Variable Annuities May Not Be Your Best Option

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


A variable annuity is an investment contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are similar to mutual funds, where money from a large number of investors is pooled and invested in accordance with specific investment objectives. Like mutual funds, sub-accounts may invest in different categories of stock or interest earning investments.
One characteristic of a variable annuity is the tax deferral of gains until the funds are withdrawn. However, upon distribution the gains are taxable at regular income tax rates, as opposed to capital gains rates that may be available for mutual funds. Additionally, there is no step-up in basis upon death for assets held in variable annuities.
Variable annuities are generally more appropriate for non-retirement accounts because gains within a retirement account are already tax deferred. Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors. However, in some cases a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral. This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.
When investing in variable annuities, with non-retirement money, there is no requirement to take a Required Minimum Distribution at 70 ½. However, there is generally a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before 59 1/2. Trades can be made within a variable annuity account without immediate tax consequences. The entire gain will be taxable upon withdrawal. There is no annual contribution limit for variable annuities, and you can make non-taxable transfers between annuity companies using a 1035 exchange. However, you may have to pay a surrender charge if you have held the annuity for less than seven to ten years, and you purchased it from a commissioned adviser. Before buying an annuity, read the fine print to fully understand all of the fees and penalties associated with the product. Most variable annuities have early withdrawal penalties and a higher expense structure than mutual funds.
A variable annuity may be an option for someone who wants to purchase an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the market. For many investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee may be come at too high a price. Some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide. Guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions. Additionally, some products offer a guaranteed death benefit for an extra fee. Read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the product before you buy.
Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for many investors.

The Difference Between an Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


One of the biggest decisions associated with saving for retirement is choosing between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA. The primary difference between the two IRAs is when you pay income tax. A traditional IRA is usually funded with pre-tax dollars providing you with a current tax deduction. Your money grows tax deferred, but you have to pay regular income tax upon distribution. A Roth IRA is funded with after tax dollars, and does not provide a current tax deduction. Generally, a Roth IRA grows tax free and you don’t have to pay taxes on distributions. In 2013 you can contribute up to a total of $5,500 per year plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you are over 50. You can make a contribution into a combination of a Roth and a Traditional IRA as long as you don’t exceed the limit. You also have until your filing date, usually April 15th, to make a contribution for the previous year. New contributions must come from earned income.
There are some income restrictions on IRA contributions. In 2013, your eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA begins to phase-out at a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 if you file single and $178,000 if you file married filing jointly. With a traditional IRA, there are no limits on contributions based on income. However, if you are eligible for a retirement plan through your employer, there are restrictions on the amount you can earn and still be eligible for a tax deductible IRA. In 2013 your eligibility for a deductible IRA begins to phase out at $59,000 if you are single and at $95,000 if you file married filing jointly.
Generally, you cannot take distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 ½ without a 10% penalty. Contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn anytime, tax free. Earnings may be withdrawn tax free after you reach age 59 ½ and your money has been invested for at least five years. There are some exceptions to the early withdrawal penalties. You must start taking required minimum distributions on Traditional IRAs upon reaching 70 ½. Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions.
The decision on the type of IRA is based largely on your current tax rate, your anticipated tax rate in retirement, your investment timeframe, and your investment goals. A Roth IRA may be your best choice if you are currently in a low income tax bracket and anticipate being in a higher bracket in retirement. A Roth IRA may also be a good option if you already have a lot of money in a traditional IRA or 401k, and you are looking for some tax diversification. A Roth IRA can be a good option if you are not eligible for a deductible IRA but your income is low enough to qualify for a Roth IRA.

Pitfalls in Taking Early Social Security

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

 

You can begin taking Social Security at age 62 but there are some disadvantages to starting before your normal retirement age.   The decision on when to start taking Social Security is dependent on your unique set of circumstances.  Generally, if you plan to keep working, if you can cover your current expenses and if you are reasonably healthy you will be better off taking Social Security on or after your normal retirement age.  Your normal retirement age can be found on your annual statement or by going to www.socialsecurity.gov and searching for normal retirement age.

Taking Social Security early will result in a reduced benefit.  Your benefits will be reduced based on the number of months you receive Social Security before your normal retirement age.    For example if your normal retirement age is 66, the approximate reduction in benefits at age 62 is 25%, at 63 is 20%, at 64 is 13.3% and at 65 is 6.7%.  If you were born after 1960 and you start taking benefits at age 62 your maximum reduction in benefits will be around 30%.

