Tag Archives for " IRA "

Apr 28

8 Strategies For Financial Success

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

8 Strategies For Financial Success

8 Strategies for Financial SuccessIf you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That was the subject of a presentation I made at Sun Life Financial in Wellesley. This may sound like an old cliché, but it illustrates an essential aspect of personal finance: a financial plan is critical.

Regardless of age, marital status, or income, it is essential that you have a personal financial plan. Creating a strategy for financial success is easier than it sounds; you just need to know where to start. The eight financial management strategies below can serve as a roadmap for straightening out your finances and building a better financial future.

1. Develop a Budget

There are many reasons to create a budget. First, a budget builds the foundation for all your other financial actions . Second, it allows you to pinpoint problem areas and correct them. Third, you will learn to differentiate between your needs and your wants. Lastly, having a financial plan to cover expenses planned and laid out will give you peace of mind. Once done, be sure to stick with it!

2. Build an Emergency Fund

As part of your budget, you will also need to plan for an emergency fund. As current events remind us, we cannot anticipate the unexpected. We just know that the need for an emergency fund will come sooner or later . To cover yourself in case of an emergency (i.e., unemployment, injury, car repair, etc.), you need an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses.
An emergency fund does not happen overnight. It needs to be part of your budget and financial plan. It also needs to be in a separate account, maybe a savings account. Or some in savings and some more in a CD. The bottom line is that it needs to be out of sight and out of mind so that it will be there when needed.

3. Stretch Your Dollars

Now that you know what you need and what you want, be resourceful and be strategic when you spend on what you want. For instance, re-evaluate your daily Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks habit, if you have one. Can it be weekly instead of daily? If you eat out for lunch every day, could you pack lunch some days? Do you need a full cable subscription?

4. Differentiate between Good Debt and Bad Debt

It is important to remember that not all debt is created equal. There is a significant distinction between good debt and bad debt. Good debt, such as a mortgage, typically comes with a low-interest rate, tax benefits, and supports an investment that grows in value. Bad debt, such as credit card debt, will burden you with high-interest rates, no tax benefits, and no hope for appreciation. Bad debt will actually reduce your standard of living. When looking at your financial plan, you want to make sure that you are keeping bad debts to a minimum. Now that I think of it, don’t keep bad debt to a minimum: make it go away.

5. Repay Your Debts

One of the most important steps to a successful financial plan is paying back your debts, especially the bad ones. Because debt will only increase if you do not actively work to pay it off. You should include a significant amount of money for debt repayment in your budget.
The fact is that paying off debt is a drag, and sometimes it is difficult to see the end of the tunnel. One way to accelerate the process of paying debt down is to pay strategically . When you pay more than your minimum payments, don’t spread it around all your debts. Concentrate your over-payment on a single debt, the one that’s closest to being paid off. It will make that payment go away faster. And when it’s gone, you can direct the liberated cash flow to the next one, and so on.

6. Know Your Credit Score

A high credit score will make it easier to get loans and credit cards with much more attractive interest rates . In turn, this will mean less money spent on interest payments and more money in your pocket. Take advantage of the free credit report that the credit companies must provide you free of charge annually. Make sure that there is no mistake in it.

7. Pay Yourself First

Set aside a portion of your paycheck each month to “pay yourself first” and invest in a savings or retirement account. Take advantage of the tax deferral option that comes with many retirement plans, such as 401(k) or IRAs. If you have just completed your budget, and you don’t know how to do it all, tax-deferred retirement accounts help you reduce taxes now . Also, think of the matching funds that many employers offer to contribute to your 401(k). They are actually part of your compensation. Don’t leave the match. Take it.
In my line of work, people often tell me that they will never retire. The reality is that everyone will retire someday. It is up to you to make sure that you have financial strategies for successful retirement.

8. Check Your Insurance Plans

Lastly, review your insurance coverage. Meet with your Certified Financial Planner professional and make sure that your policies match the goals in your financial plan. Insurance is a form of emergency fund planning . At times, you will have events that a regular emergency fund won’t be able to cover. Then you will be happy to have property or health or disability or long term care or even life insurance. 

If you have any questions or require additional assistance, contact a Certified Financial Planner. He or she can help you identify your goals and create a financial plan to meet them successfully.

Starting your financial plan is the easy step. The hard part is implementing and moving to the next step. Don’t do it alone, and let me know if I can help.

