Social Security

Insure Your Longevity Risk with Social Security

When planning for retirement, you need to plan for all of your retirement years. Sounds obvious, however, too often there’s a focus on living it up in the early years without fully considering the potential for longevity and financial risks associated with the later years. As stated in previous posts, the consequences of the financial decisions that you make before you retire can have a profound effect on your ability to meet your financial needs throughout your later retirement years.

How do you plan for all of your retirement years if you don’t know how long you’re going to live? The answer is longevity insurance, otherwise known as a lifetime income annuity. This type of investment will pay you a specified amount of income beginning at a specified date at specified intervals, e.g., monthly or quarterly, with potential annual payment increases for the duration of your life.

If you’re married, the payments can continue to be paid to your spouse upon your death at the same or a reduced amount, depending upon the contractual terms of the particular annuity. Unlike equity-based investments, the payments will be made regardless of market performance.

One of the best longevity insurance planning tools that most of us have at our disposal is Social Security. With its lifetime income payments, not to mention flexible starting date, i.e., age 62 through 70, and associated 7% – 8% increase in benefits each year that the starting date is deferred, excluding cost-of-living adjustments (“COLA’s”), we can use it to insure our, and, if married, our spouse’s, longevity risk.

The amount of retirement income that we choose to insure with Social Security is a personal decision. It’s dependent upon several factors, including, but not limited to, projected investment assets and liabilities, other projected sources of income and expenses and projected timing and duration of same, as well as income tax laws and projected income tax rates.

Delayed claiming of Social Security benefits, in addition to providing increased annual lifetime benefits, results in greater longevity insurance since there will be more guaranteed income available in the latter years of retirement when it may be needed the most. The ability to delay one’s Social Security benefit start date needs to be determined within the context of an overall retirement income planning analysis that includes an analysis of various potential retirement dates.

Social Security

Approaching 62? – Stop Before You Leap – Part 1 of 2

As I’ve dealt with clients and nonclients alike over the last three decades, one of my ongoing observations is the lack of formal and informal financial education we receive as a society when it comes to how to recognize and plan for critical life-changing financial events in our lives. This is especially true as it pertains to one of the most, if not the most, important financial decisions most of us will make during our lifetime, i.e., when to begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits.

By way of background, although you may apply to begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, your benefit will increase each month that you defer your start date until age 70. While it’s tempting to turn on the faucet at age 62, this may not be the best age to begin receiving benefits if you’re concerned about maximizing and prolonging your retirement income stream and that of your spouse if you’re married.

The timing of the Social Security claiming age decision occurs at the crossroads of most peoples lives when many decisions need to be made that will affect the financial and emotional success of one’re retirement years. It comes at a time when:

  • The financial and psychological security of full-time employment will be ending in the near future for most people.
  • The sequence of investment returns can make or break one’s retirement if not properly planned for.
  • There will be a prolonged period of financial uncertainty without the associated safety of a paycheck, including unknown investment performance, inflation, and income tax rates.
  • Health begins to decline for many people with escalating health insurance premiums, potential higher out-of-pocket medical costs, and potential uncovered long-term care expense.

Given the far-reaching and long-term consequences of the Social Security claiming decision, it should be a high priority for anyone approaching age 62 to have a professional retirement income planner prepare an analysis as part of a retirement income plan to determine the optimal age to begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits.

The choice of a Social Security starting age will differ depending upon each person’s unique circumstances. This will become more evident when you read the reasons why the choice of your Social Security claiming age is so important in Part 2 of this post next week.

Income Tax Planning Social Security

Say Goodbye to Up to 30% of Your Social Security Benefits – Part 1 of 2

Retirement Income Visions™ began a series of posts on the topic of Social Security on September 27th, focusing on various little-known strategies for maximizing Social Security benefits. In addition to the strategies not receiving a lot of publicity, when they are discussed, income taxation is often overlooked. Given the fact that a large portion of Social Security benefits can be subject to income tax, maximization of after-tax Social Security benefits should be your goal with each strategy.

Prior to 1984, Social Security benefits were nontaxable. Beginning in 1984, up to 50% of Social Security benefits became subject to taxation. The percentage was increased from 50% to up to 85% beginning in 1994. Since 1994, up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable, depending upon the total of two individual calculations: (1) 50% of Social Security benefits plus (2) adjusted gross income increased by tax-exempt income. While tax-exempt income generally isn’t taxable, it comes into play when calculating the taxable amount of one’s Social Security benefits. Whenever the total of these two amounts, otherwise referred to as “combined income,” exceeds a specified threshold, a portion of Social Security benefits is taxable.

The amount of the threshold is dependent upon your tax filing status. If your status is single, head of household, or married filing separate, the threshold is $25,000. If, on the other hand, your status is married filing joint, then your threshold is $32,000. The greater the excess of “combined income” over the specified threshold, the greater the amount of taxable Social Security benefits.

