Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row Rotating Header Image

Tax Benefits for Job Hunting

5 santasThe IRS recently published their Summertime Tax Tip 2016-24, entitled “Looking for Work May Impact Your Taxes”, with some good tips that you should know as you go about job hunting.  The text of the actual publication from the IRS follows, and at the end of the article I have added a few additional job-related tax breaks that could be useful to you.

Looking for Work May Impact Your Taxes

If you are job hunting in the same line of work, you may be able to deduct some of your job search costs. Here are some key tax facts you should know about when searching for a new job:

  • Same Occupation.  Your expenses must be for a job search in your current line of work. You can’t deduct expenses for a job search in a new occupation.
  • Résumé Costs.  You can deduct the cost of preparing and mailing your résumé.
  • Travel Expenses.  If you travel to look for a new job, you may be able to deduct the cost of the trip. To deduct the cost of the travel to and from the area, the trip must be mainly to look for a new job. You may still be able to deduct some costs if looking for a job is not the main purpose of the trip.
  • Placement Agency. You can deduct some job placement agency fees you pay to look for a job.
  • First Job.  You can’t deduct job search expenses if you’re looking for a job for the first time.
  • Time Between Jobs.  You can’t deduct job search expenses if there was a long break between the end of your last job and the time you began looking for a new one.
  • Reimbursed Costs.  Reimbursed expenses are not deductible.
  • Schedule A.  You normally deduct your job search expenses on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions. Claim them as a miscellaneous deduction. You can deduct the total miscellaneous deductions that are more than two percent of your adjusted gross income.
  • Premium Tax Credit.  If you receive advance payments of the premium tax credit, it is important that you report changes in circumstances –  such as changes in your income, a change in eligibility for other coverage, or a change of address  –  to your Health Insurance Marketplace.  Advance payments are paid directly to your insurance company and lower the out-of-pocket cost for your health insurance premiums.  Reporting changes will help you get the proper type and amount of financial assistance so you can avoid getting too much or too little in advance.

For more on job hunting refer to Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions. You can get IRS tax forms and publications on IRS.gov/forms at any time.

In addition to all that…

It’s important to know that you have some other job-related tax breaks which you can take advantage of…

Moving Expenses – if you move to a new home for your employment, either a new job or just being transferred in your current job, you might be able to deduct your moving expenses if:

  • the move is closely related to your start of work in the new location
  • your new work location is more than 50 miles farther away from your old home than the distance from your old home to the old work location.  In other words, if your old workplace was 7 miles away from your old home, your new workplace must be at least 57 miles away from your old home.
  • you must continue to work in the new location for at least 39 weeks during the 12 months after the move.  If you’re self-employed you must also work in the new job for 78 weeks during the 24 months following the move. (There are exceptions for disability, layoff, transfers, and other situations.)

You may include the cost of transportation and storage of your household goods for up to 30 days, as well as travel and lodging from the old home to the new home (only one trip per person).

Unreimbursed Employee Business Expenses – certain expenses related to your job that are not reimbursed by your employer can be deducted.  Some examples are:

  • Dues to professional associations and chambers of commerce if work related and entertainment is not one of the main purposes of the organization.  Any part of the dues that is related to lobbying or political activities is not deductible.
  • Educational expenses related to your work.  These expenses must be required to maintain your current job, serving a business purpose of your employer, and not part of a program that will qualify the taxpayer for a new trade or business.
  • Licenses and regulatory fees.
  • Malpractice insurance premiums.
  • Office-in-home expenses (subject to quite a few qualifications)
  • Phone charges for business use (but not the cost of basic service for the first phone in a home)
  • Physical exams required by the employer
  • Protective clothing and safety equipment required for work, as well as tools and supplies required for your job
  • Uniforms required by your employer that are not suitable for ordinary wear
  • Union dues and expenses

This is not an exhaustive list – you can find more information by going to the IRS website at www.IRS.gov.

Photo by Richard Croft

The Third Most Important Factor to Investing Success

out_at_thirdPreviously I wrote about the Most Important Factor and the Second Most Important Factor to Investing Success. Continuing this streak I’ll give you the third most important factor to investing success: Leave it alone.

To recap: The most important factor is to continuously save and add to your nest egg over your career; the second factor is allocation – make sure you’re investing in a diversified allocation that will grow over time.

The third most important factor to investing success: Once you’ve started investing, leave it alone. Resist the temptation to sell off the component of your allocation plan that’s lagging; the reason you have a diversified allocation is so that some pieces will lag while others flourish, and vice-versa.

Reallocate your funds from time to time (once a year at most) to match your allocation plan, but that’s all the fussing you should do with your investments. Leave it alone.

No Loans

In addition to resisting temptation to fiddle with the investments, don’t take out a loan from your account. Even though this may seem like a good alternative to other loan sources, your best option is to disregard the 401k loan as an alternative altogether. Taking a loan puts you behind the eight ball – having to pay back the loan will likely take over your ability to save consistently (Factor #1) and will have a portion of your funds allocated to a loan instead of your growth allocation (Factor #2).

401(k) & Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDRO)

An exception to the 10% penalty on distributions from a qualified plan (but not an IRA, an IRA is split via a transfer incident to a divorce, which is not an automatic exception) Qualified Domestic Relations Order, or QDRO (cue-DRO).  A QDRO is often put into place as part of a divorce settlement, especially when one spouse has a qualified retirement plan that is a significant asset.

qdroWhat happens in the case of a QDRO is that the court determines what amount (usually a percentage, although it could be a specific dollar amount) of the qualified retirement plan’s balance is to be presented to the non-owning spouse.  Once that amount is determined and finalized by the court, a QDRO is drafted and provided to the non-owning spouse. This document allows the non-owning spouse to direct the retirement plan custodian to distribute the funds in the amount specified.

In the case of a QDRO, the owning spouse will not be taxed or penalized on the distribution.  In addition, if the non-owning spouse chooses to roll the distribution into an IRA, there would be no tax or penalty on that distribution to her either.  If the non-owning spouse chooses to use the funds in any fashion other than rolling over into another qualified plan or IRA, there will be tax on the distribution, but no penalty.

