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.

Q&A: A required minimum distribution headache

Dear Liz: For more than four years my husband has had to take a required minimum distribution from his 457 deferred compensation plan. We have always chosen when to do that, knowing that it has to be done by Dec. 31.

This year we processed the distribution on Dec. 28 to take advantage of stock market movements. We saw the direct deposit of that transaction hit our savings account as planned. To our astonishment, we got a letter (dated Dec. 27 but received after Jan. 1) from the plan’s trustee informing us that “as a courtesy” it had initiated a required minimum distribution “on our behalf.” The letter even “assisted” us with information on how we can “establish a recurring RMD” in the future. We received a check in the mail Jan. 5 for this unnecessary and unwanted distribution.

Not only is this a duplication of my husband’s RMD for this account, but this distribution also may push us into a higher tax bracket. It also sets me up for a further increase in my Medicare B premiums because of the higher income.

I have searched but could not find any information on how to roll this back or how they could have been so bold, and under what authority they took the liberty to babysit a depositor. Can you provide any information?

Answer: Before any more time passes, put the money into an IRA and keep documentation of the “redeposit,” said Robert Westley, a CPA and personal financial specialist with the American Institute of CPAs’ PFS Credential Committee.

The plan provider likely will send a 1099-R form that includes the second withdrawal, so you’ll need this documentation to avoid taxation on the extra money. If you don’t already have a tax pro to help you, consider hiring one to help you navigate this.

Some retirement plans, including 457s, have language that allow forced distributions, since many people either don’t understand the requirement or choose to ignore it. But your husband clearly was not in that group.

Your husband can call the 457 plan provider to find out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Or he might just roll this 457 into an IRA at another provider.

This advice assumes that the plan is a governmental 457, which allows rollovers into an IRA. If it’s a non-governmental 457, however — the kind used for highly paid executives in private companies — the rollover option doesn’t exist and you might be stuck with a higher tax bill.

Q&A: How to find affordable healthcare insurance

Dear Liz: I am 25 and work two part-time jobs, neither of which offers health insurance. Once I’m 26, I will no longer be able to remain on my parents’ policy. Do I need a full-time job to receive health benefits, or do I have other options?

Answer: You currently have other options, but you may still want to look for a full-time job that offers this important benefit.

Although a Texas judge ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, the law giving people access to health insurance remains in effect while legal challenges play out. You can start your search for coverage at www.healthcare.gov. The open enrollment period for most people has ended, but some states including California have extended the deadline to Jan. 15. In addition, you would qualify for a “special enrollment” period once you turn 26 and lose eligibility for coverage on a parent’s plan.

If the ACA does go away, health insurance may become harder to qualify for and more expensive. Group health insurance through an employer may become your best option.

Q&A: Options for high debt, low income

Dear Liz: I’m 87 and drowning in debt, owing more than $21,000 with an income of $23,000 from Social Security and two small pensions. I don’t like the idea of debt consolidation but is that better than bankruptcy? My only asset is a 2003 car.

Answer: Debt consolidation merely replaces one type of debt (say, credit cards) with another, typically a personal loan. You are unlikely to qualify for such a loan and even if you did, your situation wouldn’t improve much if at all because your debt is so large relative to your income.

You may be confusing debt consolidation with debt settlement, which is where you or someone you hire tries to settle debts for less than what you owe. Debt settlement can take years and may not result in much savings, since the forgiven debt is considered taxable income and hiring a debt settlement company can cost thousands of dollars. In addition, people in the debt settlement process risk being sued by their creditors. Bankruptcy is typically a better option for most people because it costs less, is completed more quickly and ends the threat of lawsuits.

You may not need to file for bankruptcy, however, if you’re “judgment proof,” which means that even if you stop paying your creditors and they successfully sue you, the creditors wouldn’t be able to collect on those judgments. That’s typically the case when someone’s income comes from protected sources, such as Social Security and certain pensions, and they don’t have any assets a creditor can seize.

Please discuss your situation with a bankruptcy attorney who can review your options. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Q&A: Retirement planning needs expert help

Dear Liz: I am about to retire and have had to make some very important decisions: How should I receive my company pension, when should we start taking Social Security, should we convert some IRAs to Roths, how to best cover our healthcare needs and what the best ways are to manage our tax bill. I think we are OK and on track, but I worry about people who don’t have a college degree and who have not studied these issues trying to make similar decisions. I think it’s scary and we should do more to help people secure their retirement.

Answer: You’re quite right that retirement involves a number of complex choices, many of which are irreversible. It’s easy to make the wrong decisions, even if you do have a college degree and think you know what you’re doing.

Everyone approaching retirement should realize that they don’t know what they don’t know, and if possible seek out an expert, objective second opinion on their retirement plans to ensure they’re making the best possible choices.

Q&A: Don’t value credit rewards over scores

Dear Liz: You’ve advised people that “it’s important to keep your credit utilization down, even if you pay in full (as you should).” That may be good advice regarding one’s credit score, but there is another perspective. Although we pay in full every month (and have paid no credit card interest since 1971), charging almost every purchase or expense has earned us three pairs of round-trip frequent flier miles tickets to Paris — one pair first class and the other two business class — in the last 15 years.

Answer: Maximizing rewards shouldn’t come at the cost of your credit scores, particularly if you want to qualify for future cards that offer tempting sign-up bonuses. You can continue to charge away, as long as you either spread the charges across several cards or make two or three payments every month on each card you use to keep the balances from getting too high.

