Even if you’ve done all your own taxes throughout your working life, it’s still a good idea to turn to a professional when you retire. Why? Because the rules are different in the golden years when your income is typically lower. You may also be drawing out of tax-deferred accounts and on assets loaded with capital gains and/or losses.
A professional can help you nab every potential deduction and tap accounts in accordance with the laws to help you avoid a bigger-than-necessary tax bite from the IRS. The rule of thumb is to draw from your taxable assets first, then the tax-deferred, leaving the Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) as the last resort and the potential go-to fund if you have a heavy-income year, for example, because you sold property.
And remember this: your income may be lower, but your tax bracket may not. The IRS looks at adjusted income, not gross income, and you may no longer have the same tax credits you did when you were gainfully employed. You also may not be spending as much daily on potential deductions—think lunch, transportation, software, etc.—that you did while employed. Sure, that’s less expenditure but also fewer deductions.
Here’s a quick list of things to think about:
- Your monthly Social Security check could be taxable. That’s a big shock to many retirees, and while no one pays federal income taxes on more than 85% of Social Security benefits, it can still put a crimp on a happy retirement. Many investors have other income besides that monthly average Social Security check of $1,341 in 2016, according to the Social Security Administration, or $16,092 annually. Savings, CDs, IRAs, pensions, etc., can all add up to income. When it comes to Social Security benefits, the IRS looks at what’s called your “combined income.” That’s your adjusted gross income plus nontaxable interest plus one-half of your Social Security benefit. If you’re filing as an individual, and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefits. If it’s over $34,000, that tax jumps to 85% of your annual benefits. Joint returns are at levels between $32,000 and $44,000, and above.
- Your deductions change. You’re no longer educating yourself or the kids, who have also started their own adult lives and have long been off the tax-deduction list. And if you listened to most retirement planners, your mortgage has been paid off, so that hefty tax deduction no longer exists.
- Tax-deferred accounts, like a traditional IRA, will cost you and it can be painful. Once you turn 70½, there’s the required minimum distribution (RMD) that is taxed as ordinary income And that’s for every tax-deferred account, not just IRAs, but 401(k)s or 403(b)s. When you draw those RMDs, it’s considered gross income. And if you choose to ignore RMDs or simply forget about one or two accounts, you will get smacked with a 50% penalty for the amount not taken.
- Your RMDs swell the longer you live. Hardly seems fair, does it? But as your life expectancy dwindles, at least by most formulas, you’re required to take out a little more each year, with some exceptions. There are a number of online RMD calculators to give you ballpark monthly estimates, but consider this: At 70½ today, the RMD on a $70,000 account is roughly $2,500 annually. Assuming that account earns about a 6% return and you didn’t withdraw an extra-large amount at any time, at 85 years old, you will be looking at a RMD of about $5,600—an amount that could easily push you into a higher tax bracket.
- Distributions from your tax-deferred accounts can slay some of the fun of having watched them grow over the years. Withdrawals from investments like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are smacked with income taxes on gains and pre-tax contributions, which is why it’s often better to start taking income in retirement from your taxable accounts before your tax-deferred accounts.
- Things change—eventually. Just because a whole lot isn’t working in Congress right now doesn’t mean it will be that way forever. At any given time, during any given year of your retirement, Congress can rewrite the tax rules—and expect filers to comply. You pay your professional to stay on top of these changes.
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