Do You Know Your Spouse’s Beneficiary Designations?

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Beneficiary designations are important. The people you list on your IRAs, retirement plans, and life insurance policies will receive those monies regardless of the instructions in your will. What happens when you don’t indicate a beneficiary or if the beneficiary has predeceased you? In that case, the estate is named as the beneficiary of the account.

It is usually much better if you have a person indicated as the beneficiary rather than the estate, for the following reasons:

  1. If a person is the beneficiary, they can receive the assets very quickly by completing a distribution form and providing a copy of the death certificate. When the estate is the beneficiary, you may tie up the assets in probate court for months, or even years.
  2. A person can roll an inherited IRA into a Stretch IRA and keep the account tax-deferred. The beneficiary is required to continue taking Required Minimum Distributions, but even doing so, the IRA can last for many years. When a spouse is the beneficiary of an IRA, he or she can roll the assets into their own IRA and treat it as their own. By spreading distributions over many years, taxes may be lower than if you took a large distribution all in one year and are pushed into a higher tax bracket.
  3. When the estate is the beneficiary, they do not have the option for a Stretch IRA. They can either distribute the IRA immediately or over 5 years. Either way, the estate will be paying taxes sooner than if the beneficiary was a person.
  4. The tax rate on estates can be much higher than for individuals. An estate or trust will pay the maximum rate of 39.6% on income over $12,400 whereas a married couple would hit this tax rate only on taxable income that exceeds $466,950 (2016 rates).

For many individuals, a substantial portion of their estate may be in IRAs, retirement plans, life insurance and annuities, where the beneficiary designation is vitally important. In the last two months, the IRS has issued two Private Letter Rulings (PLR) specifically on beneficiary designations and the rights of surviving spouses. A PLR is official guidance from the IRS on how they interpret and enforce tax law, based on specific cases which are brought to the IRS.

In PLR 201618011, a spouse did not indicate any beneficiaries on her IRA. When she passed away, the absence of a beneficiary designation meant that the estate would be the beneficiary of the IRA. The husband was the sole beneficiary and executor of the estate under her will. The IRS ruled that in this scenario, the surviving spouse has the right to rollover the inherited IRA and treat it as his own, even though the decedent failed to designate a beneficiary. This exception is granted only for surviving spouses and does not apply to other beneficiaries, such as children.

On June 3, the IRS issued PLR 201623001, which is of particular interest to Texas residents as it deals with community property issues for married couples. (Texas is one of nine states with Community Property laws.) A man listed his son as the sole beneficiary of his three IRAs. He passed away and his wife claimed that she should be entitled to one-half of the IRA assets because they were community property of the marriage. The IRS ruled that Federal Law takes precedence over state law and rejected her claim.

Both of these rulings show how important it is to know your spouse’s beneficiary designations on all of their accounts. Even if you have a will that is up to date and perfectly legal, it won’t help you if you don’t indicate a beneficiary, or indicate the wrong person. Review your beneficiary designations every couple of years and especially if you have gotten married, divorced, or had births or deaths in your family.

Beneficiary designations are not exciting or complicated. However, a big part of financial planning is getting organized and taking care of these small details. If your beneficiary designations are wrong, it could have a major impact on your heirs and cost thousands in additional, unnecessary taxes.

The Saver’s Tax Credit

Since most employers today no longer provide defined benefit pension plans for their employees, the burden of retirement saving has shifted to the employee. Not surprisingly, saving for retirement is a pretty low priority for the many Americans who are focused on how they are going to pay this month’s bills.

Self Employed? Discover the SEP-IRA.

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The SEP-IRA is a terrific accumulation tool for workers who are self-employed, have a family business, or who have earnings as a 1099 Independent Contractor. SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension, but the account functions similar to a Traditional IRA. Money is contributed on a pre-tax basis, and then withdrawals in retirement are taxable. Distributions taken before age 59 1/2 may be subject to a 10% penalty.

Qualified Charitable Distributions From Your IRA

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For several years, taxpayers have had an opportunity to make Qualified Charitable Distributions, or QCDs, from their IRA. This was originally offered for just one year and then subsequently was renewed each December, an uncertainty which made it difficult and frustrating for planners like myself to advise clients. Luckily, this year Congress made the QCD permanent. Here is what it is, who it may benefit, and how to use it.

A QCD is a better way to give money to charity by allowing IRA owners to fulfill their Required Minimum Distribution with a charitable donation. To do a QCD, you must be over age 70 1/2 at the time of the distribution, and have the distribution made payable directly to the charity.