On the other hand, if you decide to take Social Security after your normal retirement age, you may receive a larger benefit.  Do not wait to take your Social Security beyond age 70 because there is no additional increase in the benefit after 70.  Taking Social Security after your normal retirement age is generally most beneficial for those who expect to live beyond their average life expectancy.  If you plan to keep working, taking Social Security early may be especially tricky.  If you take benefits before your normal retirement age and earn over a certain level, the Social Security Administration withholds part of your benefit.   In 2012 Social Security will withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings above $14,640 and $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings above $38,880.  However, all is not lost, after you reach full retirement age your benefit is recalculated to give you credit for the benefits that were withheld as a result of earning above the exempt amount. 

Another potential downfall to taking Social Security early, especially if you are working or have other forms of income, is paying federal income tax on your benefit.  If you wait to take Social Security at your normal retirement age, your income may be lower and a smaller portion of your benefit may be taxable.  If you file a joint return and you have combined income (adjusted gross income, plus ½ of Social Security and tax exempt interest) of between $32,000 and $44,000 you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefit.  If your combined income is over $44,000 you may have to pay taxes on up to 85% of your benefit. 

The decision on when to take Social Security can be very complicated and these are just a few of the many factors that should be taken into consideration.

 

 

 

Watch Out for These Pitfalls with Social Security and IRA Rollovers

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Here are a couple issues on Social Security and IRA Rollovers that frequently catch people by surprise.

Think twice about taking your Social Security at 62 or before your regular retirement age, if you plan to work during this timeframe. In 2011, if you earn more than $14,160, Social Security will withhold $1 for every $2 earned above this amount. However, all is not lost, when you reach full retirement age Social Security will increase your benefits to make up for the benefits withheld. Once you reach your full retirement age there is no reduction in benefits for earning more than $14,160. However, the amount of tax you pay on your Social Security benefits will increase as your taxable income increases. This may be a good reason to wait until your full retirement age or until you stop working to begin taking Social Security.

If you are thinking about moving your IRA from one custodian to another I strongly encourage you to do this as a direct transfer and not as a rollover. We frequently use these terms synonymously but I assure you the IRS does not! A transfer is when you move your IRA directly from one IRA trustee/custodian to another – nothing is paid to you. A rollover is when a check is issued to you and you write a second check to the new IRA Trustee/Custodian. This must be done within 60 days or the transaction is treated as a taxable distribution. You can do as many transfers as you desire in a given year. However, you can only do one rollover per year, on a given IRA. This is a very stringent rule and there are very few exceptions even when the error is out of your control. Whenever possible be sure to use a direct transfer not a rollover to move your IRA Account.

You Are Invited to our 1st Fireside Chat of 2011 on Thursday, February 10th

Please join us at Pinnacle Financial Concepts, for our first Fireside Chat of 2011. This is a great opportunity to join us in a very relaxed atmosphere to ask questions, and get prepared for filing your tax return. On Thursday, February 10, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. our topic will be “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Investment Question” with a bonus (apologies to David Letterman) of “The Top 10 Things to Think About During Tax Season”. We’ll have a basic overview of investment definitions and things to know about investments to spur a discussion on the topic.

Please call 260-9800 x2 to reserve your spot at this chat. There is no charge, but we will limit the number of available seats and schedule an overflow date if needed.   Free coffee and donuts will be served and, as always, this is purely educational, no selling!!

Attend a Financial Fireside Chat with Jane and Linda on December 2nd to discuss “Year End Financial Planning Tips and Money Saving Ideas for the Holidays”

 

You and a guest are invited to a Financial Fireside Chat with Jane and Linda at our office, from 7:30 – 9:00 am on Thursday, December 2nd to discuss “Year End Financial Planning Tips and Money Saving Ideas for the Holidays.”

A Financial Fireside chat is an informal discussion over coffee and donuts, where our clients and guests can learn about various financial topics in a casual non-threatening environment. This is free of charge and purely educational. There will be absolutely no sales of products or services during this session. We will provide plenty of time for informal discussion.

The Fireside Chat will be held at the Pinnacle Financial Concepts, Inc. offices at 7025 Tall Oak Drive, Suite 210. Please RSVP with Judy at 260-9800.

We are looking forward to seeing you on Thursday, December 2nd to learn about and discuss some great year end financial planning ideas.

