Posts Tagged "IRS"

The Problem with Low-Income Tax Credits

The federal tax code offers a nifty tax credit to low-income workers who save for retirement. If only it reached more people.

The Saver’s Credit offers what appears on its face to be a strong incentive: the IRS will return up to 50 percent of the amount low-income workers and married couples put into a retirement plan.

But Barbara Wollan, an 18-year volunteer in Iowa with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, which provides free tax preparation to low-income workers, said her clients often don’t qualify. The reason: the tax credit is not what the IRS calls “fully refundable.”

For example, a single person earning $19,750 or less is eligible for a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount saved – the maximum retirement plan contribution eligible for the credit is $2,000. The credits are either 10 percent or 20 percent for single workers earning between $19,751 and $33,000. (The income limits are higher for households.)

The catch is that the credit is subtracted from the taxes owed, and low-income people usually pay little or no taxes to the IRS after they take the standard deduction given to all taxpayers. If they don’t owe taxes, they don’t get the credit.

“To dream big about helping low-income people save for retirement, we would make it a refundable credit,” said Wollan, an educator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, which distributes research information in her state on topics like finance and agriculture.

Congress is considering providing a refundable credit of up to $500 to single and married savers even if they don’t owe anything at tax time. But lawmakers often get into a political disagreement about whether people who don’t pay taxes should get money back from the IRS.

Wollan feels her low-income clients should be rewarded for making what is, for them, a Herculean effort to save. “When I see that they have contributed to a 401(k) or other retirement account, I just want to jump up and down and cheer and pat them on the back,” she said. But “because their income is so low, they don’t get to take advantage of these credits, and that is so sad.” …Learn More

Think of Saver’s Tax Credit as Free Money

Life’s unpleasant surprises – a new set of tires or a big vet bill – can get in the way of saving money for retirement. This is especially true for low-income workers.

But if they are able to save a little here and there, the federal government provides a very big assist through its Saver’s Credit. Unfortunately, low-income workers are also the least likely to be aware the tax credit exists.

Savers credit tableHere’s how the Saver’s Credit works. The IRS returns half of the amount saved over the year – up to certain limits – by a head of household earning less than $29,626 or a couple earning less than $39,501.

So, the head of household with earnings under the income limit who saves $2,000 in a tax-exempt retirement plan like an IRA or an employer 401(k) would get back the IRS’ maximum credit of $1,000. And the couple that saves $4,000 would get back the $2,000 maximum.

Piggy bankGranted, these are very large sums for low-income workers. But if they can manage to save a little bit every week, the Saver’s Credit is effectively free money from the federal government.

Smaller tax credits are available to people with slightly higher incomes. Individuals and couples do not qualify if they earn more than $49,500 and $66,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, only about a third of households earning under $50,000 are aware of the credit, according to a Transamerica Institute survey.

Now that you know, start saving. You’ll get a big chunk of it back. …Learn More

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What the Research Can Tell us about Retiring

It’s difficult to envision what life will look like on the other side of the consequential decision to retire.

But research can help demystify what lies ahead – about the decision itself, the financial challenges, and even the taxes. Readers understand this, as evidenced by the most popular blog posts in the first three months of the year.

Here are the highlights:

The retirement decision. The article, “Retirement Ages Geared to Life Expectancy,” attracted the most reader traffic. Myriad considerations go into a decision to retire. But a sense of whether one might live a long time – because of good health or simply seeing that parents or neighbors are living unusually long – is a compelling reason to postpone retirement either to remain active or to build up one’s finances to fund a longer retirement.

A recent study found that as men’s life spans have increased, they have responded by remaining in the labor force longer, especially in areas of the country with strong job markets and more opportunity. This is also true, though to a lesser extent, for working women.

The planning. The second most popular blog was, “Big Picture Helps with Retirement Finances.” It described the success researchers have had with an online tool they designed, which shows older workers the impact on their retirement income of various decisions. When participants in the experiment selected when to start Social Security or how to withdraw 401(k) funds, the tool estimated their total retirement income. If they changed their minds, the income estimate would change.

The tool isn’t sold commercially. But it’s encouraging that researchers are looking for real-world solutions to the financial planning problem, since the insights from experiments like these often make their way into the online tools that are available to everyone.

The taxes. It’s common for a worker’s income to drop after retiring. So the good news shouldn’t be surprising in a study highlighted in a recent blog, “How Much Will Your Retirement Taxes Be?” Four out of five retired households pay little or no federal and state income taxes, the researchers found. But taxes are an important consideration for retirees who have saved substantial sums. …Learn More

Will More Aid to Parents Be Permanent?

Happy children standing together

To lift families out of poverty during the pandemic, Congress is on the verge of passing a substantial increase this year in the standard child tax credit as part of President Biden’s broader relief package.

But despite the sharp divide over the $1.9 trillion package, some senators – both Democrats and Republicans – want to permanently increase federal assistance to families. Their goals range from reducing racial inequality and rural poverty to providing more financial stability for middle- and working-class parents.

The prospect of a bipartisan plan for increasing assistance to parents beyond this year is welcomed by advocates for the poor and lower-income workers. The proposals represent a belief “that all of society benefits when children are doing well,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for Zero to Three, which promotes policies to help infants and toddlers.

Prior to COVID-19, she said 40 percent of infants and toddlers were in families below 200 percent of the poverty limit. Parents “didn’t have the financial resources to meet their [children’s] basic needs,” she said.

