Making golden decisions about your golden years

Planning for your retirement means making a series of financial decisions that will have an impact on your golden years: Should you invest in a traditional tax-deferred plan, a Roth plan that offers tax-free distributions, or both? If you opt for a Roth plan, which of the several options available is right for you? Also, when should you start withdrawing from your retirement savings, and in what amounts?

Whether you’re just starting to think about retirement planning, are retired already or are somewhere in between, addressing the questions relevant to your current situation will help ensure your golden years are truly golden.

401(k)s and other employer plans

Contributing to an employer-sponsored defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b), 457, SARSEP or SIMPLE, is usually the first step in retirement planning:

  • Contributions are typically pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which also can help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8% NIIT,
  • Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
  • Your employer may match some or all of your contribution.

See the Chart “Retirement plan contribution limits for 2017” for the annual limits for employee contributions to 401(k), 403(b), 457 and SARSEP plans. If you’re age 50 or older, you may be able to make an additional “catch-up” contribution. Because of tax-deferred compounding, increasing your contributions sooner rather than later can have a significant impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement. Employees age 50 or older can also make "catch-up" contributions, however, so if you didn't contribute much when you were younger, this may allow you to partially make up for lost time.

If your employer offers a match, at minimum contribute the amount necessary to get the maximum match so you don’t miss out on that “free” money.

If your employer provides a SIMPLE, it’s required to make contributions (though not necessarily annually). But the employee contribution limits are lower than for other employer-sponsored plans. (See the Chart “Retirement plan contribution limits for 2017”)

Traditional IRA

If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement plan, consider a traditional IRA. You can likely deduct your contributions, though your deduction may be limited based on your adjusted gross income (AGI) if your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored plan. You can make 2017 contributions as late as the April 2018 income tax filing deadline. (See the Chart “Retirement plan contribution limits for 2017”)

Roth options

A potential downside of tax-deferred saving is that you’ll have to pay taxes when you make withdrawals at retirement. Roth plans, however, allow tax-free distributions; the tradeoff is that contributions to these plans don’t reduce your current-year taxable income:

1. Roth IRAs. In addition to tax-free distributions, an important benefit is that Roth IRAs can provide estate planning advantages: Unlike other retirement plans, Roth IRAs don’t require you to take distributions during your lifetime. So you can let the entire balance grow tax-free over your lifetime for the benefit of your heirs.

If, for example, you name your child as the beneficiary, he or she will be required to start taking distributions upon inheriting the Roth IRA. But the distributions will be tax-free and spread out over his or her lifetime, and funds remaining in the account can continue to grow tax-free for many years to come.

But Roth IRAs are subject to the same low annual contribution limit as traditional IRAs (see the Chart “Retirement plan contribution limits for 2017”), and your Roth IRA limit is reduced by any traditional IRA contributions you make for the year. It may be further limited based on your AGI.

2. Roth conversions. If you have a traditional IRA, consider whether you might benefit from converting all or a portion of it to a Roth IRA. A conversion can allow you to turn tax-deferred future growth into tax-free growth and take advantage of a Roth IRA’s estate planning benefits.

There’s no longer an income-based limit on who can convert. But the converted amount is taxable in the year of the conversion.

Whether a conversion makes sense for you depends on a variety of factors, such as:

  • Your age,
  • Whether the conversion would push you into a higher income tax bracket or trigger the NIIT,
  • Whether you can afford to pay the tax on the conversion,
  • Your tax bracket now and expected tax bracket in retirement, and
  • Whether you’ll need the IRA funds in retirement.

Your tax advisor can run the numbers and help you decide if a conversion is right for you this year.

3. “Back door” Roth IRAs. If the income-based phaseout prevents you from making Roth IRA contributions and you don’t have a traditional IRA, consider setting up a traditional account and making a nondeductible contribution to it. You can then wait until the transaction clears and convert the traditional account to a Roth account. The only tax due will be on any growth in the account between the time you made the contribution and the date of conversion.

4. Roth 401(k), Roth 403(b) and Roth 457 plans. Employers may offer one of these in addition to the traditional, tax-deferred version. You may make some or all of your contributions to the Roth plan, but any employer match will be made to the traditional plan. No income-based phaseout applies, so even high-income taxpayers can contribute.

Plans for business owners and the self-employed

If most of your money is tied up in your business, retirement can be a challenge. So if you haven’t already set up a tax-advantaged retirement plan, consider setting one up this year. If you might be subject to the NIIT, this may be particularly beneficial because retirement plan contributions can reduce your MAGI and thus help you reduce or avoid this 3.8% tax. Keep in mind that, if you have employees, they generally must be allowed to participate in the plan, provided they work enough hours and meet other qualification requirements. Here are a few options that may allow you to make large contributions:

Profit-sharing plan. This is a defined contribution plan that allows discretionary employer contributions and flexibility in plan design. You can make deductible 2017 contributions (see the Chart “Profit-sharing plan vs. SEP: How much can you contribute?”) as late as the due date of your 2017 income tax return, including extensions — provided your plan existed on December 31, 2017.

