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Investing Blog Roundup: More Funds in 401(k) Leads to Better Outcomes

I hope you are all safe and as happy and healthy as it is possible for you to be.

For years, the conventional wisdom regarding 401(k) and other similar workplace retirement plans is that the plan shouldn’t have “too many” investment options. Having a lot of options causes employees to experience “choice overload,” which can lead to worse decisions.

I recently came across a piece of research from David Blanchett and Michael Finke (summary article below) that found exactly the opposite. Having a lot of choices causes more employees to accept the default investment option (possibly because of the feared choice overload). But these days (i.e., post-Pension Protection Act of 2006), that’s a good thing because more and more employers are using target-date funds as the default option.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Inherited IRA Rules (Updated for 2020 to Reflect SECURE Act and CARES Act)

As a result of the SECURE Act that was passed in late 2019, there are now essentially two sets of rules for inherited IRAs. Which rules to use depends on a) when the original account owner died and b) who is listed as the beneficiary of the account.

Also, as a result of the CARES Act that was passed in March 2020, there are no required distributions for 2020 from IRAs — whether inherited or not.

Death in 2020 or Later

If the IRA owner dies in 2020 or later, we first have to determine whether the beneficiary is an “eligible beneficiary.”

Eligible beneficiaries include:

  • the surviving spouse of the original account owner,
  • a minor child of the original account owner,
  • anybody who is disabled or chronically-ill (per the definition found in IRC 7702B(c)(2)), or
  • any designated beneficiary who is not more than 10 years younger than the original account owner.

If the beneficiary is an eligible beneficiary, then the old rules apply (see below).

If the beneficiary is not an eligible beneficiary, the new rule applies. And the new rule simply says that the account must be completely distributed within 10 years of the original owner’s death. The distributions do not, however, have to occur evenly over those 10 years. (For instance, if you wanted to do so, you could take no distributions for the first 9 years, then distribute everything in year 10.)

Deaths in 2019 or Earlier, As Well as Eligible Beneficiaries

The “old rules” discussed in the remainder of this article apply in situations in which either:

  • The IRA owner died in 2019 or earlier, or
  • The beneficiary is an “eligible beneficiary” as described above, and therefore able to use the (more favorable) old rules.

Under the “old rules,” there are still actually two sets of rules: one set of rules that applies if the deceased owner was your spouse, and another set for any other designated beneficiary. We’ll cover spouse beneficiaries first, then non-spouse beneficiaries, then situations in which there are multiple beneficiaries.

Inherited IRA: Spouse Beneficiary

As a spouse beneficiary, you have two primary options:

  1. Do a spousal rollover — rolling the account into your own IRA, or
  2. Continue to own the account as a beneficiary.

Note: there’s no deadline on a spousal rollover. Should you want to, you can own the account as a spousal beneficiary for several years, then elect to do a spousal rollover.

If you do a spousal rollover, from that point forward it’s just a normal IRA (i.e., it’s just like any other IRA that was yours to begin with), so all the normal IRA rules apply, whether Roth or traditional.

If you continue to own the account as a spousal beneficiary, the rules will be similar to normal IRA rules, but with a few important exceptions.

No 10% Penalty
First, you can take distributions from the account without being subject to the 10% penalty, regardless of your age. So if you expect to need the money prior to age 59.5, this is a good reason not to go the spousal rollover route — at least not yet. (As mentioned above, there’s no deadline on a spousal rollover.)

Withdrawals from Inherited Roth IRA
Second, if the inherited account was a Roth IRA, any withdrawals of earnings taken prior to the point at which the original owner would have satisfied the 5-year rule will be subject to income tax (though not the 10% penalty).

Spouse Beneficiary RMDs
Third, you’ll have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) in the year in which the deceased account owner would have been required to take them. (If the original owner — your spouse — was required to take an RMD in the year in which he/she died, but he/she had not yet taken it, you’re required to take it for him/her, calculated in the same way it would be if he/she were still alive.)

Your RMD from the account will be calculated each year based on your own remaining life expectancy from the “Single Life” table in IRS Publication 590-B.**

Inherited IRA: Non-Spouse Beneficiary

When you inherit an IRA as a non-spouse beneficiary, the account works much like a typical IRA, with three important exceptions.

No 10% Penalty
Distributions from the account are not subject to the 10% penalty, regardless of your age. (This is the same as for a spouse beneficiary.)

Withdrawals from Inherited Roth IRA
If the inherited account was a Roth IRA, any withdrawals of earnings taken prior to the point at which the original owner would have satisfied the 5-year rule will be subject to income tax, though not the 10% penalty. (This is also the same as for a spouse beneficiary.)

