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: What a bear market really means for your 401(k)

Dear Liz: With the stock market tanking and no rebound likely in the near future, should I decrease the amount I am contributing toward my retirement? I earn a high-five-figure salary and currently contribute 25% of my pay to my company’s 401(k). The current balance is $450,000 with about two-thirds held in a 2030 target date fund and the remainder in a 2035 target date fund. I hope to retire at the end of 2030 at age 64. I have no other retirement accounts, but I am married and my husband collects Social Security and a pension.

It’s hard putting hundreds of dollars into my 401(k) every two weeks only to watch it seemingly disappear. Would it be smart to decrease the percentage I contribute by 5% to 7% and then use that extra money to pay down a $40,000 home equity line of credit? Or should I just stay the course, keep my percentage the same and ride out this bear market?

Answer: Since you’re within 10 years of retirement, it’s time to hire a fee-only financial planner to get specific, individualized advice about your situation. The decisions you make in the years immediately before and after retirement can have a huge impact on how long your money lasts. Mistakes made in this time frame can be difficult if not impossible to reverse.

Take, for example, this impulse to reduce your contribution rate. Your money isn’t disappearing; it’s being used to buy stocks at a discount. When the market rebounds, as it inevitably will, those shares you bought on sale will benefit from the growth.

A planner would tell you not to cut retirement contributions simply because stocks had entered a bear market. The logical response to a bear market is to invest more, not less.

That said, variable rate debt is getting more expensive thanks to Federal Reserve Bank rate hikes. Reducing your 401(k) contributions a few percentage points to pay off that debt faster could make sense, especially if you’re not giving up free money in the form of a company match and your reduced savings rate will still allow you to retire on time.

Again, a fee-only financial planner could help you weigh your options and recommend the best path.

Q&A: Consider taxes before retirement

Dear Liz: I began converting two 401(k)s from previous employers to Roth IRAs. To lessen the huge tax hit, I decided to do the conversions over the course of seven years. Even with that, the tax hit is higher than I realized and too painful. Now that partial conversions have begun annually, am I required to complete the total conversion to 100%? Or can I stop midway and leave the remainder in the original accounts? Also, is there an age limit before which Roth conversions must be completed?

Answer: You don’t have to continue making conversions. (Before 2018, you could have even reversed conversions you already made, but that’s no longer possible.) There’s also no age limit for conversions, but the older you get, the less likely conversions are to make financial sense.

Conversions are a good bet if you expect to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement. If you’re young and in a low tax bracket now, you can reasonably expect that to be the case.

As you approach retirement, though, the opposite may be true. Many people find their tax bracket drops once they retire. Why pay a big tax bill now if you can access the money at a lower tax rate later?

Then again, if you’re a good saver, you may discover you’ve accumulated so much that your tax bill will soar once you’re required to start taking minimum distributions at age 72. If that’s the case, then converting some of your retirement money might save you on taxes overall.

But you’ll want to discuss this with a tax pro or financial planner who can model how the conversions are likely to affect your overall finances, including any Medicare premiums, since those can increase with income.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: It appears required minimum distributions will force me to take an additional $3,500 per month from my retirement funds starting in four years at age 72. This added taxable draw will greatly impact my income tax liabilities as I’m now fully retired. Are there any strategies at this time to reduce the hit? As my current income tax rate is 12% federal and 9% state, perhaps I should convert some of these funds to Roth IRAs?

Answer: Partial Roth conversions when your tax bracket is low can be an excellent way to reduce future mandatory withdrawals and save on taxes in the long run.

Let’s say you’re married filing jointly and have $60,000 in taxable income. The 12% federal tax bracket ends at $83,550, so you could convert more than $23,000 of your retirement funds without increasing your marginal federal tax rate. Conversions can affect other aspects of your taxes and finances, so consult a tax pro before proceeding.

Another way to potentially lower your tax bill may be to temporarily suspend your Social Security payments and take more from your retirement funds. Because of the peculiar way that Social Security is taxed, people often face a sharp rise and then fall in marginal tax rates when they have other income, something known as the “tax torpedo.” A tax pro should be able to determine if delaying or suspending Social Security payments could help you reduce the effects.

