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: 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.

Q&A: Roth IRA withdrawal rules

Dear Liz: In a recent column you mentioned that you can take money out of a Roth IRA at age 59½ without a penalty. I believe a Roth IRA must be in force for at least five years before you can take money out, regardless of age. Is this correct?

Answer: At any time and at any age, you can withdraw an amount equal to what you contributed to a Roth IRA. So if you’ve contributed $5,000 a year for four years to a Roth, you can withdraw $20,000 without worrying about taxes or penalties.

The five-year rule kicks in when you start to withdraw earnings. You can avoid both taxes and penalties on these withdrawals if the account was established at least five years ago and you’re 59½ or older. If the account isn’t at least 5 years old, you must pay taxes on the earnings withdrawn but don’t have to pay the usual 10% penalty if you’re 59½ or older.

A five-year rule also applies to Roth conversions. Each conversion or rollover you make is subject to a separate five-year waiting period.

Q&A: Finding a fiduciary

Dear Liz: I am 55 and a single mom of three teenagers. My money has been sitting at a discount brokerage firm unmanaged … ugh!! I need help, but I am afraid to hire someone who will lose my money. Plus, two of my kids are old enough now to open a retirement account. We need help!

Answer: There’s actually no age minimum on contributing to a retirement fund; your kids just need to be earning at least as much money as they’re putting into the account. If they want to contribute the maximum $6,500 to an IRA, for example — or you want to contribute that much on their behalf — they have to earn at least $6,500.

The word you’ll want to keep in mind when seeking help with your money is “fiduciary.” Your advisor should be willing to put in writing that they will put your interests ahead of their own.

Many advisors are held to a lower “suitability” standard, which means they can recommend investments that are more expensive or perform worse than available alternatives, simply because the recommended investment pays the advisor more.

You don’t actually need a human being for investment management, though. Your investing firm probably offers target date mutual funds, which adjust the mix of investments to be more conservative as your retirement date nears. Another option is a robo-advisor, which handles the investing according to a computer algorithm.

Where a human can come in handy is if you have broader financial questions, such as whether you’re saving enough, when you can safely retire and whether your family is adequately insured, among other issues. Your discount brokerage may offer access to fiduciary advisors for a fee or in exchange for investing a certain amount of money.

You can also find fiduciary advisors through the Assn. for Financial Counseling and Planning Education, the XY Planning Network, the Garrett Planning Network, the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, among others.

Q&A: Should your retirement savings plan include life insurance? Here are some pros and cons

Dear Liz: Are indexed universal life insurance products worthwhile, and how do they compare to a Roth IRA?

Answer: Both offer the potential for tax-free distributions in retirement, but indexed universal life insurance is a complex product with high expenses that’s not a good fit for most investors.

With a Roth IRA, virtually all of your money can go toward your retirement investment. (Most investments have fees of some kind, but you can minimize those by using exchange traded funds or low-cost index funds.) With permanent life insurance, some of your money goes toward paying premiums for the death benefit and other administrative expenses, including commissions for the person who sells you the policy. The remaining cash can be invested in accounts that are tied to the performance of a stock market index. Your principal is guaranteed, but the amount you earn is subject to caps.

Financial planners generally recommend that you first max out other retirement savings options, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, before considering investing through a life insurance policy. Also, you should be someone who needs permanent life insurance — the kind that is meant to cover you for the rest of your life. (Term insurance, by contrast, is a much less expensive option meant to cover you for a set term, such as 20 years.)

Some people do need permanent coverage. Their estates may be large enough to incur estate taxes that they want to pay with insurance, for example. Or they may have a special needs child who will require ongoing support. If you need permanent coverage, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner to help you sort through your options.

Q&A: Roth IRA or traditional IRA? Here’s why one might be a better choice for young workers

Dear Liz: My mid-20s nephews and I discussed financial planning for them. After recommending they check with their employers for a 401(k) or equivalent program, we spoke about traditional versus Roth IRAs. Would younger investors benefit more from a Roth IRA because the length of time the money would be invested is so long that the eventual tax-free withdrawal of the earnings outweighs the initial tax benefits of a traditional IRA? At this time, we cannot determine if my nephews will have a higher tax rate post-retirement than now (even assuming income tax rates stay the same).

Answer: The usual advice has been that people should contribute to a Roth IRA rather than a traditional IRA if they expect to be in the same or higher tax brackets in retirement. (Contributions to Roths are not tax-deductible but withdrawals in retirement are tax-free. By contrast, contributions to traditional IRAs are often deductible, but withdrawals are taxed as income in retirement.)

Of course, you can’t predict future tax rates with any certainty. But it’s a pretty good bet that 20-somethings who are at the beginning of their careers will earn more — and thus face higher tax rates — down the road. In other words, your nephews’ current tax rates may be the lowest they’ll ever be. Your nephews may not get much benefit from a tax deduction now but could get huge benefits from tax-free withdrawals in the future.