Non-Spouse Beneficiary RMDs
Each year, beginning in the year after the death of the account owner, you’ll have to take a required minimum distribution from the account. (If the account owner was required to take an RMD in the year of his death but he had not yet taken one, you’ll be required to take his RMD for him, calculated in the same way it would be if he were still alive.)

The rules for calculating your RMD are similar (but not quite identical) to the rules for a spousal beneficiary. Again, your first RMD from the account will be calculated based on your own remaining life expectancy from the “Single Life” table in IRS Publication 590-B. However, in following years, instead of looking up your remaining life expectancy again (as a spousal beneficiary would), you simply subtract 1 year from whatever your life expectancy was last year.**

For example, imagine that your father passed away in 2018 at age 65, leaving you his entire IRA. For 2018 (the year of death), you have no RMD. On your birthday in 2019, you turn 30 years old. According to the Single Life table, your remaining life expectancy at age 30 is 53.3 years. As a result, your RMD for 2019 would have been equal to the account balance as of 12/31/2018, divided by 53.3.

For 2020, if it weren’t for the CARES Act eliminating RMDs for 2020, your RMD would have been equal to the account balance at the end of 2019, divided by 52.3. (But because of the CARES Act, the RMD for 2020 would be zero.) In 2021, the RMD will be the 12/31/2020 balance, divided by 51.3.

Important exception: if you want, you can elect to distribute the account over 5 years rather than over your remaining life expectancy. If you elect to do that, you can take the distributions however you’d like over those five years — for example, no distributions in years 1-3 and everything in year 4.

Successor Beneficiary RMDs
If the original non-spouse beneficiary dies before the account has been fully distributed, the new inheriting beneficiary is known as a successor beneficiary.

If the original account owner died in 2020 or later, the new rule is that the successor beneficiary (regardless of who it is) will have to distribute the remainder of the account within 10 years of the death of the original beneficiary. (Note: within 10 years of the death of the original beneficiary, not 10 years of the death of the original owner.)

If the original account owner died in 2019 or prior, successor beneficiaries are subject to the same “old rules” as described above for the original beneficiary, with one exception: the successor beneficiary must continue to take distributions each year as if they were the original beneficiary.

By way of illustration, in the example above (with your father, the original owner, dying in 2018) if you were to then die in 2021, leaving the entire IRA to your sister, she would be required to continue taking RMDs from the account according to the exact same schedule you had been taking them, regardless of her own age. So if you hadn’t yet taken your 2021 distribution, she’d have to take it. Her 2022 distribution would be exactly what yours would have been if you were still alive: the 12/31/2021 balance, divided by 50.3.

Tips for Non-Spouse Beneficiaries

  1. When you retitle the account, be sure to include both your name and the name of the original owner.
  2. Name new beneficiaries for the account ASAP.
  3. If you decide to move the account to another custodian (to Vanguard from Edward Jones, for instance), do a direct transfer only. If you attempt to execute a regular rollover and you end up in possession of the funds, it will count as if you’d distributed the entire account.

Inherited IRA: Multiple Beneficiaries

If multiple beneficiaries inherit an IRA, they’re each treated as if they were non-spouse beneficiaries, and they each have to use the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary when calculating RMDs. This is not a good thing, as it means less ability to “stretch” the IRA.

However, if the beneficiaries split the IRA into separate inherited IRAs by the end of the year following the year of the original owner’s death, then each beneficiary gets to treat his own inherited portion as if he were the sole beneficiary of an IRA of that size. This is a good thing, because it means that:

  • A spouse beneficiary will be treated as a spouse beneficiary rather than as a non-spouse beneficiary (thereby allowing for more distribution options), and
  • Each non-spouse beneficiary will get to use his or her own life expectancy for calculating RMDs.

Note: if the original owner dies in 2020 or later and at least one beneficiary is a “non-eligible beneficiary” (per the definition from the beginning in this article), then the whole account will have to be distributed within 10 years, unless the IRA agreement has a provision that immediately divides the IRA into separate IRAs for each beneficiary.

To split an inherited IRA into separate inherited IRAs:

  1. Create a separate account for each beneficiary, titled to include both the name of the deceased owner as well as the beneficiary.
  2. Use direct, trustee-to-trustee transfers to move the assets from the original IRA to each of the separate inherited IRA accounts.
  3. Change the SSN on each account to be that of the applicable beneficiary.

A Few Last Words

When you inherit an IRA, you absolutely must take the time to learn the applicable rules before you do anything. Don’t move the money at all until you understand what’s going on, because simple administrative mistakes can be very costly.

