Executives and other highly compensated employees might notice a different option in their benefits plan, beyond the usual 401(k). Some employers also offer Section 409A nonqualified deferred compensation plans to high earners, which have their own mix of rules, regulations and potential drawbacks to navigate. However, when you’re earning income in the hundreds of thousands, it’s important to consider every option for saving on taxes and setting aside a larger nest egg for retirement. Contributing to the usual bevy of IRAs and 401(k) might not be enough to see you through your golden years, and tools like deferred compensation plans could also help you bridge the gap of early retirement.
Deferred compensation plans look a bit different than the 401(k) you already know. Like a 401(k), you can defer compensation into the plan and defer taxes on any earnings until you make withdrawals in the future. You can also establish beneficiaries for your deferred compensation. However, unlike 401(k) plans, the IRS doesn’t limit how much income you can defer each year, so you’ll have to check if your employer limits contributions to start building your deferred compensation strategy. Elections to defer compensation into your nonqualified plan are irrevocable until you update your choices the following year, and you have to make your deferral election before you earn the income. If you’re in the top tax bracket (37.0% in 2019), this can allow you to defer income now and receive it at a later date (such as when you retire) in a lump sum or a series of payments, when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.
Unlimited contribution amounts and optional payout structures may sound too good to be true, but nonqualified deferred compensation plans also have significant caveats to consider. The big risk is that unlike 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) accounts where your plan’s assets are qualified, segregated from company assets and all employee contributions are 100% yours—a Section 409A deferred compensation plan lacks those protections. 409A deferred compensation plans are nonqualified, and your assets are tied to the company’s general assets. If the company fails, your assets could be subject to forfeiture since other creditors may have priority. The IRS permits unlimited contributions to the plan in exchange for this risk, and the potential loss of deferred compensation can motivate company officers to maintain the health of the company.
Let’s review potential distribution options from nonqualified deferred compensation plans. A Section 409A deferred compensation plan can provide payment no earlier than the following events:
A fixed date or schedule specified by the company’s plan or the employee’s irrevocable election (usually 5 to 10 years later, or in retirement)
A change of company control, such as a buyout or merger
An unforeseen emergency, such as severe financial hardship or illness
Once your income is deferred, your employer can either invest the funds or keep track of the compensation in a bookkeeping account. Investment options often include securities, insurance arrangements or annuities, so it’s important to evaluate the potential returns and tax benefits of your deferred compensation plan versus other savings options. Plan funds can also be set aside in a Rabbi Trust; however, those funds still remain part of the employer’s general assets.
Nonqualified deferred compensation plans have a variety of structures, rules and withdrawal options depending on how your employer builds the plan. Consider the following pros and cons of deferred compensation plans when reviewing your employer’s options.
You can defer a significant amount of income to better help you replace your income in retirement. The IRS does not limit contributions.
You have the ability to postpone income in years when you’re in high tax brackets until later when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.
If your employer offers investment options, you may be able to invest the money for greater earnings.
There are no nondiscrimination rules for participants, so the plan can benefit owners, executives and highly compensated employees specifically. Other retirement plans may limit contributions or participation due to discrimination rules.
Your deferred compensation plus any investment earnings are subject to forfeiture based upon the general financial health of the company.
The election to defer compensation and how/when it will be paid out is irrevocable and must be made prior to the year compensation is earned.
Depending on the terms of your plan, you may end up forfeiting all or part of your deferred compensation if you leave the company early. That’s why these plans are also used as “golden handcuffs” to keep important employees at the company.
The plan may or may not have investment options available. If investment options are available, they may not be very good (limited options and/or high expenses).
If you leave your company or retire early, funds in a Section 409A deferred compensation plan aren’t portable. They can’t be transferred or rolled over into an IRA or new employer plan.
Unlike many other employer retirement plans, you can’t take a loan against a Section 409A deferred compensation plan.
The questions below are helpful for assessing whether a deferred compensation plan makes sense for you.
Is your company financially secure? Will it remain financially secure?
Will your tax rate be lower in the future when this deferred compensation is paid?
Can you afford to defer the income this year?
Does the plan have investment options? Are the fees and selection of funds reasonable?
Does the plan allow a flexible distribution schedule?
Section 409A deferred compensation plans have inherent drawbacks and prominent risks, but they could help you save toward your retirement planning goals. We recommend working with a Merriman advisor to review your specific plan terms and financial situation when preparing for the future. We can help you decide whether a nonqualified deferred compensation plan makes sense for your situation, weigh issues like future taxes and create a long-term plan. We want you to feel ready for everything life has to offer.