Also, premature withdrawals from traditional IRAs are usually taxed and penalized, but you can always withdraw the amount you contribute to a Roth without paying taxes or penalties. That flexibility often appeals to young people who worry about “locking up” their money or who don’t yet have a substantial emergency fund.

Q&A: 401(k) payouts and Social Security

Dear Liz: I was laid off from my job in late 2021 and at 62 was unable to find employment. After six months of unemployment benefits, I filed for Social Security. My 401(k) account from my previous employer was rolled into a traditional IRA. I also took a distribution to carry me through the months without unemployment and to repay a 401(k) loan I used as the downpayment on my home. I was taxed on the total amount of rollover funds, as well as on the distribution, which seems like I paid tax twice. All told, it looks like I made a lot of money in 2022. How will this affect my Social Security benefits going forward?

Answer: You don’t have to pay tax on the 401(k) funds that were rolled into the traditional IRA. If you’ve already done so, please consult a tax pro immediately about filing an amended return to get that money back.

You may have been confused by the 1099-R tax form issued by your 401(k) provider, which reported the entire amount that left your 401(k) account as a distribution. But only the amount that didn’t make it into the IRA is considered taxable.

The taxable distribution isn’t considered earned income that would trigger the earnings test. (The earnings test applies to people receiving Social Security before their full retirement age, currently ages 66 to 67. The test causes $1 to be withheld for every $2 earned over a certain limit, which is $21,240 in 2023.)

But distributions can cause more of your Social Security benefit to be taxable. Taxes on Social Security are based on a unique formula known as “combined income,” which includes your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest and half your Social Security benefits.

If you’re a single filer and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefits. If your combined income is more than $34,000, up to 85% of your benefits may be taxable. Married couples filing jointly may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of benefits if their combined income is between $32,000 and $44,000. If their combined income is more than $44,000, they could owe tax on up to 85% of their benefits.

Keep in mind that you don’t lose 50% to 85% of your benefit to taxes. That’s the proportion that is subject to tax.

A tax pro can help you estimate the effect of future distributions and calculate how much you may need to withhold to avoid penalties.

Q&A: Should extra cash go to retirement or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: I have an excessive amount of money in my bank checking and savings account (about $20,000 in each) and need to know where to invest it. My financial planner advised putting it in my 401(k), but I can’t transfer a chunk of money, I can only increase the percentage I contribute (which is currently at 10% of my salary). I have IRAs, but I can only deposit a certain amount there as well. Where would be the best place for this extra money to go that will pay interest?

Answer: You may not be able to put the money directly into your 401(k), but you could boost your contribution rate at work and tap the “excess” money in your accounts to make up the difference in your paychecks.

First, though, make sure you have an adequate emergency fund. Most financial planners recommend keeping a reserve equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses. This money should be kept in a safe, liquid account, such as an FDIC-insured bank account. You don’t need to settle for the tiny amount of interest many banks pay, however. Some online high-yield savings accounts are now paying over 4%.

Q&A: How to get started managing your retirement assets

Dear Liz: I’m 72 and still employed with a salary of $80,000. My wife and I have a home with about $1.6 million in equity. We have almost $4 million in real estate investments, $200,000 in stocks, IRAs worth about $250,000 and about $175,000 in cash. Although it may seem like we have a lot, I really have no clue what to do at this time. I worry about the need for long-term care in future for me or my wife, or what would happen if I stopped working and lost that income. I don’t know how to manage the stocks and cash I do have or how to plan for the future. I tried contacting quite a few fee-only financial planners and they all told me they wouldn’t work with me unless I had $500,000 to give them to invest. Any suggestions on where I can get some real advice without giving someone complete control of money that I don’t have anyway?

Answer: You’re describing the “assets under management” model, in which advisors charge a percentage of the assets they manage for clients and often require the clients to have a minimum level of investable assets such as stocks, bonds and cash. This model evolved in part because many people balked at paying directly for comprehensive financial planning, which is time- and labor-intensive.

But this model often isn’t a great fit for people who are just starting out, who don’t want asset management or who, like you, have most of their money in less liquid investments.

Fortunately there are other ways fee-only planners get paid. Some, including those represented by the Garrett Planning Network, charge by the hour. Others, represented by the XY Planning Network and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, use the retainer model, in which clients pay monthly or quarterly fees. Interview a few planners from these organizations to find a good fit.

Q&A: Opening an IRA for a retired spouse

Dear Liz: Are spousal IRAs a good idea for a couple when one spouse is retired but the other is working? I’m 63 and work full time. My husband is 76 and retired. I have a Roth IRA; he does not. I contribute the maximum amount to my IRA. If we create a spousal IRA for him, would we be able to contribute as if it were a regular Roth IRA?

Answer: Yes. Normally people must have earned income — such as wages, salary, commissions, tips or self-employment income — to contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA. If you’re married and working, though, you can contribute up to the maximum amount on behalf of a nonworking spouse. In 2023, the maximum contribution for people 50 and older is $7,500. As long as you earn at least $15,000 ($7,500 times two), you can max out both accounts.

There’s no special “spousal IRA” account, by the way. Just open a regular IRA or Roth IRA in his name.