If you are over 70 1/2, you must take out a Required Minimum Distribution from your IRA each year, and this distribution is reported as taxable income. When you make a qualified charitable contribution, you can deduct that amount from your taxes, through an itemized deduction. The QCD takes those two steps – an IRA distribution and a charitable contribution – and combines them into one transaction which can fulfill your RMD requirement while not adding to your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) for the year.

The maximum amount of a QCD is $100,000 per person. A married couple can do $100,000 each, but cannot combine or share these amounts. For most IRA owners, they will likely keep their QCD under the amount of their RMD. However, it is possible to donate more than your RMD, up to the $100,000 limit. So if your goal is to leave your IRA to charity, you can now transfer $100,000 to that charity, tax-free, every year.

The confusing thing about the QCD is that for some taxpayers, there may be no additional tax benefit. That is to say, taking their RMD and then making a deductible charitable contribution may lower their taxes by exactly the same amount as doing a QCD. Who will benefit from a QCD, then? Here are five situations where doing a QCD would produce lower taxes than taking your RMD and making a separate charitable contribution:

1) To deduct a charitable contribution, you have to itemize your deductions. If you take the standard deduction (or would take the standard deduction without charitable giving), you would benefit from doing a QCD instead. That’s because under the QCD, the transaction is never reported on your AGI. Then you can take your standard deduction ($6,300 single, or $12,600 married, for 2016) and not have to itemize.

2) If you have a high income and your itemized deductions are reduced or phased out under the Pease Restrictions, you would benefit from doing a QCD. The Pease Restriction reduces your deductions by 3% for every $1 of income over $259,400 single, or $311,300 married (2016), up to a maximum reduction of 80% of your itemized deductions.

3) If you are subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The AMT frequently hits those who have high itemized deductions. With the QCD, we move the charitable contributions from being an itemized deduction to a direct reduction of your AGI.

4) If you are subject to the 3.8% Medicare Surtax on investment income. While IRA distributions are not part of Net Investment Income, they are part of your AGI, which can push other income above the $200,000 threshold ($250,000, married) subject to this tax.

5) If your premiums for Medicare Parts B and D are increased due to your income, a QCD can reduce your AGI.

You can make a QCD from a SEP or SIMPLE IRA, provided you are no longer making contributions to the account. You can also make a QCD from a Roth IRA, but since this money could be withdrawn tax-free, it would be preferable to make the QCD from a Traditional IRA. 401(k), 403(b), and other employer sponsored plans are not eligible for the QCD. If you want to do the QCD, you would need to rollover the account to an IRA first.

Charitable giving is close to our heart here at Good Life Wealth Management. We believe that true wealth is having the ability to fearlessly help others and to use our blessings to make the world a better place. If that’s your goal too, we can help you do this in the most efficient manner possible.

2016 Contribution Limits and Medicare Information

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Inflation was almost non-existent in 2015 due to falling commodity prices. This means that for 2016, most of the IRS contribution limits to retirement accounts are unchanged. Zero inflation creates some unique problems for Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, which we will explain.

If you are automatically contributing the maximum to your retirement plan, good for you! You need not make any changes for 2016. If your contributions are less than the amounts below, consider increasing your deposits in the new year.

2016 Contribution Limits
Roth and/or Traditional IRA: $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or over)
401(k), 403(b), 457: $18,000 ($24,000 if age 50 or over)
SIMPLE IRA: $12,500 ($15,500 if age 50 or over)
SEP IRA: 25% of eligible compensation, up to $53,000
Gift tax annual exclusion: $14,000 per person

Tax brackets and income phaseouts increase slightly for 2016, but there are no material changes. People are still getting used to the new Medicare surtaxes, which include a 3.8% tax on net investment income (unearned income), and a 0.9% tax on wages (earned income). The surtax is applied on income above $200,000 (single), or $250,000 (married filing jointly).

Capital gains tax remains at 15%, with two exceptions. Taxpayers in the 10% and 15% tax brackets pay 0% capital gains, and taxpayers in the 39.6% bracket pay a higher capital gains rate of 20%. For 2016, you will be in the 0% capital gains rate if your taxable income is below $37,650 (single) or $75,330 (married).

For Social Security recipients, the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2016 is 0%. We previously had a 0% COLA in 2010 and 2011, and it creates an interesting situation for Medicare participants. Medicare Part A is offered free to beneficiaries over age 65. Medicare Part B requires a monthly premium.

Part B premiums should be going up in 2016, but about 75% of Part B participants will see no change, thanks to Social Security’s “Hold Harmless” provisions. The “Hold Harmless” rule stipulates that if Medicare Part B costs increase faster than Social Security COLAs, beneficiaries will not have their SS benefits decline from the previous year. And since there is no COLA for 2016, any Medicare Part B premium increase would cause SS benefits to negative.

