Here's a unique tax-avoidance strategy: Marry a younger person. The IRS says that if your spouse is at least 10 years younger than you, you're entitled to take smaller required minimum distributions (RMDs) in retirement. You'll owe less in taxes on those reduced distributions.
So you say that tactic isn't in the cards? Then consider these other options:
To encourage savers to fully fund retirement far into the future, the IRS now allows IRA owners to use a portion of balances toward buying "qualified longevity annuity contracts." You don't have to take an RMD from that portion of your IRA until age 85, compared with age 70½, when you normally have to take RMDs. That should save you in taxes.
With a longevity annuity, you pay a one-time, lump-sum premium, or periodic premiums early on. You then get guaranteed income later in life. The IRS currently exempts longevity annuity premiums of up to $125,000 or 25 percent of your IRA account, whichever amount is less. Traditional, SEP-IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and 401(k) plans are included, as are 403(b) and 457 plans.
Roth IRA balances are not subject to RMDs while the original owner is alive because the tax on the principal already has been paid. Converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA makes sense if you believe your ordinary income tax rate in later years will be higher, says Benjamin Gurwitz, a wealth manager at Financial Life Advisors in San Antonio.
A good time to do that is when there's a temporary dip in your income. If, for instance, you retire at age 66 but defer claiming Social Security till 70, your income in those four years could be smaller and subject to a lower marginal income tax rate than in later years when you have to start collecting Social Security and taking RMDs. Assuming you have enough other savings, use the opportunity to convert some IRA investments to Roths, paying at the lower tax rate. Later, when you must begin taking Social Security, you'll have lowered your required minimum distributions and your overall tax bill.
Each year Gurwitz's firm estimates for clients how much they'll be able to convert to a Roth; he then goes as far as to set up two Roth accounts for each client, one filled with bonds and one with stocks. Before the tax return is filed, they review the accounts' performances. Whichever account has gained more continues as a Roth account and the client pays taxes on its conversion. The other account is recharacterized before year-end as a traditional IRA, and no tax is due. Recharacterization requires some simple paperwork, nothing more.
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You'll have the most flexibility with your investments, and the most opportunity to manipulate your RMDs, by owning investment and retirement accounts subject to different tax treatments.
Think of it as a tax portfolio. Taxable brokerage accounts are a good place to put some high-growth investments because long-term capital gains are taxed at favorable rates. Roths work for investments like equities that you expect to grow the most. IRAs are where you can locate slow-growth investments with reinvested dividends that won't generate as much ordinary income tax when you take out your RMDs. "By overweighting bonds in retirement accounts, you'll pay less tax because you don't pay ordinary income," Gurwitz explains.
With a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD, contributions of up to $100,000 made directly from an IRA to a qualified charity are not taxable. With that tactic you remove money from your IRA tax-free, reduce the base upon which your RMD for that year is calculated, and give to a worthy cause.
This tax break was available in 2014 and has since lapsed. However, it still could be available for tax-year 2015; lawmakers have acted to renew it several years in a row, typically in late December. Regardless of what they do, Michael Kitces, a financial planner based in Reston, Va., suggests investors should proceed:
"At worst, if the rules are not reinstated, the outcome will be no worse than just being forced to take an RMD and making a charitable contribution anyway (with the not-perfectly-offsetting tax deduction)," Kitces writes in a recent blog. "However, if the rules are brought back once again, those who make direct charitable distributions from their IRAs will enjoy all the benefits of QCDs … even if the rules are only 'fixed' after the fact!"
To perform that tactic, you must be 70½ or older. Ask your IRA custodian to make a distribution from your account and send it directly to a qualifying charity. (To identify qualifying charities, go to irs.gov and type "search for charities" in the search box.)
Folks age 70½ who don't itemize their taxes stand to benefit the most from a QCD, mainly because they have fewer options than itemizers to search for tax savings, says Jeff Bucher, president of Citizen Advisory Group in Perrysburg, Ohio. The charitable contribution can be up to $100,000.