Tax Planning Strategies for Retirees

Tax Planning for Retirement

Couple using tablet computer in retirement home
••• Alistair Berg/ Digital Vision/ Getty Images

Planning ahead can go a long way toward keeping your taxes as manageable as possible, especially for those who have reached their retirement years. It can be a bit of a challenge, however, if you don't understand or even know about all the options available to you.

Retirees have some control over their tax situations because they can decide how much they want or need to withdraw from their various retirement plans.

Standard or Itemized Deductions

First, take full advantage of standard or itemized deductions. It all starts here because these determine how much of your income you won't be taxed on. Your taxable income is what's left after you make these deductions, and your taxable income determines your tax bracket and your tax rate.

You can't itemize your deductions and claim the standard deduction for your filing status as well—it's an either/or decision. And the standard deductions are pretty hefty as of 2019 thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Tax pros recommend that you run the numbers both ways, adding up all your itemized deductions then comparing that total to your standard deduction. Determine which amounts to more and will therefore reduce your taxable income the most.

Retirees can coordinate their taxable retirement distributions with their mortgage interest on loans of up to $750,000, real estate taxes up to $10,000 in most cases, and medical expenses over 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) as of 2019. These are all available itemized deductions.

But claiming the standard deduction can well turn out to be the better deal for retirees because it increases for taxpayers who are age 65 or older as of the last day of the tax year. You'll get an additional $1,300 for each spouse, or $1,650 if you're not married, as of 2019.

Accelerate Retirement Plan Contributions... 

Consider accelerating your retirement plan distributions if you have a lot of available deductions this year. You might withdraw more retirement funds than you need in a year when your deductions exceed your taxable income or whittle it down into a very low tax bracket.

You'll avoid potentially paying more taxes in a future year if you take more sizable withdrawals now, when you have a have zero or a low tax rate.

...Or Defer Retirement Plan Distributions 

The flip side of this strategy is to defer your retirement plan distributions until you really need them or they become required by tax law. Keeping your taxable distributions to a minimum will push more of your income to future tax years if you expect that you'll fall into a lower tax bracket then as opposed to the tax bracket you're in for the current year. 

Taxpayers must begin withdrawing funds from their 401(k)s and traditional IRA plans when they reach age 70½. These "required minimum distributions" (RMDs) must start by April 1 of the year following the year in which they reach that birthday. This is called the "required beginning date."

The minimum amount that must be distributed is your account balance divided by the life expectancy figures published by the IRS in Publication 590.

You can use web-based calculators to estimate your required minimum distributions. Plan to withdraw at least the minimum amount required from your traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts.

Roth IRAs and designated Roth 401(k) accounts are exempt from required minimum distribution rules. 

The Tax Credit for the Elderly 

Don't overlook the Tax Credit for the Elderly. This special tax credit can be claimed by taxpayers who are age 65 or older, but qualifying for it requires careful retirement tax planning—your AGI must fall beneath certain limits.

This credit ranges from $3,750 to $7,500 as of 2019, depending on your income and other factors.

Maximize Your Tax-Free Income

Taxpayers can exclude up to $250,000 from capital gains tax when they sell their main home. This figure doubles to $500,000 if you're married.

Interest earned from municipal bonds is also exempt from federal tax.

Retirees often receive income from a variety of sources, including Social Security benefits and distributions from pensions, annuities, IRAs, and other retirement plans. Each is subject to slightly different tax rules.

Social Security Income

Your Social Security benefits might be completely tax-free or partially tax-free depending on your overall income from all sources. Figuring out how much of your benefits will be included as taxable income requires some math, but it's worth it for retirement tax planning purposes and you'll have to make the calculations at tax time anyway.

Your benefits will generally only be taxable if you have other income, such as because you're still working or you have healthy retirement plans. At most, you'll pay tax on 85% of your Social Security benefits if your income from all other sources plus half of your Social Security benefits is more than $34,000 as of 2019 and you're single. This increases to $44,000 if you're married and file a joint return.

Unfortunately, you'll most likely pay taxes on all your Social Security benefits if you're married but file a separate tax return.

Only 50% of your benefits will be taxed if your overall income is less than these figures, and it can be nothing at all if you don't have much else in the way of income: less than $25,000 in 2019 if you're single, or $32,000 if you're married and filing jointly.

Pension or Annuity Income 

Your pension or annuity income might be either fully or partially taxable.

Your distributions will be fully taxable if all contributions to your pension were made with tax-deferred dollars. But if you contributed any after-tax dollars to fund your plan, you'll have some cost basis in the plan contract. Part of your distributions will be a tax-free recovery of that cost basis and only the remainder will be taxable income.

Consult with a tax professional if you made any tax-deferred contributions because this calculation can get complicated.

IRS Publication 575, Pension and Annuity Income, provides comprehensive information about figuring out the taxable amount, but your plan administrator might also be able to calculate the taxable portion of your pension distribution for you. Contact the administrator to find out what your pension payments will be and what part of those payments will be considered taxable.

IRA Distributions 

Distributions from your individual retirement account might also be fully taxable, partially taxable, or completely tax-free. It depends on the type of IRA you have. 

If you have a deductible traditional IRA, your distributions will be fully taxable. You contributed funds using tax-deductible dollars, and tax is deferred on both the contributions and the earnings until they're withdrawn.

Your distributions will be partially taxable if you have any basis in a non-deductible traditional IRA. A portion of your distribution represents a return of your non-deductible investment and that portion is recovered tax-free.

Distributions from Roth IRAs are completely tax-free as long as you meet two basic requirements: Your first Roth IRA contribution was made at least five years prior to any distribution, and the funds are distributed after you reach age 59½. 

401(k) Plans 

Distributions from your employer's 401(k) plan are fully taxable because the contributions were excluded from your taxable income at the time they were made. Distributions from Roth 401(k) accounts are treated the same as Roth IRA distributions.