Q&A: Retiring early doesn’t mean losing affordable health insurance

Dear Liz: I am 55 and have health issues that I don’t talk about at work. I want to retire soon. I know that getting health insurance is going to be hard. I am just at a loss as to how I am going to keep working when I don’t feel well. What are my options?

Answer: In the past, getting health insurance could be difficult or prohibitively expensive if you had even relatively minor health conditions. That changed with the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to extend coverage without jacking up the premiums for preexisting conditions. In addition, most people qualify for tax subsidies that reduce the premiums, and those subsidies were expanded this spring when President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. You can start your search for coverage at HealthCare.gov.

Before you quit, however, consider whether your employer could make accommodations that would allow you to continue working. Many people at 55 don’t have enough saved for a comfortable retirement that could last decades. Shifting to part-time work, if your employer allows it, could help you continue to save or at least reduce the amount you need to withdraw from your savings.

Q&A: Refinancing in your golden years

Dear Liz: I just wanted to comment on a recent question about refinancing a mortgage in retirement. The writer wrote: “… at 67 and 72 years old, it’s unlikely that both of us will survive for another 15 years to pay off this loan.” This seems an old way of thinking about age. The obituaries in my paper are full of people who have lived into their 90s and even past 100 years old!

Answer: Good point. People often misjudge life expectancies, which over time have lengthened considerably. At 67, a typical female could expect to live nearly 19 more years, according to Social Security’s life expectancy tables, while a male at 72 has a 13-year life expectancy. People with higher incomes, good health and good habits (nonsmokers, for example) could add many years to those estimates.

Q&A: Withdrawals from an inherited 401(k)

Dear Liz: A relative inherited a 401(k) as a listed beneficiary, and it was simply rolled over into an IRA in her name. Now another family member wants some of the money. The relative keeps trying to explain that if she pulls out any or all of the money, it will be taxed and reduce the amount available if she did want to share it. She is already retired and doesn’t need to use the money. She wants to keep it as part of her joint estate with her spouse, who could possibly use it later to pay off their mortgage. Wouldn’t she be foolish to pull the money out just because another family member thinks he should get some of it?

Answer: Your relative needs to talk to a tax professional.

Required minimum distribution rules prevent people from keeping money in retirement accounts indefinitely, and the rules recently changed regarding inherited retirement accounts. Your relative needs to understand the rules that apply to her, since failing to follow those rules can incur hefty penalties. Exactly how those rules apply depends on when she inherited the money and her relationship to the deceased.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019 eliminated the so-called stretch IRA, which allowed non-spouse beneficiaries to minimize distributions so that inherited retirement accounts could continue to grow tax deferred for decades. Now, non-spouse beneficiaries are typically required to drain the account within 10 years of the original owner’s death. These rules apply to retirement accounts inherited after Dec. 31, 2019. Even if she inherited the money earlier, she would still need to begin distributions at some point. Failing to make these required distributions incurs a tax penalty equal to 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

Of course, just because she has to withdraw the money and pay taxes on it does not mean she has to cave to the family member. The withdrawals are hers to spend, invest, share or save as she wishes.

Q&A: Restrictions on Roth IRAs

Dear Liz: I read your useful summary of the advantages of Roth IRAs. I recently retired and decided to open a Roth (I know, pretty late) alongside my traditional IRA. I have an investment manager who will hopefully create some gains in that account. One thing that I learned is that I must wait five years before I can begin withdrawing earnings from the Roth tax-free. For this reason, it might be helpful to encourage readers to open a Roth IRA early, with at least a small contribution, to get the clock ticking toward that five-year deadline.

Answer: The five-year rule applies, as you mentioned, only to earnings, since contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn at any time. Once you’re at least age 59½, earnings can be withdrawn without penalty provided the Roth IRA has been open for at least five tax years.

Hopefully you were also informed about the “earned income” rule, which requires you to have earnings — such as wages, salary or self-employment income — in order to contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA. Contributing more than you’re allowed to an IRA or Roth IRA can incur a 6% excise tax per year for each year the excess contributions remain in the account.

