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Health Insurance in Retirement

May 16, 2019
Health

At any age, health care is a priority. When you retire, however, you will probably focus more on health care than ever before. Staying healthy is your goal, and this can mean more visits to the doctor for preventive tests and routine checkups. There’s also a chance that your health will decline as you grow older, increasing your need for costly prescription drugs or medical treatments. That’s why having health insurance is extremely important.

Retirement–your changing health insurance needs

If you are 65 or older when you retire, your worries may lessen when it comes to paying for health care–you are most likely eligible for certain health benefits from Medicare, a federal health insurance program, upon your 65th birthday. But if you retire before age 65, you’ll need some way to pay for your health care until Medicare kicks in. Generous employers may offer extensive health insurance coverage to their retiring employees, but this is the exception rather than the rule. If your employer doesn’t extend health benefits to you, you may need to buy a private health insurance policy (which may be costly), extend your employer-sponsored coverage through COBRA, or purchase an individual health insurance policy through either a state-based or federal health insurance Exchange Marketplace.



But remember, Medicare won’t pay for long-term care if you ever need it. You’ll need to pay for that out of pocket or rely on benefits from long-term care insurance (LTCI) or, if your assets and/or income are low enough to allow you to qualify, Medicaid.

 

More about Medicare

As mentioned, most Americans automatically become entitled to Medicare when they turn 65. In fact, if you’re already receiving Social Security benefits, you won’t even have to apply–you’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare. However, you will have to decide whether you need only Part A coverage (which is premium-free for most retirees) or if you want to also purchase Part B coverage. Part A, commonly referred to as the hospital insurance portion of Medicare, can help pay for your home health care, hospice care, and inpatient hospital care. Part B helps cover other medical care such as physician care, laboratory tests, and physical therapy. You may also choose to enroll in a managed care plan or private fee-for-service plan under Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage) if you want to pay fewer out-of-pocket health-care costs. If you don’t already have adequate prescription drug coverage, you should also consider joining a Medicare prescription drug plan offered in your area by a private company or insurer that has been approved by Medicare.



Unfortunately, Medicare won’t cover all of your health-care expenses. For some types of care, you’ll have to satisfy a deductible and make co-payments. That’s why many retirees purchase a Medigap policy.

 

What is Medigap?

Unless you can afford to pay for the things that Medicare doesn’t cover, including the annual co-payments and deductibles that apply to certain types of care, you may want to buy some type of Medigap policy when you sign up for Medicare Part B. There are 10 standard Medigap policies available. Each of these policies offers certain basic core benefits, and all but the most basic policy (Plan A) offer various combinations of additional benefits designed to cover what Medicare does not. Although not all Medigap plans are available in every state, you should be able to find a plan that best meets your needs and your budget.



When you first enroll in Medicare Part B at age 65 or older, you have a six-month Medigap open enrollment period. During that time, you have a right to buy the Medigap policy of your choice from a private insurance company, regardless of any health problems you may have. The company cannot refuse you a policy or charge you more than other open enrollment applicants.

 

Thinking about the future–long-term care insurance and Medicaid

The possibility of a prolonged stay in a nursing home weighs heavily on the minds of many older Americans and their families. That’s hardly surprising, especially considering the high cost of long-term care.



Many people in their 50s and 60s look into purchasing LTCI. A good LTCI policy can cover the cost of care in a nursing home, an assisted-living facility, or even your own home. But if you’re interested, don’t wait too long to buy it–you’ll need to be in good health. In addition, the older you are, the higher the premium you’ll pay.



You may also be able to rely on Medicaid to pay for long-term care if your assets and/or income are low enough to allow you to qualify. But check first with a financial professional or an attorney experienced in Medicaid planning. The rules surrounding this issue are numerous and complicated and can affect you, your spouse, and your beneficiaries and/or heirs.

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Evaluating an Early Retirement Offer

May 15, 2019

In today’s corporate environment, cost cutting, restructuring, and downsizing are the norm, and many employers are offering their employees early retirement packages. But how do you know if the seemingly attractive offer you’ve received is a good one? By evaluating it carefully to make sure that the offer fits your needs.

What’s the severance package?

Most early retirement offers include a severance package that is based on your annual salary and years of service at the company. For example, your employer might offer you one or two weeks’ salary (or even a month’s salary) for each year of service. Make sure that the severance package will be enough for you to make the transition to the next phase of your life. Also, make sure that you understand the payout options available to you. You may be able to take a lump-sum severance payment and then invest the money to provide income, or use it to meet large expenses. Or, you may be able to take deferred payments over several years to spread out your income tax bill on the money.

 

How does all of this affect your pension?

If your employer has a traditional pension plan, the retirement benefits you receive from the plan are based on your age, years of service, and annual salary. You typically must work until your company’s normal retirement age (usually 65) to receive the maximum benefits. This means that you may receive smaller benefits if you accept an offer to retire early. The difference between this reduced pension and a full pension could be large, because pension benefits typically accrue faster as you near retirement. However, your employer may provide you with larger pension benefits until you can start collecting Social Security at age 62. Or, your employer might boost your pension benefits by adding years to your age, length of service, or both. These types of pension sweeteners are key features to look for in your employer’s offer — especially if a reduced pension won’t give you enough income.

 

Does the offer include health insurance?

Does your employer’s early retirement offer include medical coverage for you and your family? If not, look at your other health insurance options, such as COBRA, a private policy, dependent coverage through your spouse’s employer-sponsored plan, or an individual health insurance policy through either a state-based or federal health insurance Exchange Marketplace. Because your health-care costs will probably increase as you age, an offer with no medical coverage may not be worth taking if these other options are unavailable or too expensive. Even if the offer does include medical coverage, make sure that you understand and evaluate the coverage. Will you be covered for life, or at least until you’re eligible for Medicare? Is the coverage adequate and affordable (some employers may cut benefits or raise premiums for early retirees)? If your employer’s coverage doesn’t meet your health insurance needs, you may be able to fill the gaps with other insurance.

 

What other benefits are available?

Some early retirement offers include employer-sponsored life insurance. This can help you meet your life insurance needs, and the coverage probably won’t cost you much (if anything). However, continued employer coverage is usually limited (e.g., one year’s coverage equal to your annual salary) or may not be offered at all. This may not be a problem if you already have enough life insurance elsewhere, or if you’re financially secure and don’t need life insurance. Otherwise, weigh your needs against the cost of buying an individual policy. You may also be able to convert some of your old employer coverage to an individual policy, though your premium will be higher than when you were employed.