SEP. A Simplified Employee Pension is a defined contribution plan that provides benefits similar to those of a profit-sharing plan. But you can establish a SEP in 2018 and still make deductible 2017 contributions (see the Chart “Profit-sharing plan vs. SEP: How much can you contribute?”) as late as the due date of your 2017 income tax return, including extensions. Another benefit is that a SEP is easier to administer than a profit-sharing plan.

Defined benefit plan. This plan sets a future pension benefit and then actuarially calculates the contributions needed to attain that benefit. The maximum annual benefit generally is $215,000 for 2017 (up from $210,000 for 2016) — or 100% of average earned income for the highest three consecutive years, if less. Because it’s actuarially driven, the contribution needed to attain the projected future annual benefit may exceed the maximum contributions allowed by other plans, depending on your age and the desired benefit.

You can make deductible contributions until the due date of your 2017 income tax return, including extensions — provided your plan existed on December 31, 2017. Warning: Employer contributions are generally required and must be paid quarterly if there was a shortfall in funding for the prior year.

Early withdrawals

If you’re facing financial challenges this year, it may be tempting to make withdrawals from your retirement plans. But generally this should be a last resort. With a few exceptions, retirement plan distributions made before age 59½ are subject to a 10% penalty, in addition to any income tax that ordinarily would be due on a withdrawal.

This means that, if you’re in the top federal tax bracket of 39.6%, you can lose nearly half of your withdrawal to federal taxes and penalties. If you’re also subject to state income taxes and/or penalties, the total of your taxes and penalties almost certainly will exceed 50%. Even if you’re in a lower bracket, you can lose a substantial amount to taxes and penalties. Additionally, you’ll lose the potential tax-deferred future growth on the amount you’ve withdrawn.

If you have a Roth account, you can withdraw up to your contribution amount without incurring taxes or penalties. But you’ll still be losing the potential tax-free future growth on the withdrawn amount.

So if you’re in need of cash, you’re likely better off looking elsewhere. For instance, consider tapping your taxable investment accounts rather than dipping into your retirement plan. Long-term gains from sales of investments in taxable accounts will be taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rate, and losses on such sales can be used to offset other gains or carried forward to offset gains in future years.

Another option to consider, if your employer-sponsored plan allows it, is to take a loan from the plan. You’ll have to pay it back with interest and make regular principal payments, but you won’t be subject to current taxes or penalties.

Leaving a job

When you change jobs or retire, avoid taking a lump-sum distribution from your employer’s retirement plan because it generally will be taxable, plus potentially subject to the 10% early-withdrawal penalty. Here are options that will help you avoid current income tax and penalties:

Staying put. You may be able to leave your money in your old plan. But if you’ll be participating in a new employer’s plan or you already have an IRA, this may not be the best option. Why? Because keeping track of multiple plans can make managing your retirement assets more difficult. Also consider how well the old plan’s investment options meet your needs.

A rollover to your new employer’s plan. This may be a good solution if you’re changing jobs, because it may leave you with only one retirement plan to keep track of. But also evaluate the new plan’s investment options.

A rollover to an IRA. If you participate in a new employer’s plan, this will require keeping track of two plans. But it may be the best alternative because IRAs offer nearly unlimited investment choices.

If you choose a rollover, request a direct rollover from your old plan to your new plan or IRA. Otherwise, you’ll need to make an indirect rollover within 60 days to avoid tax and potential penalties. Warning: If you don't do a direct rollover, the check you receive from your old plan may be net of 20% federal income tax withholding. If you don’t roll over the gross amount (making up for the withheld amount with other funds), you’ll be subject to income tax — and potentially the 10% penalty — on the difference.

Required minimum distributions

Normally once you reach age 70½ you must take annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your IRAs (except Roth IRAs) and defined contribution plans. If you don’t comply, you can owe a penalty equal to 50% of the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. A direct contribution from your IRA to charity can also satisfy your RMD. You can avoid the RMD rule for a Roth 401(k), Roth 403(b) or Roth 457 by rolling the funds into a Roth IRA.

So, should you take distributions between ages 59½ and 70½, or more than the RMD after age 70½? Waiting to take distributions until age 70½ generally is advantageous. (See the Case Study “Don’t start taking distributions before age 70½ if you don't have to.”) But a distribution (or larger distribution) in a year your tax bracket is low may save tax. Before making such a distribution, consider the lost tax-deferred growth and, if applicable, whether the distribution could: 1) cause your Social Security payments to become taxable, 2) increase income-based Medicare premiums and prescription drug charges, or 3) affect other deductions or credits with income-based limits.

Warning: While retirement plan distributions aren’t subject to the Affordable Care Act’s additional 0.9% Medicare tax or 3.8% NIIT, they are included in your MAGI and thus could trigger or increase NIIT, because the thresholds for that tax are based on MAGI.

If you’ve inherited a retirement plan, consult your tax advisor regarding the distribution rules that apply to you.