For the past three years, Part B premiums have remained at $104.90 per month. You are eligible for no increase under the “Hold Harmless” rule, if you are having your Part B payments deducted from your Social Security benefit AND you are not subject to increased Medicare premiums under the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA).

For most Part B recipients, Medicare premiums are fixed. For higher income participants, IRMAA increases your premium, as follows for 2016:

MAGI $85,000 (single), $170,000 (married): $170.50
MAGI $107,000 (single), $214,000 (married): $243.60
MAGI $160,000 (single), $320,000 (married): $316.70
MAGI $214,000 (single), $428,000 (married): $389.80

If you fall into one of these income categories, above $85,000 (single) or $170,000 (married), you are ineligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule and will have to pay the premiums above, even if this causes your Social Security benefit to decline from 2015.

If you are delaying your Social Security benefits and pay your Part B premiums directly, you are also ineligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule. Finally, if you did not participate in Social Security, for example, teachers in Texas, you would also not be eligible for the “Hold Harmless” rule.

The Secret Way to Contribute $35,000 to a Roth IRA

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Roth IRAs are incredibly popular and for good reason: the ability to invest into an account for tax-free growth is a remarkable benefit. Unlike a Traditional IRA or Rollover IRA, there are no Required Minimum Distributions, and you can even leave a Roth IRA to your heirs without their owing any income tax. For retirement income planning, $100,000 in a Roth IRA is worth $100,000, whereas $100,000 in a Traditional IRA may only net $60,000 to $75,000 after you pay federal and state income taxes.

The only problem with the Roth IRA is that many investors make too much to be able to contribute and even those who can contribute are limited to only $5,500 this year. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may recall a number of posts about the “Back-Door Roth IRA”, which is funded by making a non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution and immediately making a Roth Conversion.

But there is another way to make much bigger Roth contributions that is brand new for 2015. Here it is: many 401(k) plans offer participants the ability to make after-tax contributions. Typically, you wouldn’t want to do this. You’d be better off making a tax-deductible contribution.

When you separate from service (retire, quit, or leave) and request a rollover, many 401(k) plans have the ability to send you two checks. One check will consist of your pre-tax contributions and all earnings, and the second check will consist of your after-tax contributions.

What can you do with these two checks? This was a gray area following a 2009 IRS rule. If the distributions were from an IRA, you would have to treat all distributions as pro-rata from all sources; i.e. each check would have the same percentage of pre-tax and after-tax money in it.

Remarkably, the IRS ruled in 2014 that when a 401(k) plan makes a full distribution, it can send two checks and each check will retain its unique character as a pre-tax or after-tax contribution. No pro-rata treatment is required. This will allow you to rollover the pre-tax money into a Traditional IRA and the after-tax money into a Roth IRA. This rule applies only when you make a full distribution with a trustee to trustee transfer.

Since this is a new rule for 2015, it is likely that your HR department, 401(k) provider, and CPA will have no idea what you are talking about, if you ask. Refer them to IRS Notice 2014-54. Or better yet, refer them to me and I can explain it in plain English!

Even though the salary deferral limit on a 401(k) is only $18,000, the total limit for 2015 is actually $53,000 or 100% of income. So you should first contribute $18,000 to your regular, pre-tax 401(k). Assuming there is no company match or catch-up, you could then contribute another $35,000 to the after-tax 401(k) to reach the $53,000 limit.

Let’s say you do this for five years and then retire or change jobs. At that point, you would have made $175,000 in after-tax contributions which could be converted into a Roth IRA, and since your cost basis was $175,000, there would be no tax due.

The earnings on the after-tax 401(k) contributions would be included with your other taxable sources of funds and rolled into a Traditional IRA. Only your original after-tax contributions will be rolled into the Roth account. Please note that this two-part rollover only works when you separate from service and request a FULL rollover. You may not elect this special treatment under a partial withdrawal or an in-service distribution.

Lastly, before attempting this strategy, make sure your 401(k) plan allows for after-tax contributions and will send separate checks for pre-tax and after-tax money. While this strategy is perfectly legal and now explicitly authorized by the IRS Notice, 401(k) plans are not required to allow after-tax contributions or to split distribution checks by sources. It’s up to each company and its plan administrator to determine what is allowed. The IRS Notice stipulates that this process is also acceptable for 403(b) and 457 plans, in addition to 401(k) plans.

