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Jan 23

How does the SECURE Act affect you?

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

After several months of uncertainty, Congress finally passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act in December 2019, with President Trump signing the new Act into law on December 20, 2019. The SECURE Act introduces some of the most significant changes in retirement planning in more than a decade.

The SECURE Act makes several changes to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as well as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that are intended to expand retirement plan coverage for workers and increase savings opportunities. The SECURE Act also radically changes several techniques used for retirement and tax planning. 

Some of the key provisions affecting employer retirement plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and Section 529 Plans included in the SECURE Act are as follows.

IRA Contributions

Starting in 2020, eligible taxpayers can now make Traditional IRA contributions at any age. They are no longer bound by the previous limit of age 70 ½ for contributing to a Traditional IRA.  As a result, individuals 70 ½ and older are now eligible for the back-door Roth IRA .

As an aside, anyone who satisfies the income threshold and has compensation can fund a Roth IRA.

In addition, graduate students are now able to treat taxable stipends and non-tuition fellowship payments as earned income for IRA contribution purposes . I have a graduate student, so I understand that their stipend income may not allow them to contribute to retirement. However, that is something that forward-thinking parents and grandparents can consider as part of their own estate planning.

Required Minimum Distributions

As our retirement age seems to push into the future steadily, so are Required Minimum Distributions under the SECURE Act. This provision, which applies to IRAs and other qualified retirement plans (401(k), 403(b), and 457(b)) allows retirees turning 70 ½ in 2020 or later to delay RMDs from 70 ½ years of age to April 1 of the year after a retiree reaches age 72 . In addition, the law allows people who own certain plans to delay it even further in the case that they are still working after 72. Unfortunately, the provision does not apply to those who have turned 70 ½ in 2019. Natalie Choate, an estate planning lawyer in Boston, says in Morningstar, “no IRA owner will have a beginning RMD date in 2021”.

This RMD provision is part of the good news in the SECURE Act. It will allow retirees more time to reach their retirement income goals. For many, it will enable better lifetime tax planning as well.

End of the “Stretch” IRA

Prior to the SECURE Act, the distributions on an inherited IRA could be “stretched” over the expected lifetime of the inheritor. That was a staple tool of estate and tax planning. 

No more. With a few exceptions, such as for the spouse, the “stretch” is now effectively crunched into ten years. Accounts inherited as of 12/31/2019 are now expected to be distributed over ten years, without a specific annual requirement.

The consequence of this provision of the Act is likely to result in larger tax bills for people inheriting . This makes planning for people who expect to leave IRAs, as well for inheriting them, more important than ever. 

Qualified Birth or Adoption Distribution

The new law allows a penalty-free distribution of up to $5,000 from an IRA or employer plan for a  “Qualified Birth or Adoption Distribution.” For a qualified distribution, the owner of the account must take the distribution for a one-year period starting on (1) the date of birth of the child or (2) the date when the adoption becomes final (individual must be under age 18). The law permits the IRA owner who took the distribution to pay it back to the plan or IRA at a later date. However, these distributions remain subject to income taxes.

Generally speaking, we at Insight Financial Strategists think that people in this situation should avoid availing themselves of this new wrinkle in the law. In our experience, a distribution from retirement accounts before retirement can have profound impacts on retirement income security. 

529 Plans

It may sound off-topic, but it is not. The SECURE Act also addresses 529 plans. For students and their parents, the SECURE ACT allows tax-free 529 plans to pay for apprenticeship programs if they are registered and certified by the Department of Labor.

This provision will be helpful for those people who have children headed to vocational track programs.

In a very partial solution to the student loan crisis, savings in 529 plans can now be used to pay down a qualified education loan, up to $10,000 for a lifetime . Technically, the law makes this provision effective as of the beginning of 2019. 

Given how students and parents scramble to meet the challenge of the cost of higher education, I do not forecast that most 529 plans have much left over to pay off loans!

Business Retirement Plans

(Part-Time) Employee Eligibility for 401(k) Plans – In most 401(k) plans, participation by part-time employees is limited. The SECURE Act enables long-time part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans if they have worked for at least 500 hours in each of three consecutive 12-month periods. Long-term part-time employees who become eligible under this provision may still be excluded from eligibility for contributions by employers.

Delayed Adoption of Employer Funded Qualified Retirement Plan Beginning in 2020, a new plan would be treated as effective for the prior tax year if it is established later than the due date of the previous year’s tax return. Notably, this provision would only apply to plans that are entirely employer-funded (i.e., profit-sharing, pension, and stock bonus plans).

403(b) Custodial Accounts under Terminated Plans are allowed to be Distributed in Kind – Subject to US Treasury Department guidance, the SECURE Act allows an individual 403(b) custodial account in a terminating plan to be distributed “in-kind” to the participant. The account distributed in this way would retain its tax-deferred status as a 403(b). 

Establish Open Multiple Employer Plans (MEPs) – Employers may now join together to create an “open” MEPs, referred to in the legislation as “Pooled Plans.” This will allow small employers to join together and share the costs of retirement planning for their employees, such as through a local Chamber of Commerce or other organization, to start a retirement plan for their employees. 

Increased Tax Credits – The tax credit for small employers who start a new retirement plan will increase from $500 to $5,000. In addition, small employers that add automatic enrollment to their plans also may qualify for an additional $500 annual tax credit for up to three years.

There are many more provisions in the SECURE Act. While some of them are useful for taxpayers, it is worth noting the observation by Ed Slott, a tax expert and sometimes wag: “whatever Congress names a tax law, it does the opposite .”  This is worth keeping in mind as you mull the implications of this law. With the SECURE Act now the law, it may be time to check in with your fiduciary financial planner and revise your retirement income and estate plans.

Nov 18

Seven Year End Wealth Management Strategies

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

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

As we approach the end of a lackluster year in the financial markets, there is still time to improve your financial position with a few well placed year-end moves .

Maybe because we are working against a deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax related .  Tax moves, however, should be made with your overall long-term financial and investment planning context in mind. Make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.

Here are seven important moves to focus your efforts on that will help you make the best of the rest of your financial year .

1) Harvest your Tax Losses in Your Taxable Accounts

As of[ October 26, the Dow Jones is up 1.65%, and the S&P500 is up just 0.98% ]for the year. Unfortunately, many stocks and mutual funds are down for the year. Therefore you are likely to have a number of items in your portfolio that show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column on your brokerage statement.

You can still make an omelet out of these cracked eggs by harvesting your losses for tax purposes . The IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to a maximum of $3,000 for 2018.  So, if you only dispose of your losers, you could end up with a tax loss carryforward, i.e., tax losses you would have to use in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!

However, you can also offset your losses against gains. For example, if you were to sell some losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses, you could then also sell some winners. If the gains in your winners add to $10,000, you have offset your gains with losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that joint trade!

This could be a great tool to help you rebalance your portfolio with a low tax impact. Beware though that you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions that you have sold to stay clear of the wash sale rule.

2) Reassess your Investment Planning

Tax loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. As an important side benefit, it allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. Why did you buy these securities that you just sold? Presumably, they played an important role in your investing strategy. And now that you have accumulated cash, it’s important to re-invest mindfully.

You may be tempted to stay on the sideline for a while and see how the market shakes out.  Although we may have been spoiled into complacency after the Great Recession, the last month has reminded us that volatility happens.

No one knows when the next bear market will happen , if it has not started already. It is high time to ask yourself whether you and your portfolio are ready for a significant potential downturn.

Take the opportunity to review your goals, ensure that your portfolio risk matches your goals and that your asset allocation matches your risk target..

3) Check on your Retirement Planning

It is not too late to top out your retirement account!  In 2018, you may contribute a maximum of $18,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. Those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,000 for the year.

If you have contributed less than the limit to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to maximize contributions for 2018, reduce your 2018 taxable income (if you contribute to a Traditional plan), and give a boost to your retirement planning.

Alternatively to deferring a portion of your salary to your employer’s Traditional plan on a pre-tax basis, you may be able to contribute to a Roth account if that is a plan option for your employer. As with a Roth IRA, contributions to the Roth 401(k) are made after tax, while distributions in retirement are tax-free.

Many employers have added the Roth feature to their employee retirement plans. If yours has not, have a chat with your HR department!

Although the media has popularized the Roth account as tax-free, bear in mind that it is not. Roth accounts are merely taxed differently . Check in with your Certified Financial Planner practitioner to determine whether electing to defer a portion of your salary to on a pre-tax basis or to a Roth account on a post-tax basis would suit your situation better.

4) Roth Conversions

The current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions . Under the current law, income tax rates are scheduled to go back up in 2026; hence Roth conversions could be suitable for more people until then.

With a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional retirement account where assets grow tax-deferred, pay income taxes on the withdrawal, and roll the assets into a Roth account. Once in a Roth account, the assets can grow and be withdrawn tax-free, provided certain requirements are met. If you believe that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could be a good candidate for a Roth conversion .

Read more about the new tax law and Roth conversions

5) Pick your Health Plan Carefully

It is health insurance re-enrollment season! The annual ritual of picking a health insurance plan is on to us. This could be one of your more significant financial decisions for the short term. Not only is health insurance expensive, it is only getting more so.

First, you need to decide whether to subscribe to a traditional plan that has a “low” deductible or to a high deductible option.  The tradeoff is that the high deductible option has a less expensive premium. However, should you have a lot of health issues you might end up spending more.  High deductible plans are paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSA).

The HSA is a unique instrument. It allows you to save money pre-tax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. Unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), balances in HSAs may be carried over to future years and invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is really exciting to wealth managers: in the right situation clients could end up saving a lot of money.

If you pick a high deductible plan, make sure to fund your HSA to the maximum. Employers will often contribute also to encourage you to choose that option.  If you select a low deductible plan, make sure to put the appropriate amount in your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. Unlike with an HSA, you cannot rollover unspent amounts to future years.

 

Gozha net on Unsplash

6) If you are past 70, plan your RMDs

If you are past 70, make sure that you take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) each year. The 50% penalty for not taking the RMD is steep. You must withdraw your first minimum distribution by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and then by December 31 for each year after.

Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? You may want to redirect the money to another cause. For instance, you may want to fund a grandchild’s 529 educational account. 529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts for education. Although contributions are post-tax, growth and distributions are tax-free if they are used for educational purposes.

Or, you may want to plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA and take a tax deduction. The distribution must be directly from the IRA to the charity. It is excluded from taxable income and can count towards your RMD under certain conditions.

7) Plan your charitable donations

Speaking of charitable donations, they can also be used to reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, as a result of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), it may be more complicated than in previous years. One significant difference of the TCJA is that standard deductions went up to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married filing jointly. Practically what that means is that you need to accumulate $12,000 or $24,000 of deductible items before you can feel the tax savings benefit.

In other words, if a married couple filing jointly has $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 of state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $24,000 deduction. They would have to donate $7,000 before they could start to feel the tax benefit of their donation.  One way to deal with that is to bundle your gifts in a given year instead of spreading them over many years.

For instance, if you plan to give in 2018 and also in 2019, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2019. In this way, you are more likely to be able to exceed the standard deduction limit.

If your thinking wheels are running after reading this article, you may want to check in with your wealth manager or financial planner: there may be other things that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

Check these other wealth management posts:

Is the TCJA an opportunity for Roth conversions?

New Year Resolution

How to Implement a New Year Resolution

Tax Season Dilemna: Invest ina Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA 

 

 

 

Note: The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be construed as legal, tax, or investment advice. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented.  To determine investments that may be appropriate for you, consult with your financial planner before investing. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions.We make no representation as to the completeness or accuracy of information provided at the websites linked in this newsletter. When you access one of these websites, you assume total responsibility and risk for your use of the websites to which you are linking. We are not liable for any direct or indirect technical or system issues or any consequences arising out of your access to or your use of third-party technologies, websites, information, and programs made available through this website.  

Sep 24

How to choose a financial planner

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

How to choose a Financial Planner

Chris Chen CFPHow to choose a financial planner is a question that vexes many people looking for one, even as a number of online resources address the topic.  For instance, the Financial Planning Association as well as a number of online resources in the financial and popular media offer advice on that.

I was prompted to think about this issue by a question I received recently

Question:  

“Currently I am pulling about 4% on my trading accounts.  These are probably below what is going on in the market, but that’s one of the reasons I am seriously looking at a financial adviser.

Do you have any empirical data (history) on what returns I could expect.  I am a numbers type so that would definitely help me in my decision making process. “

It is a great question!  Clients want results, and Financial Planners want results.  The difficulty with using results to measure effectiveness, and as a benchmark on how to choose a financial planner, is that there are so many moving variables that using historical results to choose a financial planner is not effective. As the saying goes, there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.

Hence my answer:

Before answering the question “…we would need to work a little more on your objectives and your comfort with risk.  An investment portfolio would have to reflect both. For instance, if you have a short term goal, you would want the money allocated to that goal to be in a lower risk investment allocation.  If you have a long term goal, you would want the opposite. Then, could you compare the performance of the two? They would be like apples and oranges, so probably not.

Now if you and I had the same long term goal, should we be invested in the same way?  Only if we have the same attitudes toward risk, ie how we feel when the market goes down.  Depending on our respective comfort with risk, you and I would have different asset allocations.  Could you compare the performance of our two asset allocations? It would be like comparing a red delicious with a granny apple.  Sort of the same thing, but not quite.

With regard to your results, I assume that they are year to date.  Compared to a S&P 500 return of 19.33% year to date on 9/23/2013, a 4% return year to date would be reflective of a fairly conservative asset allocation with relatively little risk.  In a stock trading situation, your 4% probably came with taking substantial risk.

My job as a financial planner is to understand your goals and your comfort with risk.  Then I can propose an investment allocation and investments that efficiently help you reach your goals with the appropriate amount of risk.

In summary, I could provide you with numbers, but they would not be meaningful without the underlying context of where they came from. Chances are they will be better than some other financial planners’, and worse than some others. In and of itself that would not be meaningful, and, in my opinion, you should not rely on those numbers to decide how to choose a financial planner.”

Check out our Financial Planning Page and our Investment Page

Apr 22

High-Yield Bonds: Income Potential at a Price

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

High-Yield Bonds: Income Potential at a Price

High-yield bonds have long been a popular source of diversification for long-term investors who seek to maximize yield and/or total return potential outside of stocks.(1)  High-yield issues often move independently from more conservative U.S. government bonds as well as the stock market.

These bonds — sometimes referred to as “junk” bonds — are a class of corporate debt instruments that are considered below investment grade, due to their issuers’ questionable financial situations. These situations can vary widely — from financially distressed firms to highly leveraged new companies simply aiming to pay off debts.

As the name “high yield” suggests, the competitive yields of these issues have helped attract assets. With yields significantly higher than elsewhere in the bond market, many investors have turned to high-yield bonds for both performance and diversification against stock market risks.

These are valid reasons for investing in high-yield bonds, especially long term. But as you read about what these issues could offer your portfolio, it’s also wise to consider how these bonds earned their nicknames.

The Risk-Return Equation

In exchange for their performance potential, high-yield bonds are very sensitive to all the risk factors affecting the general bond market. Here are some of the most common risks.

  • Credit risk: A high-yield bond’s above-average credit risk is reflected in its low credit ratings. This risk — that the bond’s issuer will default on its financial obligations to investors — means you may lose some or all of the principal amount invested, as well as any outstanding income due.
  • Interest rate risk: High-yield bonds often react more dramatically than other types of debt securities to interest rate risk, or the risk that a bond’s price will drop when general interest rates rise, and vice versa.
  • Liquidity risk: This is the risk that buyers will be few if and when a bond must be sold. This type of risk is exceptionally strong in the high-yield market. There’s usually a narrow market for these issues, partly because some institutional investors (such as big pension funds and life insurance companies) normally can’t place more than 5% of their assets in bonds that are below investment grade.
  • Economic risk: High-yield bonds tend to react strongly to changes in the economy. In a recession, bond defaults often rise and credit quality drops, pushing down total returns on high-yield bonds. This economic sensitivity, combined with other risk factors, can trigger dramatic market upsets. For example, in 2008, the well-publicized downfall of Lehman Brothers squeezed the high-yield market’s tight liquidity even more, driving prices down and yields up.

The risk factors associated with high-yield investing make it imperative to carefully research potential purchases. Be sure to talk to your financial professional before adding them to your portfolio.

Note (1): Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.

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