If you do have earned income — say you’re working part time in retirement — you can’t contribute more than you earn. If you earn just $5,000 in a year, for example, you can’t contribute the full $7,000 that’s otherwise allowed to people 50 and older. (The contribution limit is $6,000 for younger people.)

If you’ve contributed in error, contact a tax advisor about next steps.

Q&A: Why you might want a Roth IRA

Dear Liz: I never understood Roth IRAs. They don’t offer a tax break for contributions, so they cause you to pay taxes on your money when you’re working and in a higher tax bracket. With a regular IRA, you get a tax break upfront when you’re in the higher tax bracket and then you pay taxes on withdrawals when you’re retired and in a lower tax bracket. What am I missing?

Answer: Not everyone will be in a lower tax bracket in retirement. Some will be in the same bracket or a higher one when it’s time to withdraw the money. People in their 20s, for example, may be in the lowest tax bracket they’ll ever see. People who expect tax rates in general to rise also may wish to hedge their bets by having at least some money in a Roth.

A Roth also can make more sense if you don’t get a tax break for your IRA contributions. That could be the case if you have access to a workplace plan and your income is above certain limits, or if your income is so low that you owe little or no income tax.

Roth IRAs have a few other advantages. Having a pot of tax-free money in retirement can give you some flexibility in managing your tax bill. If a big bill comes up, for example, a withdrawal from your IRA could push you into a higher tax bracket while a withdrawal from your Roth would not.

Roths also don’t require you to take withdrawals in retirement, unlike regular IRAs. You can hang on to the money until you need it, perhaps to pay for late-in-life costs such as long-term care, or you can pass it on to your heirs.

Roths are more flexible in another way: You can always withdraw the amount you contributed to a Roth without tax consequences. Withdrawals from IRAs before retirement typically incur both taxes and penalties.

Q&A: What to consider before taking a lump sum

Dear Liz: I had a pension from a previous employer that was going to pay me $759 per month at 65. They offered me a lump-sum buyout about five years ago of around $65,000. I ran the numbers and decided that was definitely not enough money and declined.

Then last year they upped the offer and the new lump sum amount was $125,000. I ran the numbers again and this time decided to grab the money and roll it into an IRA. I’m 63 and plan to retire at 70. I can hopefully grow that $125,000 to $250,000 by that time, which would give me that much more to live on, plus it gives me more discretion on using that money than just getting the monthly payment the pension would have paid me.

After reading one of your latest columns, I am now questioning whether I made the right decision to take the lump sum.

Answer: There are a number of good reasons for opting for a lump sum versus an annuity. For example, people with large pensions may not be fully protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. if their pension fund fails. Others may need more flexibility than an annuity offers.
But a pension is typically money that’s guaranteed for life, in good markets and bad. If you’re choosing the lump sum just because you think you can earn better returns, you need to consider how you’ll protect yourself and your spouse from fraud, bad decisions and bad markets.

Bull markets can lull people into thinking they’re good investors, but markets can go down and stay down for extended periods. That poses a special risk to retirees, who are at increased risk of running out of money when they draw from a shrinking pool of investments. Even a short bear market can cause problems, while an extended one can be disastrous.

You’ll also want to consider how you’ll manage when your cognitive abilities begin to decline. Our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s, but our confidence in our abilities tends to remain high even as our cognition slips. That can lead to bad investment decisions and increased vulnerability to fraud.

Finally, consider your spouse. If you die first, will your spouse be comfortable managing these investments? If not, is there someone in place who can help?

A fee-only financial planner could discuss these issues with you and help you create a plan to deal with them.

Q&A: A 401(k) versus an IRA: Which one wins this smackdown?