Not sure if this works with your 401(k)? Call me and I will review your plan documents, enrollment and distribution forms, and call your plan administrators to verify. I think this would be a great approach for someone who is a handful of years away from retirement who wanted to stuff as much as possible into retirement accounts. Additionally, anyone who has the means to contribute more than $18,000 to their 401(k) each year might also want to consider if making these after-tax contributions would be a smart way to fund a significant Roth IRA.

Choosing a Small Business Retirement Plan

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If you own your own business, or are self-employed, there are a myriad of options for establishing a retirement plan for yourself and your employees. If you want to attract and retain high quality employees, you need to be able to offer wages and benefits that are competitive within your industry. There are many employees who will prefer a job that includes the stability of a robust benefits program over a job that just offers a higher salary.

I am surprised how often owners of small businesses balk at establishing a retirement plan. Yes, it may entail some additional costs and extra administrative work. Some business owners aren’t planning to retire, so they aren’t focused on creating a retirement nest egg. Of course, if you think your employees feel the same way – that they want to work for you until they die, you may be overestimating the attractiveness of your workplace!

Establishing a company retirement plan doesn’t need to be complicated or have unknown, limitless expenses. There are quite a few benefits to starting a plan, including:

  • Being able to move company profits into a creditor-protected account for the owner and his or her family as a tax deductible business expense.
  • Creating assets that are separate from your company. Diversifying your net worth so your wealth is not 100% linked to the value of your company. What would your spouse be able to do with your company, if you were hit by a bus tomorrow?
  • Providing valuable benefits so you can hire and keep top quality employees. Offering your employees a program to encourage their own retirement saving.

Luckily, there are a number of retirement plan options for employers, each with its own unique benefits. Here is a quick overview of six retirement plans to consider and a profile of the ideal candidate for each.

1) 401(k). The 401(k) is the gold standard of retirement plans, and while it would seem to be the obvious choice, 401(k) plans can be expensive, complicated, and often a poor fit for a smaller company. Many 401(k) providers are happy to work with your company if you have $500,000 or $1 million in plan assets, but fewer are willing to work with start-up plans or companies with fewer than 50 full-time employees.

Sometimes employers decide to offer a 401(k) but are not willing to provide a matching contribution. You may think you’re adding a benefit, but this often backfires. You will have very low participation without a match, so the administrative cost per employee and the fixed costs for the amount of assets in the plan ends up being higher. And since 401(k)’s have “top heavy” testing, the higher paid employees who do want to participate are often told that they have contributed too much to the plan and that they have to remove some or all of their contributions. No one wins in this situation.

The solution to avoiding the top heavy testing is to establish a “safe harbor” plan, but this will require that the company provides a matching contribution.

Best candidate for a 401(k): a company who is willing to provide a matching contribution for employees and will have at least 10 or 20 participants in the plan (actual participants, not just eligible employees). Without the company willingness to offer a match, I’m not sure the plan will satisfy the needs of the owner or the employees. 401(k)’s tend to have a better participation rate in companies with higher paid, white collar employees.

2) SIMPLE IRA. The Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees (SIMPLE) was created to enable employers with fewer than 100 employees to be able to offer a “401(k)-like” plan, without complicated rules or high administrative costs. Employees choose to participate and have money withheld from their paycheck. They may contribute up to $12,500 for 2015; if over age 50, they may contribute an additional $3,000. The company will match employee contributions up to 3% of their salary.

If you have payroll of $200,000 a year, and ALL employees participate, you’d match $6,000 of their contributions. The company match is a tax deductible business expense. Both employee and employer contributions vest immediately and are held in each employee’s name where the employee chooses how to invest their account. If a participant makes a withdrawal in the first two years, the penalty is 25%. If the withdrawal is after two years, but before age 59 1/2, the penalty is 10%. For the business owner, there is no top heavy testing, so you may contribute the maximum (plus the match) to your own account, regardless of whether your employees choose to participate or not.

Best candidate for a SIMPLE IRA: any company with 2-100 employees that is willing to match 3% of employee contributions and wants a plan that is easy to administer and low cost. More owners should be looking at the SIMPLE rather than trying to make a 401(k) fit. It’s a great option. There are two reasons why you might choose a 401(k) instead. The first would be if you plan to have more than 100 employees. Second, if you think many of your employees will want to contribute more than $12,500 in a SIMPLE, they could contribute $18,000 to a 401(k). If neither of those reasons apply, a SIMPLE is a great alternative to a 401(k).

3) SEP-IRA. The Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) is an employer-funded plan. The employee does not contribute any money to a SEP; employer contributions are elective and can vary from year to year. However, the company must provide the same percent contribution to all eligible employees, from zero to 25% of salary. The maximum contribution for 2015 is $53,000 (at $265,000 of net income). Contributions are a tax deductible business expense.

