Strategies for Managing Post-Retirement Bracket Creep

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We’ve all quoted the mantra to our clients before and during tax season: “Defer income, accelerate deductions.” It’s generally good advice, of course. If clients can push income past the end of the year, they won’t have to pay taxes on it this year, and a deduction taken now is of more immediate benefit than one in the future.

But especially for HNW retirees, this tried-and-true proverb needs a caveat or two. Those who have been methodically and faithfully contributing as much as they can to traditional IRAs, 401Ks, and other tax-favored plans, can find themselves in a higher tax bracket in retirement once their required minimum distributions (RMDs) kick in, even if they wait until age 72, as allowed by the 2019 SECURE Act. Especially in future years, as more people enjoy longer lifespans, it could be possible to live for 20, 30 or more years in retirement in a higher tax bracket than when they were still working full-time. Your advice to your client’s needs to reflect this changing reality.

So, what should you do?

Well, as with most things in financial planning, it starts with some in-depth conversations with your clients, and you want to invite their tax advisor – conversations that ideally need to begin several years prior to your client’s retirement. The goal is to project current and future income and analyze all sources of retirement income, including tax-qualified and taxable accounts and Social Security. Once you’ve gathered the necessary information, you’ll be in a position to help your client decide which of several available strategies will help them find the “sweet spot”: carefully balancing income for maximum tax efficiency, both now and after they stop working.

For example, you might decide that it makes sense for your client to convert some of their traditional tax-deferred accounts to Roth accounts. This will entail paying taxes on a portion of the funds, but insures tax-free income in later years, when RMDs begin. What you must determine is whether, in your client’s particular situation, it makes more sense to pay taxes on the money in their current bracket or in the bracket they’re likely to be in at age 72 or later, especially if it is likely that their other income will cause part of their Social Security income to be taxable (for some wealthy retirees, up to 85% of Social Security benefits can be taxable).