“In this world,” Ben Franklin famously once wrote, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While that’s true, I also would argue that neither is completely out of your hands. There are ways to make each less bad. When it comes to your health, we all know that we should exercise, eat right and go for regular checkups. And, when it comes to your tax bill, it turns out there is quite a bit you can do to minimize it, especially in retirement. While everyone’s situation is different, below I will illustrate how you might achieve an effective tax rate of just 3 percent in retirement.
How is a 3 percent rate possible? The main thing to understand is that, when it comes to your income, the government does not tax every dollar equally. In fact, some dollars it doesn’t tax at all. So, if you know the rules and are able to structure your income wisely, then you could find yourself enjoying a very high standard of living in retirement without paying much tax at all.
You can think of this strategy as a three-legged stool: There are three major components, and you’ll need to use them all together.
The standard deduction. The first thing to understand about the tax code is that everyone receives a “free pass” known as the standard deduction on income up to a certain level. For married couples in 2018, that level is $24,000. To be clear, no matter how high your total income is, everyone is entitled to this free pass on the first $24,000 (and it’s even a little higher for those age 65 or older). That’s the first leg of the stool.
Social Security and Roth conversions. The second leg of this strategy requires some careful timing but is not overly complicated. First, when it comes to Social Security, you’ll want to delay collecting your benefits until the latest possible date, which is age 70. That accomplishes two things: First, in exchange for waiting, the government will send you checks that are dramatically larger when they begin issuing them at age 70. Second, and importantly for this strategy, delaying Social Security will allow you to keep your tax rate low during the first several years of retirement. This is important because it will allow you to convert some of the funds in your traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs during the brief period of years when your taxable income might be close to zero. In fact, by taking advantage of the standard deduction, you could convert as much as $24,000 per year from your traditional IRA into a Roth free of tax. And, you might even choose to convert more than that. After all, the lowest tax bracket is just 10 percent, imposing just a modest drag on the funds you convert. So, even if you never had the opportunity to contribute to a Roth during your working years, you’ll have a multi-year second chance at this stage in your life.
Tax-free income from your taxable account. Most people think of Roth IRAs as the only type of account that permits tax-free income, but that’s not quite right. In fact, it overlooks a gigantic opportunity, which is the third leg of this strategy. Within your taxable account, you can, of course, hold tax-exempt investments, such as municipal bonds. That’s well understood. What you may not have known, however, is that the government provides another free pass when it comes to capital gains income. In fact, in 2018, a married couple with taxable income up to about $77,000 will pay a capital gains tax rate of precisely zero.
Those are the three legs. Now, let’s put them all together to see how you might be able to spend $100,000 annually in retirement while minimizing your tax bill. Here’s how I would accomplish this:
Social Security: At age 70, suppose you receive a benefit of $40,000. At that level, the taxable portion would be $34,000.
Roth IRA: Withdraw $20,000. This income is completely tax-free.
Traditional IRA: Withdraw $20,000. This income is fully taxable.
Joint Taxable Account: Withdraw $20,000. This income will be taxable only if your total income moves you out of the zero capital gains tax bracket.
Total: Your total income under this strategy adds up to $100,00, but the taxable portion is just $54,000 (Social Security plus Traditional IRA; the withdrawal from your Joint Account will be tax-free because you’ll be eligible for the zero capital gains tax bracket). Now, we subtract the standard deduction of $24,000, and that brings your taxable income down to just $30,000. What’s the tax on that? For a married couple in 2018, the tax bill on $30,000 would be just $3,219. In other words, 3.2 percent on income of $100,000.
Now, you might be thinking that this sort of strategy works only for someone with relatively few assets. What if you have rental real estate or other assets that generate substantially more income than I’ve illustrated in my simplified example? That’s a fair question, and I won’t dismiss it as a “good problem to have.” Rather, in your case I would look to employ additional strategies that are available to those with substantially more assets. For example, I would make contributions to a donor-advised fund in years when your income is particularly high. You could also transfer minority interests in some income-producing assets to your children. If they are in lower tax brackets, you might simultaneously reduce your income and your estate tax exposure. Finally, you might consider establishing residency in a state with no income tax.
I should stress that these strategies are general in nature, but taxes are highly individual. I am happy to discuss with you how you might implement them in your specific case, and you should always consult your accountant as well.