Q&A: Social Security strategies vary by age

Dear Liz: My husband has been on Social Security disability since he was 61. He’s now 69 and receives $1,700 a month. I will be turning 66 next year. I still work and want to file for spousal benefits, which would be half of his benefit, but I’m not sure what the best option is. I know I would get $850 a month until I turn 70, when I would get my maximum retirement benefit. Or do I file for my retirement benefit now, which is more than half of my husband’s?

Answer: Since you were born before Jan. 1, 1954, you still have the option of filing a restricted application at 66 for spousal benefits only and then switching to your own retirement benefit when it maxes out at age 70. Since it’s still available for you, you’ll probably want to take advantage of it since you’ll almost certainly get more in total from Social Security that way.

People born Jan. 1, 1954, and later won’t be able to file restricted applications for spousal benefits. Instead, when they apply for benefits, their own retirement check will be compared to their spousal benefit and they’ll get the larger of the two amounts. They no longer have the option of applying just for spousal benefits and then switching to their own benefit later.

Since you’re the higher earner, it makes even more sense to put off taking your retirement benefit as long as possible. Not only will you probably maximize the amount you get, but you’ll also be maximizing the spousal benefit that one of you will have to live on when the other dies. (Remember that at death, one Social Security benefit disappears and the survivor must get by on the larger of the two.)

Q&A: Fear of a market meltdown has frozen this retiree’s money decisions

Dear Liz: I sold my home two years ago and still have not done anything with my gain of $200,000. It’s in a one-year certificate of deposit so at least it’s earning something while I try to figure out what to do with it. I’m 66, retired and have an IRA of $500,000 that’s invested in the market. I get $1,450 from that plus a monthly Social Security check of $1,750.

I know that my hesitation has to do with the crash of 2008. I know that things have recovered nicely but I just don’t want to feel like I did then, watching my money disappear. I don’t know if I’m the only older person who has this fear of riding it out again.

Answer: Few who watched their portfolios plunge in 2008-09 look forward to experiencing that again. But risk is inextricably tied to reward. If you want the reward of inflation-beating returns that stocks offer, you must accept the risk that your portfolio can go down as well as up.

And you probably do want that reward for a big chunk of your investments. Retirees typically need about half of their portfolio in stocks to generate the kinds of returns that will preserve their buying power and help insulate them against running short of money.

That doesn’t mean all your money has to be at risk. You still need to have a good stash of savings sitting in safe, liquid accounts to help you ride out any market downturns or emergencies. Financial planners often recommend that their retired clients keep six months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund, and some like to see 12 months’ worth. Beyond that, though, your money probably should be working for you, not simply dwindling away to taxes and inflation.

If you find yourself unable to move forward with a plan for this money, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner who can help you review your options.

Q&A: Mysterious bank charge needs investigating

Dear Liz: The other day I went to my credit union to withdraw $1,000 to pay for my sister’s burial. The bank teller kept $90 and gave me only $910. Is that done when a person withdraws cash from a bank account? I got very angry and complained to the manager of the bank, but to no avail. He did not do anything to try and get my money for me. I am a low-income senior citizen and appreciate any kind of advice you could give me.

Answer: It’s hard to imagine any legitimate bank fee that would take almost 10% of a cash withdrawal. In any case, the manager should have been able to explain why the money was taken. If the teller stole the money from you and the manager simply didn’t believe you, calling the police may have been an option. A count of the teller’s till might have revealed the discrepancy.

Consider returning to the credit union with a friend as a witness and asking the manager to explain why the teller kept $90 from your withdrawal. If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you, you can lodge a complaint with the credit union’s regulator. The National Credit Union Assn. regulates federal credit unions and can be found at NCUA.gov. For a state-chartered credit union, contact your state’s financial services regulator.

Q&A: One auto-pay misstep and her credit score falls off a cliff

Dear Liz: I recently took a deduction in my Experian FICO score of more than 100 points due to a single late payment to my mortgage. My score of 810 dropped to 704.

The mortgage company notified me several months ago that my impound account would go up $51 a month due to higher homeowners insurance premiums. I believed my auto-pay would adjust automatically as it used to, but that didn’t happen. About 10 days after it was “past due,” I received a letter saying I owed the $51 plus a $53 late fee. I promptly sent the money and asked that the late payment be deleted from my credit reports. The mortgage company refused, saying they would not and could not because of federal regulations.

I am about to get a mortgage loan to buy my daughter’s house, but now the rate will be at least 1 percentage point higher. Why would FICO scores drop over 100 points on one late payment? Anything I can do about this? How long will it be before my FICO scores are above at least 750 if there are no more late payments and my credit utilization stays below 10%?

Answer: “Federal regulations” can be a convenient punching bag for financial services companies, but they don’t prevent a lender or mortgage servicing company from deleting a late-payment notification for a good customer. The company should own up to the fact that this is its policy, not something imposed by the feds.

Your experience does show the potential downside of automatic payments and of impound accounts. (For those who don’t have impound accounts: They’re an arrangement by which the mortgage company collects payments for insurance and property taxes.) They can be enormously helpful when everything goes right, but they’re not “set it and forget it.”

Ideally, you would have made a note on your calendar to check that the larger payment was made on time and been able to quickly correct the error. There’s not much you can do now except ensure that all your bills are paid in full and on time from now on. It may take up to three years of stellar credit-handling behavior for your scores to break 800 again. Credit scores are like mountains — you can fall pretty quickly, but it takes a long time to regain lost ground.

The scores are extremely sensitive to late payments because that’s often the first sign of financial troubles that will end up in defaults, collections and bankruptcy. Credit reports and credit scores make no distinction between a late payment caused by human error versus one caused by lack of funds.