 

 

Feb 26

Saving Taxes with the Roth and the Traditional IRAs

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

 

Which Account Saves You More Taxes: the Roth IRA or the Traditional IRA?

Retirement by the lake

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), passed in December 2017, reduced individual income tax rates temporarily until 2025 . As a result, most Americans ended up paying less federal income taxes in 2018 and 2019 than in previous years.

However, starting in 2026, the tax rates will revert to those that existed up to 2017. The TCJA also provides for many of its other provisions to sunset in 2015. Effectively, Congress attempted to take away with one hand what it was giving with the other. Unless Congress acts to extend the TCJA past 2025, we need to expect a tax increase then. In fact, in a recent Twitter survey, we found that most people actually expect taxes to go up. 

TCJA and taxes

Some people hope that Congress will extend those lower TCJA tax rates beyond 2026. Congress might just do that. However, planning on Congress to act in the interest of average taxpayers could be a perilous course of action ! Hope is not a plan!

Roth vs. Traditional IRAs

Given the reality of today’s comparatively low taxes, how can we best mitigate the TCJA’s scheduled tax increase? One way could be to switch some retirement contributions from Traditional IRA accounts to Roth IRA accounts from 2018 to 2025, and changing back to Traditional IRA accounts in 2026 when income tax brackets increase again. While we may not be able to do much about the 2026 increase, we can still work to reduce our lifetime taxes through planning.

Roth IRA accounts are well known for providing tax-free growth and retirement income within specific parameters. The catch is that contributions must be made with earned income that has been taxed already. In other words, Roth accounts aren’t exactly tax-free, they are merely taxed differently.

On the other hand, Traditional IRA retirement accounts are funded with pretax dollars, thereby reducing taxable income in the year of contribution. Then, distributions from Traditional IRA retirement accounts are taxed as income.

The Roth IRA is not tax-free, it is merely taxed differently

Thus, it is not always clear whether a Roth IRA contribution will be more tax effective than a Traditional IRA contribution. One of the critical considerations before deciding to contribute to a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k) or to a Traditional IRA or Traditional 401(k) is the difference in income tax rates between contributing years and retirement years. If your projected tax rate in retirement is higher than your current tax rate, then you may want to consider Roth IRA contributions. If, on the other hand, your current tax rate is higher than your projected tax rate in retirement, contributing to a Traditional account may reduce your lifetime taxes. 

The following flowchart can provide you with a roadmap for deciding between these two types of retirement accounts. Please let us know if we can help clarify the information below!

Other Considerations

There can be considerations other than taxes before deciding to invest through a Roth IRA account instead of a Traditional IRA account . For instance, you may take an early penalty-free distribution for a first time home purchase from a Roth. Or you may consider that Roth accounts are not subject to Required Minimum Distributions in retirement as their Traditional cousins are. Retirees value that latter characteristic in particular as it helps them manage taxes in retirement and for legacy.

However, the tax benefit remains the most prominent factor in the Roth vs. Traditional IRA decision. To make the decision that helps you pay fewer lifetime taxes requires an analysis of current vs. future taxes. That will usually require you to enlist professional help. After all, you would not want to choose to contribute to a Roth to pay fewer taxes and end up paying more taxes instead!

As everyone’s circumstances will be different, it would be beneficial to check with a Certified Financial Planner® or a tax professional to plan a strategy that will minimize lifetime taxes, taking into account future income and projected taxes. 

Check out our other posts on Retirement Accounts issues:

Is the new Tax Law an opportunity for Roth conversions?

Rolling over your 401(k) to an IRA

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA Dance

Tax season dilemma: invest in a Traditional or a Roth IRA

Roth 401(k) or not Roth 401(k)

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.

Jan 16

Is 2018 the Year of the Roth 401(k) or the Roth IRA?

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

Is 2018 the Year of the Roth 401(k) or the Roth IRA?

Much of the emphasis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed in December 2017 affected individual income taxes. However, there are also impacts on investment strategies.

From an individual standpoint, the primary feature of the TCJA is a reduction in income tax rates.  Except for the lowest rate of 10% all other tax brackets go down starting with the top rate which drops from 39.6% to 37%.

2018 MFJ Tax Table

 Table 1: 2018 Tax Rates for Married Filing Jointly and Surviving Spouses

Even then, not everyone’s income taxes will go down in 2018 . That is because some of the features of the bill, such as the limitation on State And Local Taxes (SALT) deductions,  effectively offset some of the tax rate decreases.

