Q&A: Retirees and mobile home parks

Dear Liz: I’ve been following the discussion of the reader who was 70 and trying to decide between renting in a senior living facility versus buying a second-floor condo with no elevator. There is a third choice for people who are older and cannot stay in their present residence. We moved to a senior citizen manufactured-home park. It has a clubhouse, and before the COVID epidemic the park had all kinds of activities. It is a great place for seniors.

Answer: That’s a good suggestion and actually just one of many choices people have to age safely. Many mobile home parks are “naturally occurring retirement communities,” a term for areas that weren’t necessarily created for seniors but that nonetheless have a high concentration of older folks. At their best, these organic retirement communities provide services and activities that benefit seniors, including opportunities for socializing and the sense that their neighbors are looking out for them.

Q&A: What to consider when deciding whether to buy or rent a home

Dear Liz: I’m just turning 70 and am on my own for the first time in my life. In the last three years I took care of both my 100-year-old mother and my husband as their health failed. My daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado and are going to have a baby, and I plan on moving there in the near future.

I had originally planned to move into a senior living apartment complex. Then my children said I should buy a condo for the freedom, privacy and potential investment. They found a condo building under construction with units I could afford, plus a mortgage company willing to take me on and help with the down payment.

I’m torn about what to do. Because of both bad luck and bad decisions, currently I have only about $18,000 in savings. Between my pension and Social Security I make about $47,000 a year.

Do I invest in the condo and use up a good chunk of my savings? It’s on the second floor (the steps aren’t very steep, fortunately) and I’m strong and in good shape, but I’m also 70 and things can go south quickly. But, as the kids have said, I could live there for 10 years and make a good profit from the sale.

Or do I move into the senior living apartment and keep my savings but face regular increases in rent (thus “throwing my money away”)? The senior complex has amenities and activities and elevators but lots of people around all the time (thus sacrificing some privacy). Having a place of my own would be so wonderful, but I need to be smart about this decision.

Answer: Younger people often don’t understand about stairs. No, they’re not a big deal now, but even a few steps can become a huge barrier if you have mobility issues — and those issues become more likely the older you get. Having an elevator or a unit on the ground floor, preferably with a zero-step entry, is a good insurance policy against the vicissitudes of aging.

Besides, you aren’t necessarily throwing money away when you rent. You’re buying freedom. You don’t have to worry about paying for repairs and other unpredictable costs, and you can move more easily if your circumstances change. People are often advised to rent first when they move to a new area, just so they can get a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of various neighborhoods before they commit. Renting also could give you a chance to build up your reserves so that if you do decide to buy, you won’t be quite so
house poor.

Having more people around isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. You’re newly widowed, and moving to an area where you presumably don’t know many people. The senior complex could make it a lot easier to make friends. A good social network is essential to staying mentally and physically healthy as we age.

Q&A: Managing retirement savings

Dear Liz: I’m considering converting an old 401(k) to a Roth IRA. Will the gains from the 401(k) account be treated as capital gains? And can you only convert 401(k) plans you no longer participate in, or can you convert both current and former 401(k) plans?

Answer: You’ll pay income taxes on the conversion. Retirement plans, including 401(k)s and IRAs, don’t qualify for capital gains tax rates. You may be able to convert your current 401(k) as well. Ask your plan administrator if “in plan Roth conversions” are allowed.

Q&A: Backdoor Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: You mentioned in a previous column that a backdoor Roth contribution could be expensive if you have a large pretax IRA. I was in that situation, and opted to first roll my IRA into my employer’s 401(k). I then made a nondeductible contribution to a new IRA and shortly afterward converted it to a Roth. This allowed me to get money into a Roth without a big tax bill.

Answer: That’s a great solution for those who have access to 401(k) plans that accept such transfers, and many do.

For those who don’t know, backdoor Roths are a two-step process for people whose incomes are too high to contribute directly to a Roth. Instead, they contribute to a regular IRA and then convert that money to a Roth because there’s no income limit on conversions.

Taxes are usually owed on Roth conversions, based on how much pretax money you have in IRAs. But the conversion can be tax free if the contribution was nondeductible, you convert shortly after the contribution and you don’t already have a pre-tax money IRA.

Some questioned the legality of this particular loophole, but Congress blessed it in 2017 as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.