Many times it may make sense for the non-owning spouse to leave the account with the qualified plan (rather than rolling into an IRA) if there may be a need for the funds at some point in the future.  This will be dependent upon just how “divorce friendly” the qualified plan custodian will be. Sometimes plan administrators do not look favorably on long-held accounts by non-participants. This may require a rollover of the account, eliminating your QDRO special treatment.

Of course other 72(t) exceptions could apply, but if there was a need that did not fit the exceptions and the distributee did not wish to establish a series of substantially equal payments for five years, the QDRO would still apply to the distribution from the qualified plan (as long as the funds are still in the plan that the QDRO was written to apply to).

As an example, let’s say Lester and Edwina (both age 40) are divorcing, and as a part of the divorce settlement, Edwina’s 401(k) plan is to be shared with Lester, 50/50, with a QDRO enforcing the split.  After a couple of years Lester decides he would like to use some of the funds awarded to him from the divorce to purchase a new fishing boat.  As long as the funds are still held in the 401(k) plan, Lester can request withdrawal and receive the funds without penalty, due to the existence of the QDRO.  However, had Lester rolled over the funds into an IRA (or other qualified plan), the QDRO would no longer be in effect, and he would be unable to access the funds without paying the penalty for early withdrawal.  (It is important to note that, in either case, Lester would be required to pay ordinary income tax on the distribution.)

Social Security Benefits After First Spouse Dies

spouse diesWhen your spouse dies there are a few things that happen to your Social Security benefits that you need to be aware of. These things will affect your benefits significantly if your own benefit is less than that of your late spouse’s benefit (or Primary Insurance Amount). These changes to available benefits could also result in increased benefits if your own benefit is the larger of the two.

These same impacts are apparent for ex-spouses as well. While reading the below, just replace “your spouse” with “ex-spouse” and all provisions are the same.

Spousal Benefits cease

When your spouse dies, the spousal benefits that you may have been receiving will cease. This means that your own benefit is the only retirement benefit that you will receive at this point.

For example, Jane and John, both age 64, have been receiving Social Security benefits for a couple of years. Jane’s PIA (Primary Insurance Amount) is $600 and John’s PIA is $2,000. Since both of them started benefits at age 62, both are receiving reduced benefits.

John is receiving $1,500 (75% of his PIA) and Jane is receiving a combination of her own reduced PIA ($450) and a reduced “excess” spousal benefit in the amount of $280. (For more details on the calculation of reduced spousal benefits, see the following article: Calculating the Reduced Social Security Spousal Benefit.)

When John dies at age 64, Jane’s Social Security benefit is reduced to only her own benefit – $450 per month. The spousal benefit ceases to be paid at all upon John’s death.

But all is not lost – if you were eligible for a spousal benefit, you are also eligible for a survivor’s benefit when your spouse dies.

Survivor Benefits (can) begin

After your spouse dies and the spousal benefits cease, you are eligible for a survivor benefit based on your late spouse’s record.

Using our example from above, where Jane’s total benefit had reduced to $450 upon John’s death – Jane is now eligible for a survivor benefit based on John’s record.

There is a complication to the calculation since John started his own benefit prior to his full retirement age: the minimum “basis” for calculation of the survivor benefit is 82.5% of John’s PIA. John’s benefit upon his death was 75% of his PIA, so the “basis” for the survivor benefit will be increased to 82.5% or $1,650, instead of $1,500.

In this case, Jane has a couple of options:

1) She can begin receiving the survivor benefit immediately upon John’s death. This survivor benefit will be reduced since Jane is under Full Retirement Age (FRA). Since Jane is 64, the reduction is 11.4% from the basis of $1,650 – to a total of $1,461.90.

2) Jane could delay receiving the survivor benefit to her age 66, when there would be no reduction. She would receive her own reduced benefit of $450 per month for the coming two years, and then at age 66 she’d start receiving the unreduced survivor benefit in the amount of $1,650.

There is no point in delaying the survivor benefit past Jane’s FRA – the survivor benefit will not increase beyond that unreduced basis that we described earlier.

There is no impact to the survivor benefit due to Jane’s early filing for her own benefit. So if she had not filed for her own benefit prior when her spouse dies, Jane could start her own benefits immediately upon John’s death. This would allow her a benefit in the amount of $520, having filed for the benefit at age 64 (no spousal benefit “excess” is available since John is deceased). Later upon reaching FRA she would be eligible for the survivor benefit at the unreduced amount, $1,650.

On the other hand, there is also no impact to your own benefit if you start the survivor benefit early. If the example changed and Jane dies before John, if John has not filed for his own benefit by Jane’s death, he could receive the survivor benefit based on Jane’s record until he files for his own benefit. Granted, at his age 64 this would work out to a maximum of $531.60, but it’s better than nothing at all. Later, John could file for his own benefit, either at FRA or later, to receive an increased benefit.

Survivor benefit basis updates

As we reviewed above, in the original case where John starts his benefit prior to his Full Retirement Age, the basis against which Jane’s survivor benefit is calculated can increase to the minimum of 82.5% of John’s PIA.

On the other hand, imagine if John had not started his benefits by the time of his death.  The basis against which Jane’s survivor benefit is calculated will increase to John’s full, unreduced PIA. In this case Jane, being 64 at John’s death, is eligible for John’s PIA reduced by 11.4%, or a total of $1,772. If Jane waits until her FRA she is eligible for a survivor benefit of $2,000.

On the third hand, consider if John was older than Jane. John is older than his Full Retirement Age (FRA) at his death and still has not filed for his own benefit. The resulting survivor benefit for Jane is updated differently. In this case, the delay credits (8% per year) are applied to John’s PIA to determine the basis for the survivor benefit. So if (for example) John was 67 at his death, the basis for the survivor benefit would be $2,160, and at age 64 Jane could receive $1,913. Waiting until her FRA would garner her $2,160 in survivor benefits.

WEP impact eliminated

The fourth thing that occurs when a spouse dies is that Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) impact to the decedent spouse’s benefits is eliminated.

Considering John’s benefits, if he was subject to full WEP because of a government pension, his benefits are reduced to $1,179 (versus $1,500 without WEP). Upon John’s death, his WEP impact is eliminated, restoring his PIA to the full $2,000. Since John started benefits early, the basis for the survivor benefit reduces as above.

So regardless of the previous WEP impact to John’s benefits, Jane would still be eligible for a survivor benefit with a basis of $1,650.

