Do you have a federal or local government pension? Don’t let the WEP or GPO surprise you. The Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset, often called the WEP and GPO, are two rules that can leave you scratching your head. Not only do many people find these rules confusing, but they are also often completely overlooked, which may result in a big surprise when filing for Social Security benefits. Unfortunately, this is not one of those good surprises.
What are the WEP and GPO?
The WEP reduces a worker’s own Social Security benefit while the GPO reduces spousal and survivor benefits received from another’s work record, such as a spouse.
Who is affected?
The WEP and GPO affect individuals who qualify for a pension from non-covered (did not pay Social Security tax) employment. These are typically your federal and local government workers, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Whether these jobs are non-covered will depend on the state/employer. Overseas employees may also fit under this category.
For the WEP to apply, the individual must have an additional job with covered earnings (did pay Social Security tax) that qualifies them for Social Security benefits. Thus, the WEP applies to those who have a mix of covered and non-covered employment. Specifically, they qualify for Social Security benefits and receive a non-covered pension. The GPO applies when an individual with a non-covered pension receives a spousal or survivor benefit. Are you scratching your head yet?
Dan works as a public school teacher in California, one of 15 states where teachers do not pay Social Security tax. He qualifies for a pension through the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). To make extra money for his household, Dan works an additional job during the summer, where he does pay Social Security tax. By the end of his career, he has worked enough summers to qualify for a Social Security benefit. The WEP will reduce Dan’s benefit since he has both a non-covered pension from his career as a teacher and qualifies for Social Security benefits from his summer job.
How will the WEP affect my benefit?
Understanding the details of the WEP is quite complicated. To simplify, the WEP tweaks the Social Security benefit formula, resulting in a reduction of the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). The PIA is the benefit amount one would receive at full retirement age. The amount reduced depends on the number of years with “substantial earnings” in covered employment. The Social Security Administration provides the WEP Chart as a reference to understand the potential benefit reductions based on the number of years of substantial earnings. The maximum monthly reduction is capped at $480 in 2020. The amount reduced stays constant for the first 20 years of substantial earnings before decreasing incrementally per year until it is completely eliminated upon reaching 30 years of substantial earnings.
This offers an incredible planning opportunity for those who have already accumulated a number of years of substantial earnings. If you are thinking of retiring and have accumulated 20 years of covered work, it could make a lot of sense to work for ten more years to eliminate the WEP completely. Remember, you only need to have substantial earnings, so part-time work would count as long as you make what is deemed “substantial” in that year. For someone subject to the full WEP reduction and assuming a 20-year retirement, it could be worth more than $100,000.
It is important to note that the reduction is limited to one-half of an individual’s non-covered pension. This primarily comes into play when the majority of an individual’s earnings are in covered employment but have a small non-covered pension. For example, if you had a pension of $600 per month and your Social Security benefit was $1,200 per month, your benefit will not be reduced by more than $300 (half of your pension income).
How will the GPO affect my benefit?
This rule is more straightforward to understand than the WEP. The GPO will reduce an individual’s spousal or survivor benefit by two-thirds of their non-covered pension benefit.
Sarah qualified for a pension of $2,100 per month from a government job. Her husband, Drew, worked as an engineer for a large corporation. Drew applied for his Social Security benefit at his full retirement age and receives $2,600 per month. Sarah applies for a spousal benefit once she reaches full retirement age. This benefit would generally be $1,300 (50% of her spouse’s); however, the benefit is reduced by two-thirds of her non-covered pension. In this case, she would not receive anything since two-thirds of her pension ($1,400) is greater than what her spousal benefit would be.
Let’s say Drew passed away unexpectedly. Sarah would normally qualify for a survivor benefit equal to Drew’s entire benefit of $2,600. Because of the GPO, she will only receive $1,200 since the benefit would first be reduced by two-thirds of her pension ($2,600 – $1,400).
Keep in mind the GPO only applies to the individual’s own non-covered work. If a surviving spouse is a beneficiary of a non-covered pension, their Social Security benefits will not be reduced.
These rules are tricky to navigate and important to understand for those affected. What makes it worse is that your Social Security statement will not reflect the reduction in benefits from the WEP and GPO. This means it requires work and effort on your part to figure out! The Social Security Administration has provided an online WEP and GPO calculator to help with this. It will ask for a birthdate, non-covered pension benefit amounts, and other relevant information to calculate your new benefit factoring in the rule. If you have a family member or friend with a non-covered pension, they may be subject to these two rules. Please forward this on to them or anyone else who may find it useful.
The Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed at the end of 2017, and the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE) passed at the end of 2019. These both made significant changes to annual tax-planning strategies.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the CARES Act relief package that followed created a new layer of complexity. Unfortunately, many taxpayers miss opportunities for significant tax savings.
