What is a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD)?

The RMD is the amount that Traditional, SEP, SIMPLE IRA owners and qualified plan participants must begin distributing from their retirement accounts in the year in which they reach 70.5.  The RMD must then be distributed each subsequent year.

The standard deadline for taking your RMD is December 31st.  However, you can use a one time exemption for your first RMD and delay until April 1st of the following year.  If you choose to utilize this deferral you will have to take both your first and second year distributions that year.

The amount of your RMD is calculated by dividing the year end value of all of your IRAs by your distribution factor.  Your distribution factor can be found using the IRA Uniform Lifetime Tables which are prepared by the IRS.

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Year-end tax planning

Our friends at Thomson Reuters have provided another wonderful checklist of year-end tax planning opportunities. As we enter the final week of the year, it’s worth considering if any of these options can save you money. (more…)

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Expiring Tax Provisions

It seems like every year there’s a slew of tax breaks in danger of expiring.  Sometimes Congress extends the tax break, other times they actually expire and fall by the wayside. 2011 is no different, with 3 potentially useful tax breaks on the cutting room table.  Those who may be able to benefit from these tax breaks should consider taking advantage of them soon, before it’s too late.

  • Sales Tax Deduction – Individuals who itemize their deductions can elect to deduct their sales tax or their state and local income taxes, whichever is greater.  There are seven states without a state income tax, so those residents would surely elect the sales tax deduction.  Residents of other states may find that they paid very little in state income taxes and may decide to elect the sales tax deduction instead.  For those who are taking the sales tax deduction and considering a large purchase, such as a new car, it may be worthwhile to complete the purchase this year in order to maximize this tax benefit while it’s still available.
  • Energy Efficiency Credit – Individuals can take a credit of up to $500 for making energy efficient improvements to their homes, including upgrades for roofs, doors, insulation, windows, furnaces, air conditioners, and many others.  There are limitations on the amount of eligible credit for the various improvements, and you can find a list of those here. It’s also important to note that unlike many other credits, this one is a lifetime credit–so if you’ve utilized all of the $500 credit in the past, you cannot take any more regardless of your qualified expenditures now.  However, if you haven’t benefited from this tax break yet, and are considering making energy efficient improvements to your home, you may want to do so before year end.
  • Qualified Charitable Distributions from IRAs – Individuals older than 70 ½ can make tax-free distributions from their IRA to qualified charities.  The distribution is not includable in the donor’s income, but it is not deductible as a charitable donation either.  This provision primarily benefits individuals who are charitably inclined but don’t have enough deductions to itemize.  The qualified charitable distributions will count towards an individual’s required minimum distribution (RMD) for the year, allowing those who don’t need the money from their IRA to donate it without being taxed on it.  With year-end fast approaching, individuals who have yet to take their RMD may want to consider this option.

Each of the tax breaks above had been due to expire at some point in the past but was subsequently extended at the last minute.  It is possible that Congress will extend these breaks again, but nothing is certain given the deficit and debt problems currently facing our country.

If you think you may benefit from any of these tax breaks, please be sure to consult with your accountant to see how these tax savings may apply to your specific situation.

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Stretch IRA?

Have you ever heard the term “stretch IRA”? According to the IRS, there is no such thing. What has become known as a stretch IRA is really a withdrawal strategy geared to spread the tax-deferred status of your IRA assets across multiple generations. Basically this is a provision you can add to any traditional IRA, ROTH, SEP-IRA, or SIMPLE IRA by using a beneficiary designation form.

Typically, a spouse is named as the primary beneficiary of an IRA, with children as the contingent beneficiaries. In this approach, after your death your surviving spouse rolls the balance of your IRA into his or her own IRA. This will allow your spouse to use the money from your IRA to cover his or her living expenses.

Alternatively, if your spouse will not need the assets in your IRA for living expenses in retirement, then you may consider naming your children and/or grandchildren as the primary beneficiaries. This will create the “stretch IRA.” After your death, your beneficiaries would each acquire what’s known as an inherited IRA from which he or she would have to withdraw a required minimum distribution each year thereafter. Here is an example to illustrate:

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Can you benefit from a “Backdoor” Roth?

Since their introduction in 1998, Roth IRAs have become an important part of the financial planning landscape. They offer the unique ability for investors to grow their money tax-free, not simply tax-deferred like traditional IRAs. They also avoid required minimum distributions so they can grow undiminished for many years. In fact, Roth IRAs are wonderful assets to pass along to the next generation, where they can continue to grow tax-free even longer.

Until recently, this unique retirement vehicle was available only to individuals with incomes below certain thresholds. “High-income” individuals could not contribute to Roth IRAs or convert traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs. Some of this changed in 2010, when the Roth conversion income limitations were permanently repealed. Now, anyone (regardless of income) can make a Roth conversion.  However, the Roth contribution limitation was not repealed. This means that if your income exceeds the levels in the table below, you cannot contribute directly to a Roth IRA—but you can achieve the same result by first contributing to a non-deductible traditional IRA and then converting it to a Roth IRA.

