‘I’m not a high maintenance person.’ I’m 70 and living well on $24K a year in Social Security. But I’ll have to take IRA distributions soon and might want to live abroad. Should I hire a pro to help?


Alisa Wolfson

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Question: I’m 70 and living sufficiently on Social Security, as I’m not a high-maintenance person. My Social Security is about $24,000 per year, and I’m now in a low tax bracket. I’ve paid off my small apartment, and I’m without debts. I’ve considered living abroad in Southeast Asia (in either Thailand or Malaysia because they have low costs of living) temporarily when the weather in my area hits low 20s. I still have pension money with the company I worked at before retirement, and I have a traditional IRA. The total pension plus the IRA is around $500,000. I’m thinking of transferring the pension money into the current IRA, but not withdrawing it in a lump sum in order to avoid paying taxes. I understand that at age 72.5 or maybe at 73, I have to do the required minimum withdrawals (RMDs).

What’s the best move for me considering my company pension? Also, when it’s time to do required minimum distributions (RMDs), will the yearly withdrawal affect my tax status? If so, what are the appropriate taxes I need to pay based on gross income including Social Security? Is this something an adviser could help me with? If so, what kind? (Looking for a new adviser too? This free tool can match you with a fiduciary adviser who may meet your needs.)

Answer: It sounds like you’ve set yourself up for success in retirement by keeping expenses low and enjoying a lifestyle that is meaningful to you without luxury items. It also sounds like you’re asking the right questions. Kudos to you.

Let’s first start with your question about what to do with the company pension. “Based on what you’re saying, moving your pension into your IRA is probably a good move. Taking a pension annuity works for people needing additional monthly income, but this doesn’t sound like you,” says certified financial planner Josh St. Laurent at Wealth In Yourself. Indeed, if you’re getting by on your current income and don’t see yourself increasing spending, then it probably wouldn’t make sense to commit to a lifetime of monthly payments.

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As background, with a pension, retirees can often opt to receive regular monthly checks or put their pension funds into an annuity. Some employers allow for lump-sum distributions, which can be rolled into an IRA or invested, in which case a retiree is only taxed on money withdrawn from the IRA.

There are some important questions you need to ask yourself when thinking about the pension. “Is it covering your life only or do you have a partner you need to consider? Are you in good health? If you’re healthy and have longevity in your family, are married and the monthly income amount is a better or similar rate of return than you can expect to get in the markets, then the pension may be best. Alternatively, if you’re not in good health, you may consider taking the lump-sum amount and any money that is not spent can be left to your estate,” says certified financial planner Ryan Haiss at Flynn Zito Capital Management.

As for the RMDs question, “at age 73 you’ll be required to start taking your RMDs and this will count as extra income. To give you a sense of what this will look like, a person turning 73 in 2023 would have an RMD requirement of $18,867.92 for a $500,000 IRA. This may change slightly over the next few years, but gives you an estimate,” says St. Laurent.

RMDs will impact your taxes, but that doesn’t mean it’ll put you in a new tax bracket, depending on your filing status. Keep in mind that the amount of taxes due will be based on the combined income of the RMD plus 85% of your Social Security (15% is tax free) and any other income sources you have. “The combined amounts determine your adjusted gross income for tax purposes and the tax table is progressive at the federal level, so it’s hard to say what is appropriate without having all the numbers,” says Joe Favorito, a certified financial planner at Landmark Wealth Management.

In other words, “it’s best to consult with an accountant to determine taxes that may be due. I often work together with CPAs as this helps with the overall picture and determining how much in taxes to withhold for RMDs,” says Haiss.

Let’s also tackle your idea about moving overseas. While moving to Southeast Asia may make sense financially, you’d need to ask yourself if you’d actually enjoy living there. “Sometimes the best decisions aren’t solely financial ones. I always recommend renting for two to three months before committing to a new place for the long term as a vacation isn’t enough time to really know. I’ve seen this a lot with clients that move from New York to Florida. They think they’ll love it until they experience the Florida humidity in the summer,” says Haiss.

You don’t necessarily need an adviser, but you may want to consider guidance from someone like a certified financial planner. CFPs are required to go through extensive coursework and training. In your case, it might make sense to look for a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour or on a per-project basis, so you can get a better understanding of your current situation and the options available, but not have to pay ongoing fees.

To find a professional, check the National Association of Personal Financial Advisor (NAPFA) site, the CFP Board’s Let’s Make a Plan site, or use this free tool from SmartAsset that can match you with a fiduciary adviser who may meet your needs. You might even be able to handle this on your own, but having a professional weigh in initially could provide you with some helpful insight or recommendations that you can then implement on your own behalf. Here are the questions to ask a financial adviser before you hire them.

Questions edited for brevity and clarity.

Have an issue with your financial adviser or looking for a new one? Email picks@marketwatch.com.

-Alisa Wolfson

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10-14-23 1046ET

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