Here are six moves to consider making before the end of the year to potentially lower your taxes both this year and in years to come.
Take the Standard Deduction Later. The new tax rules nearly doubled the standard deduction and eliminated many write-offs, limiting the benefit of itemizing deductions for most taxpayers. However, you can optimize your deductions by “bunching” itemized deductions in a single year to get over the standard deduction threshold and then by taking the standard deduction in the following year.
Example: Instead of giving $10,000 to charity annually (which will likely leave you with the standard deduction anyway), gift $50,000 every 5 years. This will give you a greater tax benefit in the first year while still claiming the standard deduction in the other years to maximize tax savings.
Pre-Pay Your Medical Expenses. Have major medical-related expenses coming up? You can potentially maximize the tax deduction by paying out-of-pocket medical expenses in a single calendar year—either by pushing payments out to the next year or pulling later expenses into this year.
A surprising number of medical expenses qualify, including unreimbursed doctor fees, long-term-care premiums, certain Medicare plans, and some home modifications.
Note: Medical expenses are an itemized deduction, so this strategy may be best used with the “bunching” strategy described above, including possibly paying medical expenses in a year you maximize charitable donations.
Give Money to Your Favorite Charity Right Now from Your IRA. If you’re over 70 ½, you can make up to $100,000 of annual Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) directly from your IRA to a qualifying charity. Even better, for retirees who don’t need to take their Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) each year, these qualified charitable distributions count toward the RMD but don’t appear in taxable income.
Even though the CARES Act allowed RMDs to be skipped in 2020, you can still make a QCD this year.
Note: QCDs must be made by December 31 to count for this tax year.
Take Advantage of Years in a Lower Tax Bracket with a Roth Conversion. A Roth conversion can permanently lower your taxable income in retirement by converting tax-deferred assets (IRA / 401k) into tax-free assets in a Roth account. It is best to do this in years where you are in a lower tax bracket than you expect to be in the future.
Example: If a taxpayer at age 63 is in the 12% tax bracket, then moving $10,000 from an IRA to a Roth account will owe an additional $1,200 in taxes. That same taxpayer at age 73 may be in the 24% tax bracket due to Social Security, pension, and RMD income they didn’t have at 62. Taking that same $10,000 from an IRA will now result an in additional $2,400 in taxes.
Optimize Your Investment Portfolio to Improve Expected After-Tax Return. Prior to the TCJA, you could write off some fees you pay for investment management. The TCJA did away with that deduction. There are still ways to pay fees with pre-tax dollars that may make sense depending on the types of accounts used.
Likewise, some investments will be more tax efficient, and other investments will be less tax efficient. Where possible, move the most tax-efficient investments into a taxable investment account and the least tax-efficient investments into a tax-advantaged retirement account. The goal is to determine an ideal overall allocation, even if each individual account has a slightly different allocation.
Both strategies above can potentially help maximize the after-tax return on investments.
Optimize Your Retirement Contributions. The most important step you can take right now to reduce your taxes this year may be to review how and where you’re making retirement contributions. You may be missing out on critical tax savings (and investment growth) if you’re not optimizing your contributions.
Potential retirement account strategies people often miss include Solo 401k for self-employed individuals, backdoor Roth contributions, or “mega” backdoor Roth contributions at certain large employers.
Everyone’s situation is different, and today’s retirement environment is complex. Working with a financial professional who coordinates with your CPA can help ensure you’re not missing any opportunities to optimize your portfolio and pay less in taxes.
We expect most people have a grasp on how to make money in a bull market, but it can be far more challenging to contemplate how to make money during a bear market, when emotions are running high. It’s not all about making money, though. Some of it involves figuring out how to put oneself into a better financial position for the future so that you can heal faster from the losses. There are a handful of key strategies to engage in during a bear market that will help your finances as much as your future, and one of the most important of these is ROTH conversions.
Believe it or not, bear markets represent the best environment into which to make an IRA-to-ROTH conversion. The more negative the equity losses are, the more attractive the conversion becomes. When making a conversion to ROTH, you can either move cash or you can move shares of the stocks or mutual funds that you own in the IRA. When we make a conversion, we choose to move shares for our client families. The tactical benefit here is that we actually get to pick the specific funds to move from the IRA to the ROTH. Whichever funds have the deepest losses for the given year are the ones with the highest priority to move over first.
