In my work with financial planning clients, I can see that people understand the merits of having a diversified mix of securities in an investment portfolio. Investment advisers have done a good job of explaining how diversification can improve clients’ risk-adjusted returns.
What can be a little harder for advisers to explain and clients to understand, though, is the value of “tax diversification” — having investments in a mix of accounts with different tax treatments. By having some securities in taxable accounts, others in tax-deferred accounts, and still others in tax-free accounts, people can maintain the flexibility that makes it easier to minimize their taxes in retirement.
The benefits of traditional tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are easy for participants to see. Contributions reduce people’s current tax bills. And the benefits continue to compound over the course of the investors’ careers, since none of the income is taxable until withdrawals are made.
Yet what clients don’t often grasp is the price they’ll wind up paying for this tax benefit later in life. Distributions from tax-deferred accounts are treated as ordinary income. It can be more expensive to spend money from a traditional IRA than from a taxable account, since dividends and long-term capital gains in taxable accounts are taxed at more favorable rates. And IRS-mandated required minimum distributions from traditional retirement accounts can force a retiree to generate taxable income at times when he or she wouldn’t want to.
So how do you get clients to understand that traditional IRAs and 401(k)s may cost them more than they think? Sometimes it’s a matter of being blunt — saying that the $1 million they see on their account statement isn’t worth $1 million; they may only have $700,000 or less to spend after paying taxes.
Once clients understand that, they also understand the appeal of Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) accounts, since current income and qualified distributions are never taxable. Another advantage: The IRS also does not require distributions from Roth IRAs the way it does for traditional retirement accounts. For many high income taxpayers, $700,000 in a Roth IRA is more valuable than $1 million in a traditional IRA.
But Roth IRAs and 401(k)s aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be a client’s only savings vehicle either. Participants don’t receive any upfront tax benefit. And it’s conceivable that future legislation may decrease or eliminate the benefits of Roth accounts. If the U.S. or certain states shift to a consumption-based tax system, for example, a Roth IRA will have been a poor choice compared to a traditional IRA.
And it’s useful to have money in taxable accounts, too. People need to have enough in these accounts to meet their pre-retirement spending needs. In addition, holding some stock investments in taxable accounts allows people to take advantage of a market downturn by realizing capital losses and securing a tax benefit. You can’t do this with a retirement account.
Given that each type of investment account has advantages and disadvantages, advisers should encourage all their clients to keep at least some assets in each retirement bucket. That way, retirees have the flexibility to choose the source of their spending based on the tax consequences in a particular year.
In a low-income year, retirees may want to pull some money from their traditional IRAs to benefit from that year’s low tax bracket. Depending on the retiree’s income level, some traditional IRA distributions could escape either federal or state income tax entirely. In a high-income year, when investments in a taxable account have a lot of appreciation, it may make sense for the retiree to spend from a Roth account instead.
Since we don’t know what a client’s tax situation will look like each year in the future, diversification of account types is just as prudent as investment diversification.
Benjamin Sullivan is a manager at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, where he helps the firm’s high-net-worth clients with their personal financial planning, investment and tax planning needs. He is a certified financial planner certificant, an IRS enrolled agent, and a member of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association.