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Articles, wit and wisdom about retirement planning, tax management and living a long life.


A No-Regrets Retirement Guide for Procrastinators

 It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.  -- Margaret Mead

In your fifties or sixties? 

If you’re like most people our age, you may have a regret or two. 

Research by Cornell Psychology Professor, Thomas Gilovich, shows what we regret most in life is not the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Instead, the things we didn’t do produce the most regrets. It turns out that we regret the most are the times we failed to act.

Regrets and Retirement Planning

Nowhere is this truer than in retirement planning. For most of us, our regrets span both saving for retirement (never enough) and failure to manage our retirement once it has started.  

Rare is the individual who can say that they have it completely together in planning and managing their retirement.  If you feel this failure applies to you, it turns out you are in good company. A 2018 Northwestern Mutual study found that 21 percent of Americans of all ages have nothing at all saved for the future. Another 10 percent have less than $5,000 saved for their golden years. A 2017 study by Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed retirement savings.  The study found the median retirement savings for Americans between age 55 and 64 were $107,000.  The reasons for our nation’s savings shortfalls are as varied as people themselves. Examples include: 

  • Failure to get into the retirement savings habit;
  • Unexpected and uninsured loss of an income provider;
  • Divorce; 
  • Protracted family illnesses; 
  • Education expenses or debt; 
  • Investments that have gone awry. 

Professor Gilovich would tell us that no matter what the reasons are, they don’t matter now. What is important is what happens next. Professor Gilovich advises that we tackle our potential future regrets head-on. “As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it’; Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”

How to “Just do it” for your retirement?

What follows is a short guide to “just doing it.”

1. Start by calculating retirement assets and income. Your first step should be to look at your financial situation with the long view in mind. First, add up your existing assets. Factor in social security (click here to see the social security administration’s benefits estimator). The benefits estimator tool may provide you with some important insights into how long you will want to keep working. For example, while you may start to receive Social Security at age 62, you should study your options. The Social Security Administration pays a smaller benefit to people who begin receiving payments at age 62. It pays more, for example, to people who wait until age 66 or age 70. If you enjoy what you are doing, are in good health, and can keep working, you may enjoy receiving benefits later. Indeed, Social Security benefits increase every month you do not take them until you reach age 70. After a retiree’s 70th birthday, there is no economic benefit for continuing to wait. For more on this topic go to the Social Security Benefits Planner. You may also find useful an article about the tradeoffs between taking early and late distributions in this article by the Motley Fool.

2. Project Living Expenses in Retirement. You need to look at what you are going to need in retirement to cover your expenses.  Be sure to include rent, food, medical expenses and other costs of day-to-day living. If there is a shortfall – and there is for many of us – don’t panic.  No matter how small your savings is now, the most important thing you can do at this stage is to begin. Start by projecting what your expenses are. 

3. Start Problem-solving. Here are some examples of places in your budget where you can find money:

a. Save on Housing Expense. A smaller home or apartment may make sense now.  Many of us with grown children live in houses that are far too large for our needs.  Moving to a smaller home in a different state, county, or even a school district can be liberating. Such a transition can mean less monthly living expense and less day-to-day maintenance. Often, the result is a net improvement in the quality of life.

b. Save on Debt. This time of life is often a great time to pay off credit card debt built up over the years.  Helping your kids through their various stages in life can create credit card debt.  Debt consolidation either using home equity or other forms of credit can make sense. Also, it may be a good time to explore refinancing to a 15-year mortgage. A fifteen-year mortgage may move you to a net higher payment. Paying off your mortgage in your fifties and sixties paves the way to rent-free living in your seventies and eighties. Even more enticing, after age 62 a reverse mortgage becomes an option. 

c. Save on Day-to-day Expenses. Don’t be ashamed to grab senior discounts, they are everywhere. Look for them in grocery stores, movie theaters, ballparks, hotels. Finding and using these discounts can become a part of your routine. To get you started, here is a list of senior discounts

d. Consider Small Investments that Reduce Your Living Expenses. For example,  you can reduce your electricity costs. Many states provide incentives for residential investments in solar power and geothermal heating and cooling. The Federal Government also provides an investment tax credit for these kinds of investments.  Start a garden. If you spend a lot of money watering on your property, a humble rain barrel can provide decades of savings on irrigation.

