Taxes

21
May

Six Potential 401(k) Rollover Pitfalls

You’re about to receive a distribution from your 401(k) plan, and you’re considering a rollover to a traditional IRA. While these transactions are normally straightforward and trouble-free, there are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.

1. Consider the pros and cons of a rollover

The first mistake some people make is failing to consider the pros and cons of a rollover to an IRA in the first place. You can usually leave your money in the 401(k) plan if your balance is over $5,000 (at least until the plan’s normal retirement age, typically 65). And if you’re changing jobs, you may also be able to roll your distribution over to your new employer’s 401(k) plan.

  • Though IRAs typically offer significantly more investment opportunities and withdrawal flexibility, your 401(k) plan may offer investments that can’t be replicated in an IRA (or can’t be replicated at an equivalent cost).
  • An IRA may give you more flexibility with distributions. Your distribution options in a 401(k) plan depend on the terms of that particular plan, and your options may be limited. However, with an IRA, the timing and amount of distributions are generally at your discretion (until you reach age 70½ and must start taking required minimum distributions in the case of a traditional IRA).
  • 401(k) plans offer virtually unlimited protection from your creditors under federal law (assuming the plan is covered by ERISA; solo 401(k)s are not), whereas federal law protects your IRAs from creditors only if you declare bankruptcy. Any IRA creditor protection outside of bankruptcy depends on your particular state’s law.
  • Required minimum distributions from traditional IRAs must begin by April 1 following the year you reach age 70½. However, if you work past that age and are still participating in your employer’s 401(k) plan, you can delay your first distribution from that plan until April 1 following the year of your retirement (if you own no more than 5% of the company).
  • 401(k) plans may allow employee loans (IRAs can not allow loans).
  • Most 401(k) plans don’t provide an annuity payout option, while some IRAs do.

2. Not every distribution can be rolled over to an IRA

For example, required minimum distributions can’t be rolled over. Neither can hardship withdrawals or certain periodic payments. Do so and you may have an excess contribution to deal with.

3. Use direct rollovers and avoid 60-day rollovers

While it may be tempting to give yourself a free 60-day loan, it’s generally a mistake to use 60-day rollovers rather than direct (trustee to trustee) rollovers. If the plan sends the money to you, it’s required to withhold 20% of the taxable amount. If you later want to roll the entire amount of the original distribution over to an IRA, you’ll need to use other sources to make up the 20% the plan withheld. In addition, there’s no need to taunt the rollover gods by risking inadvertent violation of the 60-day limit.

4. Remember the 10% penalty tax

Taxable distributions you receive from a 401(k) plan before age 59½ are normally subject to a 10% early distribution penalty, but a special rule lets you avoid the tax if you receive your distribution as a result of leaving your job during or after the year you turn age 55. But this special rule doesn’t carry over to IRAs. If you roll your distribution over to an IRA, you’ll need to wait until age 59½ before you can withdraw those dollars from the IRA without the 10% penalty (unless another exception applies). So if you think you may need to use the funds before age 59½, a rollover to an IRA could be a costly mistake.

5. Learn about net unrealized appreciation (NUA)

If your 401(k) plan distribution includes employer stock that’s appreciated over the years, rolling that stock over into an IRA could be a serious mistake. Normally, distributions from 401(k) plans are subject to ordinary income taxes. But a special rule applies when you receive a distribution of employer stock from your plan: You pay ordinary income tax only on the cost of the stock at the time it was purchased for you by the plan. Any appreciation in the stock generally receives more favorable long-term capital gains treatment, regardless of how long you’ve owned the stock. (Any additional appreciation after the stock is distributed to you is either long-term or short-term capital gains, depending on your holding period.) These special NUA rules don’t apply if you roll the stock over to an IRA.

6. And if you’re rolling over Roth 401(k) dollars to a Roth IRA …

If your Roth 401(k) distribution isn’t qualified (tax-free) because you haven’t yet satisfied the five-year holding period, be aware that when you roll those dollars into your Roth IRA, they’ll now be subject to the Roth IRA’s five-year holding period, no matter how long those dollars were in the 401(k) plan. So, for example, if you establish your first Roth IRA to accept your rollover, you’ll have to wait five more years until your distribution from the Roth IRA will be qualified and tax-free.

Caution: When evaluating whether to initiate a rollover from an employer plan to an IRA always be sure to (1) ask about possible surrender charges that may be imposed by your employer plan, or new surrender charges that your IRA may impose, (2) compare investment fees and expenses charged by your IRA (and investment funds) with those charged by your employer plan (if any), and (3) understand any accumulated rights or guarantees that you may be giving up by transferring funds out of your employer plan.

13
May

1040 Postmortem: Making Sense of Your Taxes and Withholding

An estimated 65% of U.S. households paid less in federal income taxes in 2018, whereas 29% paid about the same and 6% paid more.

