Q&A: Tax consequences of annuity conversion

Dear Liz: Several years ago my wife inherited an IRA when her mother died. Her banker suggested rolling the IRA into an annuity with an insurance company. That company is difficult to deal with and not forthcoming about how the annuity is invested. She wants to convert the IRA into a certificate of deposit so it is insured by the FDIC. What are the tax consequences of doing that?

Answer: There are many different types of annuities. If your wife purchased an immediate annuity, which offers a stream of payments in return for a lump sum, then she probably can’t change her mind since those transactions are effectively irreversible.

If she purchased a deferred annuity, though, she has more options. Deferred annuities allow people to defer the stream of payments until later — often years or even decades in the future. In the meantime, the annuity may pay a fixed rate, a variable rate based on the performance of underlying investments, or an indexed rate based on a market benchmark.

Your wife won’t face taxes if she switches from a deferred annuity to a CD, since changing investments within an IRA isn’t considered a taxable event. The annuity itself may have surrender charges, however. Because annuities often pay advisors substantial commissions, surrender charges help discourage investors from withdrawing the money before insurers can recoup those fees.

These charges and high expenses in general make deferred annuities a poor fit for many investors, and many financial planners especially dislike seeing them in IRAs. A deferred annuity’s primary advantage is tax deferral, which an IRA already offers.

If your wife feels she was misled about this investment, she can make a complaint with her state insurance regulator.

Q&A: Getting a second financial opinion

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently retired. Our investments are managed by a certified financial planner. Our nest egg has not shown much growth over the last several years. We think it is time for another professional advisor to analyze our portfolio and see if we are really heading in the right direction. Is this out of the ordinary to seek more advice and how would we go about it, without offending our current planner?

Answer: You can certainly consult another advisor, but consider talking to your own first.

Start by asking the certified financial planner how your portfolio has performed relative to an appropriate benchmark over the last five years. The planner should be able to explain what benchmark was chosen and why. A portfolio that invests heavily in bonds, for example, will have a different benchmark than one that invests mostly in stocks.

If your portfolio is lagging behind this benchmark, then ask the planner what changes can be made to improve your investment performance. Switching from actively managed investments to passive ones, such as index mutual funds or index exchange traded funds, could save on costs and improve performance because few actively managed investments manage to beat the market.

If your portfolio is performing appropriately relative to its benchmark, then discuss whether you want to take on more risk for better returns. Many planners recommend retirees have a substantial portion of their portfolios in stocks for inflation-beating growth.

Your certified financial planner should be open to this discussion and ready to course correct if necessary. If you find that’s not the case, then it may be time not just for a second opinion but for a new advisor.

Q&A: Inherited IRAs and taxes

Dear Liz: After reading your recent response on the taxability of inherited IRAs, I have a question. I am 53, divorced with no children, and have an IRA worth more than $1 million. I’ve always listed the beneficiary of the account as my estate, for no reason other than administrative ease (if I ever change my will, the IRA will follow along). However, from a tax perspective, is this unwise? In your recent response you state that non-spouse beneficiaries typically have up to 10 years to drain an inherited IRA. If these individuals don’t directly inherit the IRA, and instead it must first filter through my estate, do the payouts occur immediately and therefore create a greater tax burden that cannot be spread out for as many years?

Answer: If you die before starting to take required minimum distributions and the estate is your beneficiary, the IRA assets must be completely distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of your death, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Designating individuals as IRA beneficiaries rather than the estate would allow them to spread the distributions over 10 years rather than five years. If you die after starting required minimum distributions, the remaining distributions would be made according to the single life expectancy tables for someone your age, Luscombe said.

The account also could be more vulnerable to creditors, depending on state law, and could be subject to the delays and costs of probate. In other words, choosing “ease” now can create a lot of discomfort later for your heirs.

“IRAs are very difficult in probate situations, and it’s better to name individuals to be beneficiaries directly on those accounts in almost all situations,” said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

Q&A: IRAs, pensions and taxes

Dear Liz: I contributed to an IRA during my working years. I’m now retired. Both my and my spouse’s IRAs are Roths, so we have no required minimum distributions. I’d like to continue contributing to an IRA, but neither I nor my spouse have W-2 or self-employment income anymore. We do, however, both collect pensions, which are taxed as ordinary income. Shouldn’t we be able to make IRA contributions, as we earned these pensions by working, and they are taxed exactly the same as our paychecks were taxed?

Answer: Nice try! There’s no longer an age limit for contributing to an IRA or a Roth IRA, but the IRS insists that those who contribute have earned income — which means wages, salary, tips, bonuses, commissions or net self-employment income. Payments from pensions and retirement funds don’t count as earned income.

Q&A: Taxes and inherited IRAs

Dear Liz: Thanks for the recent column concerning children getting an inherited IRA, because I’m in that situation. Is the attorney for the estate required to include tax information with the distribution, or is it up to my accountant to sort things out? And since I don’t really need the money right now, would I have options as to how I receive the funds to avoid a tax hit?

