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Chris Chen CFP CDFA is the CEO and a Wealth Strategist with Insight Financial Strategists LLC in the Boston area. He specializes in retirement planning and divorce financial planning

Aug 09

Top 5 Financial Mistakes Made by Foreign Nationals Living In the US

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Top 5 Financial Mistakes

Made by Foreign Nationals Living in  America

Approximately 1.5 million foreign nationals move to the US every year to study, work and live. Many come on green card visas, and others on working and other temporary visas.  They come from all walks of life. They are engineers, scientists, physicians, academics.

Anyone who has moved to another country can testify that it is a daunting task. Everything is new. A lot of what was known must be relearned. What number to call for emergencies? How much to tip at restaurants if at all? And how to deal with investment and other financial matters?  

Engineers, scientists, physicians, academics, and business people moving to the US often continue to hold assets in checking,  investment accounts and in real estate in other countries. Some may even inherit assets in other countries while living in the US.  Eventually many move back to their home country or a third country.

All newly arrived people in the US  face the common dilemma of how to efficiently reinvent their financial lives.  In many ways the US financial system may seem odd. Many of the differences relative to their former home base can be found relatively easily.

However, there are financial pitfalls specific to foreign nationals living in the US to be aware of. Here are five of them.  

  1. Failure to understand US reporting requirements

Unless they have been in a monastic retreat, US citizens will know that their government cares about their foreign income and assets. Ugly acronyms such as FATCA and FBAR have been designed to ensure tax compliance from all Americans.  What is often overlooked is that the reporting requirements of foreign income and assets also apply to all residents of the US, including foreigners living in the US.

Foreign nationals in the US routinely underestimate the impact of necessary reporting requirements.  They do so at their own peril. Whether they are citizens or not, residents of the US are subject to taxation on their worldwide income. In many cases, taxes paid overseas can be offset by credits to US taxes, thus limiting the monetary impact. The real challenge is the obligation to report. Laws, including the aforementioned FATCA and FBAR, obligates all US residents to report foreign income and assets.  

In a routine instance, a foreign national may own a checking account, a brokerage account, or even real estate in their home country. When moving to the US and focusing on the excitement and challenge of a new life, it is easy to forget about these assets or believe that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IRS.Such an assumption would be wrong.

All these assets are subject to reporting to US government authorities. Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 (FATCA) the US government set up a global reporting infrastructure to mandate foreign banks and governments to report foreign-held assets owned by US residents to the US government. To ensure compliance, foreign institutions are subject to stiff penalties when they fail to report assets owned by US residents.  In other words, if you own a foreign asset, it is unlikely to be a secret to the US government.

Reporting requirements don’t stop with banks and governments. Taxpayers are also responsible for reporting their own information through FBAR and IRS form 8938 filings. Information in those forms is then compared with the bank and government reports. Discrepancies and failures to report can be considered tax evasion and fraud. They are subject to penalties that can be punitive. Ignoring this issue is not a sustainable strategy, because eventually, the government will catch up. If in doubt check with a professional.

  1. Get overwhelmed by US tax complexity

Foreign nationals who come to America are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the U.S. tax system.  As a result, they often become paralyzed by the complexity and end up missing out on taking care of their financial needs. On average, foreign nationals in the US have the advantage of being stronger savers than Americans. However, to gain a sustainable advantage you need to invest your savings to allow the laws of compound growth work for you and fructify your savings. For every problem, there is a solution.

Although it looks daunting, US tax complexity can also be overcome. Because software solutions are not typically designed to handle the complexities of foreign assets and income, it is advisable to hire professionals who have experience with international matters.

  1. Not being aware of tax treaties

The US maintains tax treaties with some 68 foreign countries that determine rules and exceptions for the treatment of various taxable events. The treaties provide a framework to avoid or minimize double taxation on a variety of active and passive income. Failure to be aware of the tax treaties, their provisions, and their implementation can result in unnecessary withholdings and taxes.