Key Takeaways

Since the spousal benefit ceases when the first spouse dies, it’s important to know that total benefits will likely reduce for the surviving spouse until survivor benefits begin. This can cause significant hardship as demonstrated in the example above. Jane’s household income from Social Security reduced from $2,230 (John’s $1,500 and Jane’s total of $730) to only $450 upon John’s death. The survivor benefit will replace some of this but not all, of course.

In addition, determining when to start survivor benefits can be critical as well. Jane could start survivor benefits at this point in the amount of $1,463, or she could wait until age 66 to receive $1,650. If she waits she will receive her $450 benefit in the interim.

Timing of the higher benefit is important as well. Using our examples from above, John’s filing date has a significant impact on Jane’s potential survivor benefit. The potential increase could make a huge difference for Jane. This is why so many experts recommend delaying the filing for the larger of a couple’s two benefits as long as possible – it will impact the other spouse’s survivor benefit if she lives longer.

The last key takeaway is that you need to keep the WEP elimination in mind when planning for survivor benefits. This can make a significant difference for the surviving spouse – up to $428 a month from our example.

Missed Rollover Automatic Waivers

missed rolloverWhen you rollover funds from one retirement plan to another, a missed rollover occurs if you can’t complete the rollover within 60 days. A missed rollover results in a taxable distribution. However, there have always been certain specific situations that provide for exceptions to this rule, but any reasons outside that limited list required the taxpayer to request a Private Letter Ruling (PLR) from the IRS. The PLR request process could result in some significant costs for lawyers and fees.

Rev Proc 2016-47: Missed Rollover Waivers

Recently the IRS published a new procedure for handling an expanded list of exceptions for a missed rollover. This procedure, Rev. Proc. 2016-47, outlines eleven possible exceptions to the missed rollover rule. The eleven exceptions are:

  1. an error was committed by the financial institution receiving the contribution or making the distribution to which the contribution relates;
  2. the distribution, having been made in the form of a check, was misplaced and never cashed;
  3. the distribution was deposited into and remained in an account that the taxpayer mistakenly thought was an eligible retirement plan;
  4. the taxpayer’s principal residence was severely damaged;
  5. a member of the taxpayer’s family died;
  6. the taxpayer or a member of the taxpayer’s family was seriously ill;
  7. the taxpayer was incarcerated;
  8. restrictions were imposed by a foreign country;
  9. a postal error occurred;
  10. the distribution was made on account of a levy under § 6331 and the proceeds of the levy have been returned to the taxpayer; or
  11. the party making the distribution to which the rollover relates delayed providing information that the receiving plan or IRA required to complete the rollover despite the taxpayer’s reasonable efforts to obtain the information.

There are some more rules that apply – such as, you must not have requested an exception in the past and that exception was denied – but otherwise it’s a self-certification. The IRS has even provided a sample letter that the taxpayer will use to provide this self-certification. The sample letter is provided at the bottom of the procedure notice: Rev. Proc. 2016-47.

Investing Your 401k – a 2-step plan

two-stepsIf you’re like most folks, when you look at a 401k plan’s options you’re completely overwhelmed. Where to start? Of course, the starting point is to sign up to participate – begin sending a bit of your paycheck over to the 401k plan. A good place to start on that is at least enough to get your employer’s matching funds, however much that might be. In this article though, we’re looking at investing your 401k money. It’s not as tough as you think. In fact, it can be done in just two steps – taking no more than 30-45 minutes of your time.

Step 1 – Look at your options

When you’ve signed up for the 401k plan, review your options for investing your 401k. Look at the list of investments available – and from here you can take a shortcut if you like.

If your plan has a “target date” investment option that coincides closely with your hoped-for retirement date, start with that fund as your investment choice. This is an excellent place to start, especially when you have a relatively small amount of money in the plan. Choose this and you’re done – skip down to the “Follow up” section below.

If you’ve been participating for a while and have built up some money while investing your 401k, look at your options more closely. Among your options should be a large-cap stock fund (such as an S&P 500 index). In addition, there should be a broad-based bond fund as an option as well.

If there are multiple choices that fit those two categories, look a bit closer. Somewhere in your documentation should be information about the expense ratios of the funds. Choose the large-cap stock and bond fund with the lowest expense ratio when there is a difference.

There will likely be other investment options available to you, but for simplicity’s sake, you should just stick with these two for the time being. As you build your experience investing your 401k plan, add other investment choices to the mix.

Note: if you’re still overwhelmed, look at “Follow up” below for information about advisors to help you with the process.

Step 2 – Consider your risk tolerance

Risk tolerance is a fancy term that we financial-types use to describe how much you can stand the ups and downs of the market when investing your 401k funds. If you’re a nervous investor, watching your balance every day or week, you have a low risk tolerance; if you are a “set-it-and-forget-it” type, your risk tolerance is higher. Stocks are (generally) the more risky investment versus bonds, so if you have a lower risk tolerance your stock investment should be a bit lower. Vice versa if you have a higher risk tolerance.

Generally, when choosing between the two options we outlined above (stock and bond funds), you should select a ratio of no less than 25% of either, and the remainder of your selection should be no more than 75%.

A good starting point is 50% in each of the stock fund and the bond fund. If you’re really skittish about investing your 401k, and/or there are only a few years remaining before your retirement date, you might choose to invest a bit less in the stock fund and more in the bond fund. On the other hand, if you’re okay with the market’s up and down movements and recognize that investing your 401k is a long-term activity, investing more in stocks and less in bonds may be the better choice.

If it seems like I’m vague about this part, that’s because this part is personal and can be different for each person. Without knowing your circumstances, I can’t tell you how to invest. However, as a rule, it’s better to put more in stocks than in bonds, as this will give you a better chance of experiencing growth of your 401k plan over time. If you start out skittish and become more comfortable, you can always increase your stock investment later on.

Follow up – investing your 401k

After you’ve had some experience investing your 401k funds, you may become more comfortable with the process. Even if you’re not comfortable with it, it does pay off to review your investment options again over time. Especially if you chose the target date option above, you may want to adjust your investment process over time.

Your employer may offer access to a service to guide you through the process of investing your 401k. Take advantage of this service if you have it available.