In addition, a good early retirement offer may include other perks. Your employer may provide you and other early retirees with financial planning assistance. This can come in handy if you feel overwhelmed by all of the financial issues that early retirement brings. Your employer may also offer job placement assistance to help you find other employment. If you have company stock options, your employer may give you more time to exercise them. Other benefits, such as educational assistance, may also be available. Check with your employer to find out exactly what its offer includes.

 

Can you afford to retire early?

To decide if you should accept an early retirement offer, you can’t just look at the offer itself. You have to consider your total financial picture. Can you afford to retire early? Even if you can, will you still be able to reach all of your retirement goals? These are tough questions that a financial professional should help you sort out, but you can take some basic steps yourself.



Identify your sources of retirement income and the yearly amount you can expect from each source. Then, estimate your annual retirement expenses (don’t forget taxes and inflation) and make sure your income will be more than enough to meet them. You may find that you can accept your employer’s offer and probably still have the retirement lifestyle you want. But remember, these are only estimates. Build in a comfortable cushion in case your expenses increase, your income drops, or you live longer than expected.



If you don’t think you can afford early retirement, it may be better not to accept your employer’s offer. The longer you stay in the workforce, the shorter your retirement will be and the less money you’ll need to fund it. Working longer may also allow you to build larger savings in your IRAs, retirement plans, and investments. However, if you really want to retire early, making some smart choices may help you overcome the obstacles. Try to lower or eliminate some of your retirement expenses. Consider a more aggressive approach to investing. Take a part-time job for extra income. Finally, think about electing early Social Security benefits at age 62, but remember that your monthly benefit will be smaller if you do this.

 

What if you can’t afford to retire? Finding a new job

You may find yourself having to accept an early retirement offer, even though you can’t afford to retire. One way to make up for the difference between what you receive from your early retirement package and your old paycheck is to find a new job, but that doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your former line of work for a new career. You can start by finding out if your former employer would hire you as a consultant. Or, you may find that you would like to turn what was once just a hobby into a second career. Then there is always the possibility of finding full-time or part-time employment with a new company.



However, for the employee who has 20 years of service with the same company, the prospect of job hunting may be terrifying. If you have been out of the job market for a long time, you might not feel comfortable or have experience marketing yourself for a new job. Some companies provide career counseling to assist employees in re-entering the workforce. If your company does not provide you with this service, you may want to look into corporate outplacement firms and nonprofit organizations in your area that deal with career transition.



Note: Many early retirement offers contain non-competition agreements or offer monetary inducements on the condition that you agree not to work for a competitor. However, you’ll generally be able to work for a new employer and still receive your pension and other retirement plan benefits.

 

What will happen if you say no?

If you refuse early retirement, you may continue to thrive with your employer. You could earn promotions and salary raises that boost your pension. You could receive a second early retirement offer that’s better than the first one. But, you may not be so lucky. Consider whether your position could be eliminated down the road.



If the consequences of saying no are hard to predict, use your best judgment and seek professional advice. But don’t take too long. You may have only a short window of time, typically 60 to 90 days, to make your decision.

 

 

Estimating Your Retirement Income Needs

May 15, 2019


You know how important it is to plan for your retirement, but where do you begin? One of your first steps should be to estimate how much income you’ll need to fund your retirement. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because retirement planning is not an exact science. Your specific needs depend on your goals and many other factors.

Use your current income as a starting point

It’s common to discuss desired annual retirement income as a percentage of your current income. Depending on whom you’re talking to, that percentage could be anywhere from 60% to 90%, or even more. The appeal of this approach lies in its simplicity, and the fact that there’s a fairly common-sense analysis underlying it: Your current income sustains your present lifestyle, so taking that income and reducing it by a specific percentage to reflect the fact that there will be certain expenses you’ll no longer be liable for (e.g., payroll taxes) will, theoretically, allow you to sustain your current lifestyle.



The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t account for your specific situation. If you intend to travel extensively in retirement, for example, you might easily need 100% (or more) of your current income to get by. It’s fine to use a percentage of your current income as a benchmark, but it’s worth going through all of your current expenses in detail, and really thinking about how those expenses will change over time as you transition into retirement.

 

Project your retirement expenses

Your annual income during retirement should be enough (or more than enough) to meet your retirement expenses. That’s why estimating those expenses is a big piece of the retirement planning puzzle. But you may have a hard time identifying all of your expenses and projecting how much you’ll be spending in each area, especially if retirement is still far off. To help you get started, here are some common retirement expenses:



·         Food and clothing

·         Housing: Rent or mortgage payments, property taxes, homeowners insurance, property upkeep and repairs

·         Utilities: Gas, electric, water, telephone, cable TV

·         Transportation: Car payments, auto insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, public transportation

·         Insurance: Medical, dental, life, disability, long-term care

·         Health-care costs not covered by insurance: Deductibles, co-payments, prescription drugs

·         Taxes: Federal and state income tax, capital gains tax

·         Debts: Personal loans, business loans, credit card payments

·         Education: Children’s or grandchildren’s college expenses

·         Gifts: Charitable and personal

·         Savings and investments: Contributions to IRAs, annuities, and other investment accounts

·         Recreation: Travel, dining out, hobbies, leisure activities

·         Care for yourself, your parents, or others: Costs for a nursing home, home health aide, or other type of assisted living

·         Miscellaneous: Personal grooming, pets, club memberships

Don’t forget that the cost of living will go up over time. The average annual rate of inflation over the past 20 years has been approximately 2%.1 And keep in mind that your retirement expenses may change from year to year. For example, you may pay off your home mortgage or your children’s education early in retirement. Other expenses, such as health care and insurance, may increase as you age. To protect against these variables, build a comfortable cushion into your estimates (it’s always best to be conservative). Finally, have a financial professional help you with your estimates to make sure they’re as accurate and realistic as possible.

 

Decide when you’ll retire

To determine your total retirement needs, you can’t just estimate how much annual income you need. You also have to estimate how long you’ll be retired. Why? The longer your retirement, the more years of income you’ll need to fund it. The length of your retirement will depend partly on when you plan to retire. This important decision typically revolves around your personal goals and financial situation. For example, you may see yourself retiring at 50 to get the most out of your retirement. Maybe a booming stock market or a generous early retirement package will make that possible. Although it’s great to have the flexibility to choose when you’ll retire, it’s important to remember that retiring at 50 will end up costing you a lot more than retiring at 65.

 

Estimate your life expectancy

The age at which you retire isn’t the only factor that determines how long you’ll be retired. The other important factor is your lifespan. We all hope to live to an old age, but a longer life means that you’ll have even more years of retirement to fund. You may even run the risk of outliving your savings and other income sources. To guard against that risk, you’ll need to estimate your life expectancy. You can use government statistics, life insurance tables, or a life expectancy calculator to get a reasonable estimate of how long you’ll live. Experts base these estimates on your age, gender, race, health, lifestyle, occupation, and family history. But remember, these are just estimates. There’s no way to predict how long you’ll actually live, but with life expectancies on the rise, it’s probably best to assume you’ll live longer than you expect.