However, in general, it is safe to say that most people will see a reduction in their federal income taxes in 2018. Of course, this may prompt a review of many of the decisions investors make with taxes in mind.

Retirement is one area where reduced income taxes may have an impact on the decision to invest in a Traditional or a Roth 401(k) or IRA . The advantages of tax-deferred contributions to retirement accounts, such as Traditional 401(k) and IRAs, are also tied to current tax rates. In Traditional retirement accounts, eligible contributions of pre-tax income result in a reduction in current taxable income and therefore a reduction in income taxes in the year of contribution.

Most people expect to make the same or less income in retirement compared to working life, and thus assume that their retirement tax rate will be equal to or lower than their working year tax rate. For those people, contributing pre-tax income to a Traditional retirement account comes with the possibility of reducing lifetime income taxes (how much you pay the IRS over the course of your life).

Most people are pretty excited to see their taxes go down this year! However, the long-term consequences of the tax decrease should be considered.  While the TCJA was passed with the theory that it would stimulate growth such that tax revenues would grow enough to make up for the increased deficit created in the short term by tax cuts, few serious people believe that.  The most likely result is that we will experience a small boost in growth in the short term and that federal deficits and the National Debt will seriously increase thereafter.

In the opinion of the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, not even the expectation of additional short-term growth is enough to temper the seemingly irresistible growth in the federal debt.

TCJA impact on the National Debt

Increased deficits will make it more difficult to fund our national priorities, whether it is defense, social security, healthcare, or investment in our national infrastructure.  Therefore, I expect that we will initiate another tax discussion in a few years, most likely resulting in tax increases, in addition to the automatic tax increases that are embedded in the TCJA.

With federal income tax rates down in 2018 and our expectation that individual taxes will start increasing after 2018, now may be the time to consider a Roth instead of a Traditional account. The consideration of current and future tax rates remains the same. It just so happens that with lower tax rates in the current year, it becomes marginally more attractive to consider the Roth instead.

Consider the case of Lisa, a married pharma executive, making $225,000. This places her in the 24% federal tax bracket. In 2018, her $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution reduces her income taxes by $2,400. In 2017, Lisa would have been in the 28% tax bracket. Her $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution would have resulted in a $2,800 reduction in income taxes. Hence, Lisa’s tax savings in 2018 from contributing to his 401(k) goes down by $400 compared to 2017.

Federal income tax impact on a $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution Table 2: Tax savings on a 401(k) contribution with $180,000 taxable income

From a tax standpoint, contributing to a Traditional 401(k) is still attractive, just a little less so.  To optimize her lifetime tax liabilities, Lisa may consider adding to a Roth 401(k) instead, trading her current tax savings for future tax savings. If Lisa were to direct the entire $10,000 to the Roth 401(k), her 2018 income taxes would increase by $2,400 compared with 2017. Why would Lisa do that? If she expects future income tax rates to go back up, she could save overall lifetime taxes. It may be an attractive diversification of her lifetime tax exposure.

For instance, suppose now that the national debt does grow out of hand and that a future Congress decides to increase tax rates to attempt to deal with the problem. Suppose that Lisa’s retirement income places her in a hypothetical future marginal federal tax rate of 30%. In that case, she will be glad to have invested in a Roth IRA in 2018 when she would have been taxed at a marginal rate of 24%: she would have saved on her lifetime income taxes.

Of course, if Lisa’s retirement marginal tax rate ends up being 20%, she would have been better off saving in her Traditional 401(k), saving with a 28% tax benefit in her working years and paying retirement income tax at 20%.

Note also that Lisa would not have to put the entire $10,000 in the 401(k). She could divide her annual retirement contribution between her Roth and her Traditional accounts, thus capturing some of the tax advantages of the Traditional account, reducing the tax bite in the current year, and preserving a bet on a future increase in income tax rates.

Another possible course of action to optimize one’s lifetime tax bill is to consider a Roth conversion. With a Roth conversion, you take money from a Traditional account, transfer it to a Roth account, and pay income taxes on the distribution in the current year.  As we know, future distributions from the Roth account can be tax-free, provided certain conditions are met . A distribution from a Roth IRA is tax-free and penalty free provided that the five-year aging requirement has been satisfied and at least one of the following conditions is met: you have reached age 59½, become disabled, you make a qualified first-time home purchase, or you die. (Note: The 5-year aging requirement also applies to assets in a Roth 401(k), although the 401(k) plan’s distribution rules differ slightly; check your plan document for details.)  Because tax rates are lower in 2018 for most individuals and households, it makes it marginally more attractive to do the conversion on at least part of your retirement funds.

Consider David, a single pharma marketing communications analyst. With $70,000 in taxable income, he is now in the 12% marginal federal income tax bracket, down from the 25% federal income tax bracket in 2017. He is working on his part-time MBA in 2019 and expects his income to jump substantially as a result. Additionally, David, a keen student of political economy expects his taxable retirement income to be higher than his current income and overall tax rates to go back up before he reaches retirement.  David now has a sizeable Traditional IRA.

For David, the opportunity is to convert some of his Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. To do that, David would transfer some of his Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. He would pay income taxes on the conversion amount at his federal marginal rate of 22%. David would only convert as much as he could before creeping into the next federal tax bracket of 24%. If he feels bold, David could contribute up to the 32% federal tax bracket. Effectively this means that David would stop converting when his taxable income reaches $82,500 if he wanted to stay in the 22% tax bracket, and $157,500 if he wanted to stay in the 24% tax bracket.

In this example, if David were to convert $10,000 from his Traditional IRA to his Roth IRA, he would incur $2,200 in additional federal income taxes. If David expects to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, he would end up saving on his lifetime income taxes.

David could combine this strategy with continuing to contribute to his Traditional 401(k), thus reducing his overall taxable income, and increasing the amount that he can convert from his IRA before he hits the next tax bracket.  If he were to contribute $10,000 to his Traditional 401(k) and convert $10,000 from his Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you could view this as a tax neutral transaction.

Federal tax impact on a $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution and $10,000 Roth conversion

Table 3: Balancing a Traditional 401(k) and a Roth Conversion

This strategy may work best for people who expect to have a reduced income in 2018. Maybe it is people who are back in graduate school, or people taking a sabbatical, or individuals who are no longer working full time while they wait to reach the age of 70 and start collecting social security at the maximum rate.

It is worth remembering that Roth accounts are not tax-free; they are merely taxed differently . That is because contributions to a Roth account are post-tax, not pre-tax as in the case of Traditional accounts. You should note that the examples in this article are simplified. They do not take into account the myriad of other financial, fiscal and other circumstances that you should consider in a tax analysis, including your State tax situation. The examples suppose future changes in taxes that may or may not happen.

If you believe, as I do, that tax rates are exceptionally low this year and will go up in the future, you should have additional incentive to analyze this situation. The decision to contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k) works best for people who expect to be in a similar or higher tax bracket in retirement , and have at least five years before the assets are needed in order not to pay unexpected penalties. Is that you? The financial implications of whether to invest in a Roth instead of a Traditional account can be complex and significant . They should be made in consultation with your Certified Financial Planner.

 

Check out out other retirement posts:

Seven Year End Wealth Management Strategies

Is the new tax law an opportunity for Roth conversions

Rolling over your 401(k) to an IRA

7 IRA rules that could save you time and money

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA Dance

Tax season dilemna: invest in a Traditional or a Roth IRA

Roth 401(k) or not Roth 401(k)

 

 

Feb 16

Rolling Over Your 401(k) to an IRA

By Jim Wood | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning

Rolling Over Your 401(k) to an IRA

 

401(k) rolloverChanging jobs or retiring are two life events that provide opportunities to roll over your 401(k) to an IRA . If retiring, many 401(k) plan sponsors allow you to keep your 401(k) savings in their company plan. However, there are good reasons to consider a roll over of 401(k) assets to an IRA .

The first is to gain better control over your investment portfolio, once the assets are within the IRA. Company sponsored 401(k) plans may have limited investment options and restrictive trading and exchange policies. IRAs generally provide a broader range of investment options and more flexibility.

The second reason is the potential to obtain better guidance in adjusting the asset allocation to a more appropriate level that takes into account your own individual goals and risk tolerance. Although 401(k) plans may offer appropriate investments and some educational information about those options, 401k plan sponsors do not usually make available truly personalized advice to plan participants.

Regardless, there are mistakes that you need to avoid in the process of rolling over your 401(k). To avoid those mistakes, it is important to be able to recognize them. (Click here to receive the Top Mistakes in 401(k) Rollovers fact sheet.)

What are your 401(k) rollover options?