The $25,000 and $32,000 thresholds are the floor amounts for calculating taxable Social Security benefits. Up to 50% of Social Security benefits are taxable if your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000 if you use single, head of household, or married filing separate filing status. The combined income level for married filing joint status for taxation of up to 50% of Social Security benefits is between $32,000 and $44,000. Once the upper limits of these respective thresholds are exceeded, up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable.

So, if up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable, why is the title of this post, Say Goodbye to Up to 30% of Your Social Security Benefits? As with taxation of all income, the amount of income tax that you pay is dependent upon the amount of your taxable income. Taxable income is calculated by subtracting itemized deductions or the standard deduction and personal exemptions from adjusted gross income. Once you determine your taxable income, income tax rates are applied to specified ranges of taxable income that are dependent upon your tax filing status. Federal income tax rates currently range from a low of 15% to a high of 35%.

Assuming that your situation is such that 85% of your Social Security benefits are taxable and assuming that you’re in the top tax bracket of 35%, then you will lose 29.75% (85% x 35%), or approximately 30%, of your Social Security benefits to federal income tax. Conversely, you will retain 70.25% (100% – 29.75%), or approximately 70%, of your benefits after paying the income tax attributable to them.

In an effort to help you better understand taxation of Social Security benefits, next week’s post will include calculations of taxable Social Security benefits, federal income tax attributable to taxable benefits, and Social Security benefits net of federal income tax for various income levels. All of you analyticals will love this one!

Roth IRA

Be on the Lookout for Roth IRA Conversion Opportunities

Was last week’s 5.7% decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), from 11,009 on April 30th to 10,380 on May 7th, a temporary pullback from the recent highs this year or the beginning of a prolonged market decline? Unless your crystal ball works better than mine, we won’t know the answer to this question until several months or more from now when we’re looking in the rearview mirror.

While I don’t practice market timing for my clients, I believe that it’s prudent to look for opportunities to implement investment strategies to take advantage of various market conditions. Although a Roth IRA conversion will result in elimination of income tax liability on Roth IRA distributions provided no withdrawals are taken within five years of the conversion and the Roth IRA owner is at least 59-1/2 when taking distributions (see Year of the Conversion), this benefit can be negated by income tax liability associated with the conversion, itself.

When exploring a Roth IRA conversion, you want to look for opportunities to convert the greatest amount of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA with the least amount of income tax liability. There are three things that directly affect the amount of income tax liability you will incur in connection with a Roth IRA conversion as follows:

  1. Income tax attributes
  2. Income tax rates, allowable deductions, and tax credits
  3. Investment valuation

Income tax attributes were addressed in the following three blog posts:

  1. The Ideal Roth IRA Conversion Candidate – Part 1
  2. The Ideal Roth IRA Conversion Candidate – Part 2
  3. Two Great Roth IRA Conversion Candidates

Although it can turn out otherwise, there is general consensus that the income tax rates, allowable deductions, and tax credits in effect in 2010 will probably be as good as it gets for a long time. With the scheduled 2011 3% – 5% income tax bracket increases (see In Which Tax Year(s) Should You Include Your 2010 Roth IRA Conversion Income? – Parts 1 and 2), it could be beneficial to make an election to report 100% of your Roth IRA conversion income on your 2010 income tax return vs. deferring and splitting the income between 2011 and 2012.

This leaves investment valuation. While we’re general unable to influence and control market prices, we’re able to choose when and how we want to participate in the market. Even though a Roth IRA conversion is generally a long-term strategy, if possible, you want to execute your conversions after market declines. To the extent that you’re considering a Roth IRA conversion, a 5+% market decline such as the one we recently experienced, combined with the fact that the DJIA is down 26.7% from its October 9, 2007 high of 14,165, may be an opportunity to do a partial or complete Roth IRA conversion.

Be on the lookout for market declines and associated Roth IRA conversion opportunities. As discussed in Roth IRA Conversion – A Multi-Year Strategy, a Roth IRA conversion doesn’t have to be, and in most cases shouldn’t be, a one-time event. Multiple opportunities may play out within one year or potentially over several years. If you’re wearing your Roth IRA conversion binoculars, you’ll spot them. If it turns out that the market declines further from the time of your conversion and you’re within the permissible timeframe, don’t forget about another investment strategy – recharacterization (see Recharacterization – Your Roth IRA Conversion Insurance Policy).