Also, should you elect to get help with the decision — a good idea, in my opinion — don’t assume that somebody knows the specifics of inherited IRA rules just because he or she is a financial advisor. In these circumstances, I’d suggest looking for someone with CPA or CFP certification.

**If a) the inherited IRA is a traditional IRA, b) you are older than the deceased IRA owner, and c) the deceased IRA owner had reached his “required beginning date” by the time he died, your RMD could actually be smaller than the amount calculated above, as you can calculate it based on what would be the deceased owner’s remaining life expectancy (from the “Single Life” table) using the owner’s age as of his birthday in the year of death (and reducing by one for each following year).

Investing Blog Roundup: Analyzing the CARES Act

I hope you have managed to stay healthy so far.

In the world of financial planning this week, the two biggest pieces of news are of course an enormous number of new unemployment claims and the new bailout package (the CARES Act). Jeffrey Levine has done an excellent job providing a brief overview of the various financial planning provisions of the CARES Act:

Other Recommended Reading

As always, thank you for reading.

Social Security in a Down Market: Does it Make More Sense to File Early?

The most common question I’ve gotten from readers over the last few weeks has been whether the current stock market downturn is a point in favor of filing for Social Security earlier than would otherwise make sense.

Let’s try to tackle this question in a few different ways.

Which Assets Are You Spending Down?

As we’ve discussed in various places in the past (e.g., here, here, or my book), the money that is being used to fund the delay should be invested in something like a short-term bond fund, bond ladder, or CD ladder. That is, the portfolio that’s being used to delay Social Security should be (mostly) inoculated against market risk and sequence of returns risk.

Here’s how retirement expert Steve Vernon explains it:

In the years leading up to retirement, an older worker might want to use a portion of their retirement savings to build a “retirement transition bucket” that enables them to delay Social Security benefits. While there’s some judgment involved with the necessary size of this bucket, a starting point would be an estimate of the amount of Social Security benefits the retiree would forgo during the delay period.


The retirement transition bucket could be invested in a liquid fund with minimal volatility in principal, such as a money market fund, a short-term bond fund, or a stable value fund in a 401(k) plan. This type of fund could protect a substantial amount of retirement income from investment risk as the worker approaches retirement, since the retirement transition bucket would be invested in stable investments and Social Security isn’t impacted by investment returns.

In Social Security Made Simple, I suggest something similar, using a CD ladder instead.

More broadly, assuming that you have bonds (or other fixed-income) in your portfolio, the Social Security decision is primarily, “do I want to exchange some bonds (or other fixed-income) for more Social Security?”

And that decision isn’t especially impacted by what the stock market has done lately. It is impacted by market interest rates. Right now, real interest rates are super low, which is a major point in favor of delaying Social Security (because the bonds that you’re giving up have lower expected returns than they would if interest rates were higher).

Do the Analysis: Using a Calculator

One useful thing to do when answering the question of “do I want to exchange some bonds for more Social Security?” is to use a Social Security calculator. Naturally, I’m partial to Open Social Security because:

  1. It’s free,
  2. It’s open-source,
  3. It uses more realistic mortality modeling than other calculators do, and
  4. I built it, so I’m super duper biased.

But use a different calculator if you’d like.

When you do that analysis, you will find that in most cases:

  • Spending down bonds in order to delay filing is very beneficial for the higher earner in married couples (with some specific exceptions, such as when there is a minor child or adult disabled child, or when the lower earner does not qualify for a retirement benefit of his/her own and will be at least full retirement age by the time the higher earner reaches age 70);
  • Spending down bonds in order to delay filing is somewhat beneficial for unmarried people (i.e., beneficial on average — more beneficial if you’re in good health and less beneficial if you’re in bad health); and
  • Spending down bonds in order to delay filing is not especially beneficial for the lower earner in married couples. (Though if the lower earner is significantly older than the higher earner and/or both are in very good health, delaying would be more beneficial.)

What About Risk?

A common counterargument to the idea of spending down bonds more quickly in order to delay Social Security is something to the effect of, “but then I’m left with a higher stock allocation! And that’s too risky!”

But that makes no sense. Spending down bonds in order to delay Social Security doesn’t leave you with any more dollars in stocks than you would have had otherwise (i.e., when we look at dollars, which is what matters, rather than percentages, you have not increased your exposure to stock market risk).

For example if you have $400,000 in stocks and $400,000 in bonds — and you spend down $150,000 of those bonds in order to delay Social Security — you still have $400,000 in stocks. A stock market decline of a given percentage would not result in a larger loss than it would have previously.

