401(k) Withdrawals: Beware the Penalty Tax
You’ve probably heard that if you withdraw taxable amounts from your 401(k) or 403(b) plan before age 59½, you may be socked with a 10% early distribution penalty tax on top of the federal income taxes you’ll be required to pay. But did you know that the Internal Revenue Code contains quite a few exceptions that allow you to take penalty-free withdrawals before age 59½?
Sometimes age 59½ is really age 55…or age 50
If you’ve reached age 55, you can take penalty-free withdrawals from your 401(k) plan after leaving your job if your employment ends during or after the year you reach age 55. This is one of the most important exceptions to the penalty tax.
And if you’re a qualified public safety employee, this exception applies after you’ve reached age 50. You’re a qualified public safety employee if you provided police protection, firefighting services, or emergency medical services for a state or municipality, and you separated from service in or after the year you attained age 50.
Be careful though. This exception applies only after you leave employment with the employer that sponsored the plan making the distribution. For example, if you worked for Employer A and quit at age 45, then took a job with Employer B and quit at age 55, only distributions from Employer B’s plan would be eligible for this exception. You’ll have to wait until age 59½ to take penalty-free withdrawals from Employer A’s plan, unless another exception applies.
Think periodic, not lump sums
Another important exception to the penalty tax applies to “substantially equal periodic payments,” or SEPPs. This exception also applies only after you’ve stopped working for the employer that sponsored the plan. To take advantage of this exception, you must withdraw funds from your plan at least annually based on one of three rather complicated IRS-approved distribution methods.
Regardless of which method you choose, you generally can’t change or alter the payments for five years or until you reach age 59½, whichever occurs later. If you do modify the payments (for example, by taking amounts smaller or larger than required distributions or none at all), you’ll again wind up having to pay the 10% penalty tax on the taxable portion of all your pre-age 59½ SEPP distributions (unless another exception applies).
And more exceptions…
Distributions described below generally won’t be subject to the penalty tax even if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the payment.
- Distributions from your plan up to the amount of your unreimbursed medical expenses for the year that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income for that year (You don’t have to itemize deductions to use this exception, and the distributions don’t have to actually be used to pay those medical expenses.)
- Distributions made as a result of your qualifying disability (This means you must be unable to engage in any “substantial gainful activity” by reason of a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration.”)
- Certain distributions to qualified military reservists called to active duty
- Distributions made pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO)
- Distributions made to your beneficiary after your death, regardless of your beneficiary’s age
Keep in mind that the penalty tax applies only to taxable distributions, so tax-free rollovers of retirement assets are not subject to the penalty. Also note that the exceptions applicable to IRAs are similar to, but not identical to, the rules that apply to employer plans.
Tax Benefits of Homeownership
Buying a home can be a major expenditure. Fortunately, federal tax benefits are available to make homeownership more affordable and less expensive. There may also be tax benefits under state law.
Mortgage interest deduction
One of the most important tax benefits of owning a home is that you may be able to deduct any mortgage interest you pay. If you itemize deductions on your federal income tax return, you can deduct the interest you pay on a loan used to buy, build, or improve your home, provided that the loan is secured by your home. Up to $1 million of such “home acquisition debt” ($500,000 if you’re married and file separately) qualifies for the interest deduction.
You may also be able to deduct interest you pay on certain home equity loans or lines of credit secured by your home. Up to $100,000 of such “home equity debt” (or $50,000 if your filing status is married filing separately) qualifies for the interest deduction. The interest you pay on home equity debt is generally deductible regardless of how you use the loan proceeds. For alternative minimum tax purposes, however, interest on home equity debt is deductible only for debt used to buy, build, or improve your home.
Deduction for real estate property taxes
If you itemize deductions on your federal income tax return, you can generally deduct real estate taxes you pay on property that you own. For alternative minimum tax purposes, however, no deduction is allowed for state and local taxes, including real estate property taxes.
Points and closing costs
When you take out a loan to buy a home, or when you refinance an existing loan on your home, you’ll probably be charged closing costs. These may include points, as well as attorney’s fees, recording fees, title search fees, appraisal fees, and loan or document preparation and processing fees. Points are typically charged to reduce the interest rate for the loan.