In addition, there are plenty of books that can help you with the investment process. You’ll never regret educating yourself on investing. If it’s just not your thing, you can choose to find an advisor to help you with the follow up process. There are many advisors who can help you look over the options for investing your 401k. Many do this for an hourly fee. Even if it costs you $500 to $1000 to get this advice, it’s money very well spent. The advisor will help you understand what’s going on with your 401k.

Two good options to find advisors are the Garrett Planning Network and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). Click on the link to go to each website for more information.

If your hobby makes money, read this

hobbyLots of us have a hobby – whether it’s collecting stamps, raising honeybees, restoring old Jeeps, or mounting a wild-cat – and sometimes these hobbies can produce income. If you have a hobby that makes money, you may need to claim this money as income, net of your expenses, on your tax return.

Recently the IRS published their Summertime Tax Tip with Five Tax Tips about Hobbies that Earn Income, providing useful information about income-producing hobbies. The text of the Tip is below:

Five Tax Tips about Hobbies that Earn Income

Millions of people enjoy hobbies. Hobbies can also be a source of income. Some of these types of hobbies include stamp or coin collecting, craft making and horse breeding. You must report any income you get from a hobby on your tax return. How you report the income from hobbies is different from how you report income from a business. There are special rules and limits for deductions you can claim for a hobby. Here are five basic tax tips you should know if you get income from your hobby:

  1. Business versus Hobby. There are nine factors (below) to consider to determine if you are conducting business or participating in a hobby. Make sure to base your decision on all the facts and circumstances of your situation. Refer to Publication 535, Business Expenses, to learn more. You can also visit IRS.gov and type “not-for-profit” in the search box.  You generally must consider these nine factors to establish that an activity is a business engaged in making a profit:
    • Whether you carry on the activity in a businesslike manner.
    • Whether the time and effort you put into the activity indicate you intend to make it profitable.
    • Whether you depend on income from the activity for your livelihood.
    • Whether your losses are due to circumstances beyond your control (or are normal in the startup phase of your type of business).
    • Whether you change your methods of operation in an attempt to improve profitability.
    • Whether you or your advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business.
    • Whether you were successful in making a profit in similar activities in the past.
    • Whether the activity makes a profit in some years and how much profit it makes.
    • Whether you can expect to make a future profit from the appreciation of the assets used in the activity.
  2. Allowable Hobby Deductions. You may be able to deduct ordinary and necessary hobby expenses. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted for the activity. A necessary expense is one that is helpful or appropriate. See Publication 535 for more on these rules.
  3. Limits on Expenses. As a general rule, you can only deduct your hobby expenses up to the amount of your hobby income. If your expenses are more than your income, you have a loss from the activity. You can’t deduct that loss from your other income.
  4. How to Deduct Expenses. You must itemize deductions on your tax return in order to deduct hobby expenses. Your costs may fall into three types of expenses. Special rules apply to each type. See Publication 535 for how you should report them on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.
  5. Use IRS Free File. Hobby rules can be complex. IRS Free File can make filing your tax return easier. IRS Free File is available until Oct. 17. If you make $62,000 or less, you can use brand-name tax software. If you earn more, you can use Free File Fillable Forms, an electronic version of IRS paper forms. You can only access Free File through IRS.gov.

IRS Tax Tips provide valuable information throughout the year. IRS.gov offers tax help and info on various topics including common tax scams, taxpayer rights and more.

Additional IRS Resources:

Social Security for Ex-Spouses – Swim with Jim Video

In the video cast above I am talking with Jim Ludwick, of Mainstreet Financial Planning, Inc. about benefits from Social Security for ex-spouses. Let me know if you have any questions!

If for some reason the video is not showing up in the article – you can find it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COy0NtaGRsU

Book Review: Making Social Security Work For You

This book, by my friend and colleague Emily Guy Birken, is a great book for gaining a better understanding of Social Security benefits. I recommend Making Social Security Work for You to anyone looking for answers about Social Security benefits. Birken is also the author of The Five Years Before You Retire, another excellent retirement planning tome.
making_social_security_work_for_you
Birken’s style of writing is easy-to-follow. She has a subtle sense of humor that comes out in her writing. This makes the material enjoyable to read, even for a dry subject like Social Security.

Making Social Security Work for You

I especially like the way author Birken presents the material. Having written a book on the subject, I know full well the challenge she faced when putting this information together. It is difficult to make such a technical subject understandable and engaging. Birken presents the material in a cohesive manner, with a review (Takeaways) at the end of each chapter.

Birken also does an excellent job of explaining the various benefits, timing strategies, and options available to an individual in all sorts of circumstances. There are explanations for the single filer, married couples, and divorced individuals. The information presented includes all of the changes to the rules that came into effect with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Grandfathered rules are covered as well.

Birken presents excellent examples throughout the text, which help the reader to understand the principles. These are real-world situations that are easily adapted to your own situation as you see fit.

The book rounds out with a list of the Pitfalls and Problems for you to be aware of as you plan your Social Security benefit filing. These are important to know about so that you don’t make mistakes in your filing process.

All in all – I highly recommend Making Social Security Work for You for your education process as you determine the best filing methods for yourself and your family. Emily Guy Birken has done an excellent job with this book, you can learn a lot from it.

A Small Step (and it’s free!)

Quick – can you tell me your net worth?

How about the balance on your credit card (okay, cards)?  Your savings account balance?

by dbking For many folks (okay, face it, most of us) the answer to those questions is only available after a multi-hour session of digging through statements, online accounts, possibly tax returns, and the like.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Getting a handle on questions like this doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, when you use free account aggregation tools.

One of the first tenets of sound financial planning involves an understanding of where we are right now.  What is our current financial picture?  What assets do we have?  What liabilities do we owe?  What is coming due soon?  What income can we expect?  Without an understanding of where we are, it’s hard to figure just how we’ll move toward our goal, be it financial independence, comfortable retirement, or a new home.

I have written in other posts about the various ways you can use the internet to help you with your financial records, and so in a way this is just an update.  The difference is that we’re focused primarily on organizing our information here.

One very good free options that I have had experience with is Mint (www.mint.com).  This type of site is commonly referred to as an “account aggregator”, meaning you will have all of your account information in one place once you’ve set things up.