When planning for retirement, Washington State employees have lots of options. The employer-based retirement for the Washington Public Employees Retirement System (PERS 3) is one part defined benefit (pension) and one part defined contribution. The state’s contribution and obligation is on the pension side and is based on a formula that creates a guaranteed lifelong income stream for the participant. The employee’s contributions are put into an investment account (the defined contribution portion of the plan) like a 401(k) where you can choose between a few investment options. Returns and payments from investments in the defined contribution plan aren’t guaranteed and are subject to risk; however, they have the potential to grow at a faster rate than your pension benefit.
Once retired, you can either withdraw from the defined contribution portion like a regular retirement account or turn part or all of this account into a guaranteed income stream through the plan’s Total Allocation Portfolio (TAP) annuity.
What is the TAP annuity?
The TAP annuity provides a guaranteed income stream with a 3% automatic inflation increase each year. Furthermore, your beneficiaries receive a refund of any undistributed portion of your investment in the TAP annuity upon your death. For example, if a retiree contributes $200,000 into the TAP Annuity and passes away five years after retirement, having only received $60,000 in monthly income, their heirs would be entitled to a refund of $140,000. (more…)
I’m never surprised when I meet a tech person who is well informed on particular aspects of the market. As voracious readers, I would expect nothing less. However, that knowledge is often limited to the top-selling finance books focusing on one story or perspective of the stock market, or news articles about why certain technology stocks will rise or fall in the next year.
This is natural – we tend to gravitate toward what is in the news or what we are currently focused on from a business perspective.
What’s amazing to me is when I meet a tech entrepreneur or executive who understands exactly what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable in investing. One individual I talked with had figured out what made her comfortable without fully understanding the technical jargon and the possible ways of investing in the market.
Before I asked a question, she told me she believed in diversification across the entire stock market. She didn’t want to waste time and emotion on trying to time particular industries or company stocks – it felt too much like betting. She told me how much money in dollar terms she was not willing to lose from her portfolio, and that she knew this might affect the likelihood of reaching her goals. She wanted to maximize her investment return while following consistent, scientifically proven methods that made sense to her. She felt this way of investing kept her from needing to look at her portfolio daily and feel concerned when particular areas of the stock market had “bad days.”
Needless to say, I was blown away. Determining your investment philosophy is usually the hardest part. It requires understanding behavioral biases, asking uncomfortable questions and playing to your strengths in what you can tolerate. From this foundation, you can build an approach to your financial future.
Overcoming Behavioral Bias
We all want the upside without the downside. I have seen the internal struggle time and time again – how do you balance investing methodically without reacting to stock market news and the emotional rollercoaster that investing entails?
Investing is about knowing what drives your decisions, and then acting on it. You know what the right thing to do is, but struggle to implement it due to our inherent psychology.
So let’s play a game. First, you are given $10,000.
Now you must make a choice… which of the following would you prefer?
A sure gain of $1,000
A 50% chance of gaining $2,000, but also 50% chance of gaining nothing
Then, another choice… which of these would you prefer?
A sure loss of $1,000
A 50% chance of losing $2,000, but also 50% change of losing nothing
Were your answers different? If so, this is loss aversion – the fear of losing money more than obtaining increased value in your investment portfolio.
This belief drives investors to hold on to losing investments and sell winning investments too quickly. Loss aversion is a classic problem of chasing returns. This thinking leads investors to sell stocks near the bottom of a stock market cycle and then not buy the stock back until a substantial increase in price has already occurred.
Here are some other behaviors investors struggle with.
Procrastination: Some individuals wish to avoid planning their investing approach altogether. Ben Franklin said it well: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
Hindsight 20/20: Attempting to time economic shifts and anticipate changes in stock prices may seem obvious when looking back at the event, but it’s very difficult different to accurately predict. Seeing errors in hindsight can makes us overconfident in predicting it “next time,” ahead of the event occurring.
Here-and-now reactions: The media has an uncanny ability to focus on particular stories that increase readership and draw the stories out for as long as they can. When looking at economic newscasts, a story is one pin point for an entire outline of what makes the financial markets tick.
Last year’s sound bite? It was all about the S&P 500 rising dramatically. When someone uses the S&P 500 as synonymous with the stock market over the last year or two, this indicates a here-and-now reaction.
How do you feel about the stock market?
This question makes people uncomfortable. I see the shift in their body language and gaze, and suddenly I get the uncomfortable vibes.
“Um, I don’t know,” or “I am in a growth strategy… I think.”
How you are currently invested may not be the best for you. So what are some driving factors in establishing what is best? Here are some things to consider.
What am I willing to lose?
How comfortable are you investing in the stock market?
How much money (dollar-wise) are you willing to lose from your investment portfolio?
The average intra-year S&P 500 stock market drop is 14.7%. How does that make you feel? Surprised, unsettled or unfazed?
What are your goals and how much time do you have to save for each goal?
What level and kinds of debt do you currently have?
How many stock options do you have? What time frame do they vest over?
What is your professional plan for the future?
What benefits are available to you in your employment agreement? What risks are apparent?