e. Consider Working Longer. For those who are able, keeping working post-retirement is a sensible way to fill up the savings tank. This may mean a transition to a second career which may be different from what you pursue in the present. For example,  after working many years in larger companies, you may move to more entrepreneurial endeavors. Self-employment means never having to face mandatory retirement! Whatever you choose, remember that you have many, many life skills you can leverage.

f. Increase Retirement Savings as You Can. There is good news from the US government. Believe it or not, Uncle Sam has created incentives for you to save in your later years. Provisions for retirement planning procrastinators include “catch-up contributions.” The catch-up contribution provides for accelerated retirement savings after age 50. The limit for employees aged 50 and over who take part in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (2019) is $6,000. The catch-up contribution limit for individuals aged 50 and over to the Individual Retirement Plan is $1,000. To learn more follow the link to IR-2018-211 released by the Internal Revenue Service on November 1, 2018.

g. Reduce your Medical Expenses with Medicare. If you are within three months of your 65th birthday, you can sign up for Medicare. Medicare is the national health insurance program for people age 65 or older. Part A helps pay for inpatient care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility. Part B helps pay for doctors’ services and many other medical services. Most people age 65 or older are eligible for free Medicare hospital insurance (Part A) if they have worked and paid Medicare taxes long enough. You should sign up for Medicare hospital insurance (Part A)  3 months before your 65th birthday.  Sign up even if you do not want to begin receiving retirement benefits at that time. Anyone who is eligible for free Medicare hospital insurance (Part A) can also enroll in Medicare medical insurance (Part B).  You enroll in part B by paying a monthly premium. Some beneficiaries with higher incomes will pay a higher monthly Part B premium. If you do not choose to enroll in Medicare Part B and then decide to do so later, your coverage may be delayed and you may have to pay a higher monthly premium. To learn more about Medicare, follow this link to the Social Security Administration’s Medicare Page

h. Postpone Income and Required Minimum Distributions. As of January 1 2020, retirees who reach the age of 72, have until April 1 of the next year to take their first Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from their qualified retirement plan(s).  They have until the next December 31 to take their second distribution. Those individuals whose employer retirement plans allow it and who may continue to work after their 72nd birthdays may wait until the year they retire to take their first Required Minimum Distribution. For more on this topic see the IRS Topic Page on Required Minimum Distributions

i. Use a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC) to Cover Income Needs in Later Retirement Years. For many, retirement funds are limited. If you are concerned about outliving your retirement assets, a QLAC is a great way of assuring yourself income later in retirement.  QLAC income must begin before you reach your 85th birthday but can last for the rest of your life. Click here to watch a seminar by QLACguru Ray Ryan describing this strategy then try our Failsafe (sm) Maximize Income Calculator to see how this strategy might work for you.

j. Mark your Calendar. Retirement is not a single event, but a process to be managed. To get started, follow the link to Calculate the important future dates of your retirement. Start studying your options and setting goals.  Be prepared to address each of the milestones as they arise at age 50, 55, 62, 65, 70 and 70 and one-half. 

Once you’ve done this homework, it may be time to hire on a financial advisor to help you grow your assets. But pick her or him carefully. Like Charles Barkley, you need to, “take the shame out of your game.”   Never allow a prospective advisor to ridicule the size of your portfolio. If he or she does, find another who won't.

After all, it’s not about what you have now, but what you can have in the future.  

Welcome to the next 30 years of your life!

Want to learn more? Check out our videos page to see additional QLACguru videos.  See our calculators page to develop an anonymous RMD calculation and estimated QLAC quote. Answer specific questions by going to our Knowledgebase page.  Visit our blogs page for in-depth articles on a variety of topics including how QLACs help with sequence Sequence Risk, how QLACs are similar to and different from Social Security, as well as many other topics. Free Consultation.  If you would like us to develop a free RMD analysis and illustration of how a QLAC might work for you, please click here.