If you are changing jobs, you may have the option to roll over your existing 401(k) into your new employer’s 401(k) plan – be sure to verify that your new employer plan accepts rollovers. Regardless, you always have the option to roll over to an IRA that you can manage. And for the reasons noted above, rolling over to your own IRA may provide you with a better result .

It should be noted that one reason to keep your retirement assets in your 401(k) plan is that costs are often, but not always, lower in 401(k)s.  However, without an appropriate investment plan, lower costs may not bear fruit.

In general it is a good idea to get advice from a Financial Planner who is a fiduciary. You may think that your financial advisor is obligated to do what is best for you, the client. However, not all are not obligated to act in your best interest (whereas a fiduciary would be), and may advise higher fee products, or proprietary products sold by the firm he or she represents or products that do the job.

In April 2016 the Department of Labor rolled out a new regulation that is to take effect in 2017 mandating that all investment professionals working with retirement plan participants and IRA owners shall adhere to a fiduciary standard for all retirement accounts for which they provide investment advice. For purposes of the DOL rule, retirement accounts include 401(k)s, IRAs, and Roth IRAs among others.  The Department of Labor estimates that the investing public would save $4 billion a year with the new fiduciary rule. As you might expect, the fiduciary rule is opposed by affected Wall Street interests that are seeking to water it down or eliminate it entirely.

The Trump administration issued an executive order on February 3, 2017 to review the rule. While the Trump administration would like to roll it back, the industry is moving ahead with implementation, potentially regardless of possible regulatory about faces. Hence the future of the rule is unclear at this time.

you always have the option to roll over to an IRA that you can manage

Of course, whether or not this regulation takes effect in 2017, you can still benefit from working with a fiduciary advisor. If the advisor you are working with is not working to a fiduciary standard – i.e., with your best interests in mind, seek out someone who is. It’s important: after all you are dealing with your money and your future standard of living in retirement.

In the current regulatory environment, fee-only Financial Planners at Registered Investment Advisor firms usually serve as fiduciaries, and are required to always act in your best interests – they must avoid conflicts of interest, and cannot steer plans and IRA owners to investments based on their own, rather than their clients’ financial interests.  In contrast, brokers, insurance agents and certain other investment professionals only have a responsibility to recommend securities that are “suitable.”

Making sure that the investment professional you are working with is acting in your best interest may help you invest your retirement funds more appropriately. Note that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has not promulgated similar regulations for non-retirement investment accounts so if you are not dealing with a fiduciary advisor, you run the same risk of potentially higher costs or merely suitable investments. In fact if you have an IRA and a brokerage account with your financial advisor, he or she may end up being a fiduciary on one account and not a fiduciary on the other account.  How is that for confusing?

 

A previous version of this post has appeared in the Colonial Times.

Jan 17

Five Common Questions About Divorce

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

divorcing-swansdivorcing-swans5 Common Questions About Retirement and Divorce

divorce and retirementRetirement accounts are often one of the major assets of divorcing couples. Analyzing and dividing retirement accounts can be fairly complex . Some of the major questions that I come across include the following:

1. Is My Retirement Account Separate Property?

People will often feel very proprietary about their retirement accounts. They will reason that because the account is in their name only, as opposed to the house which is usually in both their names, they should be able to keep those accounts. Most of the time, this is flawed reasoning. The general rule is that assets that are accumulated during marriage are considered marital assets regardless of the titling.

However, there are cases when part of a retirement plan can be considered separate. This often depends on state law, so it is best to check with a specialist before getting your hopes up.

2. Can I Divide a Retirement Account Without Triggering Taxes?

Most of us know that taking money out of a retirement account will usually trigger taxes and sometimes penalties. However, dividing retirement accounts in divorce provides an exception to that rule. You can divide most retirement accounts in divorce tax-free through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order  (QDRO). As a result of the QDRO, both spouses will now have a separate retirement account.

QDROs are used for 401(k)s, defined benefit pension plans, and other accounts that are “qualified” under ERISA . Many accounts that are not “qualified” such as 403(b)s use a “DRO” instead. The federal government uses its own procedure known as a “COAP”. Some accounts such as IRAs and Roth IRAs can be divided with a divorce agreement without requiring a QDRO.

Since there are so many different retirement accounts, the rules to divide them vary widely. Plan administrators will often recommend their own “model” QDRO. It usually makes sense to have a QDRO specialist verify that the document conforms to your interests.

3. Can I Take Money out Without Penalty?

In general, you cannot take money out of retirement accounts before 59½ years of age without triggering income taxes and a 10% penalty . It makes taking money out of retirement accounts a very expensive proposition as you may only get 60 to 70 cents for every dollar that you withdraw, depending on your tax bracket and the State that you live in.

In addition, that money that was set aside for retirement will no longer be there for that purpose. Although you might tell yourself that you will replace that money when you can, that rarely ever happens.

However, if you have no other choice, it so happens that divorce is one of the few exceptions to the penalty rule. A beneficiary of a QDRO (but not the original owner) can, pursuant to a divorce, take money out of a 401(k) without having to pay penalties. However, you will still have to pay income tax on your withdrawal. Note that this only applies to 401(k)s. It does not apply to IRAs.

4. How Do I Compare Retirement Accounts with Non-Retirement Accounts?

Most retirement accounts contain tax-deferred money. This means that when you get a distribution, it will be taxable as ordinary income. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have a cash account, it is usually all after-tax money. In between you may have annuity accounts where the gains are taxed as income, and the basis is not taxed; you may have a brokerage account where your gains may be taxed at long-term capital gains rate; or you may have employee Restricted Stock which is taxed as ordinary income. All of these accounts can be confusing.

In order to get an accurate comparable value of your various assets, you will want to adjust their value to make sure that it takes the built-in tax liability into account. Many divorce lawyers will use rules of thumb to equalize pre-tax and after-tax accounts. Rules of thumbs can be useful for back-of-the-envelopes calculations , but should not be used for divorce settlement calculations, as they are rarely correct.

What is the harm you might ask? Rules of thumb are like the time on a broken clock – occasionally correct, but usually wrong . In the best of cases, they may favor you. In the worst cases they will short change you. If the rule of thumb is suggested by your spouse’s lawyer, it will have a good chance of being the latter.

Because these calculations are not usually within a lawyer’s skill set, many lawyers and clients will use the services of a Divorce Financial Planner to get accurate calculations that can form a solid basis for negotiation and decision making. It is usually better to know than to guess .

5. Should I Request a QDRO of My Spouse’s Defined Benefit Pension?

Defined Benefit pension plans provide a right to a stream of income at retirement . Unlike 401(k)s and IRAs they are not individual accounts. They do not provide an individual statement with a balance that can be divided.

As a result, many lawyers take the path of least resistance and will want to QDRO the pension. It is usually painful to the pension beneficiary who will often feel very emotional about his or her pension. And it is not necessarily in the spouse’s interest to QDRO the pension .

A better approach is to consider the value of the defined benefit pension compared to the other retirement assets. With a pension valuation, you can judge the value of the pension relative to other assets and make better decisions on whether and how to divide it. A pension valuation will allow each party to make an informed decision and eventually provide informed consent when agreeing to a division of retirement assets.

Another key consideration is that defined benefit plans are complex. Although they have common features, they are each different from one another, and each come with specific rules. You will be well advised to read the “plan document” or have a Divorce Financial Planner read it and let you know the key provisions.

A common provision is that the benefit for the alternate payee can only start when the plan participant starts receiving benefits and must stop when the plan participant passes away. It is all good for the plan participant. But what if as a result of that, the alternate payee ends up losing his or her pension benefits too early?

Hence a key issue of valuing defined benefit plans is that a true valuation is more than just numbers. It also involves a qualitative discussion of the value of the plan, especially for the alternate payee. Some Divorce Financial Planners can handle the valuation of interests in a defined benefit plan easily and the discussion of the plan. Others will refer you to a specialist.

The Bottom Line

Retirement plans are more complex than most divorcing couples expect . Unlike cash accounts they do not lend themselves to a quick asset division decision.  The short and long-term consequences of a sub-optimal decision can be far reaching. It will be worth your while to do a thorough analysis before accepting any retirement asset division.

 

 

A previous version of this post was published in Investopedia

Mar 03

Roth IRA or Traditional IRA?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

stockmonkeys.comAs a Financial Planner, I often get asked if people should save money in a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. In a Traditional IRA, we contribute money on a pre-tax basis (i.e. we do not pay taxes on our IRA contributions), we let it grow tax-deferred, and we pay taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement. In a Roth IRA, we contribute after-tax money, we let it grow tax-free and we pay no taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement.

That last point (“we pay no taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement”) is, of course, the one that gets our attention. We don’t like paying taxes, and the thought that we could have tax-free income in retirement is really motivating, so much so, that, sometimes, it can be the only thing we focus on.

However, the Traditional IRA vs Roth IRA story is not quite that straightforward.

The reality is that we WILL pay taxes whether it is for a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA. With the Traditional IRA tax deduction, we reduce taxes at contribution, and we pay taxes when we withdraw the money. With a Roth IRA, we pay taxes before we contribute the money. At the risk of disappointing many readers, allow me to repeat: the Roth IRA is NOT tax-free, it is taxed differently.

When you do the math you will find that if you 1) invest in the same way in a Roth IRA vs IRA, and 2) are taxed at the same rate on your Roth IRA contribution today, as on your Traditional IRA withdrawals at retirement, you will end up with the exact same amount of money to spend in retirement. Call us: we will show you the math.

So which one is best? The answer is that it depends.

In general, it makes sense to invest through a Roth IRA when we think that our tax rate in retirement will be equal to or higher than our current tax rate. If we think that our tax rate in retirement will be equal or lower than our current tax rate it makes better sense to invest through a Regular IRA.

How then should you decide?

It depends on your situation.

For instance, if you are at the peak of your earnings, and you can calculate that your income in retirement will be significantly less than it is today, a Traditional IRA calculator will tell you that you will save tax money immediately. Since you expect to be in a lower tax bracket at retirement, you will end up paying less taxes.

If you are currently a low earner, and expect to have higher income in retirement than you have now, a Roth IRA calculator will thell you that your cost in taxes will be relatively low, and you will not pay any more when you retire.

Because there are many phases in our working life, there are times when it makes better sense to invest through a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), and other times when it makes better sense to invest through a Traditional IRA or a Traditional 401(k). Conversely, there will be times in our retired life when it will make better sense to withdraw from a Roth IRA, and others when it will make better sense to withdraw from a Traditional IRA.

There are some other constraints. For instance, the traditional IRA max contribution is significantly lower than the 401(k). In addition, if your income is above the Traditional IRA income limits or the Roth IRA limit you may not be able to contribute.

It is about balance and careful financial planning. In the right circumstances, the proper balance between Roth and Traditional IRAs could save you a significant tax bill. In my opinion, it justifies a consultation with a professional financial planner.

 

Check out out other retirement posts:

Is the new tax law an opportunity for Roth conversions

Rolling over your 401(k) to an IRA

7 IRA rules that could save you time and money

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA Dance

Tax season dilemna: invest in a Traditional or a Roth IRA

Roth 401(k) or not Roth 401(k)

 

 

Jul 17

Should you buy stocks now?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Should you buy stocks now?

buy stocks now or follow your long term financial plan?If you are like many investors, you may have a large chunk of your brokerage account or IRAs in money market or short term treasury, and your 401(k) in a Stable Value Fund. The DJIA and S&P500 have been reaching new highs in the past few weeks, and, naturally, investors are wondering: is it time to get back into the market, is it time to buy stocks now or stock mutual funds?
A recent Dalbar study has shown that the average investor in US stocks and stock mutual funds earned an average return of 4.25% per year over the past 20 years, while the S&P500 stock index generated an average 8.21% return over the same period. In other words the average equity investor underperforms the financial markets by almost 4%. This large difference is mostly due to people trying unsuccessfully to time the market.
A more sensible  approach is to consider the intended use of the money sitting in money market. Is it for a short term purpose, such as next September’s college tuition or buying a car? If so, the funds should probably stay in money market. Is it for a long term goal, such as retirement or saving to buy a house on the beach in 10 years? Then, buying stocks may be something to consider.
As an investor, you should have a long term plan that allocates your money to goals and to investments.  Whether to buy stocks now or not to buy stocks now should not depend upon how well the market is doing. If you need a plan, or you need to update one, speak with your Financial Planner. If you need a planner, contact us or the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts.
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Jun 13

Working into Retirement

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Working into Retirement

The Great Recession has many older Americans considering the prospects of going back to work after retirement or staying in the workforce past their normal retirement age. But working after retirement age is not a new necessity. According to the Social Security Administration, more than 30% of individuals between the ages of 70 and 74 reported income from earnings in 2010, the latest year data are available. Among a younger age group, those between 65 and 69, nearly 49% had income from a job.

Some remain employed for personal reasons, such as a desire for stimulation and social contact; others still want a regular paycheck. Whatever the reason, the decision to continue working into your senior years could potentially have a positive impact on your financial future.