Answer: You can’t avoid a tax hit with an inherited traditional IRA. The money has to come out and the withdrawals are taxable. For beneficiaries who aren’t the surviving spouse, the account typically must be drained within 10 years. (There are exceptions for beneficiaries who are minors, disabled or chronically ill.)

You have some flexibility about how rapidly you take the money out, however. If the account owner hadn’t started required minimum distributions before dying, you can withdraw money at any rate you want, provided you empty the account by Dec. 31 of the 10th year following the year of the owner’s death.

If the account owner had started required minimum distributions, you must take a minimum distribution each year. These are typically based on your own life expectancy. In addition to those annual withdrawals, you’ll need to take out the remaining money by the end of the 10th year following the year of death.

There was initially some confusion about whether beneficiaries had to take yearly required minimum distributions or could wait until the 10th year to withdraw the funds, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Because of that confusion, the IRS has waived the penalties for failing to take required minimum distributions when the IRA owner died in 2020, 2021 or 2022. The waiver of penalties would not be available if the IRA owner died in 2023, Luscombe said.

Leaving money in the account as long as possible means the balance has longer to grow tax deferred. But you also could face a whopping tax bill in that 10th year. Definitely discuss your options with your tax pro. While the attorney for the estate may help with some details — such as arranging to get the money transferred from the deceased owner’s account — it will be up to you to set up your own inherited IRA and to arrange for distributions.

Q&A: Where should you put your extra cash? Here are some ideas

Dear Liz: At 82, I am selling my house and moving to a senior community. For the first time in my life, I will have a substantial amount of cash. Given my age and the fact that certificates of deposit and savings accounts are currently paying more than 5% interest, does it pay for me to start investing in other ways?

Answer: How you figure out what to do with your money is mostly the same whether you’re 28 or 82.

You start with your goal and your time horizon, or how long you have until you need the money.

For example, you may have to put aside some of the home sale proceeds to pay capital gains taxes if your home has appreciated more than the $250,000 that’s normally exempted from tax. Since the tax bill will be due within months of the sale, you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks with this cash. A high-yield savings account would be a good solution for any money you need to keep safe and liquid.

You also may want to earmark some money for long-term care. This goal is much more ambiguous, because it’s impossible to predict how much you’ll need or when. You may want to consult an elder law attorney, who can discuss your options.

Once you settle on a figure, you’ll want that money to be somewhere safe and readily accessible. Certificates of deposit that mature at different times could be an option, as could the high-yield savings account mentioned above.

If you have a goal that’s many years in the future, you could consider a mix of stocks and bonds. Stocks in particular offer long-term returns that historically beat inflation.

Most working people who want to retire will need to invest in stocks to accumulate and maintain a sufficient nest egg. They can take the risk of losing money in the short term because they have many years ahead for their investments to recover.

And that’s where your situation differs from that of a 28-year-old. The average life expectancy for an 82-year-old male is about eight more years, while the average life expectancy for an 82-year-old female is around nine more years, according to the Social Security Administration.

You may have enough time left to ride out a bad market. But if you don’t have to take such risks to achieve your goals, consider playing it a bit safer.

Q&A: What to know about buying a house using retirement funds

Dear Liz: My husband and I are thinking of purchasing a house near us. Can we use any funds from our retirement accounts to make the purchase? We would like to use this money along with some savings so that we do not have to carry a mortgage.

Answer: You don’t mention how old you are, whether you’re currently homeowners or what type of retirement accounts you have, which are all important factors.

If you’re under 59½, withdrawals from IRAs and workplace plans such as 401(k)s are typically taxed and penalized. You can avoid the penalty, but not the taxes, if you’re considered a “first-time home buyer” and you withdraw up to $10,000 from your IRA to buy a home. (“First-time home buyer” just means you and your spouse haven’t owned a home within the last two years.)

This exception doesn’t apply to workplace plans such as 401(k)s. However, if you’re still working for the employer who provides the plan, you could consider taking a loan from your account.

Loans typically must be repaid within five years, but your employer may offer a longer payback period for the purchase of a primary residence. If the employer permits plan loans, the loan limit is typically the lesser of $50,000 or half the vested account balance, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

An exception to the 50% cap is if 50% of your vested account balance is less than $10,000, Luscombe said. In that case, you can borrow up to the lesser of $10,000 or the balance in your account.

If you have a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), the amount you contributed can be withdrawn for any purpose without taxes or penalties, Luscombe said.

Q&A: How new rules let you roll unused 529 college savings into a retirement plan

Dear Liz: I have about $3,000 left in my daughter’s 529 college savings plan. My ex-wife has about $8,000 left. Our daughter has graduated and is not planning to get an advanced degree. It’s my understanding that new rules allow unused 529 money to be rolled into a Roth IRA in the child’s name, after taxes are paid upfront. Would this be a good move?

