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: A felony doesn’t preclude you from Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: If someone has a felony, is it true they cannot claim Social Security retirement benefits? If so, what is the best option: a Roth IRA or a brokerage account? How do they get started without a lot of money?

Answer: A felony does not prevent you from claiming Social Security in the future if you work enough years to qualify for benefits. If you were already receiving retirement benefits when you were convicted, your payments would typically be suspended while you were incarcerated but resumed when you got out.

That said, Social Security usually isn’t enough to live on, so you’ll want to have money in retirement accounts as well. An IRA or a Roth IRA are both good options. The IRA reduces your taxes upfront while Roth IRAs reduce your taxes in the future. Low- and moderate-income taxpayers also can get a tax credit, called the Savers Credit, for retirement contributions.

If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, look for brokerages that have low fees and no account minimums, such as Fidelity, ETrade, TD Ameritrade and Charles Schwab, among others.

Once you open the account, you’ll need to figure out how to invest.

If you’re new to investing, consider using target date funds. These investments are labeled by year, and you pick the year that’s closest to your future retirement. The fund does the rest of the work such as picking the stocks and bonds, rebalancing the mix and getting more conservative as the retirement date approaches.

Robo-advisors such as Betterment or SoFi are another low-cost solution that does most of the work for you.

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: The IRS is finally staffing up. Here’s how to get your coronavirus stimulus money

Dear Liz: We do not make enough income to file tax returns, so we used the IRS site to apply for our economic stimulus payment ($1,700 for one adult and one teenage child). We received a response email stating our information was received successfully by the IRS several weeks ago. We included our bank deposit information for a fast direct deposit but the money has not arrived and we hear that the government ran out of money. We are desperate. What can we do or who can we speak with about this delay?

Answer: The government did not run out of money, and at a minimum you should be able to file a tax return next year to get your stimulus payment as a refundable credit. Since you need the money now, though, you should follow up with the IRS.

The IRS has reopened the general taxpayer helpline that was shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has also added thousands of phone reps to a special hotline to deal with stimulus payment problems: (800) 919-9835. That’s the number you should call to inquire about your payment.

(Previous columns have dealt with people’s refunds being held up because the IRS didn’t have enough workers to open its mail. Tax processing centers are reopening, but it will take awhile to work through the backlog. You can check the status of a refund through the “Where’s My Refund?” tool on the IRS site or by calling (800) 829-1954.)

Q&A: Tapping IRA creates a taxing problem

Dear Liz: I took $250,000 out of my retirement account in 2019 to set up five 529 accounts for my young grandchildren. As a result, my federal and state tax bills are $80,000. I’ll need to take that money out of my IRA. Will I keep having to pay large tax bills in order to pay for that one-time large withdrawal?

Answer: While your heart was in the right place, your money wasn’t. Withdrawals from IRAs are taxable, and such a large withdrawal almost certainly pushed you into a much higher tax bracket. If you had consulted a financial planner or a tax pro, they would have advised you to either fund the 529s from a non-retirement account or to make smaller withdrawals over several years to avoid such a big tax hit.

If you continue to tap your IRA, you will continue to owe taxes on the money you withdraw. The $80,000 will incur state and federal taxes. If you again pay the tax bill on the $80,000 using your IRA, you’ll owe taxes on that money as well, and so on.

You may not think that’s fair, but the reason your IRA is taxable now is because you got a tax deduction when you made the original contributions, and the money has been growing tax deferred in the meantime. Eventually, the government wants to get paid back for those tax breaks.

Q&A: Inheriting an IRA can get messy

Dear Liz: My brother passed away at age 47. My mother was named beneficiary of his retirement account. We opened an inherited IRA under her name. Sadly, my mother recently passed away, and my father is the beneficiary of the account. Does my father open a regular IRA or inherited IRA? How would the title on the account be listed with my mother and brother deceased? Are they both listed?

Answer: Inheriting an inherited IRA complicates an already complex set of rules.

