Taxation of Social Security: The Tax Torpedo & Roth Conversion Tightrope

I was always working under the assumption that once we claim Social Security, 85% of our benefits will be counted as ordinary income on our federal tax return. That may also be a good assumption for a lot of retirees, especially if their overall income in retirement – pensions, capital gains, dividends, distributions from retirement accounts, Social Security, etc. – is high enough. Then, indeed, exactly 85% of your benefits will be taxed. This 85% figure is also the absolute maximum you’ll ever have to include in your federal taxable income. So, as a conservative estimate, it’s fine to use this 85% figure for our retirement cash flow and tax planning.

But in practice, the calculation is a lot more complicated. In fact, that share is calculated through a pretty convoluted formula that takes into account not just your Social Security benefits but also other income, even some ostensibly tax-free income like Municipal bond interest. In the chart below, the x-axis is for the annual Social Security benefits for a married couple filing a joint return (0-$80k), and each line corresponds to a level of all the other income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.) also going from $0 to $80,000 in $1,000 steps, so there are exactly 81 lines going from blue via yellow to red. When I plotted this function it looks like the folks at the IRS created a piece of art; that portion in the upper left looks almost like a Bifurcation diagram or Mandelbrot fractal!

SocSecTaxes Chart01
The share of Social Security subject to Federal Income taxes (Married filing Jointly). x-axis=Social Security benefits and each line is for a different level of other taxable income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.). There are 81 “other income” lines corresponding to income levels from $0 to $80,000 in steps of $1,000.

In any case, for retirement planning, doing a more thorough analysis of our tax on Social Security rather than using the lazy rough estimates has at least four advantages:

  1. The 85% estimate is likely way too conservative so you may over-prepare for retirement and over-accumulate assets. Why not enjoy your money now? Case in point, the Becky and Stephen case study last week; I was way too cautious with the tax assumptions in retirement and underestimated the sustainable, historical fail-safe retirement budget by about $2,500 per year!
  2. The exact calculation of taxes on Social Security benefits has implications on your Roth conversion strategy: There’s no need to be aggressive with your Roth conversions if only a tiny fraction of Social Security is taxable and you have not much other income to fill up your federal Standard Deduction!
  3. But for others, the convoluted formula also has a different, not-so-nice side effect. For some retirees, 401k or Traditional IRA distributions might be taxed at a higher rate than you might think. It’s called the retirement “Tax Torpedo,” more details on that below. So, if you don’t do enough Roth conversions and then later distribute money from a 401k you might face a higher tax burden than expected!
  4. Even some of the ostensibly tax-free income (municipal bond interest or dividends/long-term capital gains in the first two federal tax brackets) may not be so tax-free after all. Because that income is included in the Social Security tax computation, you might face backdoor taxation of seemingly tax-free income. How sneaky!!! It might be optimal to do some tax gain harvesting prior to claiming Social Security!

So, in any case, I will go through some detailed calculations here today, and also link to an easy-to-use Google Sheet I created for you if you want to calculate your own retirement tax estimates. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “Taxation of Social Security: The Tax Torpedo & Roth Conversion Tightrope”

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mr. Corporate Refugee”

Welcome! It’s time for another Safe Withdrawal Rate case study! Please click here for the other seven installments. Today’s volunteer is “Mr. Corporate Refugee,” not his real name, obviously. But as the name suggests he is ready to pull the plug on the corporate grind. He and his wife did everything right to prepare for early retirement. Pay off the mortgage on their house (as recommended by yours truly) and accumulate a nice nest egg close to seven figures. The only problem: they reside in a high-cost-of-living area in California and more than half of their net worth is tied up in their primary residence. Even a portfolio as large as $1 million will likely not be sufficient to cover expenses in your current location. What to do now? I’ll propose two routes to early retirement. Move to a cheaper location, a “secret” low-income-tax paradise – more on that below, and be able to retire now. Or work for only four more years and retire in the current location. Let’s go through the math…

Continue reading “Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mr. Corporate Refugee””

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Ms. Almost FI”

Welcome to a new installment of our “Ask Big Ern” series with case studies on safe withdrawal calculations. This is already the seventh part, see here for the other parts of the series! Today’s volunteer is Ms. Almost FI and that’s not her real name, of course. She’s planning to retire early in 2019 and this causes a lot of anxiety: Does she have enough money? When should she take her pensions? What about long-term care insurance? All very valid questions, all impossible to answer without a careful customized analysis! Continue reading “Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Ms. Almost FI””

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 17: More on Social Security and Pensions (and why we should call the 4% Rule the “4% Rule of Thumb”)

Welcome back to our series on Safe Withdrawal Rates. This is already the 17th installment! See Part 1 here and make sure you also check out the Social Science Research Network Working Paper we posted on the topic, now with 2,000+ downloads!

