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: 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: Why tapping retirement cash early shouldn’t be done lightly

Dear Liz: I’m reaching out on behalf of my father, who does not know how to write emails. He was wondering if he pulls his money out of his IRA, how much will he get charged? Also, how much would he be able to give to his granddaughters without being charged?

Answer: Withdrawals from IRAs and most other retirement accounts are taxable. The tax bill will depend on his tax bracket and whether his contributions were pre-tax (deductible) or after-tax (non-deductible). If he withdraws money before age 59 1/2, he also may face tax penalties. A premature withdrawal can easily trigger a tax bill of 25% to 50%. Once the money is withdrawn, it also loses all the future tax-deferred returns it could have earned.

If he gives the money to his granddaughters, it’s unlikely he would face an additional tax bill. He would be required to file a gift tax return if the amount exceeded $14,000 per recipient in a year, but he would only have to pay gift taxes if the total amount he gives away in his lifetime over that limit exceeds $5.49 million.

Clearly, taking money out of a retirement account is a big deal and something that shouldn’t be done lightly. At the very least, your dad should consult a tax pro who can estimate the bill he’s likely to face. He’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner as well so he understands the potential effect this withdrawal could have on his future standard of living.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t get taken by government grant scams. Also in the news: When you should and shouldn’t tap your Roth IRA, using your credit cards to pay for child care, and a report that finds many American teens lack basic financial skills.

Don’t Get Taken by Government Grant Scams
The government doesn’t want to give you money.

When You Should — and Shouldn’t — Tap Your Roth IRA
Let your interest rate be your guide.

Should You Use Credit Cards to Pay for Child Care?
Depends on the card.

Report finds many American teens lack basic financial skills
Not a good sign.

Make your teen a millionaire this summer

Gary Sidder set up Roth IRAs for his sons when they turned 13. Each year, the Littleton, Colorado, certified financial planner and his wife, Francie Steinzeig, a school psychologist, contributed an amount equal to whatever the two boys earned cutting lawns, shoveling snow and doing odd jobs. As the sons’ earnings increased, so did the parental contributions.

“Initially we started with $400, and now we do $5,500 for each,” the annual maximum allowable contribution, says Sidder, whose sons are 32 and 27. “Now that their accounts are worth more than $100,000 and $65,000, respectively, they do see the value of saving and starting early.”

Even if no further contributions are made, both sons could see their accounts top $1 million by retirement age, assuming conservative 7 percent average annual returns.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how setting up your kids with an IRA could pay off big dividends for their future.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 6 myths about IRAs you can’t afford to believe. Also in the news: New loan modifications from Fannie and Freddie, tax refund loans, and what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers consumers.

6 Myths About IRAs You Can’t Afford to Believe
IRA mythbusting.

New Loan Modification From Fannie, Freddie: What to Know
Keeping your home out of foreclosure.

Tax Refund Loans Offer Fast Cash for Early Filers
But pay close attention to the fees.

What Is the CFPB and What Does It Offer Consumers?
And why it’s in danger.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

mortgage2Today’s top story: Why you should front-load your IRA in January. Also in the news: Rideshare insurance for drivers, why January is the best time to buy a home, and how fifteen minutes a day can get your finances in order.

Front-Load Your IRA in January for a Bigger Payoff
It’s all about compound interest.

Rideshare Insurance for Drivers: Where to Buy, What It Covers
What Uber and Lyft drivers need to know.

Why January Is the Best Time to Buy a Home
Timing is everything.

Commit to Fifteen Minutes of Financial Literacy a Day to Get Your Finances in Order
Make it a daily habit.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Life InsuranceToday’s top story: Life insurance questions you’re too embarrassed to ask. Also in the news: what to do with an IRA when you leave a job, when a debt collector calls to collect money you don’t owe, and the profitable business of lending to subprime borrowers.

5 Life Insurance Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask
There are no dumb questions!

Why to Do an IRA Rollover When You Leave Your Job
Don’t leave money behind.

When a Collector Calls About a Debt You (Possibly) Don’t Owe
Get all the information you possibly can.

The profitable business of lending to subprime borrowers
Subprime borrowers bring in lots of extra money.

Q&A: Retirement account bears close scrutiny

Dear Liz: About five years ago, I transferred a 401(k) account to an IRA with a financial advisor recommended by a friend. I receive monthly statements, but like most people, I am busy and do not study them, which is my fault. The statements are very confusing, even though I am a college graduate with a business degree. I recently realized that the account has not grown at all, even though it’s invested in stock mutual funds. The Standard & Poor’s 500 has been up about 10% each year on average, so I feel that I should have a much better return. How do I best go about finding out why I am not making any money? Approaching this financial advisor is useless.

Answer: It appears your advisor is worse than useless; he or she is a hazard to your financial health.

A properly diversified retirement portfolio may not grow at exactly the same rate as a stock benchmark such as the S&P 500, but it certainly should have grown significantly in the past five years. It could be that the advisor has been trying to “beat the market” with actively managed funds, which typically fall far short of the mark and do little other than cost investors too much. Or the advisor could be pushing high-cost funds that pay fat commissions and benefit the firm far more than they benefit you.

The Department of Labor recently instituted regulations that should stop many of these shenanigans by requiring advisors giving retirement advice to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. You shouldn’t wait for those changes to be implemented, though, because you’ve already lost enough ground. Transfer your IRA to a low-cost provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price and consider investing in a target-date retirement fund that will take care of asset allocation and rebalancing for you.

Q&A: Cashing out an IRA to pay off credit card debt

Dear Liz: I owe about $49,000 on my credit cards and now have the money to pay them off in full. Should I? Or should I slowly pay them in large amounts?

Answer:
There’s typically no reason to delay paying off credit card debt. Carrying balances costs you money and doesn’t help your credit scores. You’ll see the fastest improvement if you pay them off in one fell swoop.

The only excuse for delaying would be if this windfall comes from a retirement fund. Cashing out a 401(k) account or IRA to pay off debt is not wise, since you’ll trigger huge taxes and penalties. Add in the future tax-deferred compounding you lose and the total cost is far more than you’ll save in interest.