Victor and Jane Muratti, a computer analyst and schoolteacher married for more than 30 years, are nearing retirement. Over the years, they have accumulated a mosaic of investments, including stocks, corporate and municipal bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), annuities, real estate, and master limited partnerships (MLPs). Some of these investments are in taxable accounts while others are in tax-deferred retirement plans and traditional and Roth IRAs.
Once they retire, the Murattis will begin drawing income from these various accounts, and after they reach age 70½, they'll have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their retirement plans and IRAs. But they don't have a clue about the best way to create their retirement "paychecks."
It's a common situation and the circumstances will vary for every person or couple. However, one typical objective is to minimize federal income tax from investment transactions, while preserving as much wealth as you can for a lengthy retirement.
One way to do that is by paying attention to tax brackets. Income taxes are based on a graduated seven-bracket system, with different tax rates for each bracket. The more of your income that falls into lower brackets—and so is taxed at lower rates—the better. And to the extent that you can control how much income you receive, you could try to take just enough to fill up your current bracket without moving into the next, higher one. You can use this tax bracket management strategy throughout retirement.
But to benefit, you'll need to learn the basics for three different types of accounts you're likely to tap during retirement.
1. Taxable accounts: This category includes all of the investments you hold outside of retirement plans. You may have stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs, as well as interest-bearing savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs). If you sell any of these at a gain, your profit will generally be taxed at the favorable rate for long-term capital gains—that is, gains on investments you've held for a year or more. The tax rate for long-term gains is 15%, or 20% if your income puts you in the top tax bracket for ordinary income. Most dividend income from stocks is also taxed at 15% or 20%. But interest from bonds and other investments is likely to be taxed at the higher rates for ordinary income.
2. Tax-deferred accounts: Within tax-deferred accounts such as 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs, capital gains and income from dividends and interest all can accumulate without being taxed. But once you start taking money out of these accounts during retirement, all or most of your withdrawals will be taxed as ordinary income. And when RMDs come along, some of the money must come out every year.
One kind of tax-deferred investment—annuities—may help you minimize taxes by postponing payouts until your income is lower during retirement. Deferred compensation from your company could offer similar tax benefits.
3. Tax-free accounts: Of course, no taxes are better than low taxes, and a Roth IRA may give you retirement income that isn't taxed at all. With a Roth IRA that you've had for at least five years, withdrawals after age 59½ are completely tax-free. Meanwhile, although interest income from most bonds is taxed at ordinary income rates, income from municipal bonds or municipal bond funds can be tax-exempt. These bonds could be a valuable part of your retirement portfolio.
When considering which account to draw from and in what order, a common strategy is to take RMDs first—because you must make those withdrawals—then tap your taxable accounts next, leaving assets in tax-deferred accounts to grow without being eroded by taxes for as long as possible. Finally, make tax-free withdrawals from your Roth IRA, which offers the additional advantage of not requiring distributions during your lifetime.
In addition, to the extent you can, you might practice tax bracket management, capping your taxable income at a level that will let you avoid moving into a higher bracket. So that even if you can't avoid taxes entirely during retirement, you may be able to keep them under control.