 

Identify your sources of retirement income

Once you have an idea of your retirement income needs, your next step is to assess how prepared you are to meet those needs. In other words, what sources of retirement income will be available to you? Your employer may offer a traditional pension that will pay you monthly benefits. In addition, you can likely count on Social Security to provide a portion of your retirement income. To get an estimate of your Social Security benefits, visit the Social Security Administration website (www.ssa.gov). Additional sources of retirement income may include a 401(k) or other retirement plan, IRAs, annuities, and other investments. The amount of income you receive from those sources will depend on the amount you invest, the rate of investment return, and other factors. Finally, if you plan to work during retirement, your job earnings will be another source of income.

 

Make up any income shortfall

If you’re lucky, your expected income sources will be more than enough to fund even a lengthy retirement. But what if it looks like you’ll come up short? Don’t panic — there are probably steps that you can take to bridge the gap. A financial professional can help you figure out the best ways to do that, but here are a few suggestions:



·         Try to cut current expenses so you’ll have more money to save for retirement

·         Shift your assets to investments that have the potential to substantially outpace inflation (but keep in mind that investments that offer higher potential returns may involve greater risk of loss)

·         Lower your expectations for retirement so you won’t need as much money (no beach house on the Riviera, for example)

·         Work part-time during retirement for extra income

·         Consider delaying your retirement for a few years (or longer)

1Calculated form Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2019

 

Deciding What to Do with Your 401(k) Plan When You Change Jobs

May 15, 2019

When you change jobs, you need to decide what to do with the money in your 401(k) plan. Should you leave it where it is or take it with you? Should you roll the money over into an IRA or into your new employer’s retirement plan?

As you consider your options, keep in mind that one of the greatest advantages of a 401(k) plan is that it allows you to save for retirement on a tax-deferred (or in the case of Roth accounts, potentially tax-free) basis. When changing jobs, it’s essential to consider the continued tax-deferral of these retirement funds, and, if possible, to avoid current taxes and penalties that can eat into the amount of money you’ve saved.

Take the money and run

When you leave your current employer, you can withdraw your 401(k) funds in a lump sum. To do this, simply instruct your 401(k) plan administrator to cut you a check. Then you’re free to do whatever you please with those funds. You can use them to meet expenses (e.g., medical bills, college tuition), put them toward a large purchase (e.g., a home or car), or invest them elsewhere.



While cashing out is certainly tempting, it’s almost never a good idea. Taking a lump sum distribution from your 401(k) can significantly reduce your retirement savings, and is generally not advisable unless you urgently need money and have no other alternatives. Not only will you miss out on the continued tax-deferral of your 401(k) funds, but you’ll also face an immediate tax bite.



First, you’ll have to pay federal (and possibly state) income tax on the money you withdraw (except for the amount of any after-tax contributions you’ve made). If the amount is large enough, you could even be pushed into a higher tax bracket for the year. If you’re under age 59½, you’ll generally have to pay a 10% premature distribution penalty tax in addition to regular income tax, unless you qualify for an exception. (For instance, you’re generally exempt from this penalty if you’re 55 or older when you leave your job.) And, because your employer is also required to withhold 20% of your distribution for federal taxes, the amount of cash you get may be significantly less than you expect.



If your 401(k) plan allows Roth contributions, qualified distributions of your Roth contributions and earnings will be free from federal income tax. If you receive a nonqualified distribution from a Roth 401(k) account, only the earnings (not your original Roth contributions) will be subject to income tax and potential early distribution penalties. (In general, a distribution is qualified if it is paid after you reach age 59½, become disabled, or die, and you have satisfied a five-year holding period.)

 

Leave the funds where they are

One option when you change jobs is simply to leave the funds in your old employer’s 401(k) plan where they will continue to grow tax deferred.



However, you may not always have this opportunity. If your vested 401(k) balance is $5,000 or less, your employer can require you to take your money out of the plan when you leave the company. (Your vested 401(k) balance consists of anything you’ve contributed to the plan, any employer contributions you have the right to receive, and any investment earnings on these contributions.) Your employer may also require that you withdraw your funds once you reach the plan’s normal retirement age.



Leaving your money in your old employer’s 401(k) plan may be a good idea if you’re happy with the investment alternatives offered or you need time to explore other options. You may also want to leave the funds where they are temporarily if your new employer offers a 401(k) plan but requires new employees to work for the company for a certain length of time before allowing them to participate. When the waiting period is up, you can have the plan administrator of your old employer’s 401(k) transfer your funds to your new employer’s 401(k) (assuming the new plan accepts rollover contributions).

 

Transfer the funds directly to your new employer’s retirement plan or to an IRA (a direct rollover)

Just as you can always withdraw the funds from your 401(k) when you leave your job, you can always roll over your 401(k) funds to your new employer’s retirement plan if the new plan allows it. You can also roll over your funds to a traditional IRA. You can either transfer the funds to a traditional IRA that you already have, or open a new IRA to receive the funds. There’s no dollar limit on how much 401(k) money you can transfer to an IRA.



You can also roll over (“convert”) your non-Roth 401(k) money to a Roth IRA. The taxable portion of your distribution from the 401(k) plan will be included in your income at the time of the rollover.



If you’ve made Roth contributions to your 401(k) plan, you can only roll those funds over into another Roth 401(k) plan or Roth 403(b) plan (if your new employer’s plan accepts rollovers) or to a Roth IRA.



Generally, the best way to roll over funds is to have your 401(k) plan directly transfer your funds to your new employer’s retirement plan or to an IRA you’ve established. A direct rollover is simply a transfer of assets from the trustee or custodian of one retirement savings plan to the trustee or custodian of another (a “trustee-to-trustee transfer”). It’s a seamless process that allows your retirement savings to remain tax deferred without interruption. Once you fill out the necessary paperwork, your 401(k) funds move directly to your new employer’s retirement plan or to your IRA; the money never passes through your hands. And, if you directly roll over your 401(k) funds following federal rollover rules, no federal income tax will be withheld.



Note: In some cases, your old plan may mail you a check made payable to the trustee or custodian of your employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA. If that happens, don’t be concerned. This is still considered to be a direct rollover. Bring or mail the check to the institution acting as trustee or custodian of your retirement plan or IRA.

 

Have the distribution check made out to you, then deposit the funds in your new employer’s retirement plan or in an IRA (an indirect rollover)

You can also roll over funds to an IRA or another employer-sponsored retirement plan (if that plan accepts rollover contributions) by having your 401(k) distribution check made out to you and depositing the funds to your new retirement savings vehicle yourself within 60 days. This is sometimes referred to as an indirect rollover.