When you buy your main home, you may be able to deduct points in full in the year you pay them if you itemize deductions and meet certain requirements. You may even be able to deduct points that the seller pays for you.
Refinanced loans are treated differently. Generally, points that you pay on a refinanced loan are not deductible in full in the year you pay them. Instead, they’re deducted ratably over the life of the loan. In other words, you can deduct a certain portion of the points each year. If the loan is used to make improvements to your principal residence, however, you may be able to deduct the points in full in the year paid.
Otherwise, closing costs are nondeductible. They can, however, increase the tax basis of your home, which in turn can lower your taxable gain when you sell the property.
Home improvements (unless medically required) are nondeductible. Improvements, though, can increase the tax basis of your home, which in turn can lower your taxable gain when you sell the property.
Capital gain exclusion
If you sell your principal residence at a loss, you can’t deduct the loss on your tax return. If you sell your principal residence at a gain, you may be able to exclude some or all of the gain from federal income tax.
Capital gain (or loss) on the sale of your principal residence equals the sale price of your home minus your adjusted basis in the property. Your adjusted basis is typically the cost of the property (i.e., what you paid for it initially) plus amounts paid for capital improvements.
If you meet all requirements, you can exclude from federal income tax up to $250,000 ($500,000 if you’re married and file a joint return) of any capital gain that results from the sale of your principal residence. Anything over those limits may be subject to tax (at favorable long-term capital gains tax rates). In general, this exclusion can be used only once every two years. To qualify for the exclusion, you must have owned and used the home as your principal residence for a total of two out of the five years before the sale.
What if you fail to meet the two-out-of-five-year rule? Or you used the capital gain exclusion within the past two years with respect to a different principal residence? You may still be able to exclude part of your gain if your home sale was due to a change in place of employment, health reasons, or certain other unforeseen circumstances. In such a case, exclusion of the gain may be prorated.
It’s important to note that special rules apply in a number of circumstances, including situations in which you maintain a home office for tax purposes or otherwise use your home for business or rental purposes.
Spring Cleaning Your Finances
The arrival of spring often signifies a time of renewal, a reminder to dust off the cobwebs and get rid of the dirt and grime that have built up throughout the winter season. And while most spring cleaning projects are likely focused on your home, you could take this time to evaluate and clean up your personal finances as well.
Examine your budget..and stick with it
A budget is the centerpiece of any good personal financial plan. Start by identifying your income and expenses. Next, add them up and compare the two totals to make sure you are spending less than you earn. If you find that your expenses outweigh your income, you’ll need to make some adjustments to your budget (e.g., reduce discretionary spending).
Keep in mind that in order for your budget to work, you’ll need to stick with it. And while straying from your budget from time to time is to be expected, there are some ways to help make working within your budget a bit easier:
- Make budgeting a part of your daily routine
- Build occasional rewards into your budget
- Evaluate your budget regularly and make changes if necessary
- Use budgeting software/smartphone applications
Evaluate your financial goals
Spring is also a good time to evaluate your financial goals. Take a look at the financial goals you’ve previously set for yourself — both short and long term. Perhaps you wanted to increase your cash reserve or invest more money toward your retirement. Did you accomplish any of your goals? If so, do you have any new goals you now want to pursue? Finally, have your personal or financial circumstances changed recently (e.g., marriage, a child, a job promotion)? If so, would any of these events warrant a reprioritization of some of your existing financial goals?
Review your investments
Now may be a good time to review your investment portfolio to ensure that it is still on target to help you achieve your financial goals. To determine whether your investments are still suitable, you might ask yourself the following questions:
- Has my investment time horizon recently changed?
- Has my tolerance for risk changed?
- Do I have an increased need for liquidity in my investments?
- Does any investment now represent too large (or too small) a part of my portfolio?
All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.
