Many taxpayers walk into our offices at the Watson CPA Group and tell us they want to pay fewer taxes. Who doesn’t? We usually chuckle, and tell the client that he or she is the only one and it is sooooo refreshing to hear someone want to pay fewer taxes. Sorry for being snarky, but taxes are a way of life. And Yes, our job is to have you pay your fair share of taxes and not a dollar more.
Tax savings comes in four variants- you can lie, cheat and steal, or you can understand the allowances and wiggle room afforded by the IRS code. We prefer the latter of course although the audit rate risk of 0.4% for S Corps makes it all too tempting. Darn laws and ethics!
However, notice how 401k plans, IRAs, and other tax-deferred vehicles are not listed as one of the four ways to save taxes within self-employed retirement plans. A tax deferral is not automatically a tax-savings technique- it might be. It might not be. In true accountant fashion, it depends.
This is a real life case- we have two Boeing engineers who saved about $1 million in the company 401k plan. The employee deferrals were all pre-tax, so they avoided about $250,000 in taxes since they were in the 25% marginal tax rate. Not bad.
However, they currently have four children, a house mortgage, and the usual tax deductions of a household of this size and age. When this couple retires in 2025, their marginal tax rate will increase to 32% due to their pension income and other income sources, and the dramatic reduction in tax deductions and credits.
So, they save at 25% and they will pay it back at 32%. Bummer. But wait! There is more to the story. Just like Paul Harvey, there is a page 2, or in the case of this book, on the next page.
What about all tax deferrals? Where does that money go? Usually to buy stuff like cars, vacations, food, and other consumables which don’t offer a return on investment. But what if this same couple invested the current tax deferrals into a conservative portfolio which yields a nice 5% rate of return (after tax consequence)? Things tilt in their favor- so we are back to having a tax benefit from tax deferrals. Huh?
The following is a ridiculously overly simplified table to demonstrate what we are talking about.
Here are the assumptions-
A quick recap- you deferred $190,000 and deferred $41,800 in taxes. That deferral grew to $58,401 because you invested it in a safe 5% investment portfolio. Great. What does this do?
Here is the realized savings for a 22% marginal tax rate during retirement-
If your marginal tax rate remain the same at 22% you still see a savings of $16,165 as shown above. Again, this is predicated on you taking the tax you normally would have paid, and investing it wisely. Not all of us are this disciplined.
But if your marginal tax rate increases from 22% to 35%, your savings is zero. Granted, to jump 13% in marginal tax rate between wage earning years and retirement years seems rare, but you get the point.
The moral of the story is this. Yes, tax deferrals can lead to tax savings but you have to work the system and be disciplined. Not just today, but for several years. And you need a jump in marginal tax rate that is 9% or less (in general)- assuming you have an increase at all. See below-
Yes, the 31% marginal tax rate does not exist after 2017. But it shows the break-even delta on working marginal tax rate and retirement tax rate assuming a 5% rate of return on investments (ROI).
What should you do? Financial planning and review with your financial advisor is a must. Generally, we see people in the 10 and 12% marginal taxes doing post-tax (Roth). We see people in the 32, 35 and 37% marginal tax rates doing pre-tax. Then, we see people in the 22 and 24% marginal tax rates doing a mixture of post-tax and pre-tax retirement contributions.
There is also the RMD angle. RMD is a common TLA (three letter acronym) tossed around at bingo parlors and country clubs, and stands for required minimum distributions. In a nutshell, the IRS forces you to take out a portion of your pre-tax retirement savings every year so they can collect on the IOU you gave them several years ago.
RMD calculations are simple. You take your age, find your life expectancy factor and divide that into your aggregate pre-tax account balance. Do you remember science class and discussing a molecule’s half-life? RMDs are very similar- over the course of retirement, you must withdraw pre-tax retirement dollars, but the calculus doesn’t force you to take it all out over your lifetime. It always has some factor of your age, and depending on your frugality you might die with a pile of money since the minimum leaves behind a lot.
Here is snippet of the IRS RMD table-
So, if you are 75 years old and had $1M in pre-tax money, your RMD would be $43,668 ($1,000,000 divided by 22.9). Here is a link to FINRA’s calculator-
What does this have to do with tax deferrals becoming tax savings? At some point you die, and if you only take out the minimum amount from your accounts, you will die with money in the bank. And this now-inherited IRA, for example, is taxed at your heirs’ rate. And there are similar rules where your heirs must take it out over time or within 5 years. The IRS wants to collect on your previous IOU to them, like a Vegas bookie, and they don’t want to watch you keep kicking the can down the road.
So, for you there is tax savings built into the RMD system since not all the money is taken out and taxed. If you add in your heirs’ marginal tax rates, perhaps this changes from a “family unit” perspective. Heck, you’re the dead person- let your kids worry about your taxes by assuming them as their own. It takes a while to payback for all those sleepless nights and stinky diapers, but eventually it happens.
All kidding aside, here is something to consider- with life expectancy well into the 90s, your children might be retired too when you pass. Crazy but realistic, especially if you had kids before you had a career.
Taxpayer's Comprehensive Guide to LLCs and S Corps : 2019 Edition