However, think twice before choosing this option. Because you effectively have use of this money until you redeposit it, your 401(k) plan is required to withhold 20% for federal income taxes on the taxable portion of your distribution (you get credit for this withholding when you file your federal income tax return for the year). Unless you make up this 20% with out-of-pocket funds when you make your rollover deposit, the amount withheld will be considered a taxable distribution, subject to regular income tax and generally a 10% premature distribution penalty (if you’re under age 59½).



If you do choose to receive the funds through an indirect rollover, don’t put off redepositing the funds. If you don’t make your rollover deposit within 60 days, the entire amount will be considered a taxable distribution.

 

Which option is appropriate?

Is it better to leave your funds in a 401(k) plan (your current plan or a new employer’s plan), or roll them over into an IRA?



Each retirement savings vehicle has advantages and disadvantages. Here are some points to consider:



·         A traditional IRA can offer almost unlimited investment options; a 401(k) plan limits you to the investment options offered by the plan.

·         A 401(k) may offer a higher level of protection from creditors.

·         A 401(k) may allow you to borrow against the value of your account, depending on plan rules.

·         A 401(k) plan may allow penalty-free withdrawals if you leave your job at age 55 or later. Penalty-free withdrawals are generally not available from IRAs until age 59½.

·         You must take required minimum distributions from traditional IRAs once you reach age 70½. You generally don’t need to take required distributions from 401(k) plans until you retire.

·         Unlike Roth 401(k) accounts, you don’t need to take any lifetime required minimum distributions from Roth IRAs.

·         Employer stock may be eligible for more favorable tax treatment if distributed from a 401(k) plan rather than an IRA.

·         Both IRAs and 401(k) plans may involve investment-related expenses or account fees. In addition, both may provide services such as investment advice, education materials, and retirement planning. Be sure to understand what your plan provides, and what you may be giving up or gaining by transferring your funds.

Finally, no matter which option you choose, you may want to discuss your particular situation with a tax professional (as well as your plan administrator) before deciding what to do with the funds in your 401(k).

 

Closing a Retirement Income Gap

May 15, 2019

When you determine how much income you’ll need in retirement, you may base your projection on the type of lifestyle you plan to have and when you want to retire. However, as you grow closer to retirement, you may discover that your income won’t be enough to meet your needs. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll need to adopt a plan to bridge this projected income gap.

Delay retirement: 65 is just a number

One way of dealing with a projected income shortfall is to stay in the workforce longer than you had planned. This will allow you to continue supporting yourself with a salary rather than dipping into your retirement savings. Depending on your income, this could also increase your Social Security retirement benefit. You’ll also be able to delay taking your Social Security benefit or distributions from retirement accounts.



At normal retirement age (which varies, depending on the year you were born), you will receive your full Social Security retirement benefit. You can elect to receive your Social Security retirement benefit as early as age 62, but if you begin receiving your benefit before your normal retirement age, your benefit will be reduced. Conversely, if you delay retirement, you can increase your Social Security benefit.



Remember, too, that income from a job may affect the amount of Social Security retirement benefit you receive if you are under normal retirement age. Your benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain earnings limit ($17,640 in 2019, up from $17,040 in 2018). But once you reach normal retirement age, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your Social Security retirement benefit.



Another advantage of delaying retirement is that you can continue to build tax-deferred (or in the case of Roth accounts, tax-free) funds in your IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan. Keep in mind, though, that you may be required to start taking minimum distributions from your qualified retirement plan or traditional IRA once you reach age 70½, if you want to avoid harsh penalties.



And if you’re covered by a pension plan at work, you could also consider retiring and then seeking employment elsewhere. This way you can receive a salary and your pension benefit at the same time. Some employers, to avoid losing talented employees this way, are beginning to offer “phased retirement” programs that allow you to receive all or part of your pension benefit while you’re still working. Make sure you understand your pension plan options.

 

Spend less, save more

You may be able to deal with an income shortfall by adjusting your spending habits. If you’re still years away from retirement, you may be able to get by with a few minor changes. However, if retirement is just around the corner, you may need to drastically change your spending and saving habits. Saving even a little money can really add up if you do it consistently and earn a reasonable rate of return. Make permanent changes to your spending habits and you’ll find that your savings will last even longer. Start by preparing a budget to see where your money is going. Here are some suggested ways to stretch your retirement dollars:



·         Refinance your home mortgage if interest rates have dropped since you took the loan.

·         Reduce your housing expenses by moving to a less expensive home or apartment.

·         Sell one of your cars if you have two. When your remaining car needs to be replaced, consider buying a used one.

·         Access the equity in your home. Use the proceeds from a second mortgage or home equity line of credit to pay off higher-interest-rate debts.

·         Transfer credit card balances from higher-interest cards to a low- or no-interest card, and then cancel the old accounts.

·         Ask about insurance discounts and review your insurance needs (e.g., your need for life insurance may have lessened).

·         Reduce discretionary expenses such as lunches and dinners out.

Earmark the money you save for retirement and invest it immediately. If you can take advantage of an IRA, 401(k), or other tax-deferred retirement plan, you should do so. Funds invested in a tax-deferred account may grow more rapidly than funds invested in a non-tax-deferred account.

 

Reallocate your assets: consider investing more aggressively

Some people make the mistake of investing too conservatively to achieve their retirement goals. That’s not surprising, because as you take on more risk, your potential for loss grows as well. But greater risk also generally entails potentially greater reward. And with life expectancies rising and people retiring earlier, retirement funds need to last a long time.



That’s why if you are facing a projected income shortfall, you may want to consider shifting some of your assets to investments that have the potential to substantially outpace inflation. The amount of investment dollars you might consider keeping in growth-oriented investments depends on your time horizon (how long you have to save) and your tolerance for risk. In general, the longer you have until retirement, the more aggressive you can typically afford to be. Still, if you are at or near retirement, you may want to keep some of your funds in growth-oriented investments, even if you decide to keep the bulk of your funds in more conservative, fixed-income investments. Get advice from a financial professional if you need help deciding how your assets should be allocated.



And remember, no matter how you decide to allocate your money, rebalance your portfolio periodically. Your needs will change over time, and so should your investment strategy. Note: Rebalancing may carry tax consequences. Asset allocation and diversification cannot guarantee a profit or insure against a loss. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful; all investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal.

 

Accept reality: lower your standard of living

If your projected income shortfall is severe enough or if you’re already close to retirement, you may realize that no matter what measures you take, you will not be able to afford the retirement lifestyle you’ve dreamed of. In other words, you will have to lower your expectations and accept a lower standard of living.