Think of it this way: if we found ourselves in a sharp bear market, we would expect several equity asset classes to be down, but maybe inside our IRA the US small cap fund went down the most with a -35% loss. Although it may not feel like it, bear market losses are temporary, so it is important to take action and make the conversion to the ROTH while the markets and the news are negative and remain temporarily distressed. If we were to hypothetically move $50,000 of the US small cap fund in our example, we would actually be moving shares that were previously 35% higher in value at $77,000. If we convert the $50,000 of small cap shares right now, we incur the tax liability on those shares on the day they are moved over. Once the shares have arrived in the ROTH, it then becomes a matter of exercising patience. It might take six or nine months for the current bear market to pass; but when the economy improves, those distressed shares should bounce back in value. In a relatively short number of months, the $50,000 that was converted and that you paid tax on might be worth $65,000 or $70,000—but remember, you only paid tax on $50,000. Much like a spring being compressed and then subsequently released, the idea behind the conversion is to move the shares to the ROTH while the spring is compressed. Simply put, the bear market represents a tax-savings opportunity in disguise, so acting now is highly important BEFORE things improve in society. Effectively, ROTH conversions and bear markets coupled together give us a way to legally cheat the IRS out of tax dollars.
The benefits of ROTH conversions are not just effective during a severe bear market but can be utilized nearly every year. If you employ a highly diversified portfolio with multiple asset classes held in your IRA and ROTH, there are lots of opportunities to take advantage of the up and down stock market movements, as many asset classes move at different rhythms. There are a host of financial planning advantages to ROTH accounts and gradually converting IRA money into ROTH each year. Keep in mind, ROTH accounts contain post-tax money; they do not have required minimum distributions, which do apply to traditional IRAs; and all of the future growth on the assets in the ROTH are considered post-tax. All withdrawals from ROTHs are voluntary, and all of the dividends, interest, and earnings in the ROTH are shielded from taxes. Another advantage of a ROTH account is that it can be viewed with your IRA using an overall investment approach that we call Asset Location. Essentially, Asset Location seeks to view the IRA and ROTH accounts as if they were one account holding one investment portfolio but divvies the funds between the accounts to the greatest advantage. Reach out to your advisor if you are curious about conversions and ROTH accounts and learn more about how we advocate for our families.
The IRS announced on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, via Notice 2020-51 (PDF), additional relief relating to Required Minimum Distributions (RMD), allowing you to return RMD funds withdrawn after January 1, 2020.
As it sits now, the CARES Act RMD waiver for 2020 is still in place, meaning that you are not required to take an RMD for 2020. This applies to defined-contribution plans such as 401(k) or 403(b) plans and IRA accounts. Those who have previously taken RMDs are likely familiar with the process; but for those who turned 70 ½ in 2019, this all may be brand new, and it’s important to understand the timeframes. This can easily be confused with the SECURE Act which passed toward the end of 2019, changing the RMD age to 72 going forward. Tuesday’s announcement extends relief to anyone who has previously taken an RMD in 2020 by extending the opportunity to return the funds up through August 31st, 2020. In addition, if you return funds under this new announcement, the notice states that the repayment is not subject to the one rollover per 12-month period or the rollover restrictions with inherited IRAs. This is particularly important because the SECURE Act changed the timeframe in which beneficiaries are required to withdraw inherited IRA funds. To find information about the SECURE Act changes, Paige Lee, CFA, wrote a great article which can be found here. There is a lot going on here, and the overall message is that you have more flexibility than ever on how you treat a 2020 RMD.
What was the original relief for RMDs?
The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) was signed into law on March 27th, 2020, providing relief amidst the COVID-19 pandemic for many American taxpayers and businesses. We posted a blog that summarizes these changes which can be found here. In respect to RMDs, the CARES Act originally allowed individuals to forego taking a 2020 RMD and allowed you to return any RMD taken within the previous 60 days. Despite being a fantastic planning opportunity, anyone who took an RMD earlier that the previous 60 days was left out in the cold. Later in April, the IRS issued a follow-up notice that extended the time period to include those who took an RMD between February 1 and May 15 where the funds could be returned by July 15th. This is no longer the case with the most recent announcement, and now anyone who has taken an RMD from January 1st, 2020, can make the decision to return the funds.
How can you take advantage of this?
This offers a tremendous planning opportunity by providing households with the ability to shift income and take advantage of market conditions. Returning an RMD can lead to a host of strategic financial moves including the following:
Continued growth of tax-deferred assets
Opening room to make Roth IRA conversions
A chance to look at taxable accounts to see if it makes sense to withdraw funds at capital gain rates as opposed to marginal tax rates
Rebalancing—as the funds are returned, holdings can be adjusted to shore up your overall allocation
We help our clients make the best choices with the information available, and now that this new extension has been issued, we view this as an opportunity to review your circumstances, discuss the various options, and decide on whether or not to take action.
Connect with Merriman to discuss.