Retirement Asset Planning

Safe Withdrawal Rate – A Nice Rule of Thumb

Last week’s post, The Sequence of Returns – The Roulette Wheel of Retirement, showed how “luck of the rate-of-return draw” can have a dramatic affect on a retirement asset plan in determining whether you will outlive your investment portfolio. In two scenarios where the retirement age (65), portfolio beginning value ($500,000), average rate of return (7%), withdrawal rate (5%), and inflation factor applied to the withdrawal rate (3%) were identical, and the only variable was good vs. bad early years, there were quite different results. With the “Good Early Years” scenario, after 25 years, at age 90, distributions totaled $964,000, the portfolio earned $1.385 million, and the portfolio value was $921,000. Under the “Bad Early Years” scenario, the portfolio was depleted after 16 years at age 81 after taking distributions totaling $541,000 and the portfolio earning $41,000.

Many people would argue that 5% seems like a reasonable withdrawal rate, however, as we saw, under the “Bad Early Years” scenario, this proved to be too aggressive. The financial planning industry, after many years of debate, has settled on a rule of thumb of 4% as a “safe withdrawal rate.” That is to say, you can withdraw 4% of the value of your portfolio in your first year of retirement and then increase your withdrawal amount by an inflation factor in subsequent years without depleting your portfolio during your lifetime. As an example, assuming a portfolio value of $500,000 at retirement and a 3% inflation factor, you could withdraw $20,000 ($500,000 x 4%) in Year 1, $20,600 ($20,000 x 1.03) in Year 2, $21,218 ($20,600 x 1.03) in Year 3, etc.

Is a “safe withdrawal rate” something we should live by or is it simply a rule of thumb? While a 4% withdrawal rate during retirement can potentially enable you to sustain your retirement capital for the duration of your retirement, this is not always the case, particularly in “Bad Early Years” scenarios. In addition to the withdrawal rate, the interplay of the following ten variables will determine whether or not you will outlive your portfolio:

  1. Type of portfolio, i.e., nonretirement vs. retirement
  2. Income tax rates
  3. Source of income tax payments, e.g., checking account, nonretirement sales proceeds, IRA withdrawal, etc.
  4. Retirement duration
  5. Average rate of return
  6. Sequence of returns
  7. Timing of earning of income
  8. Inflation rate
  9. Frequency of withdrawals
  10. Timing of withdrawals

As an example of the interplay of several of these variables, let’s make the following assumptions:

  1. Retirement age: 65
  2. Beginning portfolio value: $500,000
  3. Average rate of return: 6%
  4. Sequence of returns: Bad early years
  5. Withdrawal rate: 4%
  6. Inflation rate: 3%
  7. Frequency of withdrawals: Annual
  8. Timing of withdrawals: Beginning of year

In this scenario, despite the fact that the withdrawal rate has been reduced from 5% per the “Bad Early Years” scenario in the last post to 4%, which is generally considered to be a “safe” withdrawal rate, by simply changing one other variable, i.e., reducing the average rate of return from 7% to 6%, per Bad Early Years Assuming 6% Average Rate of Return, the portfolio is depleted at age 85. While the frequency and timing of withdrawals in this example may not be typical, the “safe withdrawal rate” of 4% isn’t conservative enough.

There are other scenarios where the interplay of the various variables is such that a withdrawal rate of 4% can prove to be problematic. As is typically illustrated, the previous example assumed an inflation rate of 3% each and every year. What happens if inflation averages 3%, however, the sequence of inflation rates is such that it is much higher in the first five years, say 7%. This would result in larger withdrawals in years 2 through 6, and, depending upon the rate of return, sequence of returns, and duration of retirement, this could result in premature depletion of the portfolio.

Mathematics aside, there are several other issues to consider when planning to use a safe withdrawal rate. For starters, why should you base your withdrawals for the duration of your retirement on the value of your retirement portfolio on a single day, i.e., the day before you retire? Also, it does not consider the fact that a sizeable portion of your expenses may be for mortgage and/or other fixed payments that don’t increase each year, and, as such, don’t require an inflation factor to be applied to them. In addition, the safe withdrawal rate methodology doesn’t take into consideration the fact that we typically incur nonrecurring expenses, planned and unplanned, e.g., new car, home improvements, wedding, etc., in addition to our ongoing expenses.

Another factor not incorporated in safe rate withdrawal calculations is the affect of differences in sources and amounts of non-portfolio income, e.g., Social Security, pensions, part-time income, etc. on portfolio values. What about the impact of inheritances on the amount of subsequent withdrawals? Finally, who is going to be responsible for doing the accounting to ensure that the amount of withdrawals doesn’t exceed the targeted amount in a particular year?

While the amount of withdrawals calculated using safe withdrawal rate methodology may match your income needs in some years, this probably won’t be the case in most years. This is arguably its single biggest weakness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live my life based on a simple calculation that doesn’t consider my changing financial needs. While a safe withdrawal rate is a nice starting point, or rule of thumb, for calculating retirement withdrawal amounts, its limitations need to be considered when applying it to one’s retirement plan.