Source: Tax Policy Center, 2019

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which passed in December 2017, made fundamental changes to the U.S. tax code, and 2018 returns were the first time most taxpayers could see the practical impact of these changes.

In an April 2019 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans said they were unsure how the new tax law affected them personally. Surprisingly, 21% thought their federal income taxes went up in 2018, and 21% said they were about the same. Only 14% of respondents reported that their taxes went down, even though independent analyses and preliminary tax filing data suggested that about two-thirds of Americans would owe less in federal taxes in 2018.1-2

One reason for this apparent confusion might be because taxpayers tend to pay little attention to employer withholding, and any potential increase in take-home pay may have been less noticeable when divided into weekly (or biweekly) paychecks. It’s also possible that many respondents didn’t take the time to compare their tax burdens to the previous year and/or may not know how to do so. Despite a stated effort to simplify the federal withholding and tax filing process, the tax code is still complex, and many taxpayers don’t understand the details and terminology.

Stay on top of withholding

About 73% of 2018 tax returns showed a refund, averaging $2,725.3 The amount of your refund or the amount you owe with your return has little to do with your overall tax burden. These numbers reflect whether your withholding and/or estimated tax payments during the year were more or less than your final tax bill.

In theory, your withholding should equal your tax liability; otherwise you are loaning your money interest-free to the government. But IRS formulas tend to err on the high side, partly because people usually dislike owing a balance and are often happy to receive a tax refund.

Employers estimate your federal tax bill based on the number of exemptions claimed on your W-4 Form and on IRS calculation tables. The IRS rather quickly released 2018 calculation tables reflecting the new rates and rules. However, the agency did not replace the W-4 Form and worksheet, which are based on exemptions, deductions, and credits that were reduced or eliminated under the new tax law.

This resulted in smaller refunds or higher tax bills than expected for some taxpayers, especially dual-income households with more complicated situations. The Treasury estimated that 21% of taxpayers would be subject to underwithholding because of the TCJA, compared with 18% if the tax law provisions had not changed.4

If you owed a large amount of money for 2018, bumping up your withholding now could help avoid a similar fate next April. You might also reevaluate your withholding If you received a large refund. You could make larger retirement contributions instead or take home more of your pay and put it to better use.

It’s also a good idea to review your withholding whenever something changes in your life — such as a marriage, divorce, birth of a child, new job, or other significant change in your financial situation.

The IRS (irs.gov) has an up-to-date, online calculator that can help you determine the appropriate amount of withholding. You still need to complete and submit a current W-4 to your employer to make any adjustments. An all-new W-4 Form for the 2020 tax year is in the works but isn’t expected to be available to employers until later in 2019.

Measuring the impact

How you fared under the TCJA depends on a variety of factors, such as how much you earned, your filing status, the ages of your dependents, and where you live. Undertaking a thorough side-by side comparison of your 2017 and 2018 returns could help you identify changes that affected your bottom line. Be sure to note differences in your allowed deductions, taxable income, and total tax liability.

New marginal tax brackets are likely to mean that much of your income is taxed at lower rates. But other provisions may add to or reduce that benefit.

Standard deduction amounts for 2018 roughly doubled to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly. However, personal exemptions ($4,050 in 2017) for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents are no longer available. The expanded child tax credit may offset the loss of exemptions for many taxpayers, but the math may not work out in your favor if you’re a family of four or more.

A number of tax deductions commonly used by high earners have also been modified, capped, or eliminated. For example, the itemized deduction for state and local taxes (SALT) is now limited to $10,000 ($5,000 if married filing separately). This provision caused tax increases for some taxpayers in high-tax states. On the other hand, the overall limit on itemized deductions that applied to higher-income taxpayers (commonly known as the “Pease limitation”) was repealed, and fewer taxpayers are subject to the alternative minimum tax.

You might also consult a tax professional who can explain the relevant changes and recommend potential strategies to help reduce your tax liability for 2019.

What if you owe money and can’t pay?

If you didn’t file your 2018 federal income tax return because it’s going to show a balance due, you should file your return immediately and pay as much as you can afford. This can help limit penalties and interest, and being up-to-date on filing is generally required to pursue a payment agreement with the IRS.

If you owe $50,000 or less, you may even be able to apply for a short-term extension (up to 120 days) or a longer payment agreement online. Interest and penalties continue to accrue on unpaid amounts.

1) Gallup, April 12, 2019

2) The New York Times, April 14, 2019

3) Internal Revenue Service, April 12, 2019

4) U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2018

6
May

The Future of Social Security and Medicare: What Trustees Project

Based on the “intermediate” assumptions in this year’s report, the Social Security Administration is projecting that the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), announced in the fall of 2019, will be 1.8%. This COLA would apply to benefits starting in January 2020.

Most Americans will eventually receive Social Security and Medicare benefits. Each year, the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds release lengthy reports to Congress that assess the health of these important programs. The newest reports, released on April 22, 2019, discuss the current financial condition and ongoing financial challenges that both programs face, and project a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2020.