Fortunately, this may be easier to do than when you were younger. Although some expenses, like health care, generally increase in retirement, other expenses, like housing costs and automobile expenses, tend to decrease. And it’s likely that your days of paying college bills and growing-family expenses are over.



Once you are within a few years of retirement, you can prepare a realistic budget that will help you manage your money in retirement. Think long term: Retirees frequently get into budget trouble in the early years of retirement, when they are adjusting to their new lifestyles. Remember that when you are retired, every day is Saturday, so it’s easy to start overspending.

 

Choosing a Beneficiary for Your IRA

May 15, 2019
Choosing

Selecting beneficiaries for retirement benefits is different from choosing beneficiaries for other assets such as life insurance. With retirement benefits, you need to know the impact of income tax and estate tax laws in order to select the right beneficiaries. Although taxes shouldn’t be the sole determining factor in naming your beneficiaries, ignoring the impact of taxes could lead you to make an incorrect choice.

In addition, if you’re married, beneficiary designations may affect the size of minimum required distributions to you from your IRAs and retirement plans while you’re alive.

Paying income tax on most retirement distributions

Most inherited assets such as bank accounts, stocks, and real estate pass to your beneficiaries without income tax being due. However, that’s not usually the case with 401(k) plans and IRAs.



Beneficiaries pay ordinary income tax on distributions from pretax 401(k) accounts and traditional IRAs. With Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k) accounts, however, your beneficiaries can receive the benefits free from income tax if all of the tax requirements are met. That means you need to consider the impact of income taxes when designating beneficiaries for your 401(k) and IRA assets.



For example, if one of your children inherits $100,000 cash from you and another child receives your pretax 401(k) account worth $100,000, they aren’t receiving the same amount. The reason is that all distributions from the 401(k) plan will be subject to income tax at ordinary income tax rates, while the cash isn’t subject to income tax when it passes to your child upon your death.



Similarly, if one of your children inherits your taxable traditional IRA and another child receives your income-tax-free Roth IRA, the bottom line is different for each of them.

 

Naming or changing beneficiaries

When you open up an IRA or begin participating in a 401(k), you are given a form to complete in order to name your beneficiaries. Changes are made in the same way–you complete a new beneficiary designation form. A will or trust does not override your beneficiary designation form. However, spouses may have special rights under federal or state law.



It’s a good idea to review your beneficiary designation form at least every two to three years. Also, be sure to update your form to reflect changes in financial circumstances. Beneficiary designations are important estate planning documents. Seek legal advice as needed.

 

Designating primary and secondary beneficiaries

When it comes to beneficiary designation forms, you want to avoid gaps. If you don’t have a named beneficiary who survives you, your estate may end up as the beneficiary, which is not always the best result.



Your primary beneficiary is your first choice to receive retirement benefits. You can name more than one person or entity as your primary beneficiary. If your primary beneficiary doesn’t survive you or decides to decline the benefits (the tax term for this is a disclaimer), then your secondary (or “contingent”) beneficiaries receive the benefits.

 

Having multiple beneficiaries

You can name more than one beneficiary to share in the proceeds. You just need to specify the percentage each beneficiary will receive (the shares do not have to be equal). You should also state who will receive the proceeds should a beneficiary not survive you.



In some cases, you’ll want to designate a different beneficiary for each account or have one account divided into subaccounts (with a beneficiary for each subaccount). You’d do this to allow each beneficiary to use his or her own life expectancy in calculating required distributions after your death. This, in turn, can permit greater tax deferral (delay) and flexibility for your beneficiaries in paying income tax on distributions.

 

Avoiding gaps or naming your estate as a beneficiary

There are two ways your retirement benefits could end up in your probate estate. Probate is the court process by which assets are transferred from someone who has died to the heirs or beneficiaries entitled to those assets.



First, you might name your estate as the beneficiary. Second, if no named beneficiary survives you, your probate estate may end up as the beneficiary by default. If your probate estate is your beneficiary, several problems can arise.



If your estate receives your retirement benefits, the opportunity to maximize tax deferral by spreading out distributions may be lost. In addition, probate can mean paying attorney’s and executor’s fees and delaying the distribution of benefits.

 

Naming your spouse as a beneficiary

When it comes to taxes, your spouse is usually the best choice for a primary beneficiary.



A spousal beneficiary has the greatest flexibility for delaying distributions that are subject to income tax. In addition to rolling over your 401(k) or IRA to his or her IRA or plan, a surviving spouse can generally decide to treat your IRA as his or her own IRA. These options can provide more tax and planning options.



If your spouse is more than 10 years younger than you, then naming your spouse can also reduce the size of any required taxable distributions to you from retirement assets while you’re alive. This can allow more assets to stay in the retirement account longer and delay the payment of income tax on distributions.



Although naming a surviving spouse can produce the best income tax result, that isn’t necessarily the case with death taxes. At your death, your spouse can inherit an unlimited amount of assets and defer federal death tax until both of you are deceased (note: special tax rules and requirements apply for a surviving spouse who is not a U.S. citizen). If your spouse’s taxable estate for federal tax purposes at his or her death exceeds the applicable exclusion amount, then federal death tax may be due. In other words, one possible downside to naming your spouse as the primary beneficiary is that it may increase the size of your spouse’s estate for death tax purposes, which in turn may result in death tax or increased death tax when your spouse dies.



Naming other individuals as beneficiaries

You may have some limits on choosing beneficiaries other than your spouse. No matter where you live, federal law dictates that your surviving spouse be the primary beneficiary of your 401(k) plan benefit unless your spouse signs a timely, effective written waiver. And if you live in one of the community property states, your spouse may have rights related to your IRA regardless of whether he or she is named as the primary beneficiary.



Keep in mind that a nonspouse beneficiary cannot roll over your 401(k) or IRA to his or her own IRA. However, a nonspouse beneficiary can directly roll over all or part of your 401(k) benefits to an inherited IRA.

 

Naming a trust as a beneficiary

You must follow special tax rules when naming a trust as a beneficiary, and there may be income tax complications. Seek legal advice before designating a trust as a beneficiary.

 

Naming a charity as a beneficiary

In general, naming a charity as the primary beneficiary will not affect required distributions to you during your lifetime. However, after your death, having a charity named with other beneficiaries on the same asset could affect the tax-deferral possibilities of the noncharitable beneficiaries, depending on how soon after your death the charity receives its share of the benefits.

 

Buying Supplemental Health Insurance: Medigap

May 14, 2019

Medicare won’t cover all of your health-care costs during retirement, so you may want to buy a supplemental medical insurance policy known as Medigap. Offered by private insurance companies, Medigap policies are designed to cover costs not paid by Original Medicare, helping you fill the gaps in your Medicare coverage.

