Planning is important for all things financial, including retirement, which is inevitable no matter how far into the future it may seem. The financial decisions you make in your 20s through your 60s will greatly impact the quality of your lifestyle during retirement. Social Security and family won’t be enough to get you through 30 years of retirement. If you haven’t worked for a branch of government, you will rely heavily on income you’ve stashed in 401(k)s and IRAs.
One of the big advantages of a traditional IRA or 401(k) is being able to save pre-tax dollars and let them grow tax deferred until you need them. Hopefully, when you take the distributions in retirement, you will be in a lower tax bracket than when you made the contribution. The downside is that traditional IRA funds become 100% taxable when you withdraw them.
Deferring distributions from your IRA only works until age 70½, when you’ll be forced to take money out whether you want to or not. This is called a Required Minimum Distribution, or RMD. If, at age 70½, you don’t need to withdraw funds to live on but are faced with an annual RMD, there are several things you can do to minimize your tax hit.
The easiest is don’t stop earning an income if you have a substantial 401(k). Employees are not required to take RMDs when they are still working, even part-time. This only applies to your employer’s 401(k). You will need to take RMDs from personal IRAs or 401(k)s and IRAs from previous employer plans.
However, if you plan ahead you may be able to bypass this. If you have IRAs that are rollovers from previous 401(k)s, your employer may allow you to roll them into your current plan. By consolidating previous qualified employer plans into your current plan, you can defer taking an RMD until you quit working.
If you give to charities, you can give any portion or all of your RMD to a charity and not pay any taxes on the distribution. This can really save you a lot of money if you are currently giving to charities out of taxable accounts. When you turn 70½, simply redirect your charitable giving from taxable accounts to your IRA. You can give up to $100,000 annually without paying taxes on those distributions.
Another strategy we use commonly with clients is converting traditional IRA funds to Roth IRAs. Money in a Roth is not subject to RMDs. Of course, the downside is that you must pay taxes on the funds converted from your traditional IRA to a Roth.
For a conversion to make financial sense, two important factors must apply. You generally want to do a Roth conversion when your current tax bracket is lower than you anticipate it will be in the future. The most obvious scenario here is when you delay Social Security until age 70 and you are currently in a 10% or 15% tax bracket. It’s highly possible that Social Security and RMDs all kicking in at the same time may put you into the 25% tax bracket. Moving as much money at the 15% bracket prior to age 70 can make a lot of sense. It’s also important that the money to pay the taxes needs to come from a taxable account.
As with all financial strategies that are crammed into a 600-word article, there are variations and nuances I am not able to go into. If you think one of these strategies may apply to you, don’t try it on your own. First get advice from a competent tax advisor or financial professional.