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Elder Law Estate Planning

Retirement Is Not Tax-Free

What many people don’t realize that when they start drawing funds from those 401(k)s, they’re taxed. One of the reasons the accounts are so popular, is that a traditional 401(k) is funded from pre-tax paychecks, so the money deposited into the plan and any gains on the investment are not taxed until the money is taking out. These withdrawals are called “distributions” and there are strict rules about Required Minimum Distributions, known as RMDs.

In the article “How 401(k) savers can avoid a nasty surprise come retirement,” Market Watch advises readers that these contributions are worthwhile, since they lower taxable income. Contributing enough can even move a taxpayer into a lower tax bracket for a given year, if they are able to do so.

However, there’s always payback where Uncle Sam is concerned. In this case, when distributions are taken, they are subject to ordinary income taxes. That’s why it’s called a “tax-deferred” account—taxes are deferred or put off. They aren’t tax free.

People who work in estate planning or personal finance tend to assume that everyone knows this, but that’s not the case. Just as they are about to retire, a great saver may look at their 401(k) balances and be so happy to consider how all their hard work and diligent savings have paid off. However, even if they have a million dollars in an account, the reality is, that $1 million is actually worth more like $700,000, if they are paying federal, state and local taxes. The same is true with balances of any size.

It is still important to continue saving in a 401(k) or any other kind of retirement account. However, you must keep that tax obligation in mind, when you’re setting any kind of financial retirement goals. Tax rates in the future are unknowns, but plan on roughly 20% in federal tax, and maybe another 3–10% in state and local taxes, depending upon where you live.
If you use an online retirement calculator to help you plan and estimate your goals and costs in retirement, make sure that the calculator takes taxes into account.

Everyone’s strategy for building a retirement nest egg is different. However, there are certain rules to consider, based on age. Once you turn 59½, you are allowed to take money from your 401(k) without penalties, but you will probably pay at least 20% in federal income tax, plus state and local income.

If you are taking withdrawals at this age and still drawing a paycheck, you might be moving yourself into a higher tax bracket. If you turn 65, withdrawing enough to move into a higher tax bracket may also mean that you are paying higher Medicare premiums.

For those who continue working into their 60s and 70s, a good goal is to preserve your 401(k) accounts for as long as possible. You are not obligated to take any money out of a traditional 401(k), until you turn 70.5. At this point, the Required Minimum Distributions must begin. Legislation pending as of this writing (the SECURE act) may change the age requirement for RMDs, but until the legislation becomes laws, the age remains at 70.5.

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Elder Law Estate Planning

401(k) Withdrawals and Taxes

A simple way to decrease the taxes you have to pay on 401(k) withdrawals, is to convert to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k). Investopedia’s recent article, “How to Minimize Taxes on 401(k) Withdrawals” explains that withdrawals from those accounts aren’t taxed, provided they meet the rules for a qualified distribution. However, you’ll need to declare the conversion, when you file your taxes.

The primary issue with converting your traditional 401(k) to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) is the income tax on the money you withdraw. If you’re near pulling out the money anyway, it may not be worth the cost of converting it. The more money you convert, the more taxes you’ll owe.

You can divide your assets between a Roth account and tax-deferred account to share the burden. You may pay more taxes today, but this strategy will give you the flexibility to withdraw some funds from a tax-deferred account and some from a Roth IRA account to have more control of your marginal tax rate in retirement. Remember that the five-year rule requires that you have your funds in the Roth for five years, before you start your withdrawals. This may not work for you if you’re already 65, about to retire, and concerned about paying taxes on your distributions.

Some of the ways that let you save on taxes, also make you take out more from your 401(k) than you actually need. If you can trust yourself not to spend those funds and save or invest the extra money, it can be a terrific way to spread out the tax obligation. If the individual is under 59½ years of age, the IRS allows use her to use “Regulation T” to take substantially equal distributions from a qualified plan, without incurring the 10% early withdrawal penalty. However, the withdrawals need to last a minimum of five years. However, a person who’s 56 and starts the withdrawals must keep taking those withdrawals to at least age 61, despite not needing the money.

If you take out distributions earlier while you’re in a lower tax bracket, you could save on taxes, instead of waiting until you’ll have Social Security and possible income from other retirement vehicles. If you plan ahead and are 59½ or older, you can take out just enough money from a 401(k) (or a traditional IRA) that will keep you in your current tax bracket but still lower the amount that will be subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs) when you’re 70½. The objective is to reduce the effect of the RMDs (which are based on a percent of your retirement account balance, along with your age) on your tax rate, when you have to begin taking them.

Although you’ll have to pay taxes on the money you withdraw, you can save by then investing those funds in another vehicle, like a brokerage account. Hold it there for at least a year and you’ll only have to pay long-term capital gains tax on what it earns.

Reference:

  • Investopedia (June 26, 2019) “How to Minimize Taxes on 401(k) Withdrawals”
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Elder Law Estate Planning

Here’s How You Know You’re an Adult: 10 Documents

Fifty is a little on the late side to start taking care of these important life matters. However, it is better late than never. It’s easy to put these tasks off, since the busyness of our day-to-day lives gives us a good reason to procrastinate on the larger issues, like death and our own mortality. However, according to Charlotte Five’s article “For ultimate adulting status, have these 10 documents by the time you’re 35,” the time to act is now.