When’s the best time to buy a Medigap policy?

The best time to buy a Medigap policy is during open enrollment, when you can’t be turned down or charged more because you are in poor health. If you are age 65 or older, your open enrollment period starts on the first day of the month in which you’re both 65 or older and enrolled in Medicare Part B. A few states also require that a limited open enrollment period be offered to Medicare beneficiaries under age 65.



If you don’t buy a Medigap policy during open enrollment, you may not be able to buy the policy that you want later. You may find yourself having to settle for whatever type of policy an insurance company is willing to sell you. That is because insurers have greater freedom to deny applications or charge higher premiums for health reasons once open enrollment closes.

 

What’s covered in a Medigap policy?

Under federal law, only 10 standardized plans can be offered as Medigap plans (except in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, which have their own standardized plans). The plans currently sold are Plans A-D, Plans F and G, and Plans K-N. Each Medigap plan offers a different set of benefits. All cover certain out-of-pocket costs, including Medicare coinsurance amounts. Some plans also cover other costs, such as all or part of Medicare Part A and Part B deductibles, foreign travel emergency costs, and Medicare Part B excess charges.



Medigap policies do not cover certain health-care expenses, including long-term care, vision care, dental care, or prescription drugs (to obtain prescription drug coverage you can purchase a Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan).



You can buy the Medigap plan that best suits your needs. But it’s important to note that not all Medigap plans are available in every state.

 

Are all Medigap policies created equal?

Generally, yes. Although Medigap policies are sold through private insurance companies, they’re standardized and regulated by state and federal law. A Plan B purchased through an insurance company in New York will offer the same coverage as a Plan B purchased through an insurance company in Texas. All you have to do is decide which plan that you want to buy.



However, even though the plans that insurance companies offer are identical, the quality of the companies that offer the plans may be different. Look closely at each company’s reputation, financial strength, and customer service standards. And check out what you’ll pay for Medigap coverage. Medigap premiums vary widely, both from company to company and from state to state. You can find a tool on the Medicare website, medicare.gov, that will help you compare Medigap policies offered in your area. You can also visit this website to find other important information on how Medigap policies work with Medicare.

 

Does everyone need Medigap?

No. In fact, it’s illegal for an insurance company to sell you a Medigap policy that substantially duplicates any existing coverage you have, including Medicare coverage. You don’t need a Medigap policy if you join a Medicare Advantage plan or a private fee-for-service plan, or if you qualify for Medicaid or have group coverage through your spouse.



You may also not need to buy a Medigap policy if you work past age 65 and have employer-sponsored health insurance. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to enroll in Medicare Part A, since it’s free. Remember that if you enroll in Medicare Part B, your open enrollment period for Medigap starts. If you don’t buy a Medigap policy within six months, you may be denied coverage later or charged a higher premium, so you may want to wait to enroll in Medicare Part B until your employer coverage ends.



In addition, you may not need to buy a Medigap policy if you are covered by an employer-sponsored health plan after you retire (e.g., as part of a retirement severance package). In this case, your employer’s plan may cover costs that Medicare doesn’t. If you have any questions about your coverage, talk to your employer’s benefits coordinator.

 

Borrowing or Withdrawing Money from 401 (k) Plan

May 14, 2019
Borrowi


If you have a 401 (k) plan at work and need some cash, you might be tempted to borrow or withdraw
money from it. But keep in mind that the purpose of a 401(k) is to save for
retirement. Take money out of it now, and you’ll risk running out of money
during retirement. You may also face stiff tax consequences and penalties for
withdrawing money before age 59½. Still, if you’re facing a financial emergency
— for instance, your child’s college tuition is almost due and your 401(k) is
your only source of available funds — borrowing or withdrawing money from your
401(k) may be your only option.

Plan loans

To find out if you’re allowed to borrow
from your 401(k) plan and under what circumstances, check with your plan’s
administrator or read your summary plan description. Some employers allow
401(k) loans only in cases of financial hardship, but you may be able to borrow
money to buy a car, to improve your home, or to use for other purposes.



Generally, obtaining a 401(k) loan is
easy — there’s little paperwork, and there’s no credit check. The fees are
limited, too — you may be charged a small processing fee, but that’s generally
it.

 

How much can you borrow?

No matter how much you have in your
401(k) plan, you probably won’t be able to borrow the entire sum. Generally,
you can’t borrow more than $50,000 or one-half of your vested plan benefits,
whichever is less. (An exception applies if your account value is less than
$20,000; in this case, you may be able to borrow up to $10,000, even if this is
your entire balance.)

 

What are the requirements for repaying the loan?

Typically, you have to repay money
you’ve borrowed from your 401(k) within five years by making regular payments
of principal and interest at least quarterly, often through payroll deduction.
However, if you use the funds to purchase a primary residence, you may have a
much longer period of time to repay the loan.



Make sure you follow to the letter the
repayment requirements for your loan. If you don’t repay the loan as required,
the money you borrowed will be considered a taxable distribution. If you’re under
age 59½, you’ll owe a 10% federal penalty tax, as well as regular income tax,
on the outstanding loan balance (other than the portion that represents any
after-tax or Roth contributions you’ve made to the plan).

 

What are the advantages of borrowing money from your 401(k)?

·        
You won’t pay taxes and penalties on the amount you borrow, as
long as the loan is repaid on time

·        
Interest rates on 401(k) plan loans must be consistent with the
rates charged by banks and other commercial institutions for similar loans

·        
In most cases, the interest you pay on borrowed funds is credited
to your own plan account; you pay interest to yourself, not to a bank or other
lender

What are the disadvantages of borrowing money from your 401(k)?

·        
If you don’t repay your plan loan when required, it will generally
be treated as a taxable distribution.

·        
If you leave your employer’s service (whether voluntarily or not)
and still have an outstanding balance on a plan loan, the outstanding amount of
the loan will be considered a distribution. You’ll usually be required to repay
the amount in full (or roll over the amount to another 401(k) plan or IRA) by
the tax filing deadline (including extensions) of the year following the year
the amount is determined to be a distribution (i.e., the year you leave your
employer). Otherwise, the outstanding balance will be treated as a taxable
distribution, and you’ll owe a 10% penalty tax (if you’re under age 59½) in
addition to regular income taxes.

·        
Loan interest is generally not tax deductible (unless the loan is
secured by your principal residence).

·        
In most cases, the amount you borrow is removed from your 401(k)
plan account, and your loan payments are credited back to your account. You’ll
lose out on any tax-deferred (or, in the case of Roth accounts, potentially
tax-free) investment earnings that may have accrued on the borrowed funds had
they remained in your 401(k) plan account.

·        
Loan payments are made with after-tax dollars.