The regulations are different depending on whether the person inheriting is a spouse. Spouses can treat the inherited account as their own. They can leave the money where it is, make new contributions or transfer the funds to another retirement account they own. They also have more flexibility in how to take required minimum distributions from the account.

Non-spouse beneficiaries, like your mother, don’t have the option of treating the IRA as their own. They must set up a new inherited IRA and start distributions. Until this year, non-spouse beneficiaries could take distributions over their lifetimes. Now non-spouse beneficiaries are required to drain their inherited IRAs within 10 years.

How the account is titled is important, because improper titling can cause it to lose tax deferral and accelerate the tax bill. Let’s say your brother’s name was Tom Johnson and he died in March 2019, leaving his IRA to your mother, Mabel Johnson. A correct title for the new inherited IRA would be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Mabel Johnson.”

Your family’s situation creates a hybrid of the two situations. Your dad would have an inherited spousal IRA, but his mandatory withdrawals would be based on your mother’s required minimum distributions, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Your dad should open a new inherited IRA, Luscombe says. Assuming his name is Bill Johnson, the title of the inherited IRA should be “Tom Johnson (deceased March 2019) Inherited IRA for the benefit of Bill Johnson, successor beneficiary of Mabel Johnson.”

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: I agree with this concept of delaying Social Security to lessen overall taxes and have a further suggestion. My spouse and I are gradually converting our traditional IRA account funds to Roth IRAs. The converted funds are immediately taxable but could continue to gain in value and future distributions would not be taxable. Also, Roth accounts don’t have required minimum distributions.

Answer: Conversions make the most sense when you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

That’s not the case for most people because they’re in a lower tax bracket when they stop working. Some older people, however, do face higher tax rates in retirement — typically because they’ve been good savers, and required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts will push their tax rates higher.

When that’s the case, they may be able to take advantage of their current lower tax rate to do a series of Roth conversions.

The math can be tricky, though, so it’s advisable to get help from a tax pro or financial planner. You don’t want to convert too much and push yourself into a higher tax bracket, or trigger higher Medicare premiums.

If your intention is to leave retirement money to your heirs, Roth conversions may also make sense now that Congress has eliminated the stretch IRA.

Stretch IRAs used to allow non-spouse beneficiaries — often children and grandchildren — to take money out of an inherited IRA gradually over their lifetimes. This spread out the tax bill and allowed the funds to continue growing. Now inherited IRAs typically have to be drained within 10 years if the inheritor is not a spouse.

To compensate, some people are converting IRAs to Roths — essentially paying the tax bill now, so their heirs won’t have to do so later. Heirs would still have to withdraw all the money in an inherited Roth IRA within 10 years, but taxes would not be owed.

Q&A: Which to tap first: IRA or Social Security?

Dear Liz: I retired in 2015 but have not started Social Security. My wife and I are living on a pension and savings. I read an article saying that taking early IRA withdrawals and holding off on Social Security can help minimize the so-called tax torpedo, which is a sharp rise and fall in marginal tax rates due to the way Social Security benefits are taxed.

I made a spreadsheet to compare the cumulative income we could expect by starting IRA withdrawals now and delaying Social Security until age 70, versus starting Social Security now and delaying the IRA withdrawals. The spreadsheets indicate that by taking early IRA distributions and delaying Social Security, we would get a significant increase in total cumulative income as the years go by.

We feel we need a professional to verify our results and perhaps advise us as to which might be our best route, as well as getting an assessment of our income tax implications for the next five years or so. My wife thinks we should ask a Certified Public Accountant and is concerned about the price of a fee-only advisor.

Answer: Your findings are similar to what researchers reported in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. The tax torpedo increases marginal tax rates for many middle-income households. One solution is to delay Social Security until age 70 and tap IRAs instead. That maximizes the Social Security benefit while reducing future required minimum distributions.

It’s always a good idea to get an objective second opinion on retirement distributions, however. Mistakes can be costly and irreversible. A fee-only certified financial planner should have access to powerful software that can model various scenarios to help confirm your results and guide your next steps.