Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

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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IRS penalty on partial TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am a FERS employee (6c law enforcement coverage) planning to retire in January 2015 after 31 years in federal law enforcement. I plan to build my retirement home soon after and have need of a partial withdrawal from my Thrift Savings Plan at retirement. Is this partial withdrawal subject to the 10 percent IRS tax under the one time withdrawal provision, and if so, do I have any option to avoid that penalty while still accessing about a third of my account?

A: If you retire during or after the year in which you reach age 55, you will be exempt from the early withdrawal penalty on any kind of withdrawal. If you retire before that point, you’ll be subject to the penalty until you reach age 59 1/2 unless you qualify for one of the exceptions listed on page 7 of the notice at: https://www.tsp.gov/PDF/formspubs/tsp-536.pdf.

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Traditional TSP vs. Roth TSP

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Q. I am 24 years old and I have been contributing 15 to 20 percent of my pay to a traditional TSP for 3 years now. When I started my TSP, the option to invest in a Roth TSP was not available. I have a decent amount of money in my traditional TSP right now. I’m curious if it would be better to stop contributing to my traditional and let it grow and start contributing to a Roth TSP or continue to invest in my current plan and maintain my current compounding interest? I’m nervous that if I change my contributions I will lose out on a significant amount of money that I could have gained by maintaining my contributions in my already established traditional TSP.

A. It will only matter if the effective tax rate on your contributions is different from the rate on withdrawals, and that’s something you can’t know this far ahead of time. There’s no way to know if contributing to one or the other, or both, will work out best for you, so do it the way you like. In the end, it won’t matter nearly as much where you saved the money as it will matter that you saved it.

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Partial withdrawal, Part II

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Q. I retired from an air traffic control job at age 53. I am receiving monthly payments based on my life expectancy. I will be age 55 in April. Can I take a partial withdrawal? If not, are there any options? I need to access more funds. Will there be a tax penalty on the amount I have received? Will my partial withdrawal be penalty-free now that I am 55? Are there other options, such as increased monthly payments?

A. You may not take a partial withdrawal once monthly payments have begun. You may increase your monthly payment amount using Form TSP-73 or you may request a final withdrawal, but making any change to the series of substantially equal periodic payments before you reach age 59½ will subject all of your early distributions to the early withdrawal penalty.

The rules for all of this are complicated. You should consult a CPA before proceeding.

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Roth IRA transfers and taxes

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Q. Can one transfer money from CSRS voluntary contribution (post-tax money) to a private Roth IRA without tax obligations? Can the interest be transferred to the Thrift Savings Plan? Is the amount transferred at retirement part of the maximum allowed ($23,000) for someone over 50?

A. Yes, the VC post-tax money can be moved into a Roth IRA without tax. Yes, the earnings can be moved into the TSP, tax-deferred. No, the amount transferred is not considered a contribution.

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TSP, Roth and IRA transfers

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Q. I understand that you can transfer funds into and out of your Thrift Savings Plan from either eligible pretax plans and/or after-tax plans. However, withdrawals (loans, withdrawals and interfund transfers) are made proportionately from both the traditional and Roth. Thus, you cannot specify withdrawals from only the traditional or the Roth. This is seen as a major drawback for some who would like to participate in the Roth option only or make withdrawals from only the traditional or the Roth option.

Would it be possible, at or near retirement, to transfer a major amount of your TSP balance — for example, 90 percent of your TSP (which would take 90 percent of both the Roth and traditional balances on the day of the transfer — leaving 10 percent in each) to a traditional IRA and Roth IRA outside of the TSP, then later transfer from the traditional IRA back into the traditional TSP? This would result in a small Roth TSP balance and restore the traditional TSP balance.

Doing that would provide greater flexibility for accessing the tax-free funds in the Roth (with the possibility of leaving those tax-free funds to your heirs) and still taking advantage of the lower management costs associated with the TSP for the traditional balance.

A. It seems to me that this will work as long as the traditional IRA does not contain any after-tax money when it’s time to move it back into the TSP.

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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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Full TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am 67 and retired. I made a partial withdrawal a few years ago. I need some cash for a family matter, so I want to make a full withdrawal now. I don’t want an annuity, but I’ll invest half in a commercial IRA or retirement instrument in hope of reducing the immediate tax impact of this full withdrawal. Can I do so? — that is, invest half of this full withdrawal in another commercial instrument, thus avoiding for now the tax on this “re-invested” amount?

A. Yes.

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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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Tax implications for TSP withdrawal

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Q. Whether I retire sooner or later than the year I turn 55, what kind of tax implications will I have in taking a partial lump sum or the whole balance lump sum for something like a vacation home?

A. If you retire from Thrift Savings Plan-covered employment during or after the calendar year in which you reach age 55, you will be exempt from the Internal Revenue Service 10 percent early withdrawal penalty for any withdrawals you take.

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