Mint provides you with the ability to link all of your accounts – checking, savings, retirement, IRA, credit card, etc. – in one place.  This takes a little while to set up the first time, because you have to go through all of your accounts to set up your aggregation with the passwords, account numbers, and such. Once you’ve gone through this process, you’ve got all of that information available at your fingertips, and this is where the real power of the site comes in…

Now, you can see at a glance what all of your balances are, up-to-date as of the moment you clicked on “update”.  I’ve tested this out, and, while your mileage may vary, Mint has been current on activity that has happened within an hour or two.  I went to the ATM and withdrew some cash, and within an hour or so I went to Mint and updated, and voila!, the account was already current.

In addition to the ability to see your balances, Mint will notify you when a bill is coming due (such as for a credit card), as well as to project your income and bills for the coming month or two.  There are built-in tools that alert the user when spending in a particular category is above the norm. A rudimentary budget can be automatically built for you as well, with alerts sent to you when you spend more in a particular category than the plan, for example.

Granted, Mint is not the only aggregation tool out there, and it will probably not be the only tool you will use to organize your finances.  You could also use the likes of Quicken or other checkbook-type organizers, which include online account aggregation tools as well – but many of these products comes with a price tag, albeit pretty low cost in the scheme of things.

With free tools like Mint available, there is little reason to *not* get your information organized these days.  And for many folks, just getting things organized is the small step that becomes a giant leap for your personal financial situation.  So get going – Aggregate!

Withdrawals from an IRA – death, disability, and 59 1/2

key to ageThree of the most common ways that you can withdraw funds from your IRA without penalty are: 1) reaching age 59½; 2) death; and 3) disability. Below is a brief review of each of these conditions for penalty-free withdrawal:

  1. Reaching Age 59½ When you reach age 59½, you can withdraw any amount from your IRA without penalty, for any reason. The only thing you have to remember is that you must pay ordinary income tax on the amount that you withdraw. This means that, once you have reached the date that is 6 months past your 59th birthday, you are free to make withdrawals from your IRA without penalty. You are not required to take distributions at this age (that happens at age 70½).
  2. Death Upon your death at any age, the beneficiaries of your account or your estate if you have not named a beneficiary, can take distributions from your IRA in any amount for any reason without penalty. In fact, your IRA beneficiaries in most cases must begin withdrawing from the IRA, taking required minimum distributions annually, or taking the entire account balance out within 5 years after the death of the original owner. See the article RMD from an Inherited IRA for more details.These distributions are taxable as ordinary income to the beneficiary, but no penalty is applied.
  3. Disability If you are deemed “totally and permanently disabled” you are also eligible to withdraw IRA assets for any purpose without penalty. Total and permanent disability means that you have been examined by a physician and the disability is such that you cannot work, and the condition is expected to last for at least one year or result in your death.

RMD from an Inherited IRA

inheritanceIf you have inherited an IRA you are required to begin taking distributions from the account according to a set schedule. If you are the sole beneficiary of the IRA, how you handle your distributions is up to you. If there are two or more beneficiaries of the IRA, the process becomes more complicated – see the article at the link for more on multiple beneficiary arrangements.

There are actually two different schedules that you can use, lifetime distributions and a distribution over 5 years.

5-year distribution

The 5-year distribution method is the default period for distribution of an inherited IRA. As the name of the method suggests, in this method the inherited IRA must be completely withdrawn within 5 years of the death of the original owner. There is no specific amount that must be withdrawn in any particular year, as long as the entire account is withdrawn within 5 years.

I mentioned that the 5-year method is the default – this is because if no distributions are taken within the first year following the death of the original owner, it is assumed that the 5-year method is being used. However, if you are using the lifetime distribution method, you would take a specific distribution (or more) during the first year following the year of the death of the original owner.

Lifetime distribution

If using the lifetime distribution method, you are intending to extend the time period of distribution for some length of time in excess of the default 5-year distribution. To accomplish this, there is a specific amount which must be withdrawn each year – and as long as at least that amount is withdrawn annually, the required minimum distribution has been satisfied.

The amount of the withdrawal required each year is determined by the age of the beneficiary upon the death of the original owner. The IRS has a table, known as Table I, that indicates a life expectancy figure for the beneficiary.

So if the beneficiary is, for example, 28 upon inheriting an IRA her life expectancy figure is 55.3. If the inherited IRA is worth $240,000, dividing the value of the IRA by 55.3 results in $4,339.96 – this is the first year’s required distribution. As long as at least that amount is withdrawn during the first year following the year of the death of the original IRA owner, the RMD has been satisfied.

The following year, the original life expectancy figure is decreased by 1 to 54.3. So now, if the IRA is worth $236,000 as of the end of the prior year, dividing that amount by 54.3 results in a RMD of $4,346.22.

The inheritant can take a larger distribution at any time – the only requirement is that at least the prescribed amount is withdrawn every year.

Age 70½ RMD Rules

give-us-this-day-by-mr-krisAs an owner of an IRA or other qualified retirement plan (such as a 401k), when you reach age 70½ you are required to begin taking distributions from the account(s).  There are several important factors about these distributions that could trip you up if you’re not careful.  Listed below are some of the more important rules – but keep in mind that these RMD rules are only for the original owner of the account, not for a beneficiary of an inherited account. There is a different set of rules for inherited IRA RMDs.

Required Minimum Distribution Rules

Calculation of RMD

  1. Determine your account balance from the end of the calendar year prior to the year for which the distribution is being calculated.  Any additions or withdrawals after December 31 of the previous year are not included in this balance, even if an addition is for the previous calendar year.  Also, any “in flight” rollovers or recharacterizations that effectively would impact the end of year balance are included (or excluded) in the balance as applicable.
  2. You must learn your distribution period, which can be found in Table III, using your age at the end of the current year (not the previous year).
  3. Divide the balance determined in #1 by the distribution period found in #2.  This is your RMD for the current year.
  4. For each subsequent year, go back through #1 for a new balance at the end of the prior year, then go to the table from #2 to get a new distribution period, and do the math.

More Than Minimum – for any year in which you withdraw more than the RMD amount you are NOT allowed a credit against future year RMD.  The result is that your balance at the end of the current year would be less, so future RMD would be less as well, but not by the amount of your extra withdrawal.