Tax treaties can also provide benefits. If you have worked in the US for a while, you will have accumulated social security credits, potentially qualifying you for social security retirement benefits. Through “totalization” agreements with 26 countries, those credits can be transferred to a number of social security peer systems in those countries, thus improving retirement benefits in those countries.  The reverse is also true. If you have social security equivalent credits in those 26 countries and retire in the US, they could be counted towards your US social security benefits. In the case where there is no totalization agreement and the foreign national has contributed to US social security for 10 years or longer (technically 40 quarters), the foreign national is usually eligible for a US social security retirement benefit.

  1. Cashing out retirement accounts upon leaving the U.S.

Foreign nationals often accumulate substantial U.S. retirement account balances during their American career. Most companies offer a 401(k) retirement plan; foreign national employees are also eligible to participate.  It is often an easy decision: 401(k) plans provide an easy saving mechanism and an immediate tax reduction. It allows a maximum annual saving for people under 50 of $18,500 a year including the company match, if applicable.

When they look to return to their home country, people are often conflicted about how to handle those accounts. Broadly speaking the choices are to leave the accounts unperturbed or to cash out and go home. Often the decision is to cash out.

Cashing out of a deferred tax retirement account such as a 401k or an IRA before age 59 ½ results in punitive taxation.  The distribution is taxed as income. Usually, it propels the account owner to a higher tax rate resulting in additional costs. For instance, a taxpayer that was in the 24% tax bracket could find himself or herself in the 32% bracket as a result of a retirement account distribution.  

To add insult to injury, the distribution is also subject to a 10% penalty for those who take when they are younger than 59 1/2.  It is easy to see that cashing out is an expensive proposition that robs you of the benefits of saving and tax-deferred growth.

The other possibility is to leave the account in the US or roll it over to an IRA if it is in a 401k or other company sponsored plan.  The immediate advantage is that there is no immediate income tax or penalty. In addition, the investment options are usually much stronger and less expensive than in other countries. The downside is that the assets may be subject to estate taxes if the foreign national dies owning the asset.  And, as with Americans, distributions in retirement are subject to income taxes. For those who choose to leave the retirement accounts in the US, a plan can be built to optimize income and estate taxes to ensure that you can benefit from the fruits of your savings.

  1. Not recognizing the advantages of keeping U.S. investment accounts when leaving.

The US investment environment is more favorable to individual investors than most others.  Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios are lower, transaction costs are lower, and management fees are lower.  Market liquidity is usually higher even for many investments that are focused on specific foreign markets. And the range of investment options available to individuals is wider. For instance, there are 80 ETFs listed in Singapore and 134 listed in Hong Kong, compared with 1,707 in the US (August 2018).

It should be noted that although financial assets held by foreigners are not `subject to US capital gains taxes, dividends and interest are subject to withholding taxes of 10% to 30%, depending on whether there is a tax treaty.  Often tax treaties can help mitigate the impact of income and estate taxes, including the withholding tax. Again this is an area where financial professional familiar with the intricacies of cross-border families can really help.

On balance, when they leave the US, foreign nationals can continue to enjoy the generally stronger US investment climate.

Last Word

Moving to the US to continue a thriving career is often a dream of many foreign nationals. A new lifestyle, upward progress and a taste of American culture. What is there not to like about such an adventure? But that dream may not turn out to be that great in real life if you don’t properly address the complexities and uniqueness of the US tax system. However, the five mistakes outlined in this note can be easily addressed with the help of the right professional. Do so, and you will reap the rewards

Jun 15

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Although the number of pension plans has significantly declined over the years there are still many of them out there, and many divorcing couples have to figure out how to deal with them. The prime benefit that a pension plan provides is a fixed lifetime income.  A stream of income in retirement could well be a pension synonym. It used to be that fixed income was considered a negative. However, nowadays it is the lucky retiree who benefits from a pension plan!

In case of divorce, issues surrounding who is entitled to the pension present a challenge especially in the case of grey divorces (usually defined as people over 50).  Divorce and pension plans can sometimes generate conflict as the owner of the asset will often feel more proprietary about it than with other assets. Employees are often emotionally vested in their pension. They feel, more than with other assets, that they have really earned it. And that their spouse has not.  They often will have stayed in a job that they may not have liked for the privilege of qualifying for a higher paying pension. Couples look forward to getting that income when they retire. And so spouses will want to make sure that they get their share of it as part of the divorce.