The current proposal in Congress for immediate pandemic relief would increase the per-child tax credit in 2021 from the current level of $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children and teenagers. This same increase is included in a bill by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to make the larger tax credits permanent.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s plan is even more generous. The Utah senator proposed $4,200 in annual cash payments for children under 6 and $3,000 for older children, and some Republicans may be willing to go along. Romney’s plan, if passed, “would arguably be the biggest anti-poverty measure since the Social Security Act of 1935,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, said in an interview.

But Hammond said members of both parties are making serious efforts to alleviate poverty by targeting assistance to children. The United States has the highest poverty rate of any developed country, “because we spend so little on child benefits, and the benefits we do have cut out the poorest families,” he said. The current tax credit is not available at all to the unemployed and low-income families earning under $2,500.

Hammond and Jones-Taylor were among the panelists in a webinar last month at the Urban Institute to explore the pros and cons of each approach – a tax credit versus monthly cash assistance. …Learn More

Tax Form 1040

How Much Will Your Retirement Taxes Be?

Four out of five retired households will pay little or no income taxes. But the tax rates at the highest income levels are meaningful, averaging 11 percent of household income and as much as 23 percent at the very top.

These estimates come from a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research that sheds light on a potentially important consideration that is often overlooked by people approaching retirement age.

The highest tax rates are paid by the highest-income households because they often withdraw money from 401(k)s and IRAs to supplement their Social Security benefits. They must also pay capital gains taxes when they sell stocks and bonds for a profit from their regular financial accounts.

Retirement Taxes ChartHouseholds with income in the top 20 percent have nearly $770,000, on average, in retirement savings and other financial assets – their taxes equal 11 percent of their total retirement income. However, limiting the households to the top 5 percent of the income distribution, the tax rate increases to 16 percent – and the top 1 percent pays 23 percent.

These estimates assume retirees start pulling money out of their taxable 401(k) and IRA accounts when the IRS’ required minimum distributions (RMDs) kick in at age 70 1/2 – this age will increase to 72 next year. The tax rates were very similar under alternate scenarios that assume retirees either start withdrawing savings prior to the RMD or buy an immediate annuity with a survivor’s benefit.

The tax estimates are based on data for older U.S. households with at least one recent retiree. The researchers first calculated their expected future lifetime income from Social Security, 401(k)s and other sources in each year. The future yearly tax payments were then estimated using a program that applies IRS rules and each state’s tax rules to the various types of retirement income.

The tax rates are their total tax bills as a percentage of their total income. …Learn More

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States Give Financial Help to Caregivers

On Jan. 1, Arizona residents caring for elderly or disabled family members became eligible for up to a $1,000 reimbursement from the state for expenses incurred in their caregiving responsibilities.

This is a trial program and the legislature allocated very little money – $1 million over two years – in a state with an estimated 800,000 residents caring for a disabled adult over 18.

But it’s a start.

Caregivers “aren’t asking for everything. They’re asking for a little bit to make their lives better,” said Elaine Ryan, vice president of government affairs for AARP, which has been on the forefront of advocating for such policies at the state level. “That’s the least we can do.”

Arizona’s program would defray a portion of caregivers’ spending. For older family members, this would cover technologies to aid older family members, such as hearing aids or computer programs, or shower grab bars and wheelchair ramps.

Graphic of caregiver expenses

Like Arizona, state governments around the country, as laboratories for policy experimentation, have passed a hodgepodge of programs to support caregivers. Other bills approved in recent years range from New Jersey’s tax credit for military families caring for wounded veterans to Oregon’s paid family leave program for workers taking care of aging spouses, parents and grandparents.

The programs are a tacit acknowledgment of the enormous financial strain caregivers face – a strain that is only expected to grow and, increasingly, to affect Millennials as their baby boomer parents age.

However, it’s not easy to pass bills that require states to approve financial assistance or tax credits, because the work done quietly by family caregivers is often invisible and under-appreciated by the general public and federal and state legislators. …Learn More

More Retirees Today Have a Mortgage

In one significant way, retirement is materially different than it used to be: far more retirees are still trying to pay off their houses.

Bar graph showing the number of retirees with mortgagesThirty years ago, just one of every four homeowners in their late 60s to late 70s still had a mortgage – today, nearly half do. Once people hit 80, mortgages used to be extremely rare – only 3 percent had them. Today, it’s one in four, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies recently reported.

Retiree’s financial condition depends on much more than how much they spend on housing – in particular the size of their retirement savings accounts and Social Security checks. But rent or a mortgage payment is typically the largest item in the monthly budget. Being free of both can be a significant boost to one’s standard of living in retirement.

Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at Harvard’s housing center, described several developments over the past three decades that may explain the dramatic increase in the share of retirees with mortgages.

First, she said, Americans today “seem to have less aversion to debt” than the generation that grew up after the Great Depression and was instilled with frugality. Although consumer debt levels always ebb and flow with the economy’s cycles, total debt as a percentage of disposable income is significantly higher today than it was in the 1990s. The 1986 tax reform act also made mortgages a more attractive form of debt to hold. The reform eliminated the income tax deductions for interest on credit cards and other types of consumer debt, with one exception: mortgage interest.

Having a mortgage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mortgage rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades. Many retirees who are still making monthly mortgage payments were able to reduce the payments by refinancing old, partially paid off mortgages into new 30-year loans with lower interest rates.

But another factor that may have pushed up the share of retirees with mortgages has been the long-term run-up in house prices, relative to earnings, which makes it increasingly difficult to pay off a house before retiring. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, house prices were about three times the typical household’s earnings, according to the housing center. Today, prices are more than four times earnings. …Learn More