Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Annuity with qualified funds

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Q. So I’m retiring early, age 55, on the early out offer effective on July 31, 2014. I will begin monthly withdrawals from the Thrift plan at the rate of 20K per year as soon as I can, hopefully beginning in September 2014. I will receive my pension payment of 25K, and beginning in November 2014, I qualify to begin receiving the supplemental payment of slightly over 10K because I turn 56 on October 30, 2014.

I like the idea of eventually converting to an immediate fixed annuity at some point after I’ve managed my own distributions for a lengthy period of more than 10 years, maybe 15 years. I’m giving my background to ask a specific technical age requirement question about converting all my remaining funds to an annuity from qualified Thrift Account funds.

I’m being told by the guys at Vanguard that I can’t buy an immediate annuity or even a deferred longevity type annuity unless it starts at age 70 1/2, because these are “qualified funds.” That does not sound right to me. If I’m distributing my Thrift plan and meeting the required minimum distribution after age 70 1/2, why does it matter when I use qualified funds to buy an annuity? It shouldn’t matter if I’ve complied with RMD on the qualified funds prior to purchasing an immediate annuity even if I were 75 years old. Is the advice I’m getting from Vanguard correct? Do I have to convert thrift funds on or before age 70 1/2 or can I do it as late as 75 or 80?

A. I can’t speak for Vanguard, but generally you may use qualified plan money to buy an immediate annuity any time you like.

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Calculating tax withholding

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Q. I recently retired from federal service. I began receiving my FERS annuity Jan. 1. My annuity is $3,190 gross, plus $1,195 special retirement supplement, minus $190.28 health insurance and $36.34 for dental/vision. I am single with no dependents. I am withholding $641 for federal tax purposes. My state has no income tax.

I want to begin monthly distributions from the Thrift Savings Plan at $4,200 per month. How much should I elect to withhold to ensure that I am not hit with a substantial tax bill for tax year 2014? Assume no itemized deductions.

A. I’m not in a position to calculate your estimated tax liability for the coming year. You can consult a qualified tax preparer for help with this, or review Internal Revenue Service Publication 505 to figure it out for yourself.

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TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am 70½ and separated from federal service since 2008. I need to make a withdrawal election (my Thrift Savings Plan has $180,000). I was told I have three options: withdraw the account as a single payment, monthly payments or an annuity (or a combination). Assuming I do not need the money right now, what is the best option to maximize the interest I am getting and paying taxes on what I’ll be withdrawing?

A. If you don’t need the money, I suggest that you begin fixed monthly distributions in an amount that will satisfy or nearly satisfy your required minimum distribution for the year.

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TSP annuity?

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Q. My father died with $90,000 in a Thrift Savings Plan annuity. How do I collect?

A. There is no such thing as a “TSP annuity.” Your father used his TSP assets to buy an annuity from an insurance company. You’ll need to file your claim with the insurance company that issued the annuity contract and was making his payments.

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Return on annuity

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Q. What is the percentage of return if I invest the balance of my Thrift Savings Plan account in the annuity provided by TSP?

A. The monthly payment depends upon your circumstances and the interest rate environment when you purchase the annuity. You can run a quote at www.tsp.gov. The return on investment from a TSP annuity can’t be known in advance, however. You’ll have to wait until the payments stop to figure it out. To illustrate, what if you buy a single life annuity with no refund and then die right away? Your return on investment will be hugely negative. The longer you live, the better the rate of return.

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Holding on to capital

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Q. I’ve just been flying straight with the L2030 plan until I can get some reliable advice. I would like to keep my capital I have in the Thrift Savings Plan, receive a monthly or quarterly check, and reinvest the amount I don’t need back into my capital. When I turn 70½ (in four years) I’ll have to start receiving the required minimum distribution, which I can’t reinvest. I don’t want to get an annuity because I’d have to give up my capital. How can I hold on to my capital, reinvest in it and possibly leave that money to my children or even my grandkids?

