Friday’s need-to-know money news

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Inherited IRA may have more options than you’re told

Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I’d like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son’s college education.

Answer: Since you weren’t married, you don’t have the option of treating this inherited account as your own. That would have allowed you to delay withdrawals until after you turned 70 1/2 , if you wanted.

The fact that this is a non-spouse inherited IRA, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bound by the five-year rule. That rule requires the IRA be distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of the original retirement account owner’s death. You may also have the option of beginning distributions based on your life expectancy. That would allow the bulk of the money to remain in the IRA, continuing to earn tax-deferred returns, and is usually a better choice.

Whether you have this second option depends on the terms of the IRA and the original 401(k) plan.

“It is important to check the IRA terms rather than rely on oral statements since the five-year option may be pushed when it is not required,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. “It is also important to make a determination on the availability on the life-expectancy rule in the year after death since distributions must start under the life-expectancy rule in that year. Waiting too long could force one into the five-year rule by default.”

Is a Roth worth losing a tax deduction?

Dear Liz: Everyone talks about Roth IRAs and how beneficial they are. But I am self-employed, my husband contributes 16% toward his 401(k), our house is paid off, and we no longer have dependents to deduct on our 1040 tax return. My contribution to my traditional IRA is the only tax deduction we have left. Should I consider a Roth anyway? If so, why?

Answer: A Roth would give you a tax-free bucket of money to spend in retirement. That would give you more flexibility to manage your tax bill than if all your money were in 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, where your withdrawals typically are taxable. Also, there are no minimum distribution requirements for a Roth. If you don’t need the money, you can pass it on to your heirs. Other retirement funds require you to start taking money out after you turn 701/2. If you need to crack into your nest egg early, on the other hand, you’ll face no penalties or taxes when you withdraw amounts equal to your original contributions.

So is it worth giving up your IRA tax deduction now to get those benefits? If you have a ton of money saved, you want to leave a legacy for your kids and you’re likely to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement, the answer may be yes. If you’re like most people, though, your tax bracket will drop once you retire. That means you’d be giving up a valuable tax break now for a tax benefit that may be worth less in the future.

You may not have to make a choice, however, between tax breaks now and tax breaks later if you have more than $5,500 (the current annual IRA limit) to contribute. Since you’re self-employed, you may be able to put up to $51,000 in a tax-deductible Simplified Employee Pension or SEP-IRA. At the same time, you could contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth (assuming your income as a married couple is within or below the phase-out range for 2013 of $178,000 to $188,000).

This would be a great issue to discuss with a tax pro.

No earned income? No IRA contribution

Dear Liz: In recent columns you’ve been discussing mandatory withdrawals from IRAs. Since these minimum required distributions are treated as income for tax purposes, can I use that money as the income necessary to make an IRA contribution this year? I am retired and lucky enough not to need the funds for current expenses.

Answer: Sorry. You need earned income, not just income, to make IRA contributions. For the purposes of an IRA, earned income includes wages, salaries, commissions, self-employment income, alimony and separate maintenance and nontaxable combat pay. It does not include earnings and profits from property or income from interest, dividends, pensions, annuities, deferred compensation plans or required minimum distributions from IRAs.

Should you roll an IRA into a 401(k)?

Dear Liz: I have one comment in response to the reader who wondered whether she had to take minimum distributions from an IRA at age 70 1/2 even though she was still working. As you pointed out, she can defer taking minimum distributions from a 401(k), but she must take them from her IRA. I would point out that many 401(k) plans permit transfers from IRAs. Once the IRA becomes part of the employer plan, the transferred assets are no longer subject to required minimum distributions, as long as the employee continues working full time. This may be a viable option for someone who wants to delay or reduce the size of a mandatory IRA withdrawal.

Answer: Many people are familiar with the idea of rolling a 401(k) balance into an IRA when they leave a job. They may not realize they can roll money the other way as well if an employer permits it.

There are still several issues to consider before you transfer IRA money into a 401(k), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

First, the rollover may not include any non-deductible contributions to the IRA. If the money in the IRA came entirely from tax-deductible contributions or from a 401(k) rollover, this won’t be a problem. If you made non-deductible contributions, they wouldn’t be eligible for transfer into a 401(k), Luscombe said.

“All of the sums rolled into the 401(k) plans must be funds subject to tax and not sums representing basis in the IRA,” Luscombe said. “If non-deductible contributions were made, only the taxable portion of the IRA may be rolled into the 401(k) plan.”

Another issue is that 401(k)s typically offer fewer investment choices than IRAs. Also, compare the fees with what you’re paying with your IRA. Some 401(k)s are run efficiently and give workers access to extremely inexpensive institutional funds, for example, while others lard on various account fees.