Dear Liz: I am a 27-year-old with a big investment question. The company I work for matches 401(k) contributions up to 9%, which is all well and fine since I contribute enough to receive the company match. I have just about $60,000 in my 401(k) and I have a Roth IRA on the side as well as a brokerage account for stocks. I would like to roll over my 401(k) into another IRA since the investment choices in the 401(k) are rather limited. I’m a big fan of investment diversification with different funds. Is this a good option to choose or is this a silly idea with no merit? I understand the tax implications involved but am willing to bite the bullet for more investment options.

Answer: Good for you for being so diligent about saving for retirement. Your early start should give you a lot of options when you’re older.

For now, your question has an easy answer. Typically, you can’t roll a 401(k) account into an IRA while you’re still working for the employer that provides the 401(k).

There are a few exceptions. Once you turn 59½, some plans do allow such rollovers. Also, a few plans offer “mega backdoor Roths” that allow you to contribute after-tax money to a 401(k) and then do an “in service” conversion to a Roth IRA. This option helps high-income people get around the income limitation that would otherwise prevent them from contributing to a Roth IRA.

You will have the option of rolling your money into an IRA once you leave your job, but don’t assume such a rollover is always the right choice.

Most 401(k)s offer enough options to give you plenty of diversification, plus you may have access to low-cost institutional funds that wouldn’t be available in an IRA. You’re also protected by federal law that requires the companies offering 401(k)s to act as fiduciaries — in other words, they must put your best interests first. You often have the option of rolling your 401(k) balance into a new employer’s plan, which means you would be able to take loans from the plan. That’s not an option with an IRA.

There are no tax implications for rolling over a 401(k), by the way. Only if you convert the money to a Roth IRA will you owe taxes. A conversion may make sense, but you’ll want to talk to a tax pro first.

Q&A: Pension: to lump or not to lump

Dear Liz: I’m 67 and I’m going to retire later this year. My wife is already retired, and our kids are grown and on their own. I have a 401(k) that I’ve contributed to for most of my working years, and a small traditional IRA. I also have a grandfathered pension plan through my employer. I’m leaning toward taking the pension benefits as a lump sum and rolling it directly to either my 401(k), which my company allows, or my IRA. Would you recommend using the 401(k) to receive the pension rollover? Or would the IRA be the better choice?

Answer: Before you decide where to put the lump sum, please reconsider taking a lump sum in the first place.

Pensions are normally taken as a stream of monthly payments that last for the rest of your lives. (You may be offered a “single life only” option that ends when you die, but that could leave your wife without enough to live on, so the “joint and survivor” option is typically better.) You can’t outlive this money, fraudsters can’t steal it and you won’t lose it to bad markets or bad investment decisions. Most pensions are protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so even if the plan goes broke, your payments will continue.

Contrast that with the lump sum. Theoretically, you may be able to invest the money and get a better return than what you would get from the annuity option (the monthly payments). But that’s far from guaranteed, and one misstep could leave you far worse off.

There are a few situations where taking a lump sum may be smart. If the pension plan is woefully underfunded, and your benefit would not be entirely protected by the PBGC, you could take the lump sum and either invest it or buy an immediate annuity that would replicate those guaranteed monthly payments.

Q&A: Maxing out retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I turn 70 in July. Will I need to wait to start my Social Security benefits until 2022 to receive my full benefit, or can I start them in August 2021?

Answer: There’s no need to wait to claim your benefits once they max out at age 70. If you did apply late, you could get a maximum of six months of retroactive benefits but no more.

Q&A: IRA intricacies when one spouse isn’t working

Dear Liz: Due to the pandemic, I did not work during 2020. Can I contribute to a spousal IRA for 2020 since my husband still has an income and will be contributing to his Roth IRA? Does it need to be a separate account from my existing IRAs?

Answer: As long as your husband has earned income, you can contribute to your IRA. You don’t need to set up a separate account to make this spousal contribution.

Whether or not your contribution is deductible will depend on your income and whether your husband is covered by a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k). If he’s not, your spousal contribution is fully deductible. If he is covered, then your ability to deduct your contribution phases out for a modified adjusted gross income of $196,000 to $206,000.