Pension rights after divorce are determined as part of the overall divorce process. In a negotiated divorce, the parties can decide, within limits, how to divide their assets. In the worst case, the courts will make the decision.

What is a pension plan and how does it work?

The value of a pension benefit can be difficult to determine. Unlike other accounts, pensions don’t come with a statement that makes them easily comparable to other assets; they come with the promise of a benefit (the monthly payment that someone might get at retirement). So the number one priority when a pension is involved in a divorce is to get a valuation. The financial consequences of divorce are serious, and not getting a valuation may lead to struggling financially after divorce

Risk of Valuation

Even when valued, the number provided on a report may lead to a false sense of security. Unlike other retirement statements, the value of a pension is estimated using the parameters of the beneficiary and of the pension. In most cases the divorce pension payout is calculated with a predetermined formula based on the employee’s length of employment and income.  In some cases, the benefit may vary depending on a few other factors.

The next step is to estimate how long the benefit might be paid. That is done using actuarial tables. Based on periodic demographic studies, actuarial tables predict our life expectancy. Some actuarial tables include those produced by the Society of Actuaries, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). A pension valuation will normally use the estimates from the actuarial tables representing  an average life expectancy of a cohort of people born in the same year. The estimates are usually accurate within their parameters, as individual variability is smoothed out  for large populations. However, individual longevity is harder to predict as it may fall within a wider range.

With the amount of the payment and the length of time that the payments will be made, how much is all of that worth?   Pension valuators use a “discount rate” to approximate the value of a future payment. The principle is that the value of a dollar paid next year will be less than the value of a dollar paid today. Hence you should be willing to accept less than a dollar for the promise of a payment next year, and even less for the promise of payment the year after.  

Financial analysts will use the concept of the prudent rate of return, the rate that a prudent person would invest at in order to receive that dollar next year or beyond. That of course could be subject to interpretation. Often the standard that is used is the government bond rate for the duration of the payment.  US government bonds are often considered to be risk free by economists and the public, although that too is subject to debate (Currently US government debt is rated at AA+ (below AAA) by Standard & Poor’s, the leading debt rating agency). Nonetheless that rate is often used for individual pension valuations.

The PBGC, on the other hand, has developed its own rates. The PBGC uses different rates before retirement, and rates during retirement. The former are significantly higher than the latter and assumes a rate of return that is in excess of the risk free rate.  That may be a better model for actual human behavior, as people will normally be tempted to take more risk for a better return, rationalizing, of course, that the incremental risk is not significant. On the other hand, for rates during retirement the PBGC uses rates that are well below the norm, reflecting the reality that retirees are even more risk averse than the average population.

Financial analysts will determine the value of the pension by taking a present value of the pension payments over the expected longevity of the individual at the determined discount rate(s). The number that comes out is usually a single number assuming a date of retirement.  

Understanding that we are working with an estimate, people usually ignore the fact that the magic number does not take into account the likely variability of  the inputs, in particular longevity.

If you will be the alternate payee (ie, if you are the spouse aiming to get a share of the other’s pension), it is important to pay attention to the fact that the real value of your share of the pension will fall within a range. It will not be a single number Hence when you trade that pension for another asset that has a fixed value, you want to make sure that you are not short changing yourself.

On the other hand if you are the beneficiary of the pension, it is painful enough to give up a share of it.  You don’t want to give up part of that asset if it will not be fully used. If it is the alternate payee that passes away early, his or her stream of payments stops, and, in most cases, does not revert back to you, the initial beneficiary.  If that were to happen you will have wasted a potentially substantial asset.

In summary it is important for divorcing couples to fully understand the value of their pensions for themselves and for their spouse.  Divorce already destroys enough wealth. There is no need to destroy more.

Risk of Default

Pensions have a risk of default or reduced benefits in the future. According to the Society for Human Resources Management  114 pension funds are expected to fail in the next 20 years. That is true even for pensions that do not look like they are in trouble currently. Some people may think that this is farfetched. Yet you only have to look at the Pensions Right website to convince yourself that benefit reductions do happen. When you consider that retirement can last 20, 30 or 40 years, you will want to evaluate if your pension plan is robust enough to last that long, and continue making payments for that long.