A Money Moment with Jane – A Few Financial Planning Suggestions for the Fall

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By Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

 

  • Required Minimum Distributions were not required for 2009.  However, if you are at least 70½ you will be required to take a distribution in 2010.

 

  • If you are planning to convert some of your regular IRA to a Roth IRA, do so in 2010 to spread the taxes over 2011 and 2112.

 

  • Have you maximized your Roth IRA and 401k contribution?  The 2010 contribution limit for the Roth is $5,000 plus a $1,000 catch-up provision if you are 50 or older.  The 2010 contribution limit for 401k plans is $16,500 plus a $5,500 catch-up provision if you are 50 or older.

 

  • This is a good time to do some tax planning to make sure your withholdings or estimates are adequate to cover the taxes you will owe in April. 

 

  • Do you have any underperforming stocks or mutual funds that should be sold to take advantage of a tax loss in 2010?

 

  • Now is the time to go through your home for items to be donated to charity.  These can provide a nice deduction on your 2010 tax return.

 

  • Start planning for Christmas now and save money by working to a plan. 

 

To Convert or Not Convert – Looking Beyond the Roth IRA Conversion Calculator

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

As I mentioned in the previous article on Roth IRAs, with a Roth IRA you pay income tax now and not upon distribution. With a traditional IRA you defer taxes today and pay income taxes upon deferral. When you convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA you must pay regular income taxes on the amount that is converted. The advisability of converting to a Roth depends on the length of time you have until you take distributions, your tax rate today and your anticipated tax rate upon retirement and your projected return on your investments.

When you run your numbers through one of the numerous calculators available on the internet you may or may not see a big savings in doing a Roth Conversion. However, there are several other factors that may tilt the scale toward converting some of your money to a Roth.

• Income tax rates are currently very low and there is a general consensus that they will increase considerably by the time you start taking distributions. With a Roth conversion you pay the tax now at the lower rates and take tax free distributions when the tax rates are higher.

• The stock market is still down about 25% from where it was in August of 2008. There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines waiting to be invested once consumer confidence is restored. You can pay taxes on money in your traditional IRA while the share prices are low and take a tax free distribution from your Roth down the road when the market has rebounded.

• You may have a sizable portion of your portfolio in tax deferred retirement accounts on which you will have to take required minimum distributions (RMD). This could put you into a much higher tax bracket. By converting some of your traditional IRA into a Roth you can get some tax diversification on your portfolio. This will lower your RMD– because there is no RMD on a Roth IRA. Diversifying your portfolio between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA enables you to take your distributions from the most appropriate pot of money in any given year.

For more information on Roth IRAs and the new tax laws for 2010 please review the articles previously posted under Roth IRAs.

10 Investment Principles that Never Go Out of Style

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

Frequently people talk about how everything is different and we should change the way we invest. Yes, we have just experienced a very difficult year with some major changes in our economic situation. However, every time we go through a major market adjustment if feels like “this time is different”. We could take numerous comments made at the end of the last bear market and insert them into today’s headlines without missing a beat. I call this the “recency effect”; bad times always feel more desperate while we are experiencing them. We need to step back and look at the big picture; don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good, sound investment fundamentals are still valid. Some people may reassess their tolerance for risk, start saving more money or cut back on their discretionary spending – but the following investment principals are good, time tested guidelines that everyone should follow in any market.

1. Don’t time the market – The stock market is counter-intuitive. Generally, it may be better to invest when things seem most dire and sell when everything is rosy. It is impossible to predict the movement of the stock market and history shows that those who do frequently miss out on big upswings.

2. Dollar Cost Average – This enables you to invest a set dollar amount every month or every quarter regardless of what the market does. As a result you buy more shares when the price is low and fewer when the market is high. Dollar cost averaging helps you mitigate risk because we don’t know what the stock market is going to do tomorrow.

3. Maintain at least 3 to 6 months of expenses in an emergency fund – This is especially important in difficult financial times when stock market values are low and unemployment is high. Unless you have a very secure job I currently recommend a 6 month emergency fund.

4. Don’t invest in anything you don’t understand – If you just can’t get your head around something after it’s been explained or you have done a reasonable amount of research don’t invest in it. If an investment opportunity is overly complicated something may be rotten in Denmark.

5. Don’t Chase Hot Asset Classes – Today international funds may be skyrocketing and tomorrow it may be small cap domestic stock funds. Don’t forget what happened to the stock market after the dot.com bubble burst.

6. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify – Everyone needs to diversify with a mix of fixed income and equity investments that is consistent with their own unique investment goals and objectives. Although most stocks dropped in unison over the last year, I still think there is value in diversifying between different types of stock mutual funds. I believe we will see some categories of stocks outpace others as the market rebounds. Depending on your risk tolerance, a small allocation in commodities and real estate may be advisable.

7. Don’t Make Emotional Decisions – Many investment decisions are triggered by fear and greed and they are equally damaging. Don’t make rash decisions based on emotion. Remember the stock market is counter-intuitive.

8. Don’t put more than 5% of your assets in one security – Any given company can go bankrupt as we have seen with many financial and automobile firms over the last year. I encourage the use of mutual funds over individual stocks to help mitigate this type of risk. If you do invest in individual stocks don’t put too much faith in any one company. If you are investing in your own company and you have a strong understanding of the firm’s performance you could go up to 10%.

9. Be tax smart – Take advantage of tax advantaged retirement plans such as Roth IRAs and 401k plans. Consider tax consequences when re-balancing your portfolio. Use a bear market to harvest some tax losses and off-load some bad or inappropriate investments.

10. Be aware of fees and surrender charges – When selecting investments be aware of high fees and commissions. Tread cautiously with anything that contains a contingent deferred sales charge. Many clients have come to me with a desire to sell or transfer previously purchased investments, usually annuities, only to find they have a 5-10% surrender charge if they sell within ten years of purchase. A surrender charge can have a big impact on your flexibility. If you really want a variable annuity buy one with low fees and no surrender charges.

Ten Things You Can Do Now To Save Taxes in 2009

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Whew!! The 2008 tax season is finally over and we can relax. Well not exactly; this is a great time to prepare for 2009 taxes. A little effort now can help you save in 2009 and will make the process a whole lot smoother. Below are some ideas to help save taxes in 2009.

1. Create a folder for your 2009 tax documents and receipts. Create a file right now, and keep it somewhere convenient, to keep track of all those expenses and donations as they occur.

2. Start going through your old clothes and junk in the garage and donate it to a charity of your choice, if you itemize this can provide a sizable deduction. Remember, keep a log of everything you donate and get a receipt!

3. If you anticipate a substantial change in your 2009 income or if you owed a lot in 2008, now is the time to adjust your withholdings or your estimated payments. There is nothing worse than owing an unexpected $5000 at the end of the year.

4. Maximize your contribution to tax deferred retirement plans. Limits on the 401k, Simple and SEP have all increased this year. If you turned 50 this year you can now make catch-up contributions to your retirement plans including your IRA (assuming you are otherwise qualified).

5. Do you anticipate a decrease in income this year? You may be eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA or for a conversion from a Roth IRA to a traditional IRA. The recent drop in the stock market has made conversion to a Roth IRA very appealing. You can pay income taxes on your account now, while the balance is low. Then during retirement, when the market has recovered, you can take tax free withdrawals. In 2009 your AGI must be less than $100,000 to be eligible for a conversion.

6. Will you be paying college expenses sometime soon? If you live in Colorado you can invest the money you will be spending on college expenses in a 529 plan and deduct the contribution from your state income tax. If you have a couple kids in college this can be significant. Don’t worry; you can invest the money in something very safe within the 529 if you are worried about market volatility.

7. If you are a first time homeowner you may be eligible for a 10% credit up to $8000 if you buy a home by December 1, 2009. This is really more like an interest free loan because it must be paid back over 15 years. Additionally, it is subject to income limits. The credit begins to phase-out for joint filers with modified adjusted gross income of $150,000 or more.

8. Are you thinking about buying a new car? You may be able to deduct the sales and local tax if you buy the car this year. This is subject to an income phase out if your adjusted gross income exceeds $125,000. I know they take all the good stuff away from middle class wage earners.

9. If you own a business or work as a consultant, be sure to keep accurate and complete records. Don’t forget to track your mileage, the current deduction for business mileage is $.55 per mile. This is frequently overlooked or understated due to poor record keeping. Additionally, if you work in your home and have a dedicated work area you may want to claim a home office deduction.

10. Take advantage of the drop in the stock market to do some tax harvesting. Tax harvesting is taking advantage of a market decline to sell some of the dogs in your investment portfolio while taking a capital loss or reduced capital gain. Prior to the market drop, the sale of a particular security may have been prohibitive due to capital gains. Now you can take advantage of the drop in the market to clean up your portfolio or do some re-balancing of your asset allocation.