Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taxable versus Tax-Deferred Accounts for Dividend Investing

Dividend investing is a great strategy for accumulating income producing securities, which pay their owners cash on a regular basis. These cash distributions are viewed as taxable incomes in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Depending on the taxpayers adjusted gross income, they could end up paying as much as 20% on the dividends they received. Compared to the top marginal rates on ordinary income such as salaries or bond interest however, dividend income has much lower tax rates. In retirement, qualified dividend income will not be subject to federal taxes for married couples earning $95,000/year (assuming no other sources of income). Unfortunately, it would take the average dividend investor years of accumulating assets, before they reach their dividend crossover point. This will result in them paying taxes throughout their accumulation phase. Many investors have the choice to shelter some or most of their investments in tax-sheltered accounts which could either postpone or eliminate the need to pay taxes on their investment incomes. By reducing or eliminating tax waste in the accumulation phase, dividend investors could reach the dividend crossover point much sooner than by doing it with taxable accounts alone.

There are several tax deferred account options for US investors who are still earning a paycheck. These include regular and Roth IRA’s in addition to 401 (k) plans. Each of these accounts has its pros and cons.

Traditional IRA’s provide investors with a tax benefit today, and allow them to compound their gains for years to come but have to take required minimum distributions at the age of 70 ½ years. Distributions are taxed as ordinary income. However there are strict eligibility rules that do not allow high income households to get the deductibility of contributions. Other negatives include the low contribution limit of just $5,500/year. There is a catch-up contribution limit increase of $1,000 for persons who are above the age of 50. The largest negative includes a 10% early distributions penalty that the IRA imposes if someone withdraws funds prior to the age of 59 ½ years. However, you can pretty much invest in almost anything with your IRA.

Roth IRA’s do not provide any tax benefit to investors today, but allow for tax free compounding of capital and tax free distributions from the account at the age of 59 ½ years. Direct contributions can be withdrawn tax-free at any time, although investors need to wait until they are 59 ½ years old, before they can withdraw gains from the account without a penalty. Investors cannot put more than $5,500/year in a Roth IRA, and there are strict income eligibility requirements to open an account as well. There is a catch-up contribution limit increase of $1,000 for persons who are above the age of 50. Another advantage of a Roth IRA is that there are no required minimum distributions requirements. With my Roth IRA’s, I can pretty much purchase any US Dividend Growth Stock I choose, and I like this flexibility. Tax payers are taking a gamble with Roth IRA’s however, as cash strapped Congress could decide to tax distributions in the future. Of course, it is also likely that tax rates on qualified dividend income will increase before Congress doing anything about limiting or taxing Roth IRA's for middle-class consumers.

The 401 (k) plan is the company sponsored defined contribution plan, that millions of Americans are eligible for. The annual contribution limit is $18,000/year for those under the age of 50. If you are over the age of 50, you can contribute up to $24,000/year to your 401 (k). The majority of 401 (k) plans allow participants to put pre-tax contributions today, and enjoy tax-free compounding of capital. They do have required minimum distributions starting at the age of 70 1/2 years old. This is when you will have to pay ordinary income taxes on any money you withdraw from the 401 (k). An increasing number of employers are now also offering Roth 401 (k) contributions, with the same limits as the traditional 401 (k). The nice thing is that contributions are after-tax, the money compounds tax-free, and there are no taxes to pay on investment earnings. The drawback of most 401 (k) plans for many investors is the limitation on the types of investments to choose. A good 401 (k) plan will offer low cost mutual funds to investors. A really good 401 (k) plan will also offer a Brokerage Link window, that would allow investors to pick their own investments. A really bad 401 (k) plan will include high-fee mutual funds with sales loads. If the fund you are purchasing charges an annual management fee of 1%/year, chances are this is part of the offering of a bad 401 (k) plan.

One disadvantage of both accounts (IRA and 401 (k)) is that you cannot deduct investment losses, or offset them against investment gains. In addition, foreign dividends are subject to witholding taxes at the point of origin despite the fact that they are in a tax-sheltered account. Unlike taxable accounts, investors cannot get a tax credit for these foreign tax withholdings. Dividends in tax-sheltered accounts of US investors which are derived from Canadian or UK companies are not subject to tax withholdings.

Despite popular beliefs however, Master Limited Partnerships can be held in tax deferred accounts, as the UBTI which scares investors off is mostly a non-event ( and has been in my few years as an MLP investor, although things might change). In the years that I have owned ONEOK Partners (OKS) and Enterprise Product Partners (EPD), I have never had positive UBTI.

In addition, investors need to choose whether to open a Roth or a Traditional IRA with their $5,500 in a given year, but cannot open both. Investors can still have an IRA and a 401(k) plan however. Given the lack of investment options in 401 (k) plans, they are of limited value to the self-directed dividend growth investor. 401 (k) plans are helpful as a tool to minimize taxes and get the company match, and buy a few index funds, which is why they work for mostly passive investors. The nice thing about 401(k) plans that I utilized in 2013 is that if you quit your job, you can rollover the money into an IRA. After that, you can pretty much invest in anything you want, including creating your own dividend stock portfolio.