Hardship withdrawals

Your 401(k) plan may have a provision
that allows you to withdraw money from the plan while you’re still employed if
you can demonstrate “heavy and immediate” financial need, have
exhausted all other available distribution options (and, possibly, loan
options) from your retirement plans, and have no other resources you can use to
meet that need (e.g., you can’t borrow from a commercial lender and you have no
other available savings). (Note: Beginning in 2019, the rule requiring
participants to exhaust plan loan options before applying for a hardship
withdrawal has been eliminated. Although it is no longer a mandate that
plan sponsors impose the loan requirement, it remains an optional feature.*)
It’s up to your employer to determine which financial needs qualify. Many
employers allow hardship withdrawals only for the following reasons:



·        
To pay the medical expenses of you, your spouse, your children,
your other dependents, or your primary beneficiary

·        
To pay the burial or funeral expenses of your parent, your spouse,
your children, your other dependents, or your primary beneficiary

·        
To pay a maximum of 12 months worth of tuition and related
educational expenses for post-secondary education for you, your spouse, your
children, your other dependents, or your plan beneficiary

·        
To pay costs related to the purchase of your principal residence

·        
To make payments to prevent eviction from or foreclosure on your
principal residence

·        
To pay expenses for the repair of damage to your principal
residence after certain casualty losses

·        
To pay expenses and losses (including loss of income) incurred as
a result of a disaster declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
such as a hurricane or wildfire (provided the participant’s principal residence
or place of employment is located in the federally declared disaster area)

Note: You may also be allowed to
withdraw funds to pay income tax and/or penalties on the hardship withdrawal
itself, if these are due. Your plan may require that your contributions be
suspended for a period of six months; this requirement will not be permitted
after December 31, 2019.*



Your employer may require that you
submit your request for a hardship withdrawal in writing. (For distributions
made on or after January 1, 2020, an employee must represent
that he or she has no other means of meeting this financial need.*)

 

How much can you withdraw?

Depending on plan rules, you may be
able to withdraw your contributions, safe harbor employer contributions, and
your employer’s qualified nonelective and matching contribuitons, as well as
earnings on those contributions.* Check with your plan administrator for more
information on the rules that apply to withdrawals from your 401(k) plan.

 

What are the advantages of withdrawing money from your 401(k) in
cases of hardship?

The option to take a hardship
withdrawal can come in very handy if you really need money and you have no
other assets to draw on, and your plan does not allow loans (or if you can’t
afford to make loan payments).

 

What are the disadvantages of withdrawing money from your 401(k)
in cases of hardship?

·        
Taking a hardship withdrawal will reduce the size of your
retirement nest egg, and the funds you withdraw will no longer grow tax
deferred.

·        
Hardship withdrawals are generally subject to federal (and
possibly state) income tax. A 10% federal penalty tax may also apply if you’re
under age 59½. (If you make a hardship withdrawal of your Roth 401(k)
contributions, only the portion of the withdrawal representing earnings will be
subject to tax and penalties.)

·        
You may not be able to contribute to your 401(k) plan for six
months following a hardship distribution taken in 2019.*

What else do I need to know?

If you are a reservist called to active
duty after September 11, 2001, special rules may apply to you.



*Pending adoption of new hardship
distribution rules proposed by the IRS on November 18, 2018

 

Annuities and Retirement Planning

May 14, 2019
Annut

You may have heard that IRAs and employer-sponsored plans (e.g., 401(k)s) are the best ways to invest for retirement. That’s true for many people, but what if you’ve maxed out your contributions to those accounts and want to save more? An annuity may be a good investment to look into.

Get the lay of the land

An annuity is a tax-deferred insurance contract. The details on how it works vary, but here’s the general idea. You invest your money (either a lump sum or a series of contributions) with a life insurance company that sells annuities (the annuity issuer). The period when you are funding the annuity is known as the accumulation phase. In exchange for your investment, the annuity issuer promises to make payments to you or a named beneficiary at some point in the future. The period when you are receiving payments from the annuity is known as the distribution phase. Chances are, you’ll start receiving payments after you retire. Annuities may be subject to certain charges and expenses, including mortality charges, surrender charges, administrative fees, and other charges.

 

Understand your payout options

Understanding your annuity payout options is very important. Keep in mind that payments are based on the claims-paying ability of the issuer. You want to be sure that the payments you receive will meet your income needs during retirement. Here are some of the most common payout options:



·         You surrender the annuity and receive a lump-sum payment of all of the money you have accumulated.

·         You receive payments from the annuity over a specific number of years, typically between 5 and 20. If you die before this “period certain” is up, your beneficiary will receive the remaining payments.

·         You receive payments from the annuity for your entire lifetime. You can’t outlive the payments (no matter how long you live), but there will typically be no survivor payments after you die.

·         You combine a lifetime annuity with a period certain annuity. This means that you receive payments for the longer of your lifetime or the time period chosen. Again, if you die before the period certain is up, your beneficiary will receive the remaining payments.

·         You elect a joint and survivor annuity so that payments last for the combined life of you and another person, usually your spouse. When one of you dies, the survivor receives payments for the rest of his or her life.

When you surrender the annuity for a lump sum, your tax bill on the investment earnings will be due all in one year. The other options on this list provide you with a guaranteed stream of income (subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuer). They’re known as annuitization options because you’ve elected to spread payments over a period of years. Part of each payment is a return of your principal investment. The other part is taxable investment earnings. You typically receive payments at regular intervals throughout the year (usually monthly, but sometimes quarterly or yearly). The amount of each payment depends on the amount of your principal investment, the particular type of annuity, your selected payout option, the length of the payout period, and your age if payments are to be made over your lifetime.

 

Consider the pros and cons

An annuity can often be a great addition to your retirement portfolio. Here are some reasons to consider investing in an annuity:



·         Your investment earnings are tax deferred as long as they remain in the annuity. You don’t pay income tax on those earnings until they are paid out to you.

·         An annuity may be free from the claims of your creditors in some states.

·         If you die with an annuity, the annuity’s death benefit will pass to your beneficiary without having to go through probate.

·         Your annuity can be a reliable source of retirement income, and you have some freedom to decide how you’ll receive that income.

·         You don’t have to meet income tests or other criteria to invest in an annuity.

·         You’re not subject to an annual contribution limit, unlike IRAs and employer-sponsored plans. You can contribute as much or as little as you like in any given year.

·         You’re not required to start taking distributions from an annuity at age 70½ (the required minimum distribution age for IRAs and employer-sponsored plans). You can typically postpone payments until you need the income.

But annuities aren’t for everyone. Here are some potential drawbacks:



·         Contributions to nonqualified annuities are made with after-tax dollars and are not tax deductible.

