The Ambiguity of Tax Deferral

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This article first appeared in the November 23, 2017 issue of Retirement Income Journal.

When you look at your 401(k) or 403(b) or rollover IRA, what do you see? Do you see a two-sleeve account, where you contributed about 80% and the federal government contributed about 20%? Or do you feel like the account contains only your money, with no help from your Uncle Sam?

To economist Steve Zeldes of Columbia University, it’s obvious that Uncle Sam contributed part of your balance. But advisors who manage brokerage IRAs tend to believe that the money is all yours. Similarly, many affluent retirees over age 70½ wonder why the IRS requires them to withdraw three or four percent of their tax-deferred savings each year and pay ordinary income taxes on it.

Just as there’s more than one way to look at the image that illustrates this article, there may be more than one way to think about tax deferral. Indeed, our national arguments over the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule, the potential “Rothification” of defined-contribution plans, and the need for a harmonized DOL-SEC fiduciary rule, may stem from the fact that we don’t all think about it the same way.