Here at Merriman, we are very excited about this announcement and strongly encourage you to contact us if you have already taken an RMD from your IRA or Inherited IRA this year. We’ll help you understand and explore your options and determine if taking advantage of this extended RMD relief makes sense for you.
On April 20, Boeing announced a Voluntary Layoff (VLO) program in response to recent economic events. For employees who qualify, this benefit may be an opportunity to meet the goal of retirement sooner than expected. Are you wondering if you should take advantage of this program?
At Merriman, we’ve been helping Boeing employees navigate decisions like this for over 30 years. Here are the main points you should consider:
For eligible employees, Boeing is offering a lump-sum payment of one week’s pay for every year of service completed, up to a maximum of 26 years in most cases.
Employees who accept the VLO offer may also receive a few months of subsidized health insurance benefits and access to other benefits.
While employees who accept the VLO may apply in the future for open employee or contractor positions, accepting the VLO forfeits any first consideration rehire or recall rights. This program is used as a permanent separation from Boeing, causing the employee to lose those rehire benefits.
Boeing has announced the following important dates for this VLO offer:
April 27, 2020 VLO Registration Opens
May 4, 2020 VLO Registration Closes
May 14, 2020 Formal Notification Sent to Employees
June 5, 2020 Last Day on Payroll
Am I in a position to retire?
Many people may be considering the VLO offer but are unclear what retiring now would mean for their future lifestyle. This is a major decision to make in a short amount of time, and there are many factors to consider. What retirement lifestyle are you dreaming of? Are the assets you have saved enough? Will you have other income sources like Social Security or pension benefits? To help weigh your options, we’re offering a complimentary financial analysis for Boeing employees considering the VLO program.
You may have heard about the significant tax and retirement reforms recently signed into law under the catchy name Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. These sweeping changes were drafted to promote increased retirement savings by expanding access to retirement savings vehicles, broadening options available inside retirement plans, and incentivizing employers to open retirement savings plans for their employees.
Some of these changes have a much wider impact than others, but here is a summary of the key takeaways and provisions of the SECURE Act most likely to affect you.
The age to begin required minimum distributions (RMDs) increased from 70 1/2 to 72. The later RMD age of 72 will only apply to those turning 70 1/2 in 2020 or later. Anyone who turned 70 1/2 in 2019 will still be subject to the original RMD rules. While not a huge delay, individuals could benefit from an extra year and a half of compounding returns if they choose not to withdraw funds from their Traditional IRA. It can also provide additional time to make strategic Roth conversions while in a lower tax bracket. It is important to point out that the Qualified Charitable Distribution age has not changed, so QCDs can still be made starting at age 70 1/2.
The maximum age to contribute to a Traditional IRA has been removed. You may now contribute to a Traditional IRA even if you are over 70 1/2. This is a great benefit to those continuing to work into their 70s, as contributions to a Traditional IRA are tax-deductible. After your RMDs have started, continued contributions allow for an offset of the taxable income realized from these required IRA distributions.
The Stretch IRA rule, allowing non-spouse beneficiaries to “stretch” distributions from an Inherited IRA over the course of their lifetime, has been eliminated. This provision, enacted as the funding offset for the bill, requires that non-spouse beneficiaries distribute all assets from an Inherited IRA within 10 years of the account owner’s passing. Spouses, chronically ill or disabled beneficiaries, and non-spouse beneficiaries not more than 10 years younger than the IRA owner will still qualify to make stretch distributions. Minor children will also qualify for stretch distributions, but only until they reach the age of majority for their state (at which time they would be subject to the 10-year payout rule). These new rules only apply to inherited IRAs whose account owner passed away in 2020 or later.
This change will have the most significant impact on adult children inheriting IRAs, who now will have to recognize income over a 10-year period instead of over their lifetime. For those still in their prime working years, this may mean taking distributions at more unfavorable tax rates. Trusts named as IRA beneficiaries also face their own set of challenges under the new law. Many are now questioning whether they should start converting Traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA, or significantly increase conversions already in play. Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s highly dependent on a number of factors, including current tax brackets, potential tax brackets of future beneficiaries, and intentions for the inherited assets. We’ll explore this and additional estate planning concerns and strategies in more depth in future articles.
Here are a few other changes that are worth mentioning:
Penalty-free withdrawals of up to $5,000 can be made from 401(k)s or retirement accounts for the birth or adoption of a child.
529 accounts can now be used to pay back qualified student loans with a lifetime limit of $10,000 per person.
Tax credits given to small businesses for establishing a retirement plan have been increased.
A new tax credit will be given to small businesses adopting auto-enrollment provisions into their retirement plans.
Liability protection is provided for employers offering annuities within an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
If you have questions or concerns about how the SECURE Act impacts you, please reach out to your financial advisor or contact us for assistance.