A. I don’t see a problem. The money in your TSP carries a tax liability that must be paid, eventually. There is no requirement that you spend the RMD. You can just move it from the TSP to a similar investment in a taxable discount brokerage account.

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TSP

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Q. I’m unsure of what to do with my Thrift Savings Plan account. I understand that I could leave it in the account as it is until I’m 70½. I can also make a full or partial withdrawal.  Full withdrawal is not an option for me. A TSP life annuity (both single or joint life) option is based on life expectancy or until the money runs out. Also there is the TSP annuity vendor (MetLife) where I could get the annuity but money used to purchase this annuity goes to the insurance company if you die before it’s used up.

I’m thinking of purchasing a fixed index annuity with my TSP. This fixed index annuity guarantees that I will receive at least the minimum guaranteed interest (3 percent to 7 percent) credited to the contract. Taxes are deferred until you receive money from the contract. I can choose from several different payout options based on personal needs, including option for lifetime income, guaranteed. I’m wondering what to do with my TSP. I don’t need the money right away. I don’t want to lose money when the market falls. I would like to make as much as possible.

A. 1. Your assumptions about the options available to you are incorrect. You need to review the information available at www.tsp.gov more carefully or seek guidance.

2. You don’t need the money now, so why would you consider converting it to income now? Don’t.

3. You don’t want to lose money but want to make as much as possible. The only investment option that meets both of these requirements is the G Fund. Use it.

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Test your retirement financial fitness

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Are you planning to retire soon? If so, you’ll need to figure out whether you’re financially able to make it work in the near and the distant future. Because there are few, if any, truly reliable financial guarantees, this can be a difficult thing to determine.

The essential question is this: “Will I have the resources — usually cash — available when I need it to support my desired standard of living for the rest of my life?” If someone else is depending upon you for all or part of their financial support, your retirement decision will affect them, as well, and they should answer this question before you commit.

If you are relying solely on a CSRS annuity, or even Social Security, to support your living expenses in retirement, your job is fairly easy. Both of these income streams are fully indexed for inflation and guaranteed by the best guarantor there is. The most significant risk you have to consider with these is that the guarantee you’re counting on might fail. While this may seem like a large risk, it is relatively small when compared with the risks associated with other potential income sources, like FERS and private annuities, and withdrawals taken from an invested portfolio. These risks include loss of purchasing power, insolvency, reduction in benefits, and market and interest rate risks. Assigning probabilities to these risks and analyzing their potential effects on your retirement plan is beyond the ready ability of most people who don’t specialize in statistical analysis. So, what can you do?

Start with this basic test. Add up the sum of your guaranteed retirement income streams from such sources as CSRS, FERS, Social Security and other defined benefit pension plans.

Then do some research to see what kind of payout you can expect to receive if you used all of your savings and investments to purchase one or more inflation-adjusted guaranteed fixed immediate annuity contracts.

Make sure that you choose the maximum inflation adjustment rate available when requesting the quote. The Thift Savings Plan website has a calculator that will give you a quote, on the spot. Add this guaranteed annuity income to your other guaranteed income to find your total pretax guaranteed retirement income.

If this is enough to meet your expected cost of living, after deducting an allowance for taxes, then you can probably safely retire.

If not, you should investigate your options further to see if an alternative approach might be workable.

With annuity payouts near historical lows, the invest-and-withdraw option, if managed prudently, will probably support a higher standard of living and produce better results — at least until the payout rates rise significantly.

Here’s a sample test calculation based on three guaranteed income sourses — FERS, Social Security and TSP:

FERS annuity: $30,000

Social Security: $20,000

TSP annuity payout with increasing payments on $200,000: $10,000

Total guaranteed pretax income: $60,000

Less 25 percent allowance for taxes: -$15,000

Total guaranteed after-tax income: $45,000

After-tax cost of living in retirement: $40,000

Test result: Fit to retire.

This test is not conclusive, but it is a good starting point in determining your financial fitness for retirement.

