Center for a Secure Retirement
4 Tips for Navigating Taxes in Retirement

4 Tips for Navigating Taxes in Retirement

Unfortunately, you don't stop paying taxes when you retire. Most retirees generate some type of income, and it's usually taxable. But with smart financial planning, you can manage your taxes in retirement and leave yourself with more to spend on the things that matter most to you.

Here are four strategies for navigating taxes in retirement.

1. Inventory Your Holdings

Your retirement savings provide income in your post-work years, and the accounts you hold determine the taxes you pay. Take inventory of your holdings so you can plan your spending and potentially control how much taxable income you generate each year.

  • Tax-deferred accounts. Pretax accounts hold money that has never been taxed. Thus, any withdrawals typically generate a tax liability. For example, a traditional or rollover individual retirement account (IRA) might contain only pretax dollars. The same is true of pretax workplace plans, such as a 401(k) or a 403(b).
  • Tax-free accounts. Some accounts let you withdraw funds with no tax consequences. If you're concerned about adding to your taxable income, these are the accounts to tap when you need extra money. Funds in a Roth IRA, a Roth 401(k) or a health savings account might come out tax-free, but you need to meet the IRS requirements for tax-free treatment.
  • Taxable accounts. Joint, individual and trust accounts rarely offer tax benefits. You pay yearly taxes on income as you earn it. But selling assets for a profit can also result in capital gains taxes, and ongoing income might add to your taxes in retirement.

2. Understand Social Security and Pension Income

If your Social Security benefits are your sole source of income, you might not have to pay taxes on them. But if you take in other income — for example, taxable income from wages, investments or pretax retirement account withdrawals — you might have to pay taxes on your benefits. If you keep your combined income down, you'll pay less tax on your retirement benefits.

Pension income is often taxable. However, you don't lose as much to deductions and withholdings as you did during your working years. You no longer pay into Social Security, for example, and you can often choose how to handle income tax withholdings when you set up your pension.

3. Prepare for Required Minimum Distributions

If you have a retirement account, the IRS mandates that you withdraw funds from it when you hit 72. These are required minimum distributions (RMDs), and they're taxable — whether you want the money or not. (Some inherited accounts also have required minimum distributions.) RMDs usually follow a schedule designed to spend down your retirement account over your life expectancy. The idea is to prevent the funds from being tax-sheltered indefinitely.

As you plan your retirement income, estimate how much you'll take in RMDs, and evaluate how that affects your taxes in retirement. When you're collecting RMDs, you could benefit from spending money from tax-free accounts to keep your taxable income low.

4. Manage the Balancing Act

Depending on your situation, you could use your retirement resources strategically to manage your taxes. For example, during years with little or no income, you might pull funds from pretax accounts until you get into a higher tax bracket. During high-income years — say, you made a little profit from selling some assets — you might make more withdrawals from your tax-free accounts.

You could also shift assets from pretax holdings to tax-free assets. A Roth conversion strategy involves paying taxes selectively — ideally at a relatively low rate — on some or all of your pretax dollars so you can avoid paying taxes later.

Enjoy a Tax-Smart Retirement

Nobody enjoys paying taxes, but they're one of those proverbial certainties in life. By strategically using your assets and income sources in retirement, you can manage how much tax you owe. These strategies can get complicated, and there might be other opportunities unique to your financial situation — so consult a tax professional before making any decisions.

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