tax planning

Why Today’s Retirees Need to Pursue Tax-Minimization Strategies

IRAs are the name of the game for today’s retirees. While they come with helpful tax breaks for savers, pulling money out in retirement comes with major tax consequences — which could get much more serious if taxes rise in the future. But there are things you can do about that.

Today’s retirees face many obstacles, from an unpredictable market to a lack of guaranteed income in retirement. While these are important challenges to address, they would be remiss to ignore their future tax burdens. We’ll likely see increased taxes in the future, and this will affect today’s retirees more than tax increases have affected retirees in the past.

Retirement Then vs. Now

Today’s retirees are the first IRA generation: Whereas previous generations could primarily rely on Social Security benefits and pensions to cover their retirement expenses, many of today’s retirees find themselves having to fund a much larger portion of their retirement through their own pre-tax retirement accounts. And while retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs have significant benefits, they also come with downsides, namely that all of the withdrawals in retirement are taxable as ordinary income at the current tax rates in our country.

This means that if tax rates were to rise, the retiree living off of IRAs will have to pay more in taxes and therefore live off of less after-tax income. Previous generations saved their money in after-tax accounts, meaning if tax rates were to rise, it would not affect them the same way it will for this IRA generation. When we look at the history of taxes and the Biden administration’s tax-increasing proposals, it’s clear that retirees need to have a tax-minimization plan.

Could We See Taxes Increase?

We need to plan for the tax rates of the future, not the present. Previously, tax increases primarily affected wage earners. The Social Security payroll tax and income tax increases had little effect on Social Security beneficiaries and retirees who saved in after-tax accounts. However, those who take distributions from a tax-deferred retirement account and who invest in the market are affected by both income tax increases and new taxes.

These could include:

  • The possible elimination of the favorable long-term capital gains taxes rates for the wealthiest investors. This could mean those with incomes of $1 million or more might pay up to 39.5% on their gains, rather than the current top rate of 20%.
  • Lowering of the current standard deduction. Many retirees don’t itemize their deductions and rely on the standard deduction.  Therefore, if the current standard deduction is lowered, people’s taxes could go up.
  • Imposing the Social Security payroll tax on workers or households earning over $400,000 annually. This tax — in which employers and employees each pay 6.2% and the self-employed pay the full 12.4% — helps pay for Social Security benefits.
  • Lowering the federal estate tax exemption amount, which could affect estates above about $5 million.

Retirees should note that we may be experiencing tax rates at 100-year lows now, and that this could end in light of recent increased government spending. Our already large national debt increased during the pandemic, with the CARES Act of 2020 costing $2.2 trillion and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 costing $1.9 trillion. We will have to pay for this eventually, and retirees with large tax-deferred IRAs could be the ones to do it.

When we look at history, we see that after a period of increased government spending during World War II, income tax rates in the following decades were much higher than they are now. In 1944, the top rate peaked at 94%, and by 1964 it had only gone down to 70%. This doesn’t mean that an individual’s tax bracket will go from 22% to 70%, but there is a lot of room in between where retirees could feel the effects.

When running a financial plan, retirees need to calculate how much taxable income they will have and how much of that will be left after taxes. If tax rates rise, retirees could need to withdraw more from their taxable retirement accounts to be left with the same amount of income, ultimately drawing down their savings faster.

RMDs

Taxes on retirement income can become more burdensome starting at age 72. Most retirees must take RMDs (required minimum distributions) from their traditional retirement accounts starting at age 72, and the amount they must withdraw is based on their age and account balance.

RMDs could force someone to withdraw more than they normally would from their tax-deferred retirement account, causing them to jump into a higher tax bracket. Retirees under the age 72 should look to do careful planning that may minimize this effect by the time they reach this age.  (Keep reading for an idea on how to help do that below.)

Taxes and Your Legacy Goals

RMDs can also potentially increase a beneficiary’s tax burden due to the SECURE Act passed in 2019. It ended the “stretch IRA,” which allowed beneficiaries to stretch out distributions from an inherited retirement account over their lifetimes. Now, most non-spouse beneficiaries must empty traditional accounts within 10 years of the original owner’s death.

Those who want to pass on their retirement accounts should consider tax minimization strategies when creating an estate plan. One possibility is a charitable remainder trust.

What Can Retirees Do Now to Prepare for Higher Taxes Later?

Those who will draw a significant portion of their retirement income from taxable retirement account should take note, and work to minimize their overall tax burden. There are many strategies they can employ, including converting part or all of their traditional 401(k) or IRA to a Roth IRA. This involves paying tax on the amount converted and eventually withdrawing it from the Roth tax-free. If we see taxes increase in the future, a Roth conversion at today’s rates could potentially be a good strategy for those whose tax burden won’t substantially decrease in retirement.

In addition to providing tax-free income, a Roth is also exempt from RMDs. This means that the money in a Roth IRA can continue to grow throughout the owner’s lifetime tax-free. When it’s inherited, the beneficiary will have to drain the account in 10 years, as with a traditional IRA. However, unlike distributions from traditional IRAs, distributions from Roth IRAs are not taxable and will not incur an early withdrawal penalty as long as the account is at least five years old.

The Bottom Line for Retirees

Retirees who have both traditional and Roth IRAs can strategically withdraw from each to avoid going into a higher tax bracket, continue to reap the tax-advantage benefits of a retirement account after age 72, and pass on potentially tax-free wealth to their beneficiaries. Those who think tax hikes are on the horizon and who don’t plan to live on significantly less income in retirement should consider tax-minimization strategies such as a Roth conversion.

Investment Advisory Services offered through Epstein and White Financial LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.  Epstein & White Retirement Income Solutions, LLC is a licensed insurance agency with the state of California Department of Insurance (#0K53785).  As of March 31, 2021, Epstein and White is now a part of Mercer Global Advisors Inc. Mercer Global Advisors Inc. (“Mercer Advisors”) is registered as an Investment Adviser with the SEC. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. The information, suggestions and recommendations included in this material is for informational purposes only and cannot be relied upon for any financial, legal, tax, accounting, or insurance purposes.  Epstein and White Financial is not a certified public accounting firm, and no portion of its services should be construed as legal or accounting advice. Please consult with your own accountant and financial planning professional to determine how tax changes affect your unique financial situation. A copy of Epstein & White Financial LLC’s current written disclosure statement discussing advisory services and fees is available for review upon request or at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov.

About the Author

Bradley White, CFP™, IAR

Founder and CEO, Epstein and White Retirement Income Solutions

Bradley White is founder and CEO of Epstein and White. He's a Certified Financial Planner™ and has a bachelor's degree in finance from San Diego State University. He's an Investment Advisor Representative (IAR) and an insurance professional.

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