If you are looking for a profit-sharing type of plan that allows the employer flexibility of how much to contribute each year, the SEP may be a good fit. In practice, the vast majority of SEP plans are established by sole proprietors or other self-employed individuals who do not have any employees, other than possibly a spouse. Since your contribution amount to a SEP depends on your profits, it is impossible to know the exact amount you can contribute until you do your taxes. Most SEP contributions occur in April, but the unique thing about a SEP is that it is the only IRA which you can fund after the April 15 deadline. If you file an extension, you can contribute to a SEP all the way up to October 15 on your individual return, or September 15 on a corporate return.

Best candidate for a SEP: a business owner with no additional employees. Note that any 1099 independent contractors you hire are not eligible for your company SEP, only W-2 employees.

4) Individual 401(k). Also called a “Solo 401(k)” or “Self-Employed 401(k)” sometimes, this is just a regular 401(k)/Profit Sharing plan where a custodian has created a set of boilerplate plan documents to facilitate easy administration. Even though the Individual 401(k) is for a single individual (and spouse) who is self-employed, there are technically two contributions being made: as the employee, you can make a salary deferral contribution (up to $18,000), and then as the employer, you can make a profit sharing contribution, up to 25% of net income. The plan has the same total contribution limit as a SEP, but because of the 2-part structure of the contributions, people with under $265,000 in net income can often contribute more the the Individual 401(k) than they can to a SEP.

The Individual 401(k) is what I have used for myself for my work as a financial advisor. I am also then able to make a SEP contribution based on my (small) earnings as a free-lance musician. Note that once your Individual 401(k) assets exceed $250,000, you will be required to submit a form 5500 to the IRS each year. If you are interested in an Individual 401(k), we can establish one for you with our custodian, TD Ameritrade.

Best candidate for an Individual 401(k): Self-employed person, with no employees (and no plans for employees), who wants their own 401(k) and plans to contribute more than they can to an IRA.

5) Traditional IRA. The Traditional IRA is not an employer-sponsored retirement plan. However, if you are single and do not have an employer-sponsored plan, you can contribute up to $5,500 to a Traditional IRA as a tax-deductible contribution, regardless of how much you make. Or, if you are married and your spouse is also not eligible for an employer-sponsored plan, then you can each contribute $5,500 into a Traditional IRA, with no income restrictions. I point this out, because if you don’t have any employees and only plan to contribute $5,500 (or $11,000 jointly) each year, then you don’t need to start a 401(k) or any of these other plans. Just do the Traditional IRA.

Best candidate for the Traditional IRA: a business owner not looking to offer an employee benefit, who will contribute under $5,500 per year.

6) Defined Benefit Plan (Pension Plan). 401(k) plans are “Defined Contribution” plans, where the employee makes the majority of the contributions and determines how to invest their account. At the other end of the spectrum is the Defined Benefit Plan, or Pension Plan, where the employer makes all the contributions, manages the investment portfolio, and guarantees the participants a retirement pension. Undoubtedly, there are fewer and fewer large employers offering DB plans today because of their cost and complexity. However, for a specific set of situations, a DB Plan can be a brilliant way to make very large contributions on behalf of owners and highly-paid employees of small companies. The Plan will aim to provide a set benefit, for example, 50% of the final salary, with 30 years of service, at age 65. Each year, the plan’s actuary will calculate how much the company needs to contribute to the plan’s account to be on track to offer this benefit for all eligible employees. Obviously, the amount contributed for employees who are older will be higher, as will be the amount contributed for higher income employees.

The plan does not need to pay pension benefits for an indefinite period. Assuming the owner is the oldest employee, he or she can simply shut down the plan when he or she retires and then distribute the plan assets into IRAs for vested participants. In a situation where the owner is much older (say 61, versus employees in their 30’s and 40’s), and the owner makes $300,000 versus employees who make $50,000, the vast majority of the assets will be distributed to the owner upon dissolution of the plan. The DB Plan can be in addition to a DC Plan, like a 401(k), and is a great way to maximize contributions for an owner with very high earnings who is planning to retire in a couple of years.

Best candidate for a DB Plan: high earners who are older, who will retire and shut down their business, and who have a couple of much younger employees. Many small law firms and medical practices fit this profile exactly. If you have been lamenting that the $53,000 limit in a Profit Sharing Plan is too low for you, consider adding a DB Plan.

At Good Life Wealth Management, retirement planning is our forte. We can help you determine the best plan for your needs and make it easy for you and your employees to get started. Drop me a line and let’s schedule a time to talk about how we can work together.

Will the IRS Inherit Your IRA?