In my investing portfolio, I keep most of my holdings in taxable accounts.The taxable accounts give me a lot of flexibility in my investments, and I can add or withdraw as much as I want at a moment’s notice. I do pay taxes on my investment income, but I also get to do tax loss harvesting on my investments.

I expect that by the end of 2015, I would have approximately 10 - 15% in tax-deferred accounts such as 401 (k), IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA and Health Savings Accounts (HSA). This is mostly because I used to believe that there are too many restrictions on withdrawing principle and accumulated gains from these tax-advantaged accounts. As a result, I used to contribute only the bare minimum to my 401 (k) in order to get the company match.  As I researched further, I realized that it is possible to withdraw money out of an IRA before the age of 59 and a half penalty free. With Roth IRA's, contributions can be withdrawn penalty-free at almost any time. With 401 (k) plans, investors can start withdrawals penalty free if they have separated from service, and they are 55 years of age or older. Or, just like with IRA's, investors can use Substantially Equal Period Payments (SEPP) and withdraw money to live off at any age. The only catch is that if you start withdrawing money using SEPP, you need to continue doing it for the next 5 years or until you turn 59 1/2 years - whichever is longer.

The part I don't like about taxable accounts is that I was paying too much in taxes on salary and investment income. Taxes are the largest expense item on my personal income statement. Therefore, I have been maxing out all tax-deferred investment vehicles like crazy since early 2013 (luckily for some I was able to contribute for 2012 as well). I have saved tens of thousands of dollars in Federal and State taxes in the process. Prior to that epiphany, I had only contributed slightly more than the employer match I received. If I had to do it all over again, I would have been much smarter about the tax-efficiency of my investments. If my accumulation phase lasts for one decade, this means I would have to pay taxes on the money I want to invest in a taxable account, and then pay taxes on distributions I receive for that entire decade. It is little consolation that when I become FI, my dividend income will be tax-free. When you have too much waste in the accumulation phase of investing for retirement/FI, you end up with less money to invest, since you are paying so much in taxes.

My goal in retirement is to essentially live off dividends (qualified dividends) and pay no taxes in retirement. Using 2015 rates, a couple that is married and filing jointly will not pay any federal taxes if they earn less than $95,500 in qualified dividend income. This exercise assumes that the couple has no other source of income.

The couple will have a standard deduction of $12,600, and the personal exemptions will be $8000 ( $4000 per person), for a total of $20,600. In order to avoid paying taxes on qualified dividend income, the couple needs to make sure that they stay in the 15% marginal tax bracket. The highest income per that bracket for 2015 is $74,900. Therefore, adding $74,900 to $20,600 gets us up to $95,500.

My strategy for tax-free income is to live off qualified dividends and not pay any taxes in the process. However, I also expect to convert 401 (k) and IRA balances into Roth slowly. You can recall that I get a 25% - 30% deduction for putting money in 401 (k) and IRA today. My goal is to convert that amount in 401 (k) and IRA slowly into a Roth IRA when I retire, and to pay no taxes in the process.

How is that possible?

Let’s assume that a married couple files taxes jointly and has no other income than $74,000 in annual qualified dividends. This means they will pay no taxes on that qualified dividend income. However, if they rolled over $20,600 from an old 401 (k) into a Roth IRA, they will pay zero taxes on the conversion.

This is possible, because a 401 (k) to Roth IRA conversion creates ordinary taxable income. However, ordinary taxable income that is lower than the sum total of the standard deduction and personal exemptions creates a taxable liability of zero. The sum total of the standard deduction and personal exemptions for a married couple comes out to $20,600 for 2015. And of course, since the sum of the $20,600 IRA conversion and the $74,000 in qualified dividend income is less than $95,500, the total income stream will be tax-free at the Federal level.

Therefore, if the couple has a 401 (k) with $100,000 in it, they can expect to convert it into a Roth IRA within 5 years or so and pay no taxes in the process. This is a pretty sweet deal, because the couple likely received hefty tax breaks in saving the money into a 401 (k) in the first place. However, they converted it into a Roth IRA, which means that any future distributions from this Roth IRA will be tax-free. This is the type of deal where you get your cake and you eat it too, which is very appealing to the Dividend Growth Investor.

And to add another thing for you to think about, it is important to complete these 401 (k) to Roth IRA conversions before you start claiming Social Security benefits. This is because the addition of Social Security Benefits will increase ordinary taxable income, and could lead to paying some tax on the 401 (k)/IRA to Roth IRA conversion. In addition, it is really important that the conversion of a 401 (k)/IRA to Roth IRA occurs prior to the age of 70 and a half years, in order to avoid having to make required minimum distributions (RMD). Those Required Minimum Distributions from a 401 (k) or IRA are subject to ordinary income taxes. If you have already completed the conversion to a Roth IRA prior to the age of 70 and a half, you will not have to make required minimum distributions. This is why tax planning is so important - it can add more money for the investor, speed up the process of asset accumulation, and reduce tax expenses in retirement.

Full Disclosure: None

Relevant Articles:

How to Retire Early With Tax-Advantaged Accounts
My Retirement Strategy for Tax-Free Income
Dividends Provide a Tax-Efficient Form of Income
My Dividend Goals for 2015 and after
How to accumulate your nest egg

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