Here are the ten documents you need to get locked down.

A Will. The last will and testament does not have to be complicated. However, it does need to be prepared properly, so that it will be valid. If your family includes minor children, you need to name a guardian. Pick an executor who will be in charge when you pass. If you don’t have a will, the law of your state will determine how your assets are distributed, and a court will name a guardian for your children. It is better to have a will and put your wishes down in writing.

Life insurance. There are two basic kinds: term insurance, which covers about twenty years, and universal or whole, which covers you for your lifetime. You need enough to cover your liabilities: your home mortgage, college funding for your kids and any outstanding debts, like credit cards or a car loan. This way, you aren’t saddling heirs with your debt.

Durable power of attorney. This document lets you designate someone to pay your bills, manage your money and make financial decisions for you, if you become incapacitated. Without it, your relatives will need to go to court to be appointed power of attorney. Pick a trusted person and have the form done, when you meet with your estate planning attorney.

Twice your annual income in savings. Most Americans don’t do this. However, if you start saving, no matter how small an amount, you’ll be glad you did. You need savings to avoid creating debt, if an emergency occurs. A cash cushion of six months’ worth of monthly expenses in a savings account will give you peace of mind.

Insurance coverage. Make sure that you have the right insurance in place, in addition to life insurance. That means health insurance, auto insurance and disability insurance.

Credit report. People with better credit reports get better rates on home and auto loans. You can get them free from the big credit reporting services. Make sure everything is correct, from your address to your account history.
A letter of instruction. Where do you keep your estate planning documents? What about your bank statements, taxes and insurance documents? What about your digital assets? Keep a list for easy access for those who might have to figure out your affairs.

Retirement plan. Most people only know they don’t have enough saved for retirement. That’s not good enough. If you aren’t enrolled in your company’s 401(k) or other retirement savings plan, get on that right away. If your company matches contributions, make sure you are saving enough to get every bit of those matching dollars. If your company doesn’t have a retirement plan, then open an IRA or a Roth IRA on your own. You should try to contribute as much as you possibly can.

Updated resume. It also helps to do the same thing with your LinkedIn profile. No matter how long you’ve been in your field, everyone looks at your LinkedIn profile to see who you are and what and who you know. Make sure you have an updated resume, so you can easily send it out, whether it’s a casual conversation about a speaking opportunity or if you’re starting to look for a new position.

A budget. Here’s how you know you’re really an adult. Budgets went out of fashion for a while, but now they are bigger than avocado toast. If you don’t know what’s coming in and what’s going out, you can’t possibly have any kind of control or direction over your financial life. Start tracking your expenses, matching with your income and making any necessary changes.

One last thing—do you have a bucket list? Don’t wait until you’re 70 to consider all the places you’d like to go or the people you’d like to meet. It’s true–you only live once, and we should enjoy the ride.

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Elder Law Estate Planning

How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order?

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.” Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”

Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems
What can you do to make sure your mother’s financial affairs are in proper order?

The Monterey Herald’s recent article, “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of,” says to first make sure that she has her basic estate planning documents in place. She should have a will and an Advance Health Care Directive. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure these documents fully reflect your mother’s desires. An Advance Health Care Directive lets her name a person to make health care decisions on her behalf, if she becomes incapacitated. This decision-making authority is called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and the person receiving the authority is known as the agent.

Based on the way in which the form is written, the agent can have broad authority, including the ability to consent to or refuse medical treatment, surgical procedures and artificial nutrition or hydration. The form also allows a person to leave instructions for health care, such as whether or not to be resuscitated, have life prolonged artificially, or to receive treatment to alleviate pain, even if it hastens death. To limit these instructions in any specific way, talk to an attorney.

Another option is to create a living trust, if the value of her estate is significant. In some states, estates worth more than a certain amount are subject to probate—a costly, lengthy and public process. Smaller value estates usually can avoid probate. When calculating the value of an estate, you can exclude several types of assets, including joint tenancy property, property that passes outright to a surviving spouse, assets that pass outside of probate to named beneficiaries (such as pensions, IRAs, and life insurance), multiple party accounts or pay on death (POD) accounts and assets owned in trust, including a revocable trust. You should also conduct a full inventory of your parent’s accounts, including where they’re held and how they’re titled. Update the named beneficiaries on IRAs, retirement plans and life insurance policies.

Some adult children will have their parent name them as a joint owner on their checking account. This allows you greater flexibility to settle outstanding obligations, when she passes away. Remember that a financial power of attorney won’t work here, because it will lapse upon your mother’s death. However, note that any asset held by joint owners are subject to the creditors of each joint owner. Do not add your daughter as a joint owner, if she has marital, financial, or legal problems!

How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order? You also shouldn’t put your name as a joint owner of a brokerage account—especially one with low-cost basis investments. One of the benefits of transferring wealth, is the step-up in cost basis assets receive at time of death. Being named as the joint owner of an account will give you control over the assets in the account—but you won’t get the step up in basis, when your mother passes.

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