Q&A: Retirement funds and creditors

Dear Liz: I keep reading conflicting things about 401(k)s and IRAs. If I roll over my 401(k) from my previous employer into an IRA, is it still protected from creditors? I’ve left it in the old 401(k) plan for now because I’ve read IRAs can be seized in lawsuits or bankruptcy, or alternatively that only $1 million is protected and the rest could be at risk. I’ve read that if I leave it in the 401(k), the whole amount is protected. Can you please help clear up this confusion so I can make a wise decision?

Answer: Your 401(k) is protected from creditors, full stop. Federal law bans creditors from taking money in a pension plan that was set up under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and that includes 401(k)s as well as traditional pensions.

Your IRA is protected in bankruptcy court up to a certain amount, currently $1,362,800. Whether creditors outside of bankruptcy court can access your IRA funds depends on state law. In California, for example, there’s no specific dollar amount.

If a creditor wins a judgment against you and goes after your IRA, a court would decide how much of the account was necessary for your support and protect that. The rest could go to the creditor.

Q&A: Here’s why two 401(k) accounts aren’t better than one

Dear Liz: I changed jobs more than three years ago and did not roll over my 401(k) when I started a 401(k) account with my new employer. I’m perfectly happy having separate accounts. However, I’ve read some IRS rules that I cannot understand about being penalized for not contributing to a 401(k) for five years. So my question: After turning 59½, will I face any sort of penalty or loss when I begin withdrawing funds from a 401(k) account that has been sitting idle?

Answer: There’s no penalty for not contributing to an old 401(k). In fact, you cannot contribute to an old 401(k). Once you leave the employer that sponsored the plan, you generally can’t put any more money into it.

What you may have stumbled upon are IRS rules that apply to employers who sponsor 401(k) plans that have a profit-sharing component.

Employers aren’t required to make contributions to these plans every year — there may be years when there’s no profit to share — but their contributions have to be “recurring and substantial.” If the employer hasn’t made contributions in three of the past five consecutive years, the plan could be terminated, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

That obviously doesn’t apply to your situation, and if you want to continue managing two 401(k) accounts, you’re welcome to do so. But consider rolling the money into your new employer’s plan, if it’s a good one and accepts such transfers. That would mean one fewer account you need to track and also could give you access to more money if you wanted to take out a loan.

Q&A: IRA confusion leads to disappointment

Dear Liz: Many years ago, I read in a personal finance magazine about a mutual fund company that paid $1 million to a customer who had an IRA for 40 years. So I started an IRA at that company in December 1992 and paid $10,000. As of today, that account is worth only $80,000. What happened to the high payoff?

Answer: First things first. The maximum you were supposed to contribute to an IRA in 1992 was $2,000. If you were able to contribute more, you may have opened a different type of account, such as a regular taxable brokerage account. Either that or you have some explaining to do to the IRS.

Also, IRAs hadn’t been around for 40 years in 1992. They were created in 1974 by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. So what you probably read in the magazine was a hypothetical example of what someone might accumulate over time in an IRA. Someone who contributed $2,000 a year to an IRA for 40 years could wind up with $1 million, but only with returns in excess of 10%.

Actual returns historically have been closer to 8%, but that’s an average. Some years it’s less, some years it’s more. There are no guarantees. What you end up with depends on how you invested the money and what fees you paid, among other factors. If your investment had done as well as the broader stock market, as measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500, you would have over $100,000 by now.

If your money is in an IRA, you could move it to be a better investment, such as a low-cost, broad-market index fund, without tax consequences. If it’s not in an IRA, then selling the investment to buy another could generate a tax bill, so consult a tax pro before taking any action.

Q&A: Side effects of IRA conversions

Dear Liz: I thought your readers would benefit from additional knowledge about Roth conversions. I started converting our IRAs to Roth IRAs when my wife and I turned 60 years old. Years later, I realized that our premiums for Medicare Part B and D were higher because our income in those years exceeded $174,000.

Answer: Triggering Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) is just one of the potential side effects of a later-in-life Roth conversion.

That’s not to say these conversions are a bad idea.

People with substantial amounts in traditional retirement accounts might benefit from transferring some of that money to Roth IRAs, particularly if the required minimum withdrawals that start at age 72 would push them into a higher tax bracket. They may have a window after they retire, when their tax bracket dips, to convert money and pay the tax bill at a lower rate.

