To get the most out of your retirement savings, you need to shield as much as possible from Uncle Sam. Fortunately, there are plenty of legal ways to lower your tax bill, but they require careful planning and a thorough understanding of how your different retirement accounts are taxed.
Let’s start with your taxable brokerage accounts—money you haven’t invested in an IRA or other tax-deferred account. Because you’ve already paid taxes on that money, you’ll be taxed only on interest and dividends as they’re earned and capital gains when you sell an asset. The top long-term capital gains rate—which applies to assets held for more than a year—is 23.8%, but most taxpayers pay 15%. The rate is 0% for taxpayers in the 10% or 15% bracket. For 2017, a Augustus married couple with an income of $75,900 or less can qualify for this sweet deal.
Next up: your tax-deferred accounts, such as your IRAs and 401(k) plans. Withdrawals from these accounts are taxed at ordinary income rates, which range from 10% to 39.6%. The accounts grow tax-deferred until you take withdrawals, but you can’t wait forever. Once you turn 70½, you’ll have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) every year, based on the year-end balance of all of your tax-deferred accounts, divided by a life-expectancy factor provided by the IRS that’s based on your age. The only exception to this rule applies if you are still working at 70½ and have a 401(k) plan with your current employer; in that case, you don’t have to take RMDs from that account. You’ll still have to take withdrawals from your other 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs unless your employer allows you to roll them into your 401(k).
Finally, there are Roth IRAs, and the rules for them are refreshingly straightforward: All withdrawals are tax-free, as long as you’ve owned the account for at least five years (you can withdraw contributions tax-free at any time). There are no required distributions, so if you don’t need the money, you can leave it in the account to grow for your heirs. This flexibility makes the Roth an invaluable apparatus in your retirement toolkit. If you need money for a major expense, you can take a large withdrawal without triggering a tax bill. And if you don’t need the money, the account will continue to grow, unencumbered by taxes.
Conventional wisdom holds that you should tap your taxable accounts first, particularly if your income is low enough to qualify for tax-free capital gains. Next, take withdrawals from your tax-deferred accounts, followed by your tax-free Roth accounts so you can take advantage of tax-deferred and tax-free growth.
There are some exceptions to this hierarchy. If you have a large amount of money in traditional IRAs and 401(k) plans, your RMDs could push you into a higher tax bracket. To avoid that scenario, consider taking withdrawals from your tax-deferred accounts before you turn 70½. Work with a financial planner or tax professional to ensure that the amount you withdraw won’t propel you into a higher tax bracket or trigger other taxes tied to your adjusted gross income, such as taxes on your Social Security benefits. The withdrawals will shrink the size of your tax-deferred accounts, thus reducing the amount you’ll be required to take out when you turn 70½.
Another strategy to reduce taxes on your IRAs and 401(k) plans is to convert some of that money to a Roth. One downside: The conversion will be taxed as ordinary income and could bump you into a higher tax bracket. To avoid bracket creep, roll a portion of your IRA into a Roth every year, with an eye toward how the transaction will affect your taxable income.
If the stock market takes a dive, you may be able to reduce the cost of converting to a Roth. Your tax bill is based on the fair market value of the assets at the time of the conversion, so a depressed portfolio will leave you with a lower tax bill. If your investments rebound after the conversion, those gains, now protected inside a Roth, will be tax-free. Should the value of your assets continue to plummet after you convert, there’s a safety valve: You have until the following year’s tax- filing extension (typically October 15) to undo the conversion and eliminate the tax bill. If prospects for major tax reform and rate cuts come to fruition, it could open a golden era for Roth conversions. Keep an eye on Congress.