Try to pay off any accumulated debt
When it comes to personal finances, reducing debt should always be a priority. Whether you have debt from student loans, a mortgage, or credit cards, have a plan in place to pay down your debt load as quickly as possible. The following tips could help you manage your debt:
- Keep track of your credit card balances and be aware of interest rates and hidden fees
- Manage your payments so that you avoid late fees
- Optimize your repayments by paying off high-interest debt first
- Avoid charging more than you can pay off at the end of each billing cycle
Take a look at your credit history
Having good credit is an important part of any sound financial plan, and now is a good time to check your credit history. Review your credit report and check for any inaccuracies. You’ll also want to find out whether you need to take steps to improve your credit history. To establish a good track record with creditors, make sure that you always make your monthly bill payments on time. In addition, you should try to avoid having too many credit inquiries on your report (these are made every time you apply for new credit). You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Visit annualcreditreport.com for more information.
Assess tax planning opportunities
The return of the spring season also means that we are approaching the end of tax season. Now is also a good time to assess any tax planning opportunities for the coming year. You can use last year’s tax return as a basis, then make any anticipated adjustments to your income and deductions for the coming year.
Be sure to check your withholding — especially if you owed taxes when you filed your most recent tax return or you were due a large refund. If necessary, adjust the amount of federal or state income tax withheld from your paycheck by filing a new Form W-4 with your employer.
What is an ERISA fiduciary?
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was enacted in 1974 to protect employees who participate in retirement plans and certain other employee benefit plans. At the time, there were concerns that pension plan funds were being mismanaged, causing participants to lose benefits they had worked so hard to earn. ERISA protects the interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries by:
- Requiring the disclosure of financial and other plan information
- Establishing standards of conduct for plan fiduciaries
- Providing for appropriate remedies, sanctions, and access to the federal courts
It’s the fiduciary provisions of ERISA that help protect participants from the mismanagement and abuse of plan assets. The law requires that fiduciaries act prudently, solely in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying reasonable expenses of administering the plan.
Fiduciaries must diversify plan investments to minimize the risk of large losses, unless it’s clearly prudent not to do so. Fiduciaries must also avoid conflicts of interest. They cannot allow the plan to engage in certain transactions with the employer, service providers, or other fiduciaries (“parties in interest”). There are also specific rules against self-dealing.
Who is a plan fiduciary? Anyone who:
- Exercises any discretionary control over the plan or its assets
- Has any discretionary responsibility for administration of the plan
- Provides investment advice for a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect)
Plan fiduciaries may include, for example, discretionary plan trustees, plan administrators, investment managers and advisors, and members of a plan’s investment committee.
Fiduciaries must take their responsibilities seriously. If they fail to comply with ERISA’s requirements, they may be personally liable for any losses incurred by the plan. Criminal liability may also be possible.
Are you ready to retire?
Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether or not you are ready to retire.
Is your nest egg adequate?
It may be obvious, but the earlier you retire, the less time you’ll have to save, and the more years you’ll be living off your retirement savings. The average American can expect to live past age 78.* With future medical advances likely, it’s not unreasonable to assume that life expectancy will continue to increase. Is your nest egg large enough to fund 20 or more years of retirement?
When will you begin receiving Social Security benefits?
You can receive Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. However, your benefit may be 25% to 30% less than if you waited until full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on the year you were born).
How will retirement affect your IRAs and employer retirement plans?
The longer you delay retirement, the longer you can build up tax-deferred funds in traditional IRAs and potentially tax-free funds in Roth IRAs. Remember that you need taxable compensation to contribute to an IRA.
You’ll also have a longer period of time to contribute to employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s — and to receive any employer match or other contributions. (If you retire early, you may forfeit any employer contributions in which you’re not fully vested.)
Will you need health insurance?
Keep in mind that Medicare generally doesn’t start until you’re 65. Does your employer provide post-retirement medical benefits? Are you eligible for the coverage if you retire early? If not, you may have to look into COBRA or an individual policy from a private insurer or the health insurance marketplace — which could be an expensive proposition.
Is phasing into retirement right for you?
Retirement need not be an all-or-nothing affair. If you’re not quite ready, financially or psychologically, for full retirement, consider downshifting from full-time to part-time employment. This will allow you to retain a source of income and remain active and productive.
*NCHS Data Brief, Number 267, December 2016
IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017