No Rollovers or Conversions of RMD Amounts – Although you’re allowed to rollover or convert IRA funds after age 70½, you can not rollover or convert the amount attributable to your RMD for the year. This amount (the RMD) must be taken completely out of tax-deferred accounts.

Multiple Accounts – For the purposes of calculating RMD, the IRS considers all traditional IRAs owned by one individual as one aggregate IRA.  This means that you can determine your RMD by adding together the balances of all your trad IRA accounts at the end of the prior year, and then taking your RMD from any one account (or as many accounts as you wish) as long as it totals at least the RMD for that year.  Other qualified retirement plans such as a 401(k) must be treated separately – that is, RMD must be calculated only on that account and distribution received from only that account.

Multiple Payments – For the tax year, you are allowed to take from as little as one to as many payments as you wish from your IRAs, as long as they add up to at least the RMD for the year.

Photo by Mr. Kris

Early Withdrawal of an IRA – 72t Exceptions

If you have done much studying about IRAs and 401k plans, you probably know that there 72ts1are several exceptions in the Internal Revenue Code that allow an early withdrawal from your IRA or 401k plan without the 10% penalty being imposed. The section of the IRC that deals with quite a few of these exceptions is called Section 72t (referred to as 72t for short), and there are several subsections in this piece of the Code. Each subsection, listed below, has specific circumstances that must be met in order to provide exception to the 10% penalty. Clicking on the link for each subsection will provide you with additional details about that exception.

§72(t)(2)(A)(i) – age 59½ – this is the standard age allowing for penalty-free withdrawals from your IRA or 401k. In some cases there is an exception allowing for penalty-free withdrawals from a 401k at or after age 55; and after age 50 in even more limited cases. See §72(t)(2)(A)(v) below for more details.

§72(t)(2)(A)(ii) – death at any age – upon your death, your heirs as beneficiaries of the IRA or 401k can take penalty-free withdrawals. In fact, in most cases the beneficiaries are required to begin taking withdrawals from the account.

§72(t)(2)(A)(iii) – disability at any age – if you are disabled (per IRS definition) you may take withdrawals from your IRA or 401k without penalty. Disability (per IRS) means that you have been examined by a physician and the disability is such that you cannot work, and the condition is expected to last for at least one year or result in your death.

§72(t)(2)(A)(iv) – series of substantially equal periodic payments (SOSEPP) – this is the classic “72t” exception, allowing for withdrawals from your IRA or 401k in equal payments to last at least five years or until you reach age 59½, whichever is later.

§72(t)(2)(A)(v) – separation from service on or after age 55 (401k only) – this is the section alluded to above, where if you leave the employer during or after the year you will reach age 55, you can take withdrawals from your 401k without penalty. If you are in a public safety job (police, firemen, etc.), then this early withdrawal age is 50.

§72(t)(2)(B) – medical expenses – withdrawals from an IRA or 401k may be penalty-free if used to pay for certain qualified medical expenses.

§72(t)(2)(C) – qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) – upon a divorce settlement, if the 401k has been divided using a QDRO, the withdrawals by the spouse who is receiving the 401k (not the original owner) may be penalty-free. This only applies to 401k plans – IRAs cannot be split with a QDRO.

§72(t)(2)(D) – health insurance premiums – in certain circumstances, health insurance premiums may be paid for with penalty-free IRA withdrawals. This only applies to IRAs, not 401k plans.

§72(t)(2)(E) – higher education expenses – qualified higher education expenses may be paid for with penalty-free withdrawals from an IRA. This does not apply to 401k plans.

§72(t)(2)(F) – first time home purchase – if you have never used this exception, you may be eligible to withdraw up to $10,000 ($20,000 if your spouse qualifies) from your IRA for the purpose of purchasing a first home. This is also only allowed with an IRA; 401k plans do not allow this exception.

5 Options for Your Old 401k

old 401kWhen you move from one job to another, often there is an old 401k plan at the former employer. You have several choices for what you can do with the old 401k plan, and some options are better than others. Some of the options are dependent upon the balance in your old 401k account, as well.

Cash it out. This is typically the worst option. You took advantage of tax-deferral (and company matching) when you contributed the funds to the account. If you simply cash out the old 401k, you’ll have to pay tax on the funds, and if you were under age 55 when you left the employer you will also likely be hit with a 10% penalty for the early withdrawal.

In addition to the tax and penalty, when you take a withdrawal from your 401k plan there is an automatic 20% withholding requirement. You will have credit for this withholding on your tax return, but that could cause a delay of many months before you receive the money.

If your old 401k balance is less than $1,000, your employer has the option to cash out your account without your consent. But all is not lost, you can still complete a rollover into an IRA or a 401k at a new employer – but it must be completed within 60 days (see Indirect Rollover below).

Indirect Rollover. An indirect rollover occurs when you request a distribution of the funds from the old 401k to be given to you in the form of a check made out to you. This is (at the start) the same as cashing out your old 401k – but then you re-deposit the check into an IRA or a new employer’s 401k. If you deposit the entire amount of your old 401k into a new tax-deferred account, there will be no tax ramifications.

This is where the previously-mentioned 20% withholding can cause problems. As mentioned before, when you take a cash-out withdrawal from your 401k there is a mandatory 20% withholding. When you go to re-deposit the funds, in order to avoid taxation you’ll need to come up with the withheld 20% to make the rollover complete.

For example, Laura left her former employer, where she had a 401k plan. This old 401k had a balance of $25,000. Laura wanted to do an indirect rollover – so she asked for a check from the 401k administrator. When she receives her check, the amount is only $20,000. This is because 20% was withheld, as required.

So when Laura completes the indirect rollover, unless she comes up with the missing $5,000 from her savings or some other source, the result will be that she has only rolled over $20,000 – and when she pays taxes for the year, she’ll have an extra $5,000 of income to report. Since Laura was under age 55 when she left the employer, she’ll also have a 10% penalty to pay. Granted, she has the credited $5,000 of withheld tax, but the end result is that her retirement fund is $5,000 less and she had to pay tax and a penalty on the unintended withdrawal.

For this reason alone it’s almost always better to do a Direct Rollover.

Direct Rollover. This is where you direct the old 401k administrator to transfer the funds to either an IRA or a 401k at a new employer. In doing so, the funds have never left the “protection” of a tax-deferred account, so there is no taxation or penalty involved.