Answer: Possibly, and you won’t have to pay federal taxes on such rollovers, which will be available starting in 2024.

The Secure 2.0 Act, which passed into law late last year, created this new provision that allows the owner of a 529 account to transfer up to $35,000 in unused education funds to a Roth IRA for the account’s beneficiary, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

The 529 account must have been established for at least 15 years for a rollover to be possible. No contributions or earnings from the previous five years can be transferred to the Roth. Also, the $35,000 is a lifetime limit that can’t be transferred all at once — it’s subject to most of the annual Roth contribution rules. In 2023, for example, the maximum that can be contributed to a Roth IRA is $6,500 for people under 50 and $7,500 for people 50 and older, so it will take a few years of transfers to reach the $35,000 lifetime limit.

The IRS has yet to issue needed guidance, including how the law will affect beneficiaries like your daughter with two 529 plans. But you and your ex probably will have to coordinate these transfers to avoid exceeding the annual contribution limit. Also, if your daughter contributes her own money to an IRA or Roth IRA, that contribution would reduce the maximum that could be rolled over from a 529. If, for example, the limit is $6,500 and your daughter contributes $5,000, you’d only be able to roll a maximum of $1,500 (assuming your daughter is under 50).

There’s also some question about whether the beneficiary needs to have earned income equal to the amount contributed each year, Luscombe said. On the other hand, someone with a high income won’t be prevented from receiving these rollovers into their Roth IRA, he says. Normally, contributions to Roth IRAs have income limits, so this could be good news for higher-earning beneficiaries.

Plus, states may have to issue guidance about whether the 529 rollover to a Roth IRA is a qualified distribution for state income tax purposes, Luscombe said. If not, you might owe state taxes on the rollover even if no federal taxes are owed.

You have a few other options for unused 529 money. For example, you could change the beneficiary to a “qualified family member,” which could include yourself as well as the beneficiary’s spouse, child or other descendant, a sibling, stepsibling, in-law, aunt or uncle or their spouse, niece or nephew or their spouse, parents or other ancestors or a first cousin or the cousin’s spouse. Withdrawals would continue to be tax-free if used for qualified education expenses.

You also could withdraw up to $10,000 to pay student loans for the beneficiary or their sibling.

Or you could simply withdraw the money and use it however you want. You would pay income taxes and a 10% federal penalty, plus any state penalty, on the earnings. Some states offer a tax break on contributions, so you’d also want to check if there are tax implications for such withdrawals.

For many account owners, though, the Roth rollover option will be a good, tax-advantaged solution to help their beneficiaries jump-start or enhance retirement savings.

Q&A: How to plan retirement withdrawals

Dear Liz: I am 65 and plan on working until 70 to get the maximum Social Security. I have a 401(k) worth about $290,000. How do I determine the maximum monthly payout I should take while being somewhat certain it will last until I’m 90? Our family has a history of longevity, typically living into the early 90s.

Answer: You may have heard of the “4% rule,” a guideline that suggests an initial withdrawal rate of 4%, with the amount adjusted each year afterward by the inflation rate. The rule stems from research by certified financial planner Bill Bengen, who in a 1994 research paper used historic market returns for a portfolio consisting of 50% stocks and 50% bonds to determine the maximum safe withdrawal rate for a 30-year retirement.

Some researchers believe a sustainable withdrawal rate should start closer to 3%, and others suggest higher rates if the account owner is willing to cut back spending in bad years.

However, most retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, are subject to required minimum distributions. These will start after you turn 73. (For people born in 1960 or later, such distributions will be required starting at age 75.)

The exact amount you must withdraw depends on your account balance at the end of the previous year as well as your age and life expectancy. The percentages you must withdraw could be slightly less or considerably more than 4% of your original balance.

Q&A: Inherited IRAs bring a tax bite

Dear Liz: I have an IRA worth over $1 million and am taking required minimum distributions. When my kids inherit this, can they take it all out with no tax issues because it is an inheritance? Or will they have to take required minimum withdrawals when they are old enough?

Answer: Retirement accounts don’t get the favorable step-up in tax basis that other assets typically get when someone dies. Your children will pay income tax on any withdrawals from an inherited IRA and most likely will have to drain the account within 10 years.

In the past, IRA beneficiaries other than a spouse had to start taking required minimum distributions after the account owner’s death. They couldn’t put off required minimum distributions until their 70s, but they could base the distribution amounts on their own life expectancies. The so-called “stretch IRA” let most of the assets continue to grow tax deferred.

But the stretch IRA was eliminated for most beneficiaries by the SECURE Act, which Congress passed in December 2019. The reasoning was that retirement accounts were meant to support the original account owner in retirement, not to provide tax-deferred benefits to their heirs. There are certain exceptions for beneficiaries who are surviving spouses, minors, disabled, chronically ill, or within 10 years of the age of the original account holder.