What are the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds?

Social Security: The Social Security program consists of two parts. Retired workers, their families, and survivors of workers receive monthly benefits under the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program; disabled workers and their families receive monthly benefits under the Disability Insurance (DI) program. The combined programs are referred to as OASDI. Each program has a financial account (a trust fund) that holds the Social Security payroll taxes that are collected to pay Social Security benefits. Other income (reimbursements from the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury and income tax revenue from benefit taxation) is also deposited in these accounts. Money that is not needed in the current year to pay benefits and administrative costs is invested (by law) in special Treasury bonds that are guaranteed by the U.S. government and earn interest. As a result, the Social Security Trust Funds have built up reserves that can be used to cover benefit obligations if payroll tax income is insufficient to pay full benefits.

Note that the Trustees provide certain projections based on the combined OASI and DI (OASDI) Trust Funds. However, these projections are theoretical, because the trusts are separate, and generally one program’s taxes and reserves cannot be used to fund the other program.

Medicare: There are two Medicare trust funds. The Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund helps pay for hospital care (Medicare Part A costs). The Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund comprises two separate accounts, one covering Medicare Part B (which helps pay for physician and outpatient costs) and one covering Medicare Part D (which helps cover the prescription drug benefit).

Highlights of Social Security Trustees Report

  • Social Security’s total cost is projected to exceed its total income (including interest) in 2020 and remain higher for the next 75 years. The U.S. Treasury will need to withdraw from trust fund reserves to help pay benefits. The Trustees project that the combined trust fund reserves (OASDI) will be depleted in 2035, one year later than projected in last year’s report, unless Congress acts.
  • Once the combined trust fund reserves are depleted, payroll tax revenue alone should still be sufficient to pay about 80% of scheduled benefits for 2035, with the percentage falling gradually to 75% by 2093.
  • The OASI Trust Fund, when considered separately, is projected to be depleted in 2034. Payroll tax revenue alone would then be sufficient to pay 77% of scheduled benefits. These figures are unchanged from last year’s report.
  • The DI Trust Fund is expected to be depleted in 2052, 20 years later than projected in last year’s report. The significant depletion date change reflects the fact that both benefit applications and the total number of disabled workers currently receiving benefits have been declining over the past few years. Once the DI Trust Fund is depleted, payroll tax revenue alone would be sufficient to pay 91% of scheduled benefits.
  • Based on the “intermediate” assumptions in this year’s report, the Social Security Administration is projecting that the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), announced in the fall of 2019, will be 1.8%. This COLA would apply to benefits starting in January 2020.

Highlights of Medicare Trustees Report

  • Annual costs for the Medicare program exceeded tax income each year from 2008 to 2015. There were fund surpluses in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, expenditures exceeded income, and this year’s report projects that costs will exceed income by increasing amounts (excluding interest income). The report notes that in 2007, assets represented 150% of expenditures, but by the beginning of 2019, the ratio of trust fund assets to expenditures had fallen to 66%.
  • The HI Trust Fund is projected to be depleted in 2026, the same year as projected in last year’s report. Once the HI Trust Fund is depleted, tax and premium income would still cover 89% of estimated program costs, declining to 78% by 2043 and then gradually increasing to 83% by 2092. The Trustees note that long-range projections of Medicare costs are highly uncertain.

Why are Social Security and Medicare facing financial challenges?

Social Security and Medicare are funded primarily through the collection of payroll taxes. Because of demographic and economic factors, including higher retirement rates and lower birth rates, there will be fewer workers per beneficiary over the long term, worsening the strain on the trust funds.

What is being done to address these challenges?

Currently, not much, but both reports urge Congress to address the financial challenges facing these programs soon, so that solutions will be less drastic and may be implemented gradually, lessening the impact on the public. Combining some of these solutions may also lessen the impact of any one solution.

Some Social Security reform proposals on the table are:

  • Raising the current Social Security payroll tax rate. According to this year’s report, an immediate and permanent payroll tax increase of 2.7 percentage points to 15.1% would be necessary to address the long-range revenue shortfall (3.65 percentage points to 16.05% if the increase started in 2035).
  • Raising or eliminating the ceiling on wages currently subject to Social Security payroll taxes ($132,900 in 2019).
  • Raising the full retirement age beyond the currently scheduled age of 67 (for anyone born in 1960 or later).
  • Reducing future benefits. According to this year’s report, to address the long-term revenue shortfall, scheduled benefits would have to be immediately and permanently reduced by about 17% for all current and future beneficiaries, or by about 20% if reductions were applied only to those who initially become eligible for benefits in 2019 or later.
  • Changing the benefit formula that is used to calculate benefits.
  • Calculating the annual cost-of-living adjustment for benefits differently.

You can view a combined summary of the 2019 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports and a full copy of the Social Security report at ssa.gov. You can find the full Medicare report at cms.gov.