·         Once you’ve elected to annuitize payments, you usually can’t change them, but there are some exceptions.

·         You can take your money from an annuity before you start receiving payments, but your annuity issuer may impose a surrender charge if you withdraw your money within a certain number of years (e.g., seven) after your original investment.

·         You may have to pay other costs when you invest in an annuity (e.g., annual fees, investment management fees, insurance expenses).

·         You may be subject to a 10% federal penalty tax (in addition to any regular income tax) if you withdraw earnings from an annuity before age 59½, unless you meet one of the exceptions to this rule.

·         Investment gains are taxed at ordinary income tax rates, not at the lower capital gains rate.

Choose the right type of annuity

If you think that an annuity is right for you, your next step is to decide which type of annuity. Overwhelmed by all of the annuity products on the market today? Don’t be. In fact, most annuities fit into a small handful of categories. Your choices basically revolve around two key questions.



First, how soon would you like annuity payments to begin? That probably depends on how close you are to retiring. If you’re near retirement or already retired, an immediate annuity may be your best bet. This type of annuity starts making payments to you shortly after you buy the annuity, typically within a year or less. But what if you’re younger, and retirement is still a long-term goal? Then you’re probably better off with a deferred annuity. As the name suggests, this type of annuity lets you postpone payments until a later time, even if that’s many years down the road.



Second, how would you like your money invested? With a fixed annuity, the annuity issuer determines an interest rate to credit to your investment account. An immediate fixed annuity guarantees a particular rate, and your payment amount never varies. A deferred fixed annuity guarantees your rate for a certain number of years; your rate then fluctuates from year to year as market interest rates change. A variable annuity, whether immediate or deferred, gives you more control and the chance to earn a better rate of return (although with a greater potential for gain comes a greater potential for loss of principal). You select your own investments from the subaccounts that the annuity issuer offers. Your payment amount will vary based on how your investments perform.



Note: Variable annuities are long-term investments suitable for retirement funding and are subject to market fluctuations and investment risk including the possibility of loss of principal. Variable annuities contain fees and charges including, but not limited to mortality and expense risk charges, sales and surrender (early withdrawal) charges, administrative fees and charges for optional benefits and riders.



Variable annuities are sold by prospectus. You should consider the investment objectives, risk, charges and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the variable annuity, can be obtained from the insurance company issuing the variable annuity or from your financial professional. You should read the prospectus carefully before you invest.

 

Shop around

It pays to shop around for the right annuity. In fact, doing a little homework could save you hundreds of dollars a year or more. Why? Rates of return and costs can vary widely between different annuities. You’ll also want to shop around for a reputable, financially sound annuity issuer. There are firms that make a business of rating insurance companies based on their financial strength, investment performance, and other factors. Consider checking out these ratings.

 

 

Annuity Basics

May 14, 2019

.An annuity is a contract between you, the purchaser or owner, and an insurance company, the annuity issuer. In its simplest form, you pay money to an annuity issuer, and the issuer pays out the principal and earnings back to you or to a named beneficiary. Life insurance companies first developed annuities to provide income to individuals during their retirement years.

Annuities are either qualified or nonqualified. Qualified annuities are used in connection with tax-advantaged retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, Section 403(b) retirement plans (TSAs), or IRAs. Qualified annuities are subject to the contribution, withdrawal, and tax rules that apply to tax-advantaged retirement plans. One of the attractive aspects of a nonqualified annuity is that its earnings are tax deferred until you begin to receive payments back from the annuity issuer. In this respect, an annuity is similar to a qualified retirement plan. Over a long period of time, your investment in an annuity can grow substantially larger than if you had invested money in a comparable taxable investment. Like a qualified retirement plan, a 10 percent tax penalty on the taxable portion of the distribution may be imposed if you begin withdrawals from an annuity before age 59½. Unlike a qualified retirement plan, contributions to a nonqualified annuity are not tax deductible, and taxes are paid only on the earnings when distributed.

Four parties to an annuity contract

There are four parties to an annuity contract: the annuity issuer, the owner, the annuitant, and the beneficiary. The annuity issuer is the company (e.g., an insurance company) that issues the annuity. The owner is the individual or other entity who buys the annuity from the annuity issuer and makes the contributions to the annuity. The annuitant is the individual whose life will be used as the measuring life for determining the timing and amount of distribution benefits that will be paid out. The owner and the annuitant are usually the same person but do not have to be. Finally, the beneficiary is the person who receives a death benefit from the annuity at the death of the annuitant.

 

Two distinct phases to an annuity

There are two distinct phases to an annuity: (1) the accumulation (or investment) phase and (2) the distribution phase.



The accumulation (or investment) phase is the time period when you add money to the annuity. When using this option, you’ll have purchased a deferred annuity. You can purchase the annuity in one lump sum (known as a single premium annuity), or you make investments periodically, over time.



The distribution phase is when you begin receiving distributions from the annuity. You have two general options for receiving distributions from your annuity. Under the first option, you can withdraw some or all of the money in the annuity in lump sums.



The second option (commonly referred to as the guaranteed income or annuitization option) provides you with a guaranteed income stream from the annuity for your entire lifetime (no matter how long you live) or for a specific period of time (e.g., 10 years). (Guarantees are based on the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.) This option generally can be elected several years after you purchased your deferred annuity. Or, if you want to invest in an annuity and start receiving payments within the first year, you’ll purchase what is known as an immediate annuity.



You can also elect to receive the annuity payments over both your lifetime and the lifetime of another person. This option is known as a joint and survivor annuity. Under a joint and survivor annuity, the annuity issuer promises to pay you an amount of money on a periodic basis (e.g., monthly, quarterly, or yearly). The amount you receive for each payment period will depend on how much money you have in the annuity, how earnings are credited to your account (whether fixed or variable), and the age at which you begin the annuitization phase. The length of the distribution period will also affect how much you receive.

 

When is an annuity appropriate?

It is important to understand that annuities can be an excellent tool if you use them properly. Annuities are not right for everyone.



Nonqualified annuity contributions are not tax deductible. That’s why most experts advise funding other retirement plans first. However, if you have already contributed the maximum allowable amount to other available retirement plans, an annuity can be an excellent choice. There is no limit to how much you can invest in a nonqualified annuity, and like other qualified retirement plans, the funds are allowed to grow tax deferred until you begin taking distributions.



Annuities are designed to be long-term investment vehicles. In most cases, you’ll pay a penalty for early withdrawals. And if you take a lump-sum distribution of your annuity funds within the first few years after purchasing your annuity, you may be subject to surrender charges imposed by the issuer. As long as you’re sure you won’t need the money until at least age 59½, an annuity is worth considering. If your needs are more short term, you should explore other options.