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NEW YORK The baby boom generation is moving into retirement with something no other generation has had: huge tax liabilities.
With their savings concentrated in tax-deferred retirement accounts like 401(k)s or individual retirement accounts, many boomers will have to pay income taxes on most of the money they live on. In addition, they are likely to find a high percentage of their Social Security benefits taxable.
"It's kind of a new thing with current retirees," observes Mackey McNeil, a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist in Bellevue, Kentucky. "They love the tax deduction when they are putting money in, but some have no after-tax accounts at all."
Social Security benefits are taxed under a complicated formula. For single taxpayers whose earnings, including 50 percent of their Social Security benefits, are over $25,000 ($32,000 for joint filers), 50 percent of benefits get taxed. Once that income rises above $34,000 for a single and $44,000 for joint files, 85 percent of benefits will be taxed. The short version? "Unless your income is really low, you're going to pay a tax on at least some of your Social Security," McNeil summarizes.
It all adds up to a big headache for retirees, and especially for those who are single - because they get kicked into higher tax brackets at lower levels of income. A single person whose income is in the mid-$30,000s could catapult herself into a 46 percent marginal tax rate simply by withdrawing an extra $1,000 or $2,000 from her IRA; that could bump her into a higher income tax bracket and a higher level of Social Security taxes. And that does not even include local and state income taxes, which (though they do not often apply to the Social Security benefits) can add an additional 8 to 10 percent tax burden to those IRA withdrawals.
The biggest burden, of course, will be borne by people who don't plan ahead: You can cut your retirement taxes considerably with some careful pre- and post-retirement tax planning. Here is how to manage:
- Learn to love the Roth IRA. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax money but withdrawals are not taxed - that is a benefit that a long time horizon can enhance. Contributions to a traditional IRA are made with pretax dollars but withdrawals are taxed at income tax rates. You can convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA; when you do that you will owe income tax on the converted amount. It's good to convert tax-deferred funds to Roth status during low-income years, whenever they occur - pre- or post-retirement.
- Set an estate planning strategy early. If leaving money to your kids is a big part of your retirement goal, know that leaving them money in a Roth IRA is better than leaving them a traditional IRA. The more you want to leave behind, the better the Roth looks.
- Amass savings in a variety of tax buckets before you retire. Of course, continue to feed your 401(k) account, especially up to the level that your employer will match. But if you qualify for a Roth IRA, max out that contribution as well. It's good to have some investments in an after-tax account. Once you retire, you will want all of those options available for withdrawals.
- Make long-term plans, especially after you retire. Don't just plan your spending and your withdrawals year by year. Think of them as five- or ten-year plans. That will enable you to optimize your withdrawals to minimize your taxes.
Your spending in retirement may not be even-keeled. In some years you may take big, expensive trips and buy new cars, others might be more frugal. But keep those withdrawals steady to avoid pushing yourself into higher tax brackets with tax-deferred withdrawals during the expensive years, says McNeil.
- Take full advantage of the low tax brackets. In 2014, a single person is in the 15 percent marginal tax bracket until they have $36,900 in income, and then they are in the 25 percent tax bracket until they hit $89,350. For couples filing jointly, the levels are $73,800 and $148,850. Make sure you use up those low-level brackets every year, suggest experts like David Hultstrom, a Woodstock, Georgia, financial adviser.
For example, if you are a married couple who often hit high tax brackets and expect to have only $50,000 of taxable income this year, consider pulling an additional $23,000 out of your tax-deferred IRA so it can be taxed at the low 15 percent level. You can use that additional money to roll over into a Roth IRA, leaving funds to accumulate there.
- Take advantage of lean times. Dan Thomas, an Orange County CPA and personal financial specialist, recently helped an unemployed client move almost $300,000 out of his IRA and into a Roth IRA. Because the client had a spate of unemployment that covered more than one year, most of the conversions were at a very low income tax rate. "The timing was good," said Thomas. "We were making lemonade out of lemons."
- Protect your tax breaks. For most retirees, the most tax-efficient way to spend your money is to first take withdrawals from taxable accounts, then from tax-deferred IRAs, then from Roths, says Hultstrom. Of course, instead of emptying your taxable accounts to protect all of your IRA, it would make sense to generate just enough withdrawals from the IRA to keep your tax rate low.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis; Linda Stern is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. The Stern Advice column appears weekly, and at additional times as warranted. Linda Stern can be reached at email@example.com; She tweets at www.twitter.com/lindastern; Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/linda-stern)