minimum required distribution is currently about $30,000 a year, which means my IRA funds will last until I am well over 100! I realize that I can pay a penalty and draw down some of the funds but I don’t want to be pushed into a higher income bracket. Any suggestions on how I can enjoy the money while I am able?

Answer: You won’t pay a penalty for pulling more than the minimum from your IRA. That early withdrawal penalty disappeared 20 years ago, after you turned 59½. You will owe income taxes, of course, but a visit with a tax pro can help you determine how much more you can withdraw before you’re pushed into a higher tax bracket.

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.