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: 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: Retirement savings for freelancers

Dear Liz: I am a freelancer. I don’t consider myself a small-business owner, just someone who gets the work done on time and gets paid. I max out my IRA every year, but would like to save more in a tax-advantaged account.

I checked out SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, but they don’t have a Roth option. Am I eligible to start an Individual 401(k)? What administrative duties would be involved? I pay self-employment tax and my clients send me 1099s, not W2s.

Answer: You may not consider yourself a small-business owner, but that’s essentially what you are. And small-business owners should have tax pros to help them answer questions like this, since you have so many options.

As a sole proprietor, you should be able to set up a solo or individual 401(k) account. That would allow you to make either pre- or after-tax “employee” contributions of up to $18,000 in 2015 — plus an additional $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.

As your own employer, you can contribute an additional 25% of your net earnings (a contribution that would be deductible as a business expense). Your total contribution, employee plus employer, can’t exceed $53,000 in 2015.

Individual 401(k)s are somewhat more complicated to set up and administer than Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLEs). But many discount brokerages are eager to help you with the paperwork and have low or no set-up costs.

You have many other ways as a self-employed person to reduce your taxes, but the rules can be complicated. A certified public accountant or an enrolled agent can help advise you of your options. You can get referrals to tax professionals from the American Assn. of CPAs at http://www.aicpa.org and the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents at http://www.naea.org.

Q&A: Max contributions to 401(k)s

Dear Liz: I understand that anybody with a 401(k) can contribute up to $18,000. Does the amount you can contribute depend on your salary? Say you make $45,000. Therefore I would assume you could put in the full $18,000, or 40% of your salary. Am I wrong?

Answer: The maximum the IRS allows someone under 50 to contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is $18,000 in 2015. The additional “catch up” contribution limit for people 50 and older is $6,000.

The plans themselves, though, may impose lower limits. Even if the plan doesn’t cap contributions, your contributions may be limited if you’re considered a “highly compensated employee.” Last year, highly compensated employees were those who earned more than $115,000 or owned more than 5% of the business. If lower-earning employees don’t contribute enough to the plan, higher earners may not be able to put in as much as they’d like.

Q&A: IRA interest rate terms

Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?

Answer: You don’t have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won’t just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that’s the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.

In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.

By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it’s considering raising interest rates this year. That’s no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.

Q&A: IRA’s and 401(k)’s

Dear Liz: You answered a reader who asked whether to contribute to her IRA, her Roth IRA or her regular or Roth 401(k) account. I thought that if you have access to a 401(k) at work, you couldn’t make a contribution to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Answer: That’s a common misconception. You can contribute to an IRA even if you have a workplace plan. What you may not be able to do is deduct the contribution. The tax deduction depends on your modified adjusted gross income and phases out in 2015 between $61,000 and $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

You also may be able contribute to a Roth IRA if you have a workplace plan. Contributions to a Roth are never deductible, but your ability to contribute phases out between $116,000 to $131,000 for singles and $183,000 to $193,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Q&A: Maxing out retirement savings

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 40s. We’re in a good financial position and trying to max out our retirement savings. We have small traditional IRAs and are now above the income limit to deduct contributions to it. We have Roth IRAs that we converted from traditional IRAs several years ago (our income is borderline for being able to contribute directly to a Roth). We also recently got a Health Savings Account that we are maxing out and saving for retirement. But the bulk of our retirement savings is in our 401(k)s, which we max out every year. I hear I should have a mix of pre-tax and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Can I wait until the first year we retire and roll some of my 401(k) into a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth, at presumably a lower tax rate due to lower income? Or would it be better to contribute now to a Roth 401(k) at work instead of a regular 401(k), even knowing that our tax rate will probably be lower in retirement?

Answer: You already have a mix of pre- and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Withdrawals from your Roth IRAs will be tax free in retirement, as will your HSA withdrawals if they’re used for medical expenses.

Roth conversions and contributions to Roth 401(k)s make the most sense when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, rather than a lower one. Otherwise, you’re giving up a tax break now (your deductible contributions) for what’s likely to be a lesser tax benefit later. Conversions at retirement are particularly tricky, since you may not have decades of tax-free compounding ahead of you to make up for the fact that you accelerated the tax bill.

Talk to a tax pro, but it’s likely that maxing out your regular 401(k)s is the best move.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

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Q&A: Taking a mortgage for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We’re receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven’t considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn’t make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn’t take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you’d still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you’re comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.
Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don’t make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You’d be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

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