Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

Jul 16

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

Many people mistakenly look forward to not having to pay income taxes in retirement. It is understandable that after a lifetime of paying taxes, retirees would feel that they deserve a break. 

Unfortunately, that is not generally how income taxes work! In this article, I categorize nine sources of income and their corresponding level of taxes. 

It may seem at times that taxes are hitting us from all directions.  However, a variety of tax rules can also give retirees, or ideally pre-retirees, opportunities to plan such that they can optimize their lifetime taxes, and avoid paying more than their fair share .

Social Security

For those filing as single with income below $25,000, or married filing jointly with income below $32,000, social security income is income tax-free. However, single filer retirees with income up to $34,000 or $44,000 for married filing jointly will find that 50% of their social security becomes taxable.  When income increases over $34,000, or $44,000 for married filing jointly then 85% becomes taxable. 

So while it is correct that a portion of their social security income will be income tax-free, many retirees find that they will pay some taxes on their social security income

Retirement Accounts

Retirement accounts such as 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs are an important source of income for retirees.  Income from these accounts is taxed as ordinary income, as if it was being earned in a job, with tax rates ranging from 10% to 37% at the federal level. That is because the initial contribution to those accounts helped to reduce taxable income at the time.  That means that the money in these retirement accounts was never taxed. 

To complicate the matter, distributions from some accounts may be exempt from State taxes. For instance, 403(b) accounts earned in New Jersey are exempt from New Jersey State income taxes at distribution. Similarly, IRA distributions from accounts that were established by Massachusetts taxpayers are exempt from State income taxes. These peculiarities vary from State to State. It’s important to verify how they may apply in your State rather than making an assumption.  

Pensions

Many retirees still receive pension income. Some of the more common ones include state, federal and military pensions. Although private pensions have been in decline for several decades now, there continue to be many people who receive payments from these pensions.

Retirees are often surprised to find that their pension income is taxable as ordinary income at the federal level, just as other retirement account income. As with other retirement income sources, there may be exceptions for state taxes that vary from state to state and pension to pension.

Roth Accounts

Income from Roth accounts is not taxed in retirement.  That is because the initial contribution came from after-tax money. In other words, the income used to make the contribution was taxed on the full amount before the contribution was made. I like to say that “Roth accounts are not tax-free, they are just taxed differently“.

A key benefit of Roth accounts is that their distributions do not count toward high-income surcharges for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums. 

Retirees find that Roth accounts can be tremendously useful to optimize taxes in retirement by strategically combining income from Roth accounts with income from taxable accounts .

As a result, effective retirement planning should include considering saving in Traditional vs Roth accounts and strategically converting Traditional to Roth accounts, when appropriate.

Before jumping into making a Roth conversion, it is important to understand that the point of a Roth account contribution should not be to avoid taxes in retirement per se.  Instead, it should be to reduce lifetime taxes . It is possible that a badly timed Roth contribution would increase lifetime taxes, while also reducing retirement income taxes. A strategic plan is important to think through and implement. 

Municipal Bonds

Income received from municipal bonds is federal tax-free.  Like a Roth contribution, an investment in municipal bonds is made with after-tax money. If you own municipal bonds from the state of your residence, the interest is also state tax-free. However, if you own municipal bonds from states other than your residence, their interest is usually taxable at the state level.

People also wonder what happens when they sell their municipal bonds.  When that happens, the price of the bond can be higher or lower than the face value, known as a premium or a discount. When the price is at a premium, the difference between the premium and the face value can be taxed. That can often be an impediment to a sale as people don’t want to be taxed.  

Investments

When held for one year or longer, investments outside of retirement accounts are subject to long term capital gains taxes. They can range from 0% to 23.8%, including potential Medicare surcharges.  In 2019, for a married couple filing jointly with taxable income up to $78,750, long term capital gains are taxed at 0% federally ($39,375 for people filing as single).

Therefore investments can potentially be taxed less than other sources of income such as retirement accounts. Balancing distributions from investments in conjunction with Traditional retirement and Roth accounts can be a valuable tax optimization tool.

For people preparing to retire, it may make sense to divert investments from retirement accounts to brokerage accounts . Since taxes cannot be entirely avoided, it is about creating a strategy that optimizes investment vehicles to reduce lifetime taxes.

Annuities

Any income from annuities held inside qualified retirement accounts such as an IRA will be taxable as ordinary income in its entirety.

Income from annuities that are not held in qualified retirement accounts is partially taxable as ordinary income. The amount of the distribution that represents your original investment is considered tax-free. 

Therefore, the taxation of annuity income falls somewhat below that the taxation of income from retirement accounts. 

Life Insurance

Loans from the cash value of an insurance policy are considered tax free. That is because, as any loans, they are not considered income. That is a critical point made at the time that an insurance sale occurs.  It should be noted, however, that life insurance is an instance when the tax issues are so prevalent in the discussion that they obscure the other costs of cash value life insurance. The loan from the policy is tax-free, but that in an of itself does not necessarily make life insurance cost-effective or appropriate for your needs.

Earned Income

Income earned in retirement is taxed as any other earned income before retirement. Some retirees continue to earn work income, from part-time jobs or from consulting gigs for example. That income is taxed as earned income as if they were not retired, including Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, there is no tax break for working in retirement!

The reality for most of us is that we will owe taxes in retirement. The multiplication of tax situations can make planning difficult for a retiree.

The challenge is to plan our income situation strategically, manipulate it if you will, in order to minimize lifetime taxes. 

Fortunately, wealth planning done properly is a very feasible endeavor that  may help you keep more of what you earned in your pockets!

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About the Author

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