In the case of either a direct or indirect rollover into a new employer’s 401k plan, you’ll need to make sure that the new 401k plan allows for this sort of “roll-in” contribution. Most plans do allow this, but some still don’t.

Once you have completed the rollover (either kind) you can then invest the funds in the new account as you wish, and treat the entire account as if it was contributed from your deductible contributions.

Leave it alone. In some cases it can be advantageous to leave the money in the old 401k plan. Typically this is only allowed when your balance is significant, often around $5,000 or more.

You might want to leave the funds at the old employer for a few reasons: first, if you left the employer at or after the age of 55 (but less than 59½), leaving the money with the old 401k provides you the option to utilize the age 55 exception to the 10% penalty. If you transferred the money away from the old 401k you would lose this treatment.

Second, your old 401k may have valuable investment options available that may not otherwise be available to you, such as investments closed to new investors.

Third, if you have highly-appreciated company stock in the old 401k plan, if you don’t stage a rollover properly you might lose valuable tax treatment on the net unrealized appreciation on the stock.

Roth conversion. In addition to the traditional rollovers described above, you can also convert the money to a Roth IRA. Naturally this will cause income tax on the conversion, but depending upon the tax situation this can be a good option to pursue.

You would just transfer the money over to the Roth IRA account and pay tax on the distribution on your tax return for the year. Then you’ll have money in the Roth account that is protected from taxation on qualified withdrawals forever.

Net Unrealized Appreciation

beauty unrealized by brew ha haThis widely misunderstood section of the IRS code can be quite a benefit – if it happens to fit your situation. Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) refers to the increase in value of your company’s stock held within your 401(k), either due to a company match or your own investment in the company stock within the 401(k). Other company-sponsored deferred accounts can apply here as well, but the primary type of account is the 401(k), so we’ll refer to all company-sponsored tax-deferred accounts as 401(k)’s for the purpose of this discussion.

In order to take advantage of the Net Unrealized Appreciation provision, first of all you must hold your company’s stock in your 401(k), and you must be in a position to roll over the account. That is, either you must have separated from service by leaving employment (voluntarily or involuntarily), or the 401(k) plan is being terminated.

As you consider the rollover of your funds, if the company stock has increased in value, you have net unrealized appreciation. That is, there is a net increase or appreciation in value that has not yet been realized by sale of the stock. The IRS allows for this net unrealized appreciation to be treated as a capital gain, which can result in much lower tax rates on the gain versus ordinary income tax rates.

In order to take advantage of this special NUA treatment, the 401(k) account must be completely rolled over in one tax year. There is one thing that you must do differently from other rollovers, however: The company stock will be rolled over into a taxable (non-IRA) account, while everything else will be rolled over into a traditional IRA.

When you rollover the company stock, this will be considered a distribution. As with any distribution, you will be required to pay the tax on the basis (or cost) of the stock as well as the 10% penalty if you were under age 55 when you left the employer. Your employer or plan administrator will have records on your basis of the stock.

As an example, let’s say Frank has participated in the company’s 401(k) plan for several years and he’s now ready to retire. Part of the 401(k) funds were invested over the years in Frank’s company’s stock, which has cost Frank a total of $10,000 through the years (this is the basis). Frank’s company has done well, and now the stock is worth $150,000 in the market. If Frank rolled over the company stock into an IRA, when he withdraws the money he would pay ordinary income tax on that growth of $140,000 – at whatever his current marginal income tax rate at that time. Instead of going that route, Frank decides to use the NUA provision in the tax law – much to his advantage.

So, Frank sets up an IRA and a taxable account at the custodian of his choice, and he directs the 401(k) administrator to roll over his company stock to the taxable account, and all other funds to the IRA. When Frank rolls over the company stock into the taxable account, he will be taxed at ordinary income tax rates (plus the 10% penalty if he was under age 55) on the basis of the stock – which is $10,000. Now, not only will the growth of the stock ($140,000) have a tax rate of 15% or less as capital gains, Frank also will not have to take required minimum distributions (RMD) from those funds upon reaching age 70½ . Frank can leave the company stock in that taxable account forever if he wishes, and then hand it over to his heirs. (Note: NUA stock doesn’t receive a step-up in basis like other appreciated stock.)

Here’s the math: Frank pays tax at an example rate of 25% on the $10,000 basis of the stock, or $2,500.  Frank is over age 55, so no 10% penalty applies.  Then, as he sells the stock, the total amount of capital gains tax would be 15% at today’s rates of $140,000 (just the growth!) or a total of $21,000. Compare that to the non-NUA treatment, where Frank would be taxed with ordinary income tax rates on the entire $150,000 stock value over time, for a total of $37,500! In this example, Frank has saved a total of $14,000 in taxes! Wow…

Now, NUA treatment doesn’t work for all situations. For example, if your company stock has only grown minimally in value, or has gone down in value, there is little or no benefit to utilizing the NUA option. Also, if the basis of the stock is fairly high relative to the growth, it might make sense to only apply NUA treatment to a portion of your company stock, which is also allowed. One last thing – this NUA treatment only applies to the stock of your employer. No other stock can receive this treatment.

Early Withdrawal of an IRA or 401k – Medical Expenses

medical expensesThere are several ways to get at your IRA funds before age 59½ without having to pay the 10% penalty. In this post we’ll cover the Medical Expenses which allow for a penalty-free distribution.

There are three different Medical reasons that can be used to qualify for an early withdrawal: high unreimbursed medical expenses, paying the cost of medical insurance, and disability. Disability and high unreimbursed medical expenses are also applicable reasons allowing for early withdrawal of 401k funds without penalty. We’ll cover each of these topics separately below.

High Unreimbursed Medical Expenses

If you are faced with high medical expenses for yourself, your spouse, or a qualified dependent, you may be eligible to withdraw some funds from your IRA or 401k penalty-free to pay for those expenses. The amount that you can withdraw is limited to the actual amount of the medical expenses you paid during the calendar year, minus 10% (7.5% if you or your spouse is age 65 or older during 2016) of your Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI.  Your AGI is the amount on your Form 1040, line 38, or Form 1040A line 22.

