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.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Your best financial move is also best for the environment. Also in the news: Why you should fly first class at least once, surprising factors that inflate your car insurance rate, and the best and worst states to retire.

Your Best Financial Move Is Also Best for the Environment
Looking at your carbon footprint.

Why You Should Fly First Class at Least Once, and How to Afford It
Treat yourself.

5 Surprising Factors That Inflate Your Car Insurance Rate
Not just about accidents.

Best and worst states to retire
Did yours make the cut?

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Whittle down your debt while having bad credit. Also in the news: 6 secrets from flight crews to stave off jet lag, what to buy every month of the year in 2018, and 3 ways you can better save for retirement.

Bad Credit? You Still Have Tools to Whittle Down Debt
You must be proactive.

6 Secrets From Flight Crews to Stave Off Travel Exhaustion
Keeping jet lag away.

What to Buy Every Month of the Year in 2018
Plan your shopping accordingly.

3 ways you can save better for retirement
Every penny counts.

Q&A: How to balance using retirement savings wisely with enjoying what you’ve earned

Dear Liz: I am 82, and my husband is 85. We are retired military, so we have a middling pension and some Social Security. Our monthly income of about $5,000 covers our monthly expenses. We rent in an independent living senior community. We have excellent health benefits via Tricare for Life. We both worked hard and are very thrifty. We have no debts.

We have savings of about $320,000. Our kids say we should spend some of our savings on cruises and things, but we just can’t let go! Are we in danger of running out of money? I am getting tired of always cooking and would like to eat out now and then. We do not want to be a burden for our kids and grandkids.

Answer: Your kids have the right idea. While you can, you should be enjoying some of the pleasures you’ve earned. You’re also smart to be careful.

You face at least two major threats to your financial stability. One is a reduction in income when one of you dies. The survivor will receive one Social Security check instead of two, and the pension income could go away or be reduced, depending on the payment option chosen at retirement.

The other threat is the potential need for custodial care. A long stay in a nursing home or a prolonged period where you need help at home could eat through most if not all your savings. Custodial care that helps people perform daily activities such as bathing, dressing, eating or toileting is not covered by Medicare or other health insurance, including Medicare supplements or wraparounds like the plan you have. Instead, Medicare covers limited periods of skilled nursing care, which typically requires licensed nurses to provide, while supplemental and wraparound policies can help pay co-insurance for such care.

There is a government program that pays for custodial care, called Medicaid. To qualify, the person needing care typically must have no more than $2,000 in assets. The spouse is allowed to have up to $120,900, although the limit can be lower depending on the state.

A visit with a fee-only financial planner could help you determine how much you need to prepare for these events. With that information, you should have a better idea of how much more you can safely spend.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Will your taxes go up or down under the new tax rules? Also in the news: Freezing your child’s credit, 3 safe, easy ways to gift money for the holidays, and how much you should have saved at every age.

Will Your Taxes Go Up or Down Under the New Tax Rules?
Where do you stand?

Should You Freeze Your Child’s Credit?
Protecting your child’s identity.

3 Safe, Easy Ways to Gift Money This Holiday Season
Easy holiday giving.

How Much Should You Have Saved at Every Age?
How are you doing so far?

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: Roth IRA offers key tax feature

Dear Liz: In an article that ran in my local newspaper, you stated that, “Roths allow you to withdraw the amount you’ve contributed at any time without triggering income taxes or penalties.” I suggest that you review Pub. 590-B, where you will be reminded that, with some exceptions, withdrawals from a Roth IRA within the first five years will result in a 10% penalty.

Answer: The five-year rule applies only to earnings, not contributions. The IRS publication you reference states on page 30, “You do not include in your gross income qualified distributions or distributions that are a return of your regular contributions from your Roth IRA(s).” There’s a helpful diagram on page 32 that explains when a distribution is made within five years of the year in which the Roth is opened, the “portion of the distribution allocable to earnings may be subject to tax and it may be subject to the 10% additional tax.” (Emphases added.)

Retirement distribution rules can be complex and it’s easy to make a mistake. But the fact that people can withdraw their Roth contributions at any time without taxes or penalties is not some obscure facet of these retirement accounts. It’s a central feature.

Unlike regular IRAs, where withdrawals are taxed proportionate to their earnings, a withdrawal from a Roth IRA is deemed to be from nondeductible contributions first. People have to withdraw more than they contributed to face a tax bill or penalties. If they’re over 59½ and the account has been open five years, their withdrawal of earnings will be tax-free and penalty-free.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to live below your means without feeling deprived. Also in the news: How to dodge the drama of family loans, the launch of Apple Pay Cash, and using Social Security benefits to plan your retirement income.

How to Live Below Your Means Without Feeling Deprived
It doesn’t have to be a slog.

Family Loans: How to Dodge the Drama
Coping with one of the touchiest subjects.

Apple Pay Cash Launches: How It Stacks Up
A new money transfer app.

An almost perfect retirement income source
Using Social Security benefits to plan your retirement income

Q&A: How to avoid outliving your retirement savings

Dear Liz: The wife and I are both 65. We both work, with a combined income of $125,000, of which we spend almost all. We have $550,000 in IRAs and $1 million in other investments, plus home equity of about $500,000. We’ll get $3,800 from Social Security if we start next year but plan to work until age 67. Should we wait until then to claim?

Answer: Both of you needn’t wait, but one of you should — the one who has the larger benefit.

As a married couple, you can get two checks — either two retirement benefits, or a retirement benefit and a spousal benefit that can equal up to half the primary retirement benefit. When one of you dies, the survivor will receive only one benefit, which will be the larger of the two checks you received as a couple.

It makes sense to maximize that benefit by waiting as long as possible to claim so that it can grow. After your full retirement age, which is currently 66, unclaimed retirement benefits grow by 8% each year you wait, until maxing out at age 70.

You have substantial investments that should sustain a comfortable retirement, but plenty of things could go wrong.

The fact you’re spending all your current income is worrisome. If you don’t ratchet back your consumption a bit at retirement, you may draw down your investments at a rate that isn’t sustainable. (Depending on your investment mix, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% or 4% usually is considered “safe,” or the most you should take to minimize the odds of running out of money.)

Even if you do rein in your regular spending, bad markets or unexpected expenses could cause you to exhaust your savings faster than you expect. The longer you live, the greater the odds you’ll run short of money. Maximizing one of your Social Security benefits can be a smart way to ensure you, or your survivor, have more income when you may need it most.

Before you retire, you should consult a fee-only financial planner about the best ways to tap your retirement accounts and claim Social Security.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 reasons to be petrified of Bitcoin. Also in the news: A ‘Born Spender’ goes on a spending fast, how to stop your grown kids from ruining your retirement, and how to hide gifts from your partner when you share bank accounts.

3 Reasons to Be Petrified of Bitcoin
The cryptocurrency reaches an all-time high.

How I Ditched Debt: ‘Born Spender’ Goes on a Spending Fast
Changing their ways.

How To Stop Your Grown Kids From Ruining Your Retirement
Protecting your future.

How to Hide Gifts From Your Partner When You Share Bank Accounts
Tips for holiday giving.