Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

TSP eligibility

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Q. I am a firefighter with a county department, and also prior military. Since being discharged and starting my new career, I haven’t been able to figure out how to continue investing money into my TSP. Am I unable to do so, now that I am out of the armed services? Or am I just not looking in the right place? Read the rest of this entry »

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Maximum contribution

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Q. I am in the National Guard and I am a civil service employee. Is the annual maximum contribution for the TSP the combination of the two, or is it for each individual account? Can I contribute in 2014 $17,500 to my Guard TSP, then $17,500 to my civilian TSP account as well?

A. Unless there is a special exception for Guard pay, the limit is combined.

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USAA Roth and TSP contributions

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Q. I took my tax info to a professional to have them done this year. I’ve maxed out my Roth IRA with USAA. I’ve also contributed about $2500 to a traditional TSP as a uniformed service member. I’m being told I’ll be penalized for my contributions to my Roth account since I have an employer-based retirement plan. Is this accurate? Can I only contribute a total of $5500 for both accounts? I’ve always been told to contribute to both.

A. The TSP contribution limit is fixed and not contingent on any other factor. Your eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA might be limited if your income is sufficient. In the future, I suggest that you max out your TSP contributions before you save to a Roth IRA, and then check with your tax accountant before you attempt to make any IRA contributions since your eligibility depends upon your tax return for the year. See IRA Publication 590 for the limits on IRA contributions.

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Converting traditional TSP to Roth 401(k)

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Q. I am an active-duty military officer with 17 years of service. I would like to convert my traditional Thrift Savings Plan account to a Roth 401(k) and pay taxes now. I want to see if it is possible to transfer my balance to a traditional 401(k) with my civilian investment company and then convert that account to the Roth 401(k). Additionally, I want to minimize my taxes by doing this during my deployment this year, because I will be receiving tax-free pay for most of this year. Is this allowed and/or possible? I would love to pay zero or low taxes on the deferred portion of my traditional TSP during this transfer.

A. This might be possible using an age based in-service withdrawal if you’re at least age 59½. Otherwise, it’s not.

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TSP loan

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Q. The Air Force is going through a drawdown because of sequestration. If a person has a current Thrift Savings Plan loan and is involuntary retired earlier than the minimum 20 years for military service, what are their TSP loan options? Are they required to immediately pay this back, or will they still have the option to pay the loan back over time? Also, how does joining the civil service affect the TSP account?

A. You will be required to repay any outstanding loan balance within 90 days of separation, or the unpaid balance will be declared a taxable distribution.

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Combining TSP accounts

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Q. I was enlisted in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008 and have been a full-time employee at the Social Security Administration since March 2012.

So, I have a uniformed services Thrift Savings Plan account and a civilian TSP account (using pretax and Roth contributions).

Nothing has been contributed to the uniformed services account since I left the Marines in 2008, so I asked someone in human resources here if I could combine the accounts. I was initially told this wasn’t possible, but after my own research, I found Form TSP-65 – Request To Combine Civilian and Uniformed Services TSP Accounts.

After I showed this to the HR office, I was told it wouldn’t be beneficial to combine the accounts because I would take a tax hit on the tax-free money that I made overseas while deployed to combat areas. This explanation doesn’t make too much sense to me because my TSP contributions were pretax contributions anyway (there was no Roth option at the time). Also, I don’t trust the info from my HR office after they were wrong about the ability to combine accounts.

Should I combine the accounts or leave them separate?

A. If you contributed tax-free combat pay to the TSP, you should keep the military account to preserve your ability to withdraw that money later without having to pay tax on it. Combat pay contributions are not the same as Roth contributions, and the two are not interchangeable.

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Starting TSP withdrawals now vs. at 70 1/2

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Q. I retired under FERS two years ago, and I haven’t needed to touch my Thrift Savings Plan account so far. I am receiving Office of Personnel Management, Social Security and military retirements. I am 68½ years old. I just received a 100 percent Veterans Affairs Department disability award, which will change my taxable military retirement to a nontaxable VA retirement. I don’t think this will have any effect on my long-term life expectancy. I have determined that I do not want to elect an annuity on withdrawing from my TSP. I am considering immediately starting a monthly TSP withdrawal based on life expectancy. What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting withdrawals immediately versus waiting until the 70½ mandatory withdrawals? I am a married man, and we declined a survivor benefit plan.

