Good financial advisors spend a fair amount of time harping on taxes to clients - even though clients generally don't want to hear it (a 2017 Bank of America study says that Americans are seven times more likely to say discussing personal finances, especially taxes, is "taboo" than those don't feel the same way).
Yet taxes are, indeed, a critical personal financial topic, especially for those working adults nearing retirement. Why? Because the tax code grinds differently for those Americans in retirement, particularly in key money areas like Social Security, retirement plans and estate planning.
The danger for both retirees and the advisors who guide them financially, is to underestimate the impact of those changes, as indifference to tax changes in retirement could curb income in a client's post-working years.
"The tax picture totally changes in retirement with many of the big, easy deductions disappearing," notes Evan Beach, a wealth manager at Campbell Wealth Management, in Alexandria, Va. "Our firm only works with folks 55-plus, so we often see the financial transition and the surprises that come along with it."
During one's working years, at least as an employee, taxes are pretty simple, Beach says. "You collect a salary and therefore a 1099," he explains. "Your employer-based retirement plan allows for big deferrals and your mortgage means you typically itemize deductions on a Schedule A. However, once you flip on that income switch, many retirees are in for a rude awakening."
Once you add up ordinary dividends, Social Security Income, and IRA withdrawals, people are often surprised that they aren't in a lower tax bracket, Beach adds. "If you paid off your mortgage and are relatively healthy you may be punished with itemized deductions that are lower than the standard deduction," he says. "Before you turn in the keys, you should make sure your financial plan has a conservative tax haircut projected."
What should that "tax haircut" include? Savvy advisors should focus on the following retirement years tax strategies:
Social Security issues - Most folks will find that the first four or five years of retirement will come with the potential of very low taxation, particularly if they delay Social Security, notes Paul Ruedi, CEO at Ruedi Wealth Management, Inc., in Champaign, Ill. "But if a client has a taxable account to live off of the first three to five years, they might be well served to delay Social Security and convert some traditional IRA accounts to a Roth IRA. This can add years of longevity to a retiree's plan."
Investment plan distributions - Clients should know that distributions from various tax-deferred vehicles become taxable when received, presumably after retirement, states Allie Petrova, a tax attorney at Petrova Law, in Greensboro, N.C. "Good examples are Traditional IRAs and 401k accounts," Petrova says. "Unlike Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs and 401k plans allow contributions to grow on a tax-deferred basis until the funds are distributed. When the funds are distributed, they become subject to federal and state income taxes." In most cases, any additional income would be subject to federal income tax in retirement, Petrova notes. "Some retirees who do not expect large pensions or large 401k or IRA distributions may be in tax brackets lower than the ones in their working years," she adds. "Others may be in the opposite position and typically those might opt for Roth IRAs."
If you start your own small business in retirement - For retirees mulling a new business in retirement, get ready for a completely different tax payment scenario. "I'm a tax writer who's easing into retirement since my husband officially clocked out of his wage-paying job last summer," says Kay Bell, an Austin resident. "For us, the biggest change has been paying estimated taxes. Since we're now living mostly on investment income, the calculations for estimated taxes changes somewhat." In that case, a trusted accountant or financial advisor should be brought in to craft a tax payment schedule that's accurate, but doesn't blow up the household budget.
IRA's and charitable giving - For retirees who give money to charity, a great idea after turning age 70.5 is making those donations directly from an IRA, advises Ben Westerman, senior vice president at HM Capital Management, LLC, in Clayton, Mo. "These donations not only count towards the annual required minimum distribution, but also reduces taxable income which can help lower the cost of Medicare premiums," he says.
Have an "efficient" income withdrawal formula - With retirement plan account distributions, "when" is as important as "how much," says Cameron McCarty, owner of Vivid Tax AdvisoryServices in Des Moines, Iowa. "When I work with my clients on a withdrawal strategy, we write down all of the assets and how they will be taxed -- always taxes, tax-deferred, tax-preferred and tax-free like Roth IRAs on one sheet -- and we categorize them based on how they will be taxed," she says. "The goal is to find the most efficient withdrawal strategy to pull money out of those funds to get the most tax-effective outcome."
When the retirement bell tools for you, use it as a reminder to address the above key tax issues in retirement. It could very well mean more cash in your pocket when you call it a career.