Working later in life may permit you to continue adding to your retirement savings and delay making withdrawals. For example, if you earn enough to forgo Social Security benefits until after your full retirement age, your eventual benefit will increase by between 5.5% and 8% per year for each year that you wait, depending on the year of your birth. Although you can continue working after age 70, you cannot delay social security benefits past age 70. You can determine your full retirement age at the Social Security Web site (www.ssa.gov) or by calling the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.

Adding to Your Nest Egg

Depending on the circumstances of your career, working could also enable you to continue adding to your retirement nest egg. If you have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you may be able to make contributions and continue building retirement assets. If not, consider whether you can fund an IRA. Just remember that after age 70 1/2, you will be required to make withdrawals, known as required minimum distributions (RMDs), from traditional 401(k)s and traditional IRAs. RMDs are not required from Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

Even if you do not have access to a retirement account, continuing to earn income may help you to delay tapping your personal assets for living expenses, which could help your portfolio last longer in the years to come. Whatever your decision, be sure to apply for Medicare at age 65. In certain circumstances, medical insurance might cost more if you delay your application.

Work doesn’t have to be a chore. You may find opportunities to work part time, on a seasonal basis, or capitalize on a personal interest that you didn’t have time to pursue earlier in life.

© 2013 S&P Capital IQ Financial Communications. All rights reserved.

 

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Jun 03

What Fees Are Associated With Your Retirement Plan?

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

What Fees Are Associated With Your Retirement Plan?

There’s a little secret associated with your workplace -sponsored retirement plan.  Usually that is a 401k. However, it can also be a 403b, a 457, or a SIMPLE IRA. Most participants think their plan is free – That it doesn’t cost them anything to join, contribute, and invest.  Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true.

While employees typically aren’t charged any out-of-pocket costs to participate in their plans, participants do pay expenses, many of which are difficult to find and even more difficult to calculate. New regulations from the Department of Labor (DOL), which oversees qualified workplace retirement plans, should make it easier for participants to locate and comprehend how much they are paying for the services and benefits they receive.

Here’s a summary of the information you should receive.

  1. Investment-related information, including information on each investment’s performance, expense ratios, and fees charged directly to participant accounts. These fees and expenses are typically deducted from your investment returns before the returns (loss or gain) are posted to your account. Previously, they were not itemized on your statement.
  2. Plan administrative expenses, including an explanation of fees or expenses not included in the investment fees charged to the participant. These charges can include legal, recordkeeping, or consulting expenses.
  3. Individual participant expenses, which details fees charged for services such as loans and investment advice. The new disclosure would also alert participants to charges for any redemption or transfer fees.
  4. General plan information, including information regarding the investments in the plan and the participant’s ability to manage their investments. Most of this information is already included in a document called the Summary Plan Description (SPD). Your plan was required to send you an SPD once every five years, now they must send one annually.

These regulations have been hailed by many industry experts as a much-needed step toward helping participants better understand investing in their company-sponsored retirement plans. Why should you take the time to learn more about fees? One very important reason: Understanding expenses could save you thousands of dollars over the long term.

While fees shouldn’t be your only determinant when selecting investments, costs should be a key consideration of any potential investment opportunity. For example, consider two similar mutual funds. Fund A has an expense ratio of 0.99%, while Fund B has an expense ratio of 1.34%. At first look, a difference of 0.35% doesn’t seem like a big deal. Over time, however, that small sum can add up, as the table below demonstrates.

Expense ratio

Initial investment Annual return Balance after 20 years

Expenses paid to the fund

Fund A

0.99% $100,000 7% $317,462 $37,244
Fund B 1.34% $100,000 7% $296,001

$48,405

Over this 20-year time period, Fund B was $11,161 more expensive than Fund A. You can perform actual fund-to-fund comparisons for your investments using the FINRA Fund Analyzer.

If you have questions about the fees charged by the investments available through your workplace retirement plan, speak to your plan administrator or your financial professional.

 

Note:   Investments are not FDIC-insured, nor are they deposits of or guaranteed by a bank or any other entity, so you may lose money. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. For more complete information about any mutual fund, including risk, charges, and expenses, please obtain a prospectus. Please read the prospectus carefully before you invest. Call the appropriate mutual fund company for the most recent month-end performance results. Current performance may be lower or higher than the hypothetical performance data quoted. The hypothetical data quoted is for illustrative purposes only and is not indicative of the performance of any actual investments. Investment return and principal value will fluctuate; and shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost.