It's too late to plan your retirement withdrawals around the 2015 tax season, but it's a great time to make a plan for 2016.
Anthony D. Criscuolo, a senior financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., notes that knowing when to withdraw money from taxable, tax-deferred and tax-free accounts can spare retirees from a huge tax bite. It's just a matter of approaching those accounts in an order that will do the least damage.
As a general rule, Crisculolo says retirees should withdraw from taxable accounts first. When stocks and mutual funds that have appreciated longer than a year are sold, they incur a long-term capital gains tax that Criscuolo says is typically low.
However, even innocuous investments like a certificate of deposit can get costly if you raid them too early. While the interest on a CD is taxable, Bankrate.com found that nearly nine out of ten (89%) financial institutions will seize some of the principal if a customer makes an early withdrawal from a certificate of deposit and the interest earned is not enough to pay the penalty.
For 3-month and 6-month CDs, the most common early withdrawal penalty is three months’ worth of interest. For 1-year and 2-year CDs, the most common penalty is to forfeit six months’ worth of interest. Meanwhile, on a 5-year CD, the most common penalty is now to forfeit one year’s worth of interest.
“The steepest penalties on many maturities are those that are assessed as a flat percentage of the principal,” says Bankrate.com chief financial analyst Greg McBride. “In these cases the penalty far outweighs the interest than can be earned, putting some portion of their principal at risk, which is what CD investors were trying to avoid in the first place,”
If you've already hit your taxable accounts and managed to wait out their term, tax-deferred accounts should be next on your list. Traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, SEP-IRA and other such accounts are taxed at your regular income tax rate, so they don't do all that much damage. Besides, once you reach age 70.5, you have to take take a annual required minimum distribution from them if you want to avoid paying a hefty excise tax.
Ordinarily, you're going to want to place tax-free accounts (a Roth IRA, for example, at the end of the line).
“The longer you can keep your money in them, the better,” Criscuolo says. “However, it could be wise to use assets in your Roth IRA for large emergency expenses, like major home repairs or medical bills. If you withdraw a lot of money from a tax-deferred account, it might push you into a higher tax bracket. But pulling a large amount from a Roth IRA will not impact your overall tax rate.”
Granted, there are always exceptions to this rule. Criscuolo notes that, if you have a low-income year, you may want to pull some money from tax-deferred accounts to take advantage of being in a lower tax bracket. However, if you really raked it in this year and your investments in taxable accounts have boomed, you may want to instead withdraw from a Roth IRA. If you own securities that have taken a hit in a taxable account, selling some could be helpful in offsetting a high-income year.
Just be mindful of what all of this can do to your Social Security benefits, which are taxed based on the sum of your adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest, and half of your Social Security benefits. As your income rises, so does the the taxable portion of your benefit -- triggering what's known as the “tax torpedo.”
If you're collecting Social Security benefits and supplementing it with taxable withdrawals from an IRA or other retirement account, it may well make your marginal tax rates could increase.”
“If you take your Social Security benefit relatively early, allow for the ripple effect that taxation of your benefits could have on your overall tax rate,” Criscuolo says. “Understanding the Social Security tax is the first step in reducing it.”
The best way to avoid all of these pitfalls is to create a long-term plan that determines how much you should withdraw each year and from which accounts. That plan should take into account what you might pay on your savings while you’re still working and how to allocate your investments in order to minimize your taxable income. If you can also gauge the tax hit based on the tax bracket you'll be in each year, you might also be able to sock away some extra savings by sheltering money during high-income years and withdrawing during low periods.
“Such planning will allow you to strategically realize capital losses and take advantage of itemized deductions, while keeping an eye on tax changes that could affect your plans,” Criscuolo says.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.