A. Starting withdrawals now will provide you with more income now but will produce a larger taxable income and begin to deplete your account. Waiting will reduce your current taxable income and preserve your account’s value (if you don’t lose it to the markets), but also reduce your current standard of living and increase your taxable income later in life.

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Military TSP vs. civil service TSP

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Q. I retired from active duty two years ago and have worked in civil service for one year.  I am contributing 10 percent of my civil service base pay and have a fairly good amount in my active-duty military Thrift Savings Plan. I am entertaining the idea of consolidating my TSP plans for a couple of reasons. First, simplicity of managing one account.  Secondly I believe, from what I have read on numerous sites, I will have greater control of current and future funds using the civil service side of TSP versus the active-duty military side. By this, I mean in-service withdrawals, loans, rolling over to another employer’s 401(k) plan (certainty of employment with civil service is at an all-time low), etc. Has my research misled me, or am I partially correct?

A. Convenience is an advantage. The basic rules for the accounts are the same, although you’re separated from military service and an active employee for the civilian account. This means that you may not take a loan from the military account but can take one from the civilian account. You could roll over the military account to an IRA or 401(k) now, but can’t roll over the civilian account. Whether the differences matter to you, or not, will depend upon your circumstances, but everything you need to know is available at www.tsp.gov.

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TSP proceeds

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Q. I retired from the Air Force Reserve last January and was transferred from Arizona to McChord Air Force Base, Wash. I also continue to work for the Defense Department. I plan on retiring as soon as possible from civil service. I contributed to a military Thrift Savings Plan and a civil service TSP. I cashed in both in December as I thought I was going to be able to retire this February. I planned to use the proceeds to purchase a home in Arizona. Now it looks like I have at least nine more months until I can retire. I spent some of the money to pay off all debt. I now have about $110,000 sitting in a savings account. What should I do with it?  My wife and I also each have Roth IRAs. I continue to put $200 a month in mine. My wife is not working in Washington state and has only put $100 in hers this year. Can we add to those? Or should we put money in a money market account?

A. What you do with the money should depend entirely on when it will be needed. You may contribute to a Roth IRA if you have earned income and fall under the income limit for the year.

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Retirement date, taxable distribution and IRS penalties

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Q. I am an FERS employee and, for various reasons, have selected Nov. 28, 2015, as my retirement date, age 60+ with 21 years civil service and four years military, for which a deposit has been made. One of the many reasons that I selected this date was so that I could have a Thrift Savings Plan residential loan balance declared as a taxable distribution during the 2015 tax year, because I will have substantial withholdings by that time, and given my tax return history, would have a significant tax overpayment that would be useful in paying a portion of the tax bill rather than receiving it as a refund. It was my intention to pay the remaining tax liability (however much it is) with a smaller withdrawal of TSP funds, and take that as a taxable distribution during the following tax year (2016), which could be manageable through withholdings from my pension and life annuity payments.

Subsequently, however, my research has uncovered that the Internal Revenue Service levies a substantial (but unspecified) penalty against any retiree if “90 percent of a payers’ tax liability is not withheld from salary, pension and annuity or made via quarterly payments” during the tax year.

Does this IRS rule apply to my situation? If so, regardless which date I choose in FY2015, I will surely fall short and be subject to that penalty, as I will no doubt be owing greater than 10 percent of my total tax bill, and officially be a “retiree” by the end of tax year 2015, even though I will not have even received any retirement pay from either pension or annuity by years end, due to high processing times.

How much is the penalty that the IRS assesses against retirees who have had insufficient withholdings during a tax year?

If this rule applies to me, I will have to postpone my retirement date until year’s end so that the distribution is declared in 2016, and then make quarterly tax payments to cover the total outstanding amount due, which would greatly complicate my cash flow situation during my first year of retirement, and possibly make it unfeasible.

A. Sorry, but these are questions for the CPA who will prepare your tax returns for the year(s) in question. There are some exceptions to the 90 percent rule and, in my experience, the penalty for under-withholding is not severe.

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