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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.

Dec 09

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

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

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) was the most consequential tax reform package in this generation. It changed many of the ways that we think about reducing taxes.

According to the Tax Policy Center, we know that about 80% of taxpayers pay less income tax in 2018 than before the TCJA , about 5% pay more, and the balance of taxpayers pay about the same amount. On balance, the TCJA seems to have delivered on its promises.

A key item of the TCJA is that it increased the standard deduction, reducing the impact of the elimination of State and Local Taxes (SALT) under $10,000 and the elimination of personal deductions. As a result, about 84% of taxpayers claim the standard deduction and do not itemize. By comparison, about 56% of taxpayers itemized before the enactment of the TCJA. The vast majority of taxpayers are no longer subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), since two of its key drivers, the deductibility of state and local taxes and personal deductions, are no longer a practical issue for most people. And in 2018, only 1,700 estates were subject to the federal estate and gift tax. So for most people, the TCJA has made taxes simpler to deal with. What’s there not to like about a simpler tax return ?

Federal deficit due to tax cuts

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Impact of the TCJA on the Federal Deficit

As predicted, the TCJA worsened the federal deficit bringing it to nearly a trillion dollars in fiscal year 2019. That was in spite of an increase in tax revenue due to the continuing improvement in the economic climate. Of course, the federal deficit continues to be driven by federal spending on the sacred cows of modern US politics: Defense, Social Security, and Medicare. Interest on the federal debt is also a major budget item that needs to be paid. While our continuing regime of low interest rates is helping control the interest on the debt, it is clear that the future may change that.

What will happen to tax rates?

Tax rates are lower now than they have been since the 1970s and 80s. Hence, industry insiders tend to think that tax rates have nowhere to go but up.  That is also what’s is predicted by the TCJA, which is largely designed to sunset in 2025. Should the American people turn on Republicans at the 2020 election, it’s possible that the TCJA will see a premature end. However, it seems that the possibility that the American people might elect a progressive in 2020 is largely discounted when it comes to tax rate forecasting: most people assume that tax rates will increase.

Year-End Planning

Political forecasting aside, there are still things that we can do to lower our taxes . It should be noted that many of the techniques in this article are not limited to the year-end. Furthermore, we all have different situations that may or may not be appropriate for these techniques. 

Tax Loss Harvesting

Even though we have had a pretty good year overall, many of us may still have positions in which we have paper losses. Tax-loss harvesting consists of selling these positions to realize the losses. This becomes valuable when you sell the equivalent amount of shares in which you have gains. So if you sell some shares with $10,000 in losses, and some with $10,000 in gains, you have effectively canceled out the taxes on the gains.

You then have to reinvest the shares sold into another investment. Be careful not to buy back the exact same shares that you sold. That would disallow the tax loss harvesting!

At the same time, it makes sense to review your portfolio and see if there are other changes that you would like to make. We are not fans of frequent changes for its own sake. However, periodically our needs change, the markets change, and we need to adapt.

Income Tax Planning

While tax loss harvesting is mostly about managing Capital Gains taxes, it is also important to keep an eye on income tax planning . This is a good time of year to estimate your income and your taxes for the year. When comparing your estimated Adjusted Gross Income with the tax tables, you will see if you might be creeping up into the next tax bracket. For instance, if you are single and your estimated AGI is $169,501 (and you have no other complexity), you are right at the 32% tax bracket (after you remove the $12,000 standard deduction).  In this example, that means that for every dollar above that amount you would owe 32 cents in federal income tax, and a little bit more for state income tax, if that applies to you.

If your income is from a business, you may possibly defer some of that income to next year. If your income comes from wages, another way to manage this is to plan an additional contribution to a retirement account. In the best of cases your $1,000 contribution would reduce your taxes by $320, and a little bit more for state taxes.

In some cases, you might have a significant dip in income. Perhaps if you have a business, you reported some large purchases, or you booked a loss or just had a bad year for income. It may make sense at this point to take advantage of your temporarily low tax rate to do a Roth conversion. Check with your wealth manager or tax preparer.