Q&A: How to minimize taxes after you retire

Roth conversionsDear Liz: In preparing my 2021 tax returns, I was dismayed to find out that my first required minimum distributions from my retirement account have pushed me into the highest tax bracket ever in my life and caused 85% of my modest Social Security benefit to become taxable. Since I retired five years ago at full retirement age, I never had to pay taxes on my Social Security as it was the majority of my income. In my remaining years, I wonder if there is anything I can do to avoid paying about $8,000 to $9,000 a year in income taxes!? Even a partial conversion from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA would surely increase my Medicare Part B premium, another financial problem. I am not rich, just average middle class, and my financial goals are to carefully plan my necessary expenses so that I will not run out of funds. I do not need to leave an inheritance to my two adult children.

Answer: You’re probably correct that Roth conversions aren’t the answer now, although they may have been helpful earlier. You also may have been able to reduce the overall taxes you pay by waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security and taking distributions from your 401(k) instead.

You can discuss your situation with a tax pro to see if there are any other opportunities for reducing your taxes. Mostly, though, your situation is a good illustration of why it’s so important to get professional financial planning and tax advice well before you retire. Even if you think you’re well informed, you’re inexperienced — you’ve never retired before, whereas experienced financial planners and tax pros have guided many people through this phase of their lives.

Some of the decisions you make around retirement are irreversible and can have a profound effect on how much money you can spend. Ideally, you’d meet with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner five to 10 years in advance of your retirement date and have several check-ins to make sure your financial plan is sound before you give notice.

Q&A: A gray area in required distributions

Dear Liz: I’ve reached that “certain age” when I should be taking required minimum distributions from my retirement accounts. I retired from full-time work at age 65 but continued doing small jobs at an hourly rate for that same employer. I set my own hours and earn just a couple thousand bucks a year. The company that holds my retirement funds says I don’t have to take the required minimum distribution because I never retired. I don’t want to be penalized for failing to take the RMD, and I can’t believe I get to delay taking the funds. Have I found a little-known loophole?

Answer: You’ve found a definite gray area.

People who are still working for the employer who provides their 401(k) may be exempted from the required minimum withdrawals that are otherwise supposed to start at age 72. The exemption does not apply to IRAs or retirement plans from previous employers. The exemption also doesn’t apply if you own more than 5% of the company, and not all 401(k) plans offer a “still working” exemption.

The IRS hasn’t offered a lot of guidance about the still-working exemption. For example, there doesn’t seem to be a clear minimum number of hours that an individual must work, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Luscombe says the exemption may depend in part on the minimum number of hours required to participate in the plan. Even then, though, it’s not clear that an employee could reduce the number of hours working from a full-time level to a part-time level and still qualify for the still-working exception, he said.

“This could be a discrimination issue if higher-paid employees were allowed to reduce their hours and lower-paid employees were not,” Luscombe notes.

The company might need a written rule that all employees are allowed to reduce their hours at a certain age, Luscombe said.

If a particular plan permits part-time employees working at least 500 hours per year to qualify for its 401(k) plan, for example, then perhaps working at least 500 hours per year meets the still-working standard for that plan.

You’ll want to get some clarity about this, because the penalty for not taking required minimum distributions on time is high — it’s 50% of the amount you should have taken but didn’t. If the plan doesn’t have clear rules, ask your company to create some to guide you and others in your situation.

Q&A: Social Security and government pensions

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions from jobs that don’t pay into Social Security. I’m wondering what those jobs are. Are they just part of the gig economy, or is there some other category of jobs that don’t pay into Social Security?

Gig economy jobs are supposed to pay into Social Security, just like the vast majority of other occupations. People with gig jobs are often considered to be self-employed, so instead of paying just 6.2% of their gross wages into Social Security like most workers, they also pay the employer’s 6.2%, for a total of 12.4% of their earnings.

Some state and local governments have their own pension systems that don’t require workers to pay into Social Security. People who get pensions from those systems and who also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs can be affected by the windfall elimination provision, which can reduce their Social Security benefit. They also can be affected by the government pension offset, which can reduce or even eliminate spousal and survivor benefits from Social Security. Here’s an example:

Dear Liz: I am 59, retired, and receive a pension of approximately $150,000 a year. My husband receives a small pension, about $1,000 a month, and Social Security disability due to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. I am the sole financial support of my 88-year-old destitute mother, who requires care that costs approximately $5,000 a month. I retired earlier than anticipated to care for my ailing mother and husband.

Although I worked many years where I paid into Social Security, I knew I would receive only about half of my Social Security check due to the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions received from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. What I didn’t know is that when my husband passes, I will receive no survivor benefits from his 41-plus years of paying into the system.