A final issue is that you’re likely to have less access to the funds in your 401(k) than you would with an IRA, Luscombe said, should you need to tap the cash. Many plans allow only hardship withdrawals from 401(k)s, although you may be able to access up to half of your funds with a retirement plan loan. Of course, if your intention is to delay required minimum distributions as long as possible and you won’t need the money, this point may not be a deal breaker.

401(k) withdrawals can be postponed, but not those from IRAs

Dear Liz: I just turned 70. Must I draw now from my IRA? I still work full time. I heard from one investment company representative that since I work, there is an exemption that I may not have to start withdrawals. Is this true?

Answer: Withdrawals from retirement plans typically must begin after age 70-1/2. You can postpone withdrawals from your company’s 401(k) plan past the typical required minimum distribution age if you’re still working, but not from traditional IRAs.

“An IRA owner must commence distributions from an IRA by April 1 of the calendar year following the year in which the IRA owner turns 70-1/2,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax & Accounting North America, “regardless of whether they are still working or not.”

With 401(k) plans, required withdrawals can be delayed to April 1 of the year following the year you retire, unless you’re a 5% or more owner of the business, Luscombe said.

It’s important to get this right, since failing to make required minimum distributions triggers a tax penalty of 50% on the amount not withdrawn that should have been. The required minimum distribution rules apply to all employer-sponsored retirement plans, including profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and 457(b) plans, the IRS says, as well as to traditional IRAs and IRA-based plans such as SEPs, SARSEPs and SIMPLE IRAs. Required minimum distribution rules also apply to Roth 401(k) accounts, but not to Roth IRAs while the owner is alive.

Parents’ estate plan triggers IRA tax bill

Dear Liz: My sister and I are in the middle of distributing our parents’ estate. The beneficiary of the estate is a trust. Part of the estate consists of a traditional IRA, which will be split between my sister and me. The problem is that because the IRA will be distributed from the trust and is considered a non-spouse distribution, I’m told that we’ll have to pay taxes on the entire distribution. It’s a good chunk of change. I’m almost 60. Is there any way that I can roll the IRA into my own and take minimum distributions? I’d rather not pay the tax all upfront.

Answer: That’s understandable, since it’s typically much better to stretch distributions out as long as possible so that the money can continue to grow (and you can replace one big tax bill with smaller ones as you take distributions).

Unfortunately, the way your parents structured their estate ties your hands, although perhaps not to the extent you’ve been told.

It appears from your question that the IRA either failed to name a beneficiary or named the estate as the beneficiary, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.

“Assuming that is the case, since estates do not have life expectancies, the IRA cannot be distributed over a beneficiary life expectancy as it could have been had an individual been named the IRA beneficiary,” Luscombe said. “Instead, it must be distributed under the terms of the IRA document over a period that cannot exceed five years.”

The exception is if the IRA owner before dying had already reached the age of 701/2 and begun distributions, Luscombe said. In that case, distributions can continue to the estate over the IRA owner’s life expectancy. If the IRA owner was quite elderly when he or she died, this might not give you much time to stretch out the distributions, but it probably would be better than paying all the taxes at once.

Another exception, which doesn’t appear to apply in your case, is if the IRA named the trust as the beneficiary. If that were true, “it is possible that the distributions could be based on the life expectancy of the oldest trust beneficiary,” Luscombe noted.

As you can see, this is a complicated area of estate planning and taxation. Getting good advice about how to name beneficiaries for your accounts can save your heirs a lot of money.

Get a second opinion before buying annuity

Dear Liz: Our advisor recommended that we convert our rollover IRA to an annuity. We are having difficulty researching this. Any suggestions?

Answer: Unless your advisor is a complete numskull, he probably didn’t mean you should cash out your IRA to invest in an annuity. That would incur a big, unnecessary tax bill.

The idea he’s trying to promote is to sell the investments within your IRA, which wouldn’t trigger taxes, and invest the proceeds in an annuity.

The devil is in the details — specifically, what type of annuity he’s suggesting. If he wants you to buy a variable deferred annuity, you should probably find another advisor or at least get a second opinion. The primary benefit of a variable annuity is tax deferral, which you’ve already got with your IRA. The insurance companies that provide variable annuities, which are basically mutual fund-type investments inside an insurance wrapper, tout other benefits, including locking in a certain payout. Those benefits come at the cost of higher expenses, which is why you want a neutral party — someone who doesn’t earn a commission on the sale — to review it.

If he’s suggesting you buy a fixed annuity, which typically provides you a payout for life, you still should get that second opinion. A fixed annuity creates a kind of pension for you, with checks that last as long as you do. There are downsides to consider, though. Typically, once you invest the money, you can’t get it back. Also, today’s low interest rates mean you’re not going to get as much money in those monthly checks as you would if rates were higher. Some financial planners suggest their clients put off investing in fixed annuities until that happens, or at least spread out their purchases over time in hopes of locking in more favorable rates.

You can hire a fee-only financial planner who works by the hour to review your options. You can get referrals to such planners from Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.