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Avoid these mistakes when planning to retire

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It’s easy to make mistakes when you are planning to retire. Some of the biggest mistakes apply to all employees; a few apply only to CSRS or FERS retirees. All can be costly. Here they are and what you can do to avoid them:

Retiring on the spur of the moment. It can be disastrous, for two reasons. First, if you hand in your retirement application at the last minute, it may contain errors that delay processing or even cause it to be rejected. Second, decisions made in haste often come back to bite you. Once committed to a course of action, it’s hard to undo it if you change your mind. If you do change your mind before you actually retire, you won’t be able to withdraw your application if your job has been abolished or it’s been offered to someone else. If you’ve already retired and want to cancel your retirement, your agency has no obligation to bring you back on board.

Confusing a salesperson with an adviser. The two are not the same. Actually, they’re opposites. One is paid to convince you to buy what they have to sell; the other is paid a fee to conduct analysis and provide you with decision support. One is your ally. The other is your adversary. Why would you trust an adversary for advice? Be skeptical of any source of “advice” that might be influenced by a conflict of interest. This is single mistake probably costs the American public more than any other when it comes to financial decision making.

Losing your health or life insurance. Make sure you are enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits or Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance programs for the five consecutive years before you retire. If you aren’t, with few exceptions, you won’t be able to carry that coverage into retirement. Here are the exceptions: you are covered by your spouse’s FEHB policy; you have been covered by Tricare of CHAMPVA, enroll in the FEHB program before retiring and the total equals five years; you enrolled in the FEHB at your first opportunity and retire in less than five years; or you accept an early retirement offer and were enrolled before the latest offer of early retirement was made by your agency.

Before you retire, check with your personnel office to be sure that you’ve met either the five-year rule or one of its exceptions.

Not getting credit for active-duty service in the military. If you served on active duty in the military, you can get credit for that time in determining your years of civilian service and have it used in the computation of your annuity. If you are a FERS employee, you’ll have to make a deposit to get credit for that time. If you are a CSRS employee, the rules differ depending on when you were first hired. If it was before Oct. 1, 1982, you will only have to make a deposit if you retire and are eligible for a Social Security benefit at age 62 (or when you retire, if it’s after age 62). If you were hired on or after that date, you’ll get credit for that time only if you make a deposit for that service. Whether you are a CSRS or FERS employee, if you’ll be eligible for or receiving military retired pay, in most cases you’ll have to waive that pay when you retire from your civilian job. You won’t have to do that if you are eligible for or receiving reserve retired pay.

Check with your personnel office to make sure that any active-duty service is recorded in your Official Personnel Folder and find out if a deposit will be required to get credit for that time.

Getting caught by “Catch-62.” If you are a CSRS employee who served on active duty in the armed forces after Dec. 31, 1956, and haven’t made a deposit for that time, you could be in for a rude awakening. If you retire and are eligible for a Social Security benefit at age 62 (or when you retire if it’s after age 62), your annuity will be reduced by 2 percent for each of those years of military service for which you haven’t made a deposit.

Determine whether you’ll be eligible for a Social Security benefit at either of those points in time. If you will, you may want to make a deposit for that time. If you won’t, don’t waste your money. Your CSRS annuity won’t be affected.

Rolling over Thrift Savings Plan assets. This mistake is usually caused by either trusting the wrong source for advice or failing to think “outside the box” a little when it comes to planning for your cash flow needs. Financial salespeople generally have to gain custody of your assets in order to be paid their commissions or fees, so naturally, their advice always includes rolling over any significant TSP sums into an IRA or other investment vehicle with higher costs. This is a formula for diminished investment performance. If the reason for leaving the TSP isn’t to enrich a financial salesperson, it’s often to gain more freedom in withdrawing TSP assets. While this is sometimes a valid reason to leave, it can often be dealt with through a combination of a lump-sum withdrawal or a series of fixed monthly distributions that will create and maintain a slush fund outside the TSP that is sufficient to meet your cash flow needs.