Our entire retirement planning was based on his Social Security combined with my pension. He’s just a few months from passing, and I will not be receiving anything, which will immediately put me in an untenable financial position. How is it that after 30 years of marriage I will receive nothing because I have a pension? This just doesn’t seem right. Do I have any options?

Answer: Your situation shows why it’s so important to get sound advice about Social Security before retiring because many people don’t understand the basics of how benefits work.

Even if you didn’t have a pension, for example, your income would have dropped at your husband’s death. When one spouse dies, one of the couple’s two Social Security benefits goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two checks the couple received.

Your pension is much, much larger than the maximum you could have received from Social Security in any case. If you can’t get by without your husband’s benefit, consider ways to reduce your expenses. Because your mother is destitute, she may be eligible for Medicaid, the government healthcare program for the poor. Unlike Medicare, Medicaid pays the costs of nursing home and other custodial care expenses. Contact your state Medicaid office for details.

Q&A: Lump sum or annuity?

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether to take a lump sum or an annuity payout from a pension. I think you need to be more cautious about making a blanket statement about the payout being the only viable option. There are other reasons for taking the lump sum, such as the pension fund’s stability. My mother’s friend lost her entire pension when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. Also, I like the idea of being able to access the lump sum in the case of a catastrophic need (call me a control freak!).

Answer: You certainly can access more of your money with a lump sum, but that’s a double-edged sword. You could withdraw too much too fast and run out of money. You could lose money to bad markets, bad investments, bad decisions and fraud. Even if you’re making good financial decisions now, that may not always be the case as our cognitive abilities tend to decline with age.

The column you’re referencing didn’t say that an annuity is the only viable option, however. In that particular case, the annuity option came with retiree health insurance while the lump sum option did not. It would be pretty hard to top guaranteed income for life plus medical benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A lump sum could be a better option if the pension is particularly generous and the pension fund isn’t solvent. Your mother’s friend’s pension, for example, was covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so she didn’t lose the whole thing when Bethlehem Steel went under. Workers there lost part of what was promised them because their pensions were larger than the amount covered by the PBGC.

Q&A: Windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: I just read your answer regarding the windfall elimination provision question. I receive a pension after having retired from law enforcement. I was fortunate to be able to retire at 46. Then I landed a great job with excellent pay. I expect to pay into Social Security for a total of 17 years and I’ve been contributing the maximum for the last six. How will this affect my benefits? Will I still be penalized?

Answer: The only way the windfall elimination provision wouldn’t affect you is if you paid into Social Security for 30 years or more. If you pay Social Security taxes for 20 years or less, you’ll face the full impact of this provision, which affects those who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. Starting at year 21, the effect begins to lessen until it disappears at year 30.

You can learn more about what to expect on Social Security’s site. Some of the paid Social Security claiming strategy sites, including Maximize My Social Security and Social Security Solutions, can incorporate the windfall elimination provision into their calculations if you want to model how different retirement dates might affect your benefits.

Q&A: Lump sum or monthly payout?

Dear Liz: I need advice on choosing between a lump sum retirement benefit and a monthly payout till death (with a cost of living adjustment). The monthly payout option also includes health insurance benefits but the lump sum option does not.

Answer: It’s hard to imagine a better option than a guaranteed, inflation-adjusted stream of income for life — particularly if that option includes retiree health insurance benefits, which are increasingly rare.

If you take the lump sum, you’ll be responsible for investing the money with no guarantees that you’ll get as much as if you’d picked the payment option. A bad market or bad investments could dramatically reduce your nest egg, as could fraud or improvident spending.

Even if you’re a good investor now, there’s no guarantee you’ll remain so. Our financial decision-making abilities tend to decline with age, although our confidence in those abilities often remains high — a truly scary combination.

The devil’s always in the details, though, so take the paperwork describing these options to a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner so you can get customized advice based on your situation.

You can get referrals to fiduciary financial planners from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, the Garrett Planning Network and the XY Planning Network. The Garrett network represents advisors willing to charge by the hour; XY Planning Network advisors offer the option of paying a retainer fee.

Be absolutely sure you’re dealing with a fiduciary financial planner — one who agrees, in writing, to put your best interests first.

Most advisors are held to a lower “suitability” standard that allows them to recommend investments and strategies that pay them more, rather than those that may be the best fit for you. An advisor held to this lower standard may urge you to take the lump sum not because it’s in your best interest but because they can earn commissions by selling you various investments.