If your income does not straddle two tax brackets, the decision to invest in a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is still worth considering.

Charitable Contributions

By increasing standard deductions, the TCJA has made it more difficult for people to deduct charitable contributions . As a result, charitable contributions bring few if any tax benefits for most people.

One way around that situation is to bundle or lump charitable gifts. Instead of giving every year, you can give 2, 3 or more years worth of donations at one time. That would allow your charity to receive the contribution, and, potentially, for you to take a tax deduction. 

Pushing the bundling concept further, you could give even more to a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). With that option, you could take a tax deduction, and give every year from the DAF. That allows you to control your donations, reduce your income in the year that you donate, and potentially reduce income taxes and Medicare premiums. Consult your wealth strategist to ensure that taxes, income, and donations are optimized.

Retirement Accounts

First, it is important to review Required Minimum Distribution (RMDs). Anyone who is 70 ½ years of age or older is subject to RMDs. Please make sure to connect with your financial advisor to make sure that the RMD is properly withdrawn before the year-end.

The RMD is a perennial subject of irritation for people . Obviously, if your retirement income plan includes the use of RMDs, it’s not so much of an issue. However, if it is not required, it can be irritating. That is because RMD distributions are subject to income taxes that may even push you into the next tax bracket or increase your Medicare premium. There are, however, some ways that you can deal with that.  

For instance, if you take a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from your IRA and have the distribution given directly to a charity, the distribution will not be income to you. Hence you won’t pay income taxes on that distribution, and it will not be counted toward the income used to calculate your Medicare premium. However, it will fulfill your RMD, thus taking care of that pesky issue.

Generally, we advocate planning for lifetime taxes rather than for any one given year. Lifetime financial planning has the potential to result in even more benefits. It should be noted that many of the possibilities outlined in this article can be used throughout the year, not just at year-end. We encourage you to have that conversation with your wealth management team to plan for the long term!

Apr 15

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

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

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

source: pexels

On April 4th, it was announced that McKenzie Bezos would be receiving 36 billion dollars worth of assets from her divorce from Jeff.  

First of all, congratulations to Jeff and McKenzie for keeping this divorce process short, out of the media as much as possible, and out of the courts. We are not going to know the details of the Bezos’ agreement. However, some information has been disclosed in the press.

As reported by CNN, McKenzie is keeping 4% of their Amazon stock, worth approximately 36 billion dollars. Jeff retains voting power for her shares as well as ownership of the Washington Post and Blue Origin, their space exploration venture. According to The Economist, this makes the Bezos divorce the most expensive in history by a long shot.

As a post-divorce financial planner, I feel a little silly thinking of what I would tell McKenzie to do with her money now. The magnitude of her portfolio is well beyond run of the mill high net worth divorces with assets only in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. McKenzie can buy $100M or $200M houses and condos wherever she wants. She can have her own jets and her own yachts. She could buy an island or two.

Unsurprisingly, McKenzie’s wealth is concentrated in AMZN stock. That has worked out well for the Bezos’ for the past several years. It is likely to continue to be a great source of wealth for both of them in the future. As it stands, McKenzie is now the third richest woman in the world. Who knows, if she holds onto AMZN stock, she could become the richest woman in the world one day! McKenzie’s concerns with budgeting, taxes, and wealth strategy will soon be in a class of their own.

There are, however, some lingering considerations for McKenzie, particularly when it comes to capital gains taxes, portfolio management, philanthropy and wealth transfer.

Capital Gains Taxes

McKenzie probably has an enormous tax liability built into her AMZN holdings. While I am not privy to her cost basis, it is not unreasonable to assume that it is close to zero since the Bezos’ have owned Amazon stock since the company’s inception. Should McKenzie sell her AMZN stock, the entire amount would likely be subject to capital gains taxes. As such McKenzie may not be worth quite $36 Billion after taxes are accounted for .

