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.

Q&A: Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: I am a retired public employee and receive most of my compensation in monthly payments, for which I get a 1099R form at tax time. The rest of my compensation also comes in monthly installments and I receive an annual W-2 for that. My question is: Can I deposit my W-2 amount in a Roth IRA?

Answer: You must have earned income to contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA — which you apparently have, since you’re getting a W-2 form from an employer. Your ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out with adjusted gross income of $125,000 if you’re single or $198,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

Assuming you’re 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $7,000 or 100% of what you earn, whichever is less.

Q&A: Backdoor Roth Ira conversions

Dear Liz: I am 65, self-employed and have a SEP IRA as well as a Roth IRA. I’ve had a few low-income years, and I find myself in a very low tax bracket, most likely lower than when I begin to take distributions and collect Social Security in a few years. What are the steps for a “backdoor Roth” conversion? As a self-employed person, do I even qualify?

Answer: A backdoor Roth is a way for higher-paid people to get around the income limit for Roth contributions. If you’re in a low tax bracket, that limit likely isn’t a problem for you.

What you’re probably asking about is a basic Roth conversion, where you roll money from your pre-tax SEP IRA into a Roth and pay the resulting taxes. Such conversions can make sense if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket later and you don’t have to tap your account to pay the taxes, but they’re not a slam dunk.

A too-large conversion could push you into a higher bracket. or increase your Medicare premiums or both. (Higher Medicare premiums are imposed when modified adjusted gross incomes exceed $88,000 for singles or $176,000 for married couples filing jointly.)

Financial planners often recommend converting just enough to “fill out” a low tax bracket. Let’s say you’re single and currently in the 12% federal tax bracket, which ends at $40,525. If your income is $25,000, you might convert about $15,000 of your SEP to avoid being pushed into the next bracket, which is 22%.

A tax pro or fee-only financial planner could advise you about how to proceed.

Q&A: IRAs and tax considerations

Dear Liz: I’ve been researching the backdoor Roth IRA and I am finding some conflicting information regarding taxes owed on the conversions. I have two sizable rollover IRAs and one small ($1,600) traditional IRA. Can I make an after-tax contribution to the traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth and pay tax only on that IRA or do I have to consider all three IRAs?

Answer:
Sorry, but you have to consider all three. The tax on your conversion will be based on the pre-tax portion of all your IRAs combined, not just the IRA where you make your contribution.

Backdoor Roths allow people to get money into a Roth when their incomes are too high to make a direct contribution. Instead, they contribute to a traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth because conversions don’t have income limits. Conversions require paying taxes proportionately on your pre-tax contributions and earnings, however, so the technique may not be advisable when you have sizable pre-tax IRAs that will trigger a large tax bill.

Q&A: Here’s a strategy to save for retirement in a rush

Dear Liz: I’m hoping to retire in three years so I’m saving as much as possible. I’m maxing out my contributions to a 403(b) retirement plan, a 457(b) deferred compensation plan and a Roth IRA. I also contribute $1,000 each month from my paycheck to an after-tax defined contribution plan offered by my employer. A representative from the plan provider told me I should move the after-tax money into a Roth IRA via monthly rollovers as that will be “more tax efficient.” It means a monthly call, which I am happy to do if that is to my advantage. The rep explained it as “a backdoor Roth loophole” that allows one to contribute to a Roth IRA above and beyond the $7,000 limit. Is this advisable?

Answer: If your goal is to stuff more money into a Roth, then this could be a good way to do it.

Roths offer the option of tax-free money in retirement without minimum distribution requirements. That means you can leave the money alone to continue to grow tax free or use it to better manage your tax bill in retirement.

The ability to contribute directly to a Roth phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes of $140,000 for singles and $208,000 for married people filing jointly. People above those income limits can do a “backdoor Roth” by contributing to a traditional IRA and then converting the money to a Roth, since there’s no income limit on conversions. Taxes are owed on the portion of the conversion that represents pre-tax contributions and earnings, so this is usually a technique best used by people who don’t have big pre-tax IRAs.

The “mega backdoor Roth” puts this strategy on steroids. Instead of being held to the usual $6,000 annual IRA contribution limit (or $7,000 for people 50 and older), people make after-tax contributions of up to $58,000 a year to a workplace plan and then convert that money to a Roth IRA. The only tax owed would be on any gains the after-tax money earned between the time you contributed it and the time you converted it. You can have a big pre-tax IRA and still use this technique without that IRA triggering a lot of taxes.

While some plans require you to have left your job before you can make these rollovers, others — like yours — offer “in service” conversions that allow you to convert as you go, which can help minimize your tax bill. People who have to wait until they leave their job to convert will have to pay taxes on any gains the after-tax money has earned. Converting as you go minimizes the taxable gains and instead gets the money into the Roth so it can start growing tax free for you sooner. A monthly call seems like a small price to pay for this benefit, although sometimes the process can be automated. You might ask your employer if they could make that option available.

The $58,000, by the way, is the limit for all contributions to qualified plans. The money you contribute to your 403(b) and 457(a) is deducted from that limit, as are any matches your employer gives you. It’s typically a good idea to max out those pre-tax options, the way you’re doing, before you make any after-tax contributions.

Q&A: They paid off the mortgage rather than save for retirement. Now what?

Dear Liz: My wife and I aggressively paid down our mortgage and now have it paid off, but we don’t have much saved for retirement. I make about $90,000 a year and will receive a teacher’s pension that will replace between 30% and 60% of that (depending on what option we choose) when I retire in about 10 years. It probably won’t be enough to live on. We will receive no Social Security benefits. We have no other debts, and we would like to make up for lost time as best we can on retirement preparation. What is your best advice for people like us who have diligently paid off their mortgage but have not diligently put money away for retirement?

Answer: The older you get, the harder it is to make up for lost time with retirement savings. You probably can’t do it if retirement is just a few years away.

This is not to make you feel bad, but to serve as a warning for others tempted to prioritize paying off a mortgage over saving for retirement.

If you’re in your 50s, you’d typically need to save nearly half your income to equal what you could have accumulated had you put aside just 10% of your pay starting in your 20s. The miracle of compounding means even small contributions have decades to grow into considerable sums. Without the benefit of time, your contributions can’t grow as much so you have to put aside more.

But you can certainly save aggressively and consider a few alternatives for your later years.

Once you hit 50, you can benefit from the ability to make “catch up” contributions. For example, if you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 403(b), you can contribute as much as $26,000 — the $19,500 regular limit plus a $6,500 additional contribution for those 50 and older.

You and your spouse also can contribute as much as $7,000 each to an IRA; whether those contributions are deductible depends on your income and whether you’re covered by a workplace plan. If you’re covered, your ability to deduct your contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $105,000 to $125,000 for married couples filing jointly. If your spouse isn’t covered by a workplace plan but you are, her ability to deduct her contribution phases out with a modified adjusted gross income of $198,000 to $208,000. (All figures are for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct the contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead because withdrawals from a Roth are tax free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $198,000 and $208,000 for married couples filing jointly.

If possible, a part-time job in retirement could be extremely helpful in making ends meet. So could downsizing or tapping your home equity with a reverse mortgage. A fee-only financial planner could help you sort through your options, as well as help you figure out the best way to take your pension when the time comes.

Q&A: Retirement saving after layoff

Dear Liz: My husband and I are both in our early 50s and have been contributing the full amount to each of our 401(k) plans, plus the catch-up amounts since we turned 50. I was laid off in February 2020 and had only contributed $3,000. I had assumed I’d get a new job quickly, but as of now, I still have not. Fortunately, my husband still has a good job and has been able to make his full contribution plus the catch-up. Is there any way we can increase my contribution to retirement savings at this point? Can I fund an IRA if I already contributed to a 401(k)? We don’t want to lose any more ground.

Answer: The fact that you were both contributing the maximum amount — $26,000 each, or $52,000 total — is impressive. That, plus the fact that you’re still able to contribute given your unemployment, indicates your household income could affect your ability to deduct your IRA contributions.

You can still make the contributions, however. Anyone with earned income can contribute as much as $6,000 to an IRA (or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older) even if they’re covered by a workplace plan such as a 401(k). There used to be an age limit for IRA contributions, but that’s been eliminated. You have to earn at least as much as you contribute in the form of wages, salary or self-employment income. If you only earned $4,000 in 2020, for example, that’s the maximum you could contribute to an IRA.

Unemployment insurance doesn’t count as compensation, so you can’t use that — or interest, dividends, pension payments and other such nonwage income — to determine your contributions.

If you were covered by a workplace plan at any point in 2020, the ability to deduct your contribution phases out for modified adjusted gross incomes between $104,000 and $124,000 for married couples filing jointly for 2020. (The phaseout range rises to $105,000 to $125,000 for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money instead into a Roth IRA if possible. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA starts to phase out with a modified gross income of $196,000 in 2020 (and $198,000 in 2021).

If your income is too high and you don’t already have a large IRA, you could use the “back door Roth” maneuver by contributing to a regular IRA and then converting it to a Roth, since there are no income limits on conversions. (You have to pay taxes on any pretax money that’s converted this way, which is why this might not be an ideal approach for those with big IRAs.)

You also can open up a taxable brokerage account and invest an unlimited amount of money. Again, there’s no upfront deduction, but investments held for at least a year can qualify for favorable capital gains tax rates.

Investing in accounts with different tax treatments is a good idea in general, since it can help you better control your tax bill in retirement.

Q&A: Survivor vs. retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I was 21 and my husband was 69 when we got married. He died in 1992 after 13 years of marriage. Our young son and I received survivor benefits for years. I got remarried in 2000 and divorced in 2008. When I reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 8 months, could I still claim survivor benefits from my first husband?

Answer: Yes, although you may want to start them sooner.

If your second marriage had lasted, you wouldn’t have been eligible for survivor benefits based on your first husband’s earnings record. Widows and widowers who remarry before age 60 aren’t eligible for survivor benefits.

Since that marriage ended, though, you were eligible to begin benefits at age 60. You are also free to remarry at 60 or later without losing those benefits.

Starting before your full retirement age for survivor benefits, however, means your check would be reduced and also subject to the earnings test, which reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($18,960 in 2021).

As mentioned in a previous column, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is different from your full retirement age for retirement benefits. Since you were born in 1958, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is four months earlier, or 66 years and 4 months.

In most cases, starting a Social Security benefit early locks you into a smaller check permanently. With survivor benefits, though, you also have the option of switching to your own retirement benefit later, if it’s larger. The ability to switch benefits is severely limited with Social Security, but survivor benefits remain the exception.

Being eligible for survivor benefits complicates claiming decisions, so consider using a more sophisticated claiming calculator such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions to determine how best to file.

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.