In any case, if you have followed the series so far you must have noticed that we are no fans of the 4% Rule and much of what we posted here dealt with the “4%” portion of the 4% Rule. For example, in Part 3 of this series we show that when equities are as expensive as today (Shiller CAPE > 20), failure rates of the 4% Rule have been unacceptably high in historical simulations.

But I think I missed this really important point:

The only thing more offensive than the “4%” part is the word “Rule”

That’s because the word “Rule” makes it sound as though the 4% is some sort of a scientific or mathematical constant. But it’s not. It ain’t scripture either, even though it’s often portrayed that way! There is no one-size-fits-all solution for withdrawals in retirement. With today’s lofty equity valuations and measly bond yields, a 3.25% to 3.50% initial withdrawal rate would be much more prudent. But there is another element that creates just as much variation in SWRs: Different assumptions about Social Security and/or pension benefits: The benefit level, the number of years before benefits kick in, how much of a haircut you want to assign to account for the risk of potential future benefit cuts, etc. and they all create so much variation in personal SWRs that the whole notion of a safe withdrawal rate “Rule” is even more absurd. The 4% Rule should be called the 4% Rule of Thumb because 4% is merely a starting point:

SWR = 4% Rule of Thumb

+/- adjustments for equity/bond valuations

+/- adjustments for idiosyncratic factors, e.g. age, Social Security, pensions, etc.

How much of a difference do these idiosyncratic/personal factors make? A huge difference! A prime example is the case study I worked on over at the ChooseFI podcast: a couple in their early 50s expects pretty generous Social Security benefits after a long career and probably wouldn’t have to worry too much about future benefit cuts. If they both wait until age 70 to claim benefits and are able to reduce their withdrawals from their portfolio dollar for dollar once Social Security kicks in, their Safe Withdrawal Rate estimate goes up from a measly 3.5% to somewhere around 4.5% or even 4.75%. Instead of saving 28.6x annual expenses, they’d need only 22.2x or even 21.1x. That’s a difference of several $100k!

How to quickly and easily gauge the impact of future cash flows from Social Security or pensions on the SWR is the topic of today’s post! Continue reading “The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 17: More on Social Security and Pensions (and why we should call the 4% Rule the “4% Rule of Thumb”)”

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 4: Social Security and Pensions

Title Picture credit: Flickr

Update: We posted the results from parts 1 through 8 as a Social Science Research Network (SSRN) working paper in pdf format:

Safe Withdrawal Rates: A Guide for Early Retirees (SSRN WP#2920322)

After a one-week hiatus over the holidays when we wrote about a lighter topic (dealing with debt, booze, and cigarettes, go figure), let’s return to the safe withdrawal rate topic. We’ve already looked at:

  • the sustainable withdrawal rates over 30 vs. 60-year windows (part 1),
  • capital depletion vs. preservation (part 2)
  • and the current expensive equity valuations (part 3).

The bad news was that after all that number-crunching, the sensible safe withdrawal rate with an acceptable success rate melted down all the way to 3.25%. So much for the 4% safe withdrawal rate! That 25x annual spending target for retirement savings just went up to 1/0.0325=30.77 times. Ouch! Sorry for being a Grinch right around Christmas time!

But not all is lost! Social Security to the rescue! We could afford lower withdrawals later in retirement and, in turn, scale up the initial withdrawals a bit, see chart below. How much? We have to get the simulation engine out again!

swr-part4-chart2
With Social Security (and/or a pension) later during retirement, we can afford higher initial withdrawal rates!

Continue reading “The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 4: Social Security and Pensions”