What obligations or goals have you set as a family?
What drives your decisions around investing?
Do you understand the level of risk inherent in different types of investments (i.e. stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, private equity, angel investments, etc.)? All investments involve a degree of risk.
Do you know what style of investing you prefer?
Active investing – managing your investment portfolio by picking particular investments you believe will outperform the financial markets. You will time when to move in and out of each part of your portfolio using different types of analysis to find opportunities.
Passive investing – systematically buying into a strategy you will hold for a long time period. You’re not worried about daily, monthly, or annual price movements. You’re looking to capture the persistent and pervasive opportunities the financial market provides overall.
What analysis and strategy will you use in maintaining your investment portfolio?
Do you believe the financial markets are unpredictable over the short term?
Do you believe in diversification?
Do you prefer picking stocks?
Are you concerned with trading costs and rebalancing your portfolio?
Should you do it yourself or hire a financial advisor?
Will you manage your own investments?
Do you have the time to manage your investments?
How will you choose which stock, bonds, mutual funds, etc., to invest in?
Are you aware of the fees involved in investing?
How will you track the tax implications of investment choices?
Will you hire an advisor?
How will you find the right advisor for you? Do you trust them?
Do you care if they are a fiduciary required by law to do what is in your best interest?
Do you understand the difference between hiring a financial advisor at an investment bank or an independent advising firm?
Does the financial advisor understand who you are and where you are going?
Your investment philosophy is made up of guiding principles that will govern your future investment decisions. These crucial choices and commitments help you filter through the noise that doesn’t matter and focus on the path to wealth creation, accumulation and maintenance.
Be honest with yourself through the process of investing – it’s easy to reach analysis-paralysis quickly and feel overwhelmed. So whether you’re analytical or laid-back in nature, it’s is easier than you think to misstep and begin judging your future moves based on making up for past mistakes.
That’s where a good financial advisor can step in and help you remove the emotion from investing, while helping you maintain discipline in the markets.
I recently had the good fortune of being featured in this article which appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times Business section, and I want to share it with you.
A.J. and Amy are a young couple burdened by debt who did not have the resources to pay for a financial planner. The Seattle Times reached out to me through my affiliation with the Puget Sound Financial Planning Association and asked if I would build them a plan. After several meetings we were able to identify and build a plan around their short and long term goals. I am thrilled to report that they feel like they are finally in control of their debt and retirement savings. Most importantly, they have developed peace of mind around their finances.
Please keep in mind no two investors are alike, this article referenced above is a specific recommendation based on A.J. and Amy’s personal finances. If you would like to give the gift of financial peace of mind, I am always more than happy to help your friends and family develop their own personal plan.
The news media conditions us to think about our retirement savings need as a fixed number. At a recent graduation party someone told me they had $1.5MM saved for retirement,” and then came the big question: “Do you think that’s enough?” As a financial planner, this question has always perplexed me. With only that snippet of information, how in the world am I to know how much this person needs in retirement? The key is to know your “number” in the context of your goal-centric plan — not in terms of your demographic, neighbor or brother. So, let’s look at some factors that will affect your “number.”
1) Your cost of living. This is first for a reason. If you don’t have this figured out, take the time to work on it. There are numerous online tools to help you with it. The tool I often recommend to clients is Mint.com. The point here is simple: If you are going to spend $200,000/year in retirement, your nest egg needs to be much bigger than if you are going to spend $100,000/year.
2) Social Security. Just having this income stream will a lesser burden on your nest egg. The question is: How much less? The maximum figure you can expect to receive in today’s dollars is around $30,000 per year. Get a personalized estimate here. You can begin taking this benefit as early as age 62, or as late as 70, depending on your unique set of circumstances.
3) Other private and public pensions. Just like Social Security, these income sources will reduce the withdrawal burden or allow you to achieve a successful retirement period on a smaller nest egg. Pensions typically afford more flexibility than Social Security. One example is the single or joint life benefit option (read more on this from my colleague, Jeremy Burger, here). Another option is to take a lump sum. Your decisions on these options will have important implications for your retirement plan.
4) Distribution rate and portfolio allocation. 4% of your portfolio is generally considered to be a sustainable withdrawal rate. But what is your portfolio made of? A 60% equity, 40% bond allocation? How about 100% equity? Beyond that, how should you allocate the respective equity and bond components? These are important questions that you need to answer. Your advisor can help. One thing is for sure: With increasing longevity, you are going to need some long-term growth in the portfolio. And, since you will be distributing, you must shield your portfolio from the short-term volatility of the equity markets. The key is to find the perfect balance.
Having worked with hundreds of clients over the past several years, I can tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Few people have the tools or know-how to coordinate all of this effectively, and one simple fact stated in the middle of a party is clearly not enough information to solve it all. If you’re not sure what your “number” is, be sure to ask an advisor for help.