Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Disability retirement and TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am 56 and had to retire under a disability retirement because of cancer. I am receiving Social Security, and I have 90 percent disability from the Veterans Affairs Department. Can I withdraw from the Thrift Savings Plan without the 10 percent penalty, or do I need to wait until I’m 59? What documentation do I need for taxes? Can you also refer me to the correct tax pubs and pages?

A. The answer will depend upon when you retired and the nature of your disability. See Page 7 of the notice at https://www.tsp.gov/PDF/formspubs/tsp-536.pdf to see if you meet one of the exceptions to the penalty.

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Social Security taxes and TSP withdrawals

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Q. After I retire, I am planning to withdraw $4,000 per month from the Thrift Savings Plan and I am not claiming Social Security. How will Social Security taxes be paid for the TSP I withdraw?

A. Social Security taxes can’t be paid from your TSP withdrawals since they are not considered earned income.

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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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Periodic withdrawals from IRA

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Q. I am considering retirement at 62 (FERS) but not collecting Social Security until my full retirement age of 66. I know that once you start withdrawing from your Thrift Savings Plan account, you must continue to make withdrawals each year. To bridge the time from 62 to 66, I’m thinking of taking funds from my IRA instead. If I start taking withdrawals at 62, can I stop taking withdrawals from my IRA at 66 when I start Social Security and then resume withdrawals at 70½?

A. You’ve got the right idea, and it will work. You may start and stop IRA withdrawals any time you want to. When you reach age 66 and stop taking money from your IRA, you should transfer what’s left into your TSP account, if it’s all pretax money.

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The timing of claiming Social Security

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Q. Has there been any analysis over the cost/benefit of drawing Social Security at age 62, banking the money in a conservative investment instrument such as T-bills and drawing down on it at age 70 along with the reduced SSA amount using a 20-year amortization rate?

A. There has been much analysis done on the timing of claiming Social Security benefit. I analyze the options for every one of my clients who haven’t already made the choice. You didn’t ask, but I’ll assure you that there is no universal result to this analysis. What will work best for you depends entirely on your circumstances and objectives. In addition, the decision could be an incredibly important factor in your financial life, or not important at all. Anyone who tells you should claim at this age or that age without carefully considering all of your relevant particulars is just guessing.

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TSP loans and furlough

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Q. I have seen quite a few questions (and answers) about how to request that Thrift Savings Plan loan payments be suspended during the government shutdown, but no detailed information about exactly how to continue to make payments should one want to do that. When during the regular pay cycle should one send in a payment check with the appropriate form? When we go back to work, and if back pay is given, will the loan payments for the entire period of furlough, or perhaps the last pay period only, be taken out? How long of a period of nonpayment may there be before the tax penalties kick in?

A. If you are in nonpay status for reasons other than active military service:

The maximum period that the TSP can suspend loan payments is one year.

If your nonpay period exceeds one year, your loan will be automatically reamortized and you must make payments from your personal funds to avoid being in default.

Interest on your loan accrues while your payments are suspended.

If you want to continue making loan payments while in nonpay status, you can do so by sending a personal check or money order to the TSP. Use Form TSP-26, Loan Payment Coupon, when sending in your payments. Your payments will be taken into account when the loan is reamortized upon your return to pay status.

When you begin your period of nonpay status, you or your agency must submit one of the following forms of documentation to the TSP:

Form TSP-41, Notification to TSP of Nonpay Status; or

Form SF-50, Notification of Personnel Action; or

A letter on agency or service letterhead, signed by an appropriate agency official or your commander or adjutant, that contains your name, date of birth and Social Security number; the beginning date of the nonpay status; and the signature and title of the agency or service representative providing the information; or

A copy of your military orders.

When you return from nonpay status, you must notify the TSP of your date of return. You can use any type of documentation described in the above section. Once your agency notifies the TSP of your return, your loan will be reamortized to place it in good standing.

Note: If your agency reports you as separated from civilian service to perform military service, you will be required to repay your loan in full within 90 days. If you don’t, the outstanding loan balance and any unpaid interest will be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as a taxable distribution.

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Use TSP funds to delay Social Security?

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Q. I took the Voluntary Early Retirement Authority on Jan. 31 at my minimum retirement age. I had 26 years at the Postal Service under FERS. After 16 years of marriage, I became a widow. The only income I have is my annuity and the special retirement supplement from the Office of Personnel Management. Will I be eligible to receive Social Security benefits from husband at 60, and will they end at 62? When I turn 62, my supplement will end. I have $190,000 in the L2020 fund. Would it be beneficial to me to start receiving money from my Thrift Savings Plan at 62 and delay Social Security until full retirement at 66 years and four months. A financial adviser told me to roll over my money into an IRA when I turn 59½. Is that a good idea, or should I keep it in the TSP? Would you recommend the G Fund, since I don’t have money to lose?

A. Mike: It’s impossible to give you specific personal financial advice with this tiny amount of information. In general, however, you should invest your money in a way that gives you a high probability of achieving your financial goals with a minimum of risk. There is no one-size-fits-all investment strategy, even for someone your sex and your age. Investment management is an ongoing and complex process. The advice you’re being given about rolling over you TSP to an IRA sounds like a sales pitch to me. You should preserve your TSP assets as long as possible unless a trustworthy analysis indicates that it would be in your best interest to do otherwise. Your question about using TSP funds to delay claiming Social Security is worth considering, but, again, finding the right answer will require some analytic work.

Reg: To find out how your own Social Security benefit would interact with your Social Security survivor benefit, go to http://ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10084.pdf.

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VERA/VSIP and retirement benefits

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Q. How will Voluntary Early Retirement Authority/Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay affect my retirement benefits (annuity supplement, Social Security, pension and Thrift Savings Plan withdrawals)? I am an Air Force civilian GS-13, age 52, with 26 years of service under FERS.

A. A VERA/VSIP will not affect the rules governing your TSP withdrawals. You will be subject to the early withdrawal penalty until you reach age 59½ unless you can qualify for one of the exceptions listed on the left side of Page 7 of this notice: https://www.tsp.gov/PDF/formspubs/tsp-536.pdf.

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TSP distribution

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Q. My husband is retiring from the Postal Service on Nov. 1. We have $850,000 in tax-free municipal funds (all AAA rated and paying over 5 percent), and another $200,000 in natural gas and oil limited partnerships and some preferred stocks in energy companies that I recently inherited. I would like to live on the interest from these investments, leaving the principal alone.

My husband is 62 and we want to wait until he is 66 to receive his Social Security payments. (Waiting until 70 is out of the question as both parents were stricken with Alzheimer’s disease at an early age. Mother at 70 and father at 75.)

My husband has a Thrift Savings Plan account with a balance of $91,000. I am concerned that the interest and dividends coming in from the inheritance have not had time to accrue enough interest for us to live on and would like your advice on how to distribute his TSP for the first few years.

I am disabled and am receiving a monthly check for $1,477. If my husband takes Social Security now, his monthly payments would be $1,588. Also, my husband will receive a monthly retirement check from the Postal Service for $850 — just enough to cover our health and life insurance and his long-term care insurance.

Can you give me some advice on the best way to get my TSP to pay out a larger sum in the first three years so I can protect the principal of my inheritance? Should we start now collecting his Social Security now?

A. It is not possible to determine the answers to your questions, which are complex and interdependent, without the proper understanding, analysis and consideration. There are no simple answers. Your questions are beyond the scope of a forum like this and will require comprehensive financial analysis to answer.

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