Focusing on wealth instead of cash flow. Speaking of cash flow, this mistake is propagated by financial professionals and journalists all the time. Much of what you’ll read and hear from financial and investment experts is aimed at maximizing economic wealth — basically your net worth. The mistake is in assuming this is your retirement goal. It’s probably not. And managing to this goal can cause serious problems for you in retirement. Paying off a fixed-rate, low-interest-rate mortgage is an example. It is often proposed that saving the interest over 10, 20 or 30 years will dramatically increase your net worth. While the validity of this proposal will vary from case to case, and is certainly debatable, it also completely misses the point that your retirement standard of living is not dependent upon your net worth but rather on your ability to generate cash flow. Having massive amounts of equity in a piece of real estate is of little use to you in making a car payment or paying for a cruise if you can’t sell the property or borrow against the equity on attractive terms.

Getting hit by the windfall elimination provision. If you are a CSRS retiree who will be eligible for a Social Security benefit, it may be reduced by the windfall elimination provision. That will happen if you have fewer than 30 years of “substantial earnings” under Social Security. The difference between the amount needed to earn four credits under Social Security and the amount considered to be substantial earnings is significant. In 2013, you would only need to earn $4,640 to get four credits; however, you would have to earn $21,075 for it to be considered substantial. (Since the Social Security Administration doesn’t know which retirement system you are in, if you are a CSRS employee, any estimate of future Social Security benefits they give you will very likely be wrong, often very wrong.)

If you’ll be affected by the WEP, know in advance how much less your Social Security benefit will be. You can get started by reading the Social Security Administration’s publication at ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf.

Getting hit by the government pension offset. If you will be receiving a CSRS annuity, any spousal Social Security benefit you may be entitled to will be reduced or eliminated by the government pension offset. The GPO will reduce those Social Security benefits by $2 for every $3 you get in your CSRS annuity.

If you’ll be affected by the GPO, you need to find out how great the impact will be. That’s because it isn’t uncommon for the GPO to wipe out those benefits. You can learn more at ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10007.pdf.

Relying on emotion instead of reason. This mistake is so common, it’s the norm. It also has the potential to cause disaster. There have been books written about this mistake and how to avoid it, yet the behavior continues to be rampant. If you’re going to get the most of what you want from what you have, you need to realize that markets have evolved to take advantage of your fear and greed, which are amazingly predictable, and turn them against you. The investment markets aren’t fair; they’re like poker games, and trust me, you’re not the best player in the game. If you want to survive and, better yet, enjoy the game, you need to rely on a strategy that acknowledges the odds you face, accepts them and uses reason to turn them to your favor.

Failing to account for inflation. Inflation is a pervasive threat to any retirement plan. Not so much inflation in general, but differential rates of inflation among the various incomes and outflows that affect your plan. Your expenses will inflate, over time, at varying rates, while your income may or may not keep pace with that inflation. CSRS annuity and Social Security income increase with the Consumer Price Index (for now), FERS annuity income increases less than the rate of inflation, and many other pension and annuity income streams either don’t increase at all or increase at a fixed rate. Differences in these inflation rates can have a profound impact on your financial picture in retirement and failing to properly account and plan for this impact can leave you without the resources you’ll need to live the life you’ve been expecting years, or decades, down the road.

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Fixed index annuity

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Q. My husband and I would like to participate in a fixed index annuity offered by a nongovernment company, but the information I gathered about Thrift Savings Plan transfers, withdrawals and annuities is confusing. It appears that if we want any type of annuity, we can only purchase if TSP does it for us, and the choices are extremely limited. Also, there seems to be no “non-hardship” type of distribution available before age 59½ that we can use to move our funds. Am I missing anything here, or are we just stuck with our limited options and no way to move our funds before 59½?

A. If you’re still a federal employee, your only option for withdrawing money from the TSP before you’ve reached age 59½ is through a hardship withdrawal.

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