Roths also don’t have the required minimum distributions that apply to other retirement accounts, so people have more control over their future tax bills.

Converting too much, however, can push people into higher tax brackets. Many financial advisors suggest their clients convert just enough to “fill out” their current bracket.

For example, the 12% bracket for married people filing jointly was $19,401 to $78,950 in 2019. A couple with income in the $50,000 range might convert $28,000 or so, because a larger conversion would push them into the 22% tax bracket.

But there are other considerations, as you discovered.

People with modified adjusted incomes above certain levels pay IRMAA adjustments that can add $144.60 to $491.60 each month to their Medicare Part B premiums for doctor visits and $12.20 to $76.40 to their monthly Part D drug coverage premiums. Higher income could reduce or eliminate tax breaks that are subject to income phaseouts, and conversions can subject more of your Social Security benefits to taxation.

At the very least, you should consult a tax pro before any Roth conversions to make sure you understand the ramifications. Ideally, you’d also be talking with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner to make sure conversions, and your retirement plan in general, make sense.

Q&A: IRA conversions and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently advised a reader that if their income was too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, they could still contribute to an IRA or any after-tax options in their 401(k). You didn’t mention a two-step Roth IRA — first making a nondeductible contribution to an IRA and then immediately converting that amount to a Roth. That way those people whose income is too high to contribute to a direct Roth IRA can still have a Roth IRA using the two-step process.

Answer: This is known as a backdoor Roth contribution, which takes advantage of the fact that the income limits that apply to Roth contributions don’t apply to Roth conversions. Conversions, however, typically incur tax bills and don’t make sense for everyone. If you have a substantial amount of pretax money in IRAs, the tax bill can be considerable. (The tax bill is figured using all your IRAs, by the way. You can’t get around it just by contributing to a separate IRA that you then convert.)

Incurring that tax bill could make sense if you expect to be in the same tax bracket in retirement, or in a higher one. If you’re young and a good saver, it’s a good bet that will be the case. Roth conversions also can be advisable later in life if your tax bracket could jump when you reach age 72 and have to start taking required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, however, you probably should forgo Roth conversions because you’ll pay more now in taxes than you would later.

Of course, if you have little or no pretax money in your IRA, then backdoor conversions get a lot more attractive because the tax bill would be minimal. Otherwise, you should seek out a Roth conversion calculator to get a better idea of whether a conversion might be the right choice.

Q&A: Retirement accounts and taxes

Dear Liz: I am 41 and have had a traditional IRA for about two decades. I funded it for the first 10 years, taking a tax deduction for the contributions. Since I’ve had a 401(k) with my employer for the past several years, I obviously cannot take a deduction for the IRA amount, but I could still put money in. My 401(k) is fully funded, as is my husband’s. Does it make sense to also fund our IRAs with post-tax, nondeductible amounts? I realize any gains we make will be taxed at withdrawal, but I also know that as long as the money stays in the IRA, it can grow tax deferred.

Answer: First, congratulations on taking full advantage of your workplace retirement plans and still being able to contribute more.

You potentially can deduct contributions to IRAs when you have a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan, but your income must be below certain limits. You can take a full deduction if your modified adjusted gross income is $104,000 or less as a married couple filing jointly. After that, the ability to deduct the contribution starts to phase out and is eliminated entirely if your modified adjusted gross income is $124,000 or more. (If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan but your spouse does, the income limits are higher. The deduction starts to phase out at $196,000 and ends at $206,000.)

If you can’t deduct contributions, you can look into contributing to a Roth IRA — but that too has income limits. For a married couple filing jointly, the ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out at modified adjusted gross income of $196,000 and ends at $206,000. If you can contribute, it’s a good deal. Roth IRAs don’t offer an upfront tax break but withdrawals in retirement can be tax free. You also can leave the money alone for as long as you want — there are no required minimum withdrawals starting at age 72, as there typically are for other retirement accounts.

If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth, you could still contribute to your IRA or to any “after tax” options in your 401(k). But you might want to consider simply investing through a regular taxable brokerage account. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction but you could still benefit from favorable capital gains tax rates if you hold investments for a year or more. Furthermore, you aren’t required to take withdrawals. That flexibility can help you better manage your tax bill in retirement.