This presents an interesting opportunity for high income individuals, who perhaps yearn to save beyond their 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans or who simply desire the account diversification that comes with adding a Roth vehicle to their retirement mix. (more…)

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RMDs and Charitable contributions

If you have IRA accounts and are over age 70 ½, then you probably know about the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rules. These IRS rules require you to take money out of your retirement accounts each year, whether you need the money or not.

This money could be spent or re-invested back into a taxable investment account to allow it to continue to grow. Some people deposit this money to their checking account, and eventually use it to make a charitable contribution to the charity of their choice.

Fortunately, the government recently extended a provision through 2011, which allows individuals over age 70 ½ to exclude up to $100,000 from their gross income if it is paid directly from an IRA to a qualified charity. In addition, that excluded amount can be used to satisfy the RMD for the year.

This could potentially be a much more tax-efficient way to make charitable contributions than by depositing the RMD amount in your bank account and then writing a check for charity. If you’re a Merriman client, we can help you complete the paperwork accordingly, just give us a call.

To find out more information on this valuable topic, please discuss with your CPA or read this article from the IRS.

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It’s not too late to consider a Roth conversion

The end of the year is a busy time for most of us. Don’t forget to consider whether the Roth conversion might be worth your while. This year’s deadline, December 31st, is quickly approaching.

The income limitations to convert to a Roth have been repealed for this year and beyond, so anyone with an IRA is now eligible. Also, don’t forget that for 2010 conversions only, you have the option of recognizing the conversion income in the subsequent two years (2011 and 2012). This allows you to receive the benefits of a Roth IRA immediately while delaying the tax hit for a few years.

If you convert now and later change your mind, you can “undo” the conversion with a recharacterization—so you are not necessarily locked into the conversion if you do it this year. You have until the extended due date of your tax return (i.e. October 17, 2011) to recharacterize the conversion if you change your mind.

You may consider doing partial conversions—converting just enough each year to use up the rest of a particular tax bracket, like the 15% or 25% tier. Although this requires more work and planning each year, it’s a great way to gradually gain Roth exposure while sensibly controlling the tax impact.

Your financial advisor or CPA can help you decide if a Roth conversion is right for you. You can also find more information on the pros and cons of a Roth conversion in my article “Roth IRAs: To convert or not to convert.”

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Roth IRAs: To convert or not to convert

As a financial advisor and CPA, I often receive tax questions from my clients.  One that has been coming up a lot in the past year is: “Should I convert my non-Roth retirement plan (401(k), traditional IRA, 403(b) or 457(b)) to a Roth IRA?”  The question isn’t surprising, given the new rules that took effect January 1 for Roth IRA conversions.

The short answer, which should not surprise you, is: “It depends.”

The issue is complex, and the answer for one person can be radically different from the answer for someone else. Converting might be a boon, a mixed bag or a mistake, all depending on your circumstances.

It’s worse than that, because the only way to make sure you’re making the right choice is to know some variables of the future which simply cannot be known.

My bottom-line advice is to seek professional advice from your tax advisor, your financial advisor or your tax attorney before you take the plunge.

A word of caution

The difficulty with Roth conversions, like the difficulty for many tax strategies, is that the right answers cannot be known in advance. You usually cannot know your future income for sure. You cannot know what Congress will do to the tax code. And you cannot know future tax rates. In each case, the best you can do is guess. (more…)

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What happens to your 401(k) when you leave your job?

Whenever you leave a job, whether it’s your choice or not, there are many details and changes competing for your attention, and it’s easy to overlook the disposition of your employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or 457.

You don’t actually have to do anything, but doing nothing is usually not your best choice. Making the right choice can let you add many thousands of dollars to your retirement nest egg. Making the wrong choice can unnecessarily squander some of your savings to the tax man and deprive you of future earning power.

You may get some very general guidance from your employer. But employers are prohibited by law from giving you specific advice. The custodian of your retirement plan (Vanguard or Fidelity, for example) has little incentive to overcome a basic conflict of interest: Even though your investment options will be restricted if you leave your money where it is, that’s exactly what your custodian hopes you will do.

This is a choice you need to make on your own. Fortunately it’s neither complicated nor difficult.   In addition, you don’t have to do it immediately (although the lack of a deadline is a mixed bag if it leads you to procrastinate and then become complacent). (more…)

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Who gets your assets when you’re gone?

I want to tell you a story about how a woman’s simple negligence cost her kids nearly $500,000.  After 30 years of marriage, a woman I will call Mary Smith found herself in a failing marriage that was heading for divorce court.

Her only major financial asset was a rollover IRA that had started as a 401(k) account shortly after she graduated from college and started a career in sales. As she advanced, she was able to put more and more money into the account; by the time of her impending divorce, her IRA was worth about $500,000.

As she contemplated her divorce, she was fairly confident that she’d walk away with at least her IRA. Her two children, Sarah and James, had recently graduated from medical school; each of them had substantial student loans. Mary told them she would help with the loans by using some of her IRA to pay down their loan balances at the rate of $12,000 per year for each of them. She made good on her promise by making the first payment.

Then tragedy struck. Early in the divorce proceedings, she was killed in an automobile accident.  Mary’s lawyer had given her a list of documents to bring to their second meeting, including beneficiary designations for her IRA. But she never made it to that second meeting. (more…)

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