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For several years, there has been a proposal in Washington to eliminate the Stretch IRA, also known as the “Inherited IRA” or “Beneficiary IRA”. Currently, when your beneficiary inherits your IRA, they can keep the account tax-deferred by leaving the assets in a Stretch IRA. While they have to take Required Minimum Distributions, using a Stretch IRA keeps distributions small and taxes low, as well as encourages beneficiaries to use the money gradually rather than spend their inheritance immediately.

Congress is looking for new ways to reduce the budget deficit, and according to IRA expert Ed Slott, it is increasingly probable that the Stretch IRA will be eliminated in the near future. Forcing beneficiaries to withdraw their inherited IRAs will raise billions in tax revenue, while allowing politicians to say that they haven’t raised tax rates.

If the Stretch IRA is repealed, beneficiaries will have to withdraw all of an inherited IRA – and pay taxes on the distributions – within five years. For many retirees, their retirement accounts are their largest assets. Many have accumulated a significant sum, often $1 million or more. If your beneficiary receives a $1 million IRA in one year, regardless of whether they spend the money or invest it, they could owe up to $396,000 in income tax. Even spreading the withdrawal over  five years ($200,000 a year) will push any tax payer into a high tax bracket where the IRS will collect 28%, 33%, or more from your IRA.

If you aren’t touching your IRAs because you have other sources of retirement income, such as a pension, Social Security, or other investments, you may have been thinking that you would leave the IRA to your heirs and not take any withdrawals. It’s a very generous plan, but if the Stretch IRA is repealed, a significant amount of your IRA is going to end up in the pockets of the IRS.

What can you do to minimize the taxes and maximize the amount your heirs will receive? Here are three ways to accomplish this:

1) Buy life insurance. Use your IRA money to fund a permanent life insurance policy, such as a level premium Universal Life policy. Life insurance death benefits are received income tax-free. Purchase a $1 million policy for your beneficiaries and they will receive all $1 million tax-free.

For example, a healthy 65-year old male can purchase a $1 million Universal Life policy for as little as $17,218 per year. That is a sizable premium, but not a bad deal to guarantee your heirs a $1 million payout, tax-free. While funding those premiums from your IRA does create taxes, the taxes paid will be lower if you take small withdrawals over a period of many years rather than leaving your heirs in a position of having to take the entire distribution over 5 years (or 1 year if they don’t do the distribution correctly).

If you don’t need the income from your RMDs, using those distributions to fund a life insurance policy may have a significant benefit for your heirs.

2) Leave to Charity. There is a way to pay no tax on your IRA on death and that is to leave the account to a charity. 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations will not have to pay any income tax when they are named as the beneficiary of your IRA or retirement accounts. If you were planning to leave something to charity, make sure that bequest is from your IRA and not from a regular account.

For example:

Scenario 1: You leave a $1 million taxable account to charity and a $1 million IRA to your daughter. The charity receives $1 million, but your daughter will owe taxes up to $396,000 on the IRA, leaving her with as little as $604,000.

Scenario 2: You leave the $1 million taxable account to your daughter and the $1 million IRA to the charity. The charity receives $1 million, your daughter receives $1 million (and a step-up in cost basis), and the IRS gets zip. Much better!

3) Spread out your IRA. If you leave $1 million to one beneficiary, they will have to pay tax on the entire amount. If you leave the IRA to 10 beneficiaries (perhaps grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.), the tax due will be much less on $100,000 for 10 tax payers than on $1 million received by one person.

Please note that spouses can roll their deceased spouse’s IRA into their own IRA and treat it as their own. If the Stretch IRA is repealed, this may not be a problem for leaving an IRA to your spouse. However, if your spouse consolidates both of your IRAs into one account, the tax problem for the subsequent heirs will have become even more significant.

The one good thing about IRAs is that you can change your beneficiaries at any time without having to re-do your Will and other documents in your Estate Plan. It is very important to remember that your IRA beneficiary designations override any instructions in your Will, so it is vital to have your beneficiary designations correct and up-to-date.

Not sure where to begin with your Estate Plan? We can help you find the right solution for your family, using our Good Life Wealth planning process. Interested in finding out more about life insurance? I’m an independent agent and can help you choose the best insurance policy for your goals. Call me with your questions, reducing taxes is my passion!

Which IRA is Right For You?

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We talk about Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) regularly, yet even for long-time investors, there are often some gaps in understanding all your options. This means that many investors are missing chances to save money on taxes, which is the primary advantage of IRAs versus regular “taxable” accounts.

Here’s a primer on the six types of IRAs you might encounter. For each type of IRA, I’m including an interesting fact on each, which you may be something you haven’t heard before! All numbers are for 2015; call me if you have questions on 2014 eligibility.

1) Traditional IRA. This is the original IRA, yet has the most complicated rules. Anyone can contribute to a Traditional IRA. Contributions grow tax-deferred and then you are taxed on any gains when the money is withdrawn.

The confusing part of the Traditional IRA is whether or not you can deduct the contribution from your income taxes. If you are in the 25% tax bracket, a $5,500 contribution will reduce your taxes by $1,375. Anyone can contribute, but not everyone can deduct their contribution. Here are the rules for three scenarios:

a) If you are not eligible for an employer sponsored retirement plan (and your spouse is also not eligible for one), then you (and your spouse) can deduct your IRA contributions.

b) If you are covered by an employer sponsored retirement plan, you can deduct your contribution if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below $61,000 (single), or below $98,000 (married, filing jointly).

c) If your spouse is covered by an employer sponsored plan, but you are not, you can deduct your contribution if your joint MAGI is below $183,000.

I suggest avoiding non-deductible contributions to a Traditional IRA as the deduction is the main benefit. If you’re eligible for a Roth IRA, never make a non-deductible contribution to a Traditional IRA. Non-deductible contributions create a cost basis for your IRAs, which you will have to track for the rest of your life. It’s a headache you don’t need.

Spouses can contribute to an IRA based on joint income, even if they do not have an income of their own. You cannot contribute to a Traditional IRA in the year you reach age 70 1/2. At that point, you must start Required Minimum Distributions. A premature withdrawal, before age 59 1/2, is subject to a 10% penalty, in addition to any income taxes due.

Interesting Fact: A Rollover IRA is a Traditional IRA. You can roll a 401(k) or other employer sponsored plan to a Traditional IRA or a Rollover IRA; they receive the same treatment. 401(k) plans are governed by Federal ERISA rules, whereas IRAs are protected under state creditor laws. If you want to remain under the Federal Regulations, you should designate the account as a “Rollover IRA” and not commingle with a Traditional IRA. I consider this step unnecessary. In Texas, we have robust protection for IRAs, so you are not at risk by consolidating accounts into one Traditional IRA.

2) Roth IRA. In a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax dollars, so there is no upfront tax deduction. Your account grows tax-free, and there is no tax due on withdrawals in retirement. The Five Year Rule” requires you to have had a Roth open for at least 5 years before you can take tax-free withdrawals in retirement. So, if you open a Roth at age 58, you would not be able to access tax-free withdrawals until age 63.

Not everyone is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. To be eligible for a full contribution, your MAGI must be below $116,000 (single), or $183,000 (married).

Interesting Fact: There are no RMDs on Roth IRAs and no age limits. Even after age 70 1/2, you can contribute to a Roth IRA (provided you have earned income) or convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth.

3) “Back Door” Roth IRA. This is not a separate type of account, but rather a funding strategy. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can fund a Non-Deductible Traditional IRA, then immediately convert the account to a Roth. You pay taxes on any gains, but since there were no gains, your tax due is zero. Very important: the conversion is only tax-free if you do not have any existing Traditional IRAs.

Both Traditional and Roth IRAs are subject to a combined contribution limit of $5,500, or $6,500 if age 50 or older.

Interesting Fact: Thinking of rolling your old 401(k) to an IRA? Don’t do it if you might want to do a Back Door Roth in the future. Rolling to an IRA will eliminate your ability to do a tax-free Roth conversion. Instead, leave your old 401(k) where it is, or roll it into your new 401(k).

4) Stretch IRA, also called an Inherited IRA or a Beneficiary IRA. If you are named as the beneficiary of an IRA, the inherited account is taxable to you. If you take the money out in the first year, it will all be taxable income. With a Stretch IRA, you can keep the inherited IRA tax-deferred, and only take Required Minimum Distributions each year. Note that Stretch IRA RMDs are based on the original owner’s age, so you cannot use a regular RMD calculator to determine the amount you must withdraw.

Interesting Fact: a spouse who inherits an IRA from their deceased spouse does not have to do a Stretch IRA. Instead, he or she can roll the IRA into their own account and treat it as their own. This is especially beneficial if the surviving spouse is younger than the decedent.

5) SEP-IRA. SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension. A SEP is an employer sponsored plan where the employer makes a contribution of up to 25% of the employee’s compensation, with a contribution cap of $53,000. Since it is an employer plan, you cannot discriminate and must make the same contribution percentage for all employees. As a result, pretty much the only people who use a SEP are those with no employees. The SEP is most popular with people who are self-employed, sole proprietors, or who are paid as an Independent Contractor via 1099 rather than as an Employee via W-2.

Let’s say you have a regular job and also do some freelancing as an Independent Contractor. You can contribute to the 401(k) through your employer AND contribute to the SEP for your 1099 work. You can also do a SEP in addition to a Traditional or Roth IRA.

Interesting Fact: The SEP is the only IRA which you can fund after April 15. If you file a tax extension, you have until you file your taxes to fund your SEP. We can accept 2014 SEP contributions all the way up to October 15, 2015.

6) SIMPLE IRA is the Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees. It’s like a 401(k), but just for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Employees who choose to participate will have money withheld from their paycheck and invested in their own account. The employer matches the contribution, up to 3% of the employee’s salary. This is a great option for small businesses because the costs are low and the administration and reporting requirements are easy. The 2015 contribution limit is $12,500, or $15,500 if over age 50.

Interesting Fact: Traditional and SEP IRAs have a 10% penalty for premature distributions prior age 59 1/2. For a SIMPLE IRA, if you withdraw funds within two years of opening the account, the penalty is 25%. Contributions made by both the employee and employer are immediately vested, so the high penalty is to discourage employees from raiding their SIMPLE accounts to spend the employer match.

IRAs are a very important tool for wealth accumulation, yet a lot of investors miss chances to participate and maximize their benefits. Since the contribution limits are low, it can be tough to make up for lost years. Your best bet: meet with me, bring your tax return and your investment statements and we can discuss your options.

Who’s Going to Pay for Your Retirement, Freelancer?

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A regular employee has a steady paycheck which makes planning and budgeting easy.  For a freelancer, your income may fluctuate greatly from month to month and be very difficult to predict from year to year.  You may not know what work you will be doing six months from now and that’s likely to be a more immediate concern than retirement which could be 20 or 30 years away. 

It’s often impractical for a freelancer to save up a large lump sum investment each year.  What does work for freelancers is to “pay yourself first” by setting up a monthly automatic investment program into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  This forces you to budget for retirement savings just as you would do for any other bill, such as your car payment or rent. It is easier to plan for smaller monthly contributions and this creates the same regular investment plan as an employee who is participating in a 401(k).

The maximum annual contribution for an IRA in 2014 is $5,500, which works out to $458 per month.  If you aren’t able to contribute the maximum, that’s okay, there are mutual funds that will let you invest with as little as $100 a month.  The most important thing is to get started and not put it off for another year.  You can always increase your contributions in the future as you are able.  If you are over the age of 50, you can contribute an additional $1,000 a year into an IRA, a total of $6,500 a year, or $541 per month. 

If you can use a tax deduction, open a Traditional IRA.  If you don’t need the tax deduction, and meet the income limitations, select a Roth IRA.  Additionally, there is another reason the Roth IRA is very popular with freelancers.  Many freelancers worry about hitting a slow patch in their business and needing to tap into their savings.  A nice benefit of the Roth IRA – which may help you sleep well at night – is that you can access your principal without tax or penalty at any time.  So if you do have an emergency in the future, you would be able to withdraw funds from your Roth IRA.  (Principal is the amount you contributed; if you withdraw your earnings (the gains), the earnings portion would be subject to income tax and a 10% penalty if you are under age 59 1/2.)  

If you are able to contribute more than $5,500 (or $6,500 if over age 50), the SEP-IRA is your best choice.  You could contribute as much as $52,000 into a SEP this year, if your net income is over $260,000.  The contribution for a SEP is roughly 20% of your net profit each year, so it works great for freelancers who want to save as much as possible.  Why not just recommend a SEP for all freelancers?  The challenge with a SEP is that it is impossible to know the exact dollar amount you can contribute until you actually prepare your tax return each year.  That’s why most SEP contributions are not made until March or April of the following year.  For freelancers who are getting started with saving for retirement, your best bet is to first maximize your contributions to a Traditional or Roth IRA through automatic monthly deposits.  Then if you want to make an additional investment, you can also fund a SEP at tax time.  A lot of investors assume that you cannot do a SEP if you do a Roth or Traditional IRA, but that is not the case, you can do both. 

Being a freelancer can be very rewarding and fulfilling, but it does carry some additional financial responsibilities.  You don’t have an employer to pay half of your social security taxes or to provide any retirement or insurance benefits.  Unlike traditional employees, however, many freelancers don’t go from working full-time one day to completely retired the next day.  What I often see is that many freelancers choose to keep working but reduce their schedule and select only the projects which really interest them.  In this manner, they are never fully retired, but still stay active and have multiple sources of income.  Regardless of your plans or intentions for retirement, my job is to help you become financially independent, so you work because you want to and not because you have to.