A benefit of keeping the stock until her death is that her estate will benefit from a step up in cost basis. This would mean that the IRS would consider the cost of the stock to be equal to the value at her death. This favorable tax treatment would wipe out her capital gains tax liability.

Portfolio Management

Nevertheless, the standard advice that wealth strategists give clients with ordinary wealth applies to Ms. Bezos as well: it would be in McKenzie’s best financial interest to diversify her holdings. Diversifying would help her reduce the risk of having her wealth concentrated into a single stock. It is a problem that McKenzie (and Jeff) share with many employees of technology and biotech startups.

McKenzie might not want to sell all of her AMZN stock or even most of it. Although we have not read their separation agreement, she has probably agreed with Jeff that she would retain the bulk of her holding. She may also believe enough in AMZN and Jeff’s leadership to sincerely want to keep it. Regardless, McKenzie should still diversify her portfolio to protect herself against AMZN specific risks.

Philanthropy

An advantage of having more money than you need is that you have the option to use the excess to have a measurable impact on the world through philanthropy. In 2018, Jeff and McKenzie created a $2B fund, the Bezos Day One Fund, to help fight homelessness. Given that the home page of the fund now only features Jeff’s signature, this may mean that Jeff is keeping this also. McKenzie will likely organize her own charity. What will her cause be?

Philanthropy can be an effective tax and estate management tool , primarily because, within limits, the IRS allows you to deduct your donations against your income thus helping you manage current and future taxes. For McKenzie, it is about deciding what to do with the money, instead of letting Congress decide.

Wealth Transfer

McKenzie’s net worth is far in excess of the current limits of federal and state estate taxes. Unless she previously planned for it during her marriage, she will have to revise her estate plan.  Even though she would benefit from a step up in basis on her AMZN stock if she chooses not to diversify, she would still be subject to estate taxes, potentially in the billions of dollars.

Of course, no matter how much estate tax McKenzie ends up paying, it is likely that she will have plenty to leave to her heirs.

Financially, McKenzie Bezos has what wealth strategists would consider as ‘good financial problems’ . She has the financial freedom to focus on the important aspects of life: family, relationships and making a difference.

 

A version of this post appeared in Kiplinger on April 12, 2019

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.  

Oct 15

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

By Anna Byrne | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

Financial Planners and Estate Planners are two different professions that are often confused. There is some overlap between professionals in these fields, but their roles are rather distinct. When you are striving to make a long-term plan for a strong financial future, both financial planners and estate planners play a crucial role.

In fact, when you consider some of the most recent personal finance statistics, it becomes very clear that many Americans could really benefit from retaining the services of both a financial planner AND an estate planner. For instance, 33% of Americans have no money saved for retirement, 60% lack any form of an estate plan, and only 46% have money saved for emergencies. Better planning starts with understanding what both types of planners do.

What is a Financial Planner?

A financial planner is a professional who offers a wide range of services that can assist both individuals and businesses to accomplish their long-term financial goals and accumulate wealth. They fall into two categories:

  • Registered Investment Advisor
  • Certified Financial Planner

Certified Financial Planners (CFP) are required to comply with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which means they have a basic level of expertise backed by a larger organization. Ethically they have to work in your best interest.

Services provided by both financial advisors and CFPs include:

What is an Estate Planner?

The goal of a financial planner is to assist with wealth accumulation. On the other hand, an estate planner can help you to make financial plans associated with your passing, which includes protecting the wealth that you have accumulated .

While you might believe only wealthy individuals need to work with an estate planner, you should consider the fact that everything you have accumulated in your life comprises your estate. Accumulated assets such as vehicles, furniture, bank accounts, life insurance, your home, and other personal possessions are all included in your estate.

Your assets become the property of the state if you die without a will or an estate plan in place , and your family members will not be able to claim them without paying legal fees and taxes. They will also have to face the stress of potential disagreements with other family members over how your property should be divided.