How to Minimize RMD

Many people are surprised to learn that they have to take Required Minimum Distributions (“RMDs”) when they reach the age of 72.  The RMD rule applies to IRS sanctioned retirement savings plans (“Plan” or “Plans”).  These Plans have names like an IRA, a 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and other acronyms.  Contributions to these traditional retirement savings Plans are made with “pre-tax” dollars – an individual taxpayer’s Plan contributions are reductions in that person’s gross taxable income.  Also, an employer’s Plan contributions are not taxable to the employee.  Even better, assets in each Plan can grow free of income tax.  Of course, the IRS eventually wants tax revenue. So, all distributions from these traditional retirement Plans are taxable to the Plan beneficiary/recipient. 

Some retirees can maintain their lifestyles without withdrawals from their IRA or similar Plan.  Given the wealth-creating power of compounding returns without tax, these retirees often want to allow their Plan assets to grow tax-free as long as possible - without taxed distributions.  Unfortunately, the tax rules specify an annual Required Minimum Distribution (“RMD”) for all “Traditional” Plans.  The RMD rule applies once a person reaches age 72 and each year after that.   An RMD distribution shortfall is subject to a 50% penalty as well as the regular income tax.

Careful tax planning can assure that there are annual withdrawals from a Plan at least equal to the RMD.  But can a taxpayer reduce or eliminate the RMD exposure to maximize the benefit of tax-free compounding?  The answer is yes, but it takes planning and the right facts.  Below are some approaches.

ROTH 401(K) PLAN

Plans with a “Roth” in their title have tax treatments that differ from Traditional Plans.  Contributions are treated as taxable income or not deductible, but distributions are tax exempt.  Many if not most employers (offering 401(k) plans) give the employee the option of having a Roth or a Traditional 401(k) Plan.  As a result, today there are many billions of dollars in assets held in Roth 401(k) plans.   The RMD rules are the same for both Traditional and Roth 401(k) Plans. 

Here, there is a simple solution to the RMD problem.  A Roth IRA has no RMD requirement ( the Traditional IRA is subject to RMD).  A Roth 401(k) plan can be rolled over into a Roth IRA without creating taxable income.  Absent some extraneous factor; all Roth plans should be transferred to a Roth IRA before the RMD rules apply.  Of course, the rollover will have to occur when an employee has the authority to transfer the account, usually after leaving employment with the plan sponsor.

TRADITIONAL PLAN ROLLOVER

Can a person roll over to a Roth IRA if he or she holds assets in a Traditional Plan (e.g., 401(k) or IRA)?  The short answer is “yes,” but there are two hurdles to a rollover from Traditional to Roth:

  • The rollover amount is taxed as ordinary income in the rollover year.
  • No distributions from the Roth IRA can occur for five years after the rollover.

The rollover amount can be less than the total Traditional Plan asset balance.  Any distributions needed for the five years after the rollover should be held back in the Traditional Plan. After the fifth year, the Roth IRA is free to make some or no distributions to its beneficiary.

An individual’s tax situation dictates whether or not this rollover strategy makes sense.  For example, assume a person will be in a high tax rate at the rollover date and expects a low or no tax in a future distribution year.  A rollover in this example would be inappropriate.   The ideal time to do a rollover is in a year when an individual’s taxable income is unusually low.  Such a person might be between jobs, early retirement before benefits are paid, report deductible passive losses from real estate investments, etc.   Also, it is possible to plan multiple rollovers to multiple Roth IRAs over the years.  The rule is to do the rollover in a tax year when rates are low, or there are sufficient losses. Even more important – run the numbers and do a sensitivity analysis on both assumed tax rates and investment rates of return.

Here is an important point.  If the rollover into a Roth IRA occurs when the RMD rules apply, an RMD distribution will still be required in the rollover year.

There is no age restriction on a Plan roll as far as income taxes.  Still, the Plan’s language must allow the event.   For more on how to manage lifetime income using a Roth IRA, see our blog article on the topic.  