The risk of benefit reductions or outright default may apply mostly to the private sector. Yet public sector plans may be at risk also. For instance, Social Security has a trust fund that, together with payroll deductions, funds its retirement benefits (social security retirement benefits are effectively a pension). According to the 2009 Social Security Trustees Report, the Social Security trust fund will run out in 2037. When that happens, the Trustees project that retirement benefits will be cut by 24%.  

It should be noted that Social Security benefits are not divisible in divorce  The beneficiary keeps his or her benefits. The ex-spouse can get 50% of the beneficiary’s benefits (if married 10 years or longer) or 100% of his or her own, whichever is higher, but not both. That happens without prejudice to the prime beneficiary.

However, in 2037, both parties can expect a Social Security retirement benefit cut of 24%, unless Congress remedies the situation beforehand.

Personal Risk

People also underestimate personal risk. If you receive a pension as an alternate payee (ie the spouse who is getting a share of the pension from the former employee), you will want to consider the risks that your payments may be interrupted due to issues with your ex-spouse. Many pensions stop spousal payments when the beneficiary passes. When that happens, the alternate payee will have to find an alternate source of income to compensate.

It is worth remembering that our life expectancies are random within a range. The expected longevity of women reaching 65 years of age is to 85 years of age.  We often anchor on this or other numbers forgetting that few women pass away at 85. Most will pass away either before 85 or after 85. According to a paper by Dr. Ryan Edwards for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the standard deviation for longevity is 15 years. That means that most women will live to 85, +/- 15 years. From 70 to 100 with an average of 85. That is a wide range! What if the beneficiary of the pension passes away 10 years before his her life expectancy, and the alternate payee lives 10 years longer than life expectancy? That means that the alternate payee may have to do without his or her share of the pension for 20 years or longer (if the two ex spouses have the same expected longevity).

And what about inflation risk?

Most pensions do not have a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). That does not apply to all of them. For instance, the Federal Employee Retirement Systems (FERS) has a limited COLA. Effectively, when there is no inflation adjustment, the value of a pension payment is reduced every year by the amount of inflation. How bad can that be, you ask? Assuming a 3% inflation rate the value of a fixed payment will decrease by almost 50% over 20 years.  . What is the likelihood that expenses will have reduced by 50%?

A Last word

Pensions are a very emotional subjects in divorce. Perhaps because we are naturally risk averse, and perhaps because our risk aversion is exasperated by divorce related anxiety, we like to cling to what we perceive as solid. People will often want to keep the marital home, even if they cannot afford it, or take a chunk of a pension even when it may make better sense to trade it for another asset. Worse yet they will want to know whether to keep the house or pension in divorce.

What other asset you may ask? You could trade the pension for a tax- deferred retirement asset, such as an IRA or a 401k.  Or any other asset that you and your spouse own. The right decision will end up being different for everyone.

As a Divorce Financial Planner, it is my task to make sure that each side understands exactly what is at stake, and to help prepare them for rebuilding financially after divorce. In many cases it makes sense for both parties to get a share of the pension. In others it does not.  How to keep your pension in a divorce is a vital question. Even more important is to understand the true value of the pension, and its ambiguities.  It is a difficult task in a process that is already filled with anxieties and uncertainties to focus effectively on yet one more ambiguity. Yet for successfully managing finances after divorce it must be done.

 

Other posts that you may find interesting:

Pension Division in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

In Divorce, Can We Share a CDFA?

 

 

May 16

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA dance

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Doing the Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA Dance

Doing the Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA dance

If you are self-employed, one of your many tasks is to plan for your own retirement. While most Americans can rely on their employer’s 401(k) for retirement savings, this is not the case for self-employed people.

In some respects, that is an advantage: most employees barely pay any attention to their 401(k). It is an opportunity for the self-employed to make the best choices possible for their business and personal situation.

The most obvious benefit of saving for retirement is that you will have to retire anyway, one day, and you will need a source of income then. With a retirement account, most people appreciate that it is specifically meant to save for retirement. People also appreciate the tax benefits of the SEP IRA and Solo 401(k).

The more immediate benefit is that retirement savings in tax-deferred accounts help reduce current taxes, possibly one of the greatest source of costs for small businesses. Of course, the tax saved with your contribution will have to be paid eventually when you take retirement distributions from the SEP-IRA.

When it comes to tax-deferred retirement savings vehicles for the self-employed and owner and spouse businesses, two of them stand out due to their high contribution limits and flexible annual contributions: the SEP IRA and the Solo 401(k). These two vehicles provide a combination of convenience, flexibility, and efficiency for the task.

SEP IRA

The SEP IRA is better known by its initials than its full name (Simplified Employee Plan IRA). For 2018 the SEP IRA contribution limits are the lesser of 25% of compensation up to $275,000, or $55,000 whichever is less. You may note that this is significantly higher than the limit for most 401(k)s plans, except those that have a profit sharing option. SEP IRA rules generally allow contributions to be deductible from the business’ income, subject to certain SEP IRA IRS rules.

One of the wrinkles of SEP IRA eligibility is that it applies to employees: you have to make a contribution of the same percentage of compensation as you are contributing for yourself. So if you have employees, another plan such as a Solo 401(k) might be a better choice.

And for fans of the Roth option, unfortunately, the SEP IRA doesn’t have one. When comparing the SEP IRA vs Roth IRA, the two clearly address different needs.

Solo 401(k)

credit: InvestmentZenThe Solo 401(k) also known as the individual 401(k) brings large company features to the self-employed. It generally makes sense for businesses with no common law employees. One of the Solo 401k benefits is that just owners and their spouses, if involved in the business, are eligible. Employees are not. So, if you are interested in just your own retirement plan (and your spouse’s), a Solo 401(k) may work better for you than a SEP IRA. If your business expands to include employees and you want to offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan as a benefit to them, then you should consider a traditional company 401(k) option.

The Traditional Solo 401k rules work in the same way as the SEP IRA: it defers income taxes to retirement. It makes sense if you believe that you will be in an equal or lower tax bracket in retirement. Those who think that they may be in a higher tax bracket in retirement should consider a Roth option for their Solo 401(k): it will allow you to contribute now on an after-tax basis, and you will benefit from tax-free distributions from the account after retirement. A Roth 401k calculator may be required to compare the benefits. Again, the Roth option is not available in SEP accounts.

Solo 401k contribution limits permit you to contribute the same amount as you might in its corporate cousins: up to 100% of compensation, up to $18,500 a year when you are younger than 50 years old, with an additional $6,000 annual catch-up contribution for those over 50 years of age.

In addition, profit sharing can be contributed to the Solo 401(k). The Solo 401k limits for contributions are up to 25% of compensation (based on maximum compensation of $275,000) for a maximum from all contributions of $55,000 for those under 50 years of age and $61,000 for those over 50 years of age.

Another difference with the SEP IRA is that the Solo 401(k) can be set up to allow loans. In that way, you are able to access your savings if needed without suffering a tax penalty.

So Which Plan Is Best for You?

The SEP IRA is simpler to set up and administer. However, the Solo 401(k) provides more flexibility, especially for contribution amounts. Given that the amount saved is one of the key factors for retirement success, that should be a consideration.

Comparing the Solo 401k with the traditional employer 401k, you may no longer have to ask how to open a Roth 401k.  You will have control of that. On the other hand you will be entirely responsible for figuring out your Roth 401k employer match.

As could be expected, administration of the Solo 401(k) is slightly more onerous than that of the SEP IRA.

SEP IRA vs 401k chart

Solo 401(k) and SEP IRA

A Last Word

If you don’t have a plan get one. It is easy. It reduces current taxes. And it will help you plan for a successful retirement. The SEP IRA and the Solo 401(k) were designed specifically for small businesses and the self-employed. Although we have reviewed some of the features of the plan here, there are more details that you should be aware of. Beware of the complexities!

Once you decide on the type of plan, it will be time to choose a provider that offers the features that you need, the investment choices that you need, and the guidance to help you maximize your hard earned savings.

At Insight Financial Strategists we help figure out what works for you and your retirement plansand show you how to set up a Solo 401k or a SEP IRA!