Besides planning for your passing, estate planning also involves creating a clear plan for your care if you become disabled , and it also covers naming guardians for underage children. Estate planning is a way to protect your family and your assets while reducing taxes and legal fees .

Which Do You Need?

The roles of financial planners and estate planners are unique, and for this reason, you will benefit from working with both . While your financial planner helps you accumulate wealth, he or she can also prepare you for a meeting with an estate planner as part of your long-term strategy. This includes providing the estate planner with lists of beneficiaries, tax return documentation, lists of investments and a breakdown of income and expenses.

When you work with both a financial planner and an estate planner, they will keep you accountable by periodically reviewing your documentation and beneficiaries and making sure everything is updated and reviewed as necessary. By taking the time to work with both these professionals, no important decisions will be overlooked, and you will take control of your financial future.

 

Note: This article was authored by Kristin Dzialo, a partner at Eckert Byrne LLC, a Cambridge, MA law firm that provides tailored estate planning. Eckert Byrne LLC and Insight Financial Strategists LLC are separate and unaffiliated companies. This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only. While Insight Financial Strategists LLC believes the sources to be reliable, it makes no representations or warranties as to this or other third party content it makes available on its website and/or newsletter,  nor does it explicitly or implicitly endorse or approve the information provided.  

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)

 

 

Sep 03

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

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

Roth 401k or not Roth 401k?

Which is better, more money in your paycheck or more tax-free cash in your retirement? It’s an important question only you can answer. 

According to a 2017 research paper at Harvard Business School, employees who have the option to contribute to a Roth 401(k) instead of a traditional 401(k) tend to contribute the same amount to either account. Given that a Roth 401k tends to result in more money taken out of your paycheck every week or month than a traditional 401k, that’s unexpected!  

Traditional 401k contributions are made on a pre-tax basis while Roth 401k contributions are made post-tax . So, assuming a given level of cash flow available, most of the time contributions to a traditional 401k will be easier than contributions to a Roth 401k because traditional plans drive your annual taxable income lower. You’ll still have to pay taxes on the contributions later when you retire. but the “taxable event” is deferred.

Take the case of Priya, a 49-year-old single mom. She makes $135,000 a year and lives alone with her son.  Not counting her employer’s match, Priya saves $350 per pay period in her traditional 401k, totaling $9,100 a year.  Absent other considerations, her $9,100 contribution reduces her annual taxable income from $135,000 to $125,900.  As a result, since her taxable income is less, she will pay less income taxes.

Roth 401ks and Roth IRAs are not tax-free: they are merely taxed differently

What if Priya were to switch her contributions to her company’s Roth 401k? She is considering contributing the same amount: $9,100. However, because contributions to a Roth are post-tax , they would no longer reduce Priya’s taxable income.  Thus, she would pay taxes on $135,000 instead of $125,900.  Hence Priya would end up owing more taxes for the year.

No brainer for the traditional 401k, right? Wrong. Roth 401ks provide one major advantage. If Priva switched to the Roth and maintained her contribution level, she might end up with more income in retirement as Roth 401k distributions in retirement are tax-free , whereas traditional 401k distributions are taxed as income .  However, switching her contribution to the Roth would be at the expense of her current cash flow.  Can Priya afford it?

What if she would reduce her Roth contribution to keep her current cash flow constant? In that case, it is not clear that Priya’s after-tax income in retirement would be higher or lower with a Roth 401k than with a traditional 401k. Answers would require further analysis of her situation.

It’s important to remember that Roth 401ks and Roth IRAs are not tax-free: they are merely taxed differently . That makes the decision to invest in a Traditional or a Roth 401k is an important financial planning decision :  employees need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches to make an informed decision that balances current spending desires with future income needs.

According to John Beshears, the lead author of the Harvard study, one possible explanation for his finding is that people are confused about the tax properties of the Roth . Another possibility could be that people have greater budget flexibility than they give themselves credit for. Either way, employees should seek additional support before making this very important decision.

 

A prior version of this article appeared in Kiplinger and Nasdaq.com

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

 

 

Apr 12

The Dirty Dozen Tax Scams

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

The Dirty Dozen Tax Scams

IRS Tax buildingI recently read the IRS Dirty Dozen Tax Scams, 2015 edition, the government’s annual guide for taxpayers to potential tax scams, so you wouldn’t have to!

The first item of interest, although at the bottom of the IRS list, are issues with various phone or email scams.  “Whether it’s a phone scam or scheme to steal a taxpayer’s identity, there are simple steps [for consumers] to take to help stop these con artists,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says.

At the top of the list of things the IRS wants us to beware of are telephone and email scams. If someone calls claiming to be from the IRS and pressures you to give him or her money, hang up. If you receive an email from someone claiming to be with the IRS and asking for personal information or money, delete it.

The IRS also advises that taxpayers stay on the alert for identity theft, especially around tax time.

(earlier versions of this posts were published on nerdwallet and the Christian Science Monitor)

May 30

The IRS thinks you are cheating on your Spousal Support

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

 

The IRS thinks you are cheating on your spousal support

Spousal SupportAccording to the Journal of Accountancy, the IRS has increased resources devoted to scrutinizing alimony, or spousal support.  

As is well known amongst divorcing individuals and the professionals who support them, the tax code allows the payor of spousal support to deduct it from taxable income, while the recipient must include it in taxable income. So if Kevin pays Kate $30,000 of spousal support a year, he can reduce his taxable income by that amount while she is supposed to claim it as income, and pay taxes. 

Predictably, divorced couples don’t agree about spousal support any more than they do about anything else. On March 31 2014, TIGTA , the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, an IRS watchdog, issued a report identifying a large tax gap between spousal support deductions by payers and the corresponding income claimed on ex-spouses’ returns.

With its mouthful of a title (“Significant Discrepancies exist  between Alimony Deductions Claimed by Payers and Income Reported by Recipients“), TIGTA clearly wants us to pay attention.  TIGTA found that for the 570,000 returns that they analyzed for the tax year 2010, deductions exceeded income by more than $2.3 billion. More than 47% of returns showed discrepancies between the spousal payments deducted and the income reported.

According to Mike Conti, a CPA in Boston, TIGTA estimated that the IRS revenue loss from spousal support errors could add up to $1.7 billion over a five year period. Although that is small compared to the estimated $385 billion tax gap experienced in the US, spousal support is now a target for the IRS that has been identified and quantified. 

In fact, the IRS reported adjusting its audit filters to catch more high risk returns. The WSJ reports that the IRS is developing “other strategies” to address the spousal support tax gap. In other words, divorcing individuals, at least those paying and receiving spousal support will be at a higher risk for an audit.

There are enough things going on in a divorce that a potential IRS audit may not make it to the top of the list of concerns.  However, given that it is now completely predictable, it is better for divorcing individuals to pay the extra attention and avoid the audit or be ready for it.

For people paying spousal support as well as for those receiving it, it is important to ensure that:

1. You fully understand what is alimony and what is not. Separation agreements are written in a legal style that is not always clear to non-lawyers. If you are not sure, if you have questions check with a financial specialist such as a CFP® professional, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) or a CPA.

2. You agree with your ex on what spousal support amount you are putting on your respective tax returns. Having a discrepancy between what he files and what she files could put both of you at greater risk for an audit.

3. Your separation agreement correctly specifies spousal support. If it does not and you get audited, alimony could get disallowed. If you have not done so already, take the opportunity to verify that your separation agreement correctly specifies spousal support.

4. You get professional post-divorce support. You will need it anyway for any number of other issues. Analyzing spousal support and filing taxes correctly are just two of them.

5. Avoid pushing the envelope on this issue. It is simply not worth the additional aggravation. 

(a version of this post appeared on boston.com)

 

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)