Just when you think you've socked away enough for retirement and all you have to worry about is how to fill your days, you find out the government has rules on distributing those assets -- and they come with big taxes. It's always something!
But don't despair, as there are ways to minimize your tax burden in retirement and keep more of your hard-earned money.
Required distributions can set you back
My friend Roger has worked hard all of his life and made a respectable income, and in the course of his career he has managed to save a few million bucks for his golden years. Roger is about to turn 70 and will soon have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from his retirement accounts. RMDs are annual withdrawals that investors must make from most tax-deferred accounts, including 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, when they reach age 70-1/2. Only Roth IRAs do not have RMDs.
In order to determine your RMD, the IRS tallies up all of your tax-deferred accounts (excluding Roth IRAs) as of the end of the previous year and divides that sum by a factor that's based primarily on your life expectancy. (IRS Publication 590b describes in more detail how to figure out your factor and your RMD.) As a simple example, if your total tax-deferred savings at the end of last year added up to $100,000, and your factor is 20, then you will have to withdraw $5,000 ($100,000/20).
Roger recently married a lovely lady who is 15 years his junior. While he's busy enjoying his new life, his advisor is concerned that Roger may not realize that he will have to make substantial RMDs in a very short time -- or is aware but does not think he has another option. Roger's advisor believes he has about $3 million in deferred, qualified assets. Based on the current IRS tables, Roger's factor is 31.1. This means that Roger must withdraw and pay ordinary income taxes on $96,463.02 in the very first year ($3 million/31.1).
Your factor is lower -- and thus your RMD is higher -- if your spouse is the sole beneficiary of your account and is also more than 10 years younger than you. Therefore, if Roger had not married a younger woman, then he would actually have to take a higher RMD of $109,489.05 in the first year ($3,000,000/27.4).
What can you do to avoid RMDs?
Roger believes there is no way to avoid all these income taxes and has resigned himself to drawing down his savings at least as rapidly as the IRS requires. Not only will he pay income taxes on his withdrawals, but all of this income will bump him into a bracket in which he will be assessed higher premiums for Medicare Part B -- premiums that will be increasing 52% in 2016!
Real financial planning involves looking at ways to lessen this tax burden, but one must think ahead. Roger has a few years to consider converting some of his tax-deferred funds to a Roth IRA. Although the money he converts would be taxable, he might feel that sting less now than he would in retirement, and he could then let those savings grow untouched for as long as he liked. Many folks have a few low-income years in their transition to retirement, and these are opportune times to take advantage of the Roth conversion option. Roger could also consider taking advantage of a little-known tool called a qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, which would allow him to further reduce that RMD burden. Simply, the QLAC is a tax-deferred annuity that avoids the RMD.
There are a number of other tools that the savvy financial advisor has up her sleeve, so don't hesitate to seek professional help with your retirement planning.