PLAN TERMINATION

A simple way to avoid RMD is to terminate the Plan before the beneficiary reaches age 72.  Generally, a penalty is triggered by a termination or Plan distribution before age 59½.  After age 59½, the beneficiary of a Traditional Plan is free to withdraw any amount so long as it equals or is greater than the RMD for that year. Withdrawal of all Plan assets will terminate the Plan.  Please recall that Traditional Plan withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income.

Just like with a rollover to a Roth IRA, distributions should be planned to occur in the year(s) when the Plan beneficiary has low or no other taxable income. So doing, the tax cost of the distribution(s) will be minimized.    Once received, the funds can be reinvested by the Plan beneficiary in his capacity as an individual investor.  The tax-advantaged choices are many – non-dividend paying stocks, deferred annuities (variable or general account), real estate, oil & gas, etc. Tax deferral depends upon the nature of the assets selected for re-investment.

A QLAC

If a person owns a Traditional Plan, the IRS has created a new type of qualified tax annuity – the Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (“QLAC”).  The IRS authorized this new class of annuity contract in 2014 to help taxpayers of more modest means to assure themselves that their Plans would never run out of money.  Under the IRS rules, a QLAC must have the following attributes: 

  • The annuity must be deferred and not be an immediate annuity;
  • Once payments begin, the annuity is for the remainder of the beneficiary’s life;
  • The annuity must start no later than the owner’s 85th birthday;
  • The policy must be a “general account” insurance product – not variable;
  • The owner and a spouse may be joint beneficiaries;  and
  • The maximum QLAC premium is the lesser of $130,000 or 25% of Plan assets.  (The $ 130,000-lifetime limitation was increased to $130,000 from $125,000 on January 1, 2018, and will rise from time to time after that.)  
  • There are two significant benefits of buying a QLAC: 
  • Taxable income does not arise from a Plan withdrawal if used to pay a qualified QLAC premium;
  • The Plan assets are reduced by the premium withdrawal for computing RMD.

 It is important to recognize that a QLAC is an annuity, a form of insurance policy – not an investment contract.  A QLAC guarantees a fixed income for the life of the policy owner (and spouse, if elected).  There is also an available election that provides that the sum of all payouts must be equal to the premium paid.  Assume a QLAC was purchased for $125,000 with the annuity to begin at age eighty-five.  If the QLAC owner dies at age eighty, then his estate will receive $125,000, a refund of the premium paid.  (Without the return of premium election, there would not be benefits payable to the beneficiary’s estate ).  As a result,  a conservative analysis assumes that the QLAC return is 0% but never negative. On the other hand, the RMDs are reduced because the Plan assets are reduced by the distribution to pay the QLAC premium.  As a result, the beneficiary has more pre-tax dollars at work.  

The benefit of a Plan without a QLAC withdrawal is that there are more Plan assets which can grow tax-free inside the Plan – but higher RMDs.  Of course, without a QLAC, all the Plan assets are subject to investment risk.

Increased Plan distributions have distinct tax disadvantages.  Funds moved outside the Plan are taxed 100% as ordinary income - thereby reducing available re-investment assets.  Further, the remainder assets typically generate taxable income, further reducing asset growth. 

Once again, there is no one best answer concerning the above tradeoffs.   For each person, the right answer depends on the assumed tax rates, when the QLAC annuity begins, and the expected rates of return inside the Plan - as well as the rate of return on the invested distributions.  The QLAC can be an “investment” when the return of premium election is made.  As part of a portfolio of invested assets, the QLAC could be categorized as low or no risk while the assets in the Plan might be at incrementally higher risk than without the QLAC.  Finally, for many investors, there is a very important ‘sleep at night’ factor of knowing that a well-rated insurance carrier guarantees a certain part of future retirement income. 

CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTIONS

Once the RMD age is reached, a Traditional IRA can make a qualified charitable contribution up to $100,000. (To take advantage of this option, other Traditional Plans need to transfer assets to the IRA.) That contribution is treated as an RMD distribution for purposes of the RMD test but is not treated as taxable income to the Plan beneficiary.   For all intents and purposes, the IRS is assuming that the distribution’s imputed income and charitable deduction offset and neither need be reported.

Of course, instead of having the IRA make the contribution, a beneficiary could take a $100,000 distribution and turn around and make a $100,000 charitable gift.  For high-income individuals, there are disadvantages to this alternative approach.  First, the individual’s Adjusted Gross Income (“AGI”) will be increased.  A variety of tax rates kick in at higher levels of AGI.  Also, some personal deductions are limited as AGI becomes higher.   For example, itemized deductions (i.e., contributions to charities) are reduced when AGI exceeds certain thresholds (e.g., $155,650 if married filing separately).  For most high-income taxpayers, the net effect will be more taxes to pay under this second approach than if the beneficiary had simply instructed the IRA to make the charitable contribution.

A beneficiary’s charitable intent is the starting point of this RMD minimization strategy.  Having the IRA fulfill that intent is just a better way. Note that the $100,000 is a maximum only.  For Plans with less than $2.5 million in assets, typically, the RMD amounts will be less than the $100,000.   While a Plan could limit its charitable transfer to RMD, the charitable gift by the IRA could be less or more than the RMD – just not more than $100,000 in a given year.

An interesting approach might be to use a QLAC to reduce the Plan assets and after that, dedicate the reduced RMD to charitable gifting.

ANNUITIES

Buying an annuity such as an Immediate or Deferred annuity inside a Traditional Plan may achieve planning objectives, but these purchases are not a means of reducing RMD.  (A QLAC is not a traditional annuity and should not be confused with the annuity contracts described below for this discussion.) 

An Immediate annuity (annuity payments begin within 12 months of the purchase date) distribution is often treated as a deemed RMD.  The annuity distribution is 100% taxable to the beneficiary.  The Immediate annuity is great for the person who seeks a risk-free return and lifetime income. 

A Deferred annuity (annuity payments begin after 12 months of the purchase date) has another issue.  Unlike an Immediate annuity, the Deferred annuity has a cash value designated by the annuity contract or imputed by the IRS.  As a result, RMD will be computed each year based on that cash value.  Sufficient liquid assets need to be held in the Plan but outside the Deferred Annuity to assure there are available distributions to cover the computed RMD.  Once the annuity begins its payments, the payouts are typically deemed equal to the RMD.  This approach offers little or no opportunity to defer RMD.

Traditional annuities are not vehicles to accumulate assets tax-free inside a Plan.  Any tax deferral inside the annuity becomes irrelevant when the asset is held inside a Traditional or a Roth Plan.  Avoiding RMD is a strategy to allow assets to grow tax-free typically for a future beneficiary.  Annuities are about providing secure lifetime cash flows to the Plan beneficiary.  

 SUMMARY

Avoiding or minimizing RMD is for future or current retirees who do not or will not need their savings inside a Traditional Plan. A Plan that buys an Immediate or Deferred Annuities will not help reduce the RMD and will likely reduce or eliminate residual assets at the end of the beneficiary’s life.

Good Planning tools include distributing Plan assets to buy a QLAC, moving some or all of the Plan assets into a Roth IRA, distributing Plan property at an opportune time and fulfilling charitable gifting via a traditional IRA. The QLAC has no tax toll charge on the transfer from a Plan, but it is limited in the percentage of assets that can be used to pay a QLAC premium.  Transfers from a Tradition Plan to a Roth IRA (or simply outside the Plan) are 100% taxed, but that tax can be managed by doing one or more transfers in low tax rate year(s).  Finally, making charitable gifts from an IRA reduces RMD and is tax efficient for high-income taxpayers.

There is not a perfect solution for all.  Instead, minimizing RMD requires thoughtful planning with a keen eye focused on the beneficiary’s objectives and not just tax minimization.

Want to learn more? Check out our videos page to see additional QLACguru videos.  See our calculators page to develop an anonymous RMD calculation and estimated QLAC quote. Answer specific questions by going to our Knowledgebase page.  Visit our blogs page for in-depth articles on a variety of topics including how QLACs help with sequence Sequence Risk, how QLACs are similar to and different from Social Securitybest practices in buying a QLAC as well as many other topics. Free Consultation.  If you would like us to develop a free RMD analysis and illustration of how a QLAC might work for you, please click here.



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