You can only count medical expenses that are otherwise deductible as medical expenses on Schedule A of Form 1040 – but, you don’t have to itemize your deductions in order to take advantage of this exception to the 10% penalty.

For this exception to apply to withdrawals from a 401k, often you are also required to have left the employer.

Medical Insurance Premiums

You may be able to take a penalty-free distribution from your IRA (but not your 401k) to help pay for medical insurance premiums for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents, as long as the amount you withdraw does not exceed the amount you actually paid for medical insurance premiums, and all of the following apply:

  • You lost your job.
  • You received unemployment compensation paid under any federal or state law for 12 consecutive weeks because you lost your job.
  • You receive the distributions during either the year you received the unemployment compensation or the following year.
  • You receive the distributions no later than 60 days after you have been reemployed.

There is no income limitation on this provision.

Disability

If you become disabled prior to age 59½, distributions in any amount from your IRA or 401k are not subject to the 10% penalty. Your disability must be considered of a long duration (greater than one year) or expected to result in death. The disability (physical or mental) must be determined by a physician.

Keep in mind, as we mentioned previously, these avenues provide a way to withdraw funds from your IRA penalty-free, but not tax-free. You will still be liable for ordinary income tax on any distributions that you take from your deductible IRA or 401k. In addition, you will need to check with your 401k administrator to find out about the rules and limitations that are specific to your particular plan.

Early Withdrawal of an IRA – First Time Homebuyer

Early stage of a developing white-capped mushroom 2When you have money in an IRA, you are allowed to begin taking withdrawals once you’ve reached age 59½. But sometimes you’d like to take your money out earlier… and you’ve probably already discovered that there is a 10% penalty for taking funds out of your IRA early, right? So – is there a way to avoid that penalty? Perhaps as a first time homebuyer.

There are several ways to withdraw IRA funds without penalty, as a matter of fact. There are several sections of the Internal Revenue Code that deal with these early distributions – including 72(t) which includes the first time homebuyer exception. We’ll explain the first time homebuyer exception in this post.

First Time Homebuyer

If you are buying, building, or re-building your first home (defined later), you are allowed to take a distribution of up to $10,000 (or $20,000 for a married couple) from your IRA to fund a portion of your costs, without paying the 10% penalty. There are a few restrictions, though – here is the official wording from the IRS:

  1. It must be used to pay qualified acquisition costs (defined later) before the close of the 120th day after the day you received it.
  2. It must be used to pay qualified acquisition costs for the main home of a first time homebuyer (defined later) who is any of the following.
    1. Yourself.
    2. Your spouse.
    3. Your or your spouse’s child.
    4. Your or your spouse’s grandchild.
    5. Your or your spouse’s parent or other ancestor.
  3. When added to all your prior qualified first-time homebuyer distributions, if any, total qualifying distributions cannot be more than $10,000.

If both you and your spouse are first time homebuyers (defined later), each of you can receive distributions up to $10,000 for a first home without having to pay the 10% additional tax.

Qualified acquisition costs. Qualified acquisition costs include the following items.

  • Costs of buying, building, or rebuilding a home.
  • Any usual or reasonable settlement, financing, or other closing costs.
First time homebuyer. Generally, you are a first time homebuyer if you had no present interest in a main home during the 2-year period ending on the date of acquisition of the home which the distribution is being used to buy, build, or rebuild. NOTE: If you are married, your spouse must also meet this no-ownership requirement. This provision might cause you to re-think the timing of a purchase of a home if you are about to get married and your soon-to-be spouse has had ownership within the past 2 years.

Date of acquisition. The date of acquisition is the date that:

  • You enter into a binding contract to buy the main home for which the distribution is being used, or
  • The building or rebuilding of the main home for which the distribution is being used begins.

The keys here are to make sure that you qualify as a first time homebuyer (by the IRS’ definition above), that you use the funds in time (before 120 days has passed since the distribution), and that you haven’t taken this option previously (or previous distributions were less than $10,000). For many folks this can be very helpful when buying a home.

Another important point to note is that although you do not have to pay the 10% penalty on the distribution, you WILL be required to pay ordinary income tax on any money taken from your IRA. This can be a surprise to some folks who weren’t expecting it. However, if you have post-tax (non-deductible) contributions in your IRA, these will be non-taxable, but pro rata in this distribution.

A Social Security Hat Trick for $24,000

hat trickDid you know that even with the new Social Security rules, it’s possible to work out a strategy to maximize your Social Security benefits? There are options still available (if you were born before 1954) that can provide you with some vestiges of the old “get some now, get more later” option.

Since the restricted application option is still open for those born on or before January 1, 1954, a married couple can still work this strategy to their advantage to maximize benefits.

Here’s how it works:

Jessica and Robert are both age 66 this year. Robert’s Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA, is $1,000 per month. This is the amount of benefits he’d receive if he files for his Social Security benefit upon reaching age 66. Jessica’s PIA is $2,600 per month.

Robert files for his benefit when he turns 66 in June. Jessica reaches age 66 on her birthday in August. At that time, since Robert has filed for his Social Security benefit, Jessica is eligible to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, receiving $500 per month, 50% of Robert’s PIA. So Robert and Jessica are receiving a total of $1,500 per month at this point, and they continue to do so for the next four years.

When Jessica reaches age 70, her Social Security benefit has maximized due to the earned delay credits. When she files, she’s eligible for $3,432 per month, a 32% increase from her PIA. At the same time, now that Jessica has filed, Robert is eligible for a spousal benefit based on Jessica’s record. This means that Robert can file for the spousal “excess” benefit – which is calculated as:

50% of Jessica’s PIA ($1,300) minus Robert’s PIA ($1,000) = $300

This $300 is then added to Robert’s current benefit, and he now can receive a monthly benefit of $1,300. So together, Robert and Jessica will now receive a total of $4,732 per month.

Regardless of which of the two dies first, the smaller benefit (Robert’s) will cease, and the larger benefit (Jessica’s) will continue. So the benefit that was maximized by delaying will be paid out for the longest period of time – to the death of the second-to-die of the couple.

While maximizing the larger benefit, Robert and Jessica were able to receive four years’ worth of benefits at $1,500 per month. Then upon maximizing Jessica’s benefit, Robert received a step-up for spousal excess benefits. This strategy results in $24,000 more benefits for the couple.

%d bloggers like this: