Q: Many years ago, my company began providing a 401(k) plan with a dollar-for-dollar match. Part of the spiel was that when you retire, you would be in a lower tax bracket. So I signed up for the pre-tax package. My first required minimum distribution was in 2013. Wanting to know what the tax differences were to me, I calculated my taxes with, and without, the RMD income. What a surprise! My $4,440 RMD increased my adjusted gross income by $8,200! This is due to the increased amount of my Social Security income being subject to taxes. As a consequence, my tax refund decreased by $1,680. It also means that the effective tax rate for the RMD is almost 38 percent. So much for lower tax brackets. Now I know what to plan for in all the future years.
A: Most people do retire to lower tax brackets and a lower tax bill. This happens because most people don’t save enough to avoid a significant drop in income when they retire. You, on the other hand, saved enough and had a generous employer. So you’re paying the price of retirement success — higher taxes than you expected.
I call the tax on Social Security benefits a “stealth tax” and a “torpedo tax” because of how the legislation was written. Both of our worthless political parties agreed on this tax in the 1983 reform of Social Security.
They wrote the tax into law in a way that very few people would pay it in 1984. Today, about 30 percent of retirees pay this tax. It falls most heavily on upper middle-income workers who were active savers. The tax does little to help the long-term finances of Social Security, but it makes a significant dent in retirement incomes because Social Security is the largest single source of income for most American workers. If you would like to see this tax repealed, get familiar with HR 3894, the Senior Citizens Tax Elimination Act.
Q: Having been born in 1944, a couple of years ahead of the official baby boomer generation, I get to experience things that are going to impact a large number of people just a few years hence. Next year I will have to start dealing with required minimum distributions. It occurs to me that along about 2017, huge amounts of taxes on RMDs are going to start pouring into the U.S. Treasury as the boomers pass age 70½. Unless I am missing something, the Treasury is in for a treat lasting a couple of decades, at least. I have not seen any articles written about this possibility, nor have I come across anyone else who has recognized it. Am I wrong? If not, is there anything I should be doing to capitalize on the government’s good fortune?
A: That’s an interesting idea, and we can find some, if indirect, support for it in the revenue projected by the Social Security Trustees from the taxation of Social Security benefits. The Trustees Report issued last spring projected $23.8 billion in revenue from the taxation of benefits, rising to $57.9 billion by 2022. So revenue from the taxation of benefits is projected to rise at a compound rate of 10.4 percent over the nine-year period. (You’ll find the figures on page 169 of the 2013 report, which can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Social Security website.)
A portion of that tax revenue growth is due to the truly underhanded formula for the taxation of benefits installed by Congress in 1983; it is one of the few parts of the tax code that is not indexed to inflation.
The rising required minimum distributions that older retirees will be facing will cause much of the revenue gain. The higher the distributions, the greater the odds that taxpayers will see more of their Social Security benefits subject to the tax. In effect, the taxation of benefits increases the marginal tax rate on other retirement income.
The higher marginal tax rate, however, doesn’t mean that the U.S. Treasury will be awash in money. Most of those retirees will be moving from earned wage and salary income to a lower retirement income — so their actual tax bills will be smaller, not larger.
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