In fact, a strong case can be made that a stock decline (or, in today’s case, a potential further stock decline) becomes less damaging when you exchange bonds for Social Security. The ultimate reason that stock market declines are a source of risk for retirees is that they mean an increased probability of outliving your portfolio. But if you have more Social Security income and less bonds:

  1. You are less likely to outlive your portfolio, because the Social Security income lasts for life and because it supports a higher level of spending than bonds do (which allows for you to spend from the rest of the portfolio at a lower rate), and
  2. If you do outlive your portfolio, you’re in a better situation with a higher Social Security check each month.

And yes, in some cases, it can make sense to spend bonds all the way down to zero in order to delay Social Security.

In case you think that that sounds crazy, here’s what Wade Pfau wrote in his recent book Safety-First Retirement Planning:

As for bonds, ultimately, the question is this: why hold any bonds in the part of the retirement portfolio designed to meet spending obligations? The income annuity [Mike’s note: Social Security is an income annuity.] invests in bonds and provides payments precisely matched to the length of retirement, while stocks provide opportunities for greater investment growth above bonds. Bonds alone hold no advantage.

Or here’s what Steve Vernon has to say:

Our analyses support investing the [unannuitized portion of the portfolio] significantly in stocks – up to 100% – if the retiree can tolerate the volatility. The resulting volatility in the total retirement income portfolio is dampened considerably by the high proportion of income produced by Social Security, which doesn’t drop if the stock market drops.

Spending/Withdrawal Rates

It can also be helpful to look at spending rates (i.e., the percentage of your portfolio that you’re spending each year in retirement).

Forget about Social Security for a moment. And forget about what the market has done over the last few weeks. Just look at where your portfolio balance is right now in relation to your spending. That is, what is your current spending rate when expressed as a percentage of your portfolio balance?

Almost certainly, your current spending rate (as a percentage) is noticeably higher than it was a month ago. Maybe it’s still low, and you’re not worried at all. Or maybe it’s now high enough that you’re starting to worry.

When a retiree’s desired spending level is high relative to their portfolio balance, that’s precisely the scenario in which annuitizing (i.e., buying a lifetime annuity with a part of the portfolio) is most likely to make sense.

Lifetime annuities allow you to safely spend more money than a stock/bond portfolio. We’ve discussed this before, but in brief the idea is that with lifetime annuities, the annuitants who die prior to their life expectancy end up subsidizing the retirement of people who live beyond their life expectancy. So each individual person can essentially spend an amount that’s based on their life expectancy, whereas in a normal (no-annuity) situation you have to spend less because you don’t actually know how long your retirement will last (e.g., spend a low enough amount each year such that you’d be confident your portfolio would last 30 years, even if your life expectancy is only 20 years).

And if you’re in a situation where a lifetime annuity makes sense, delaying Social Security is the best annuity around. (Though again, that’s much more true for higher earners in married couples and less true for lower earners in married couples.)

To Summarize

  1. Use the Open Social Security calculator. It helps you identify the filing age (or combination of filing ages) that is most likely to maximize the total amount you can spend over your lifetime.
  2. If you are concerned about the possibility of depleting your savings, please note that exchanging bonds for Social Security (i.e., spending down bonds in order to delay filing) generally has the effect of a) reducing the likelihood that you outlive your savings and b) reducing the ramifications if you do outlive your savings (i.e., you’ll be left with more income than if you hadn’t delayed).
  3. As far as the lower earner in married couples, it is generally not particularly advantageous for them to delay (though today’s very low interest rates do make it more advantageous than otherwise).
  4. The recent stock market downturn does not affect points #2 or #3 above.
  5. The Open Social Security calculator can help you identify the exceptions to points #2 and #3 above.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

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"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Investing Blog Roundup: Staying Healthy

Most of us have had our worlds dramatically restricted over the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile we’re inundated with news all day long — most of it bad. As much as physical health must be a priority right now, so too with mental health.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

What’s Coming Next? (And What to Do About It?)

A quick note: obviously, the stock market’s recent/current volatility is not the most important thing happening in the world right now. Yet of all the events going on, it’s the one I feel qualified to write about, so that’s what I’m doing, in the hope you find it helpful. Stay safe, everybody.

In terms of percentage gained/lost, last Thursday (3/12) was the 5th-worst day in stock market history. (Of the four days that were worse, three were part of the 1929 crash.)

The following day, Friday, was the 9th-best day in stock market history.

If you had your money out of the market before Thursday, you looked like a market-timing genius by Thursday evening. But if you took your money out near the end of Thursday or early Friday, you have just the opposite result: you were hit by the historically-bad day and missed the historically-good day.

Jumping in and out of the market, especially during super volatile times like this, is a high stakes game.

And it’s not an easy game to win.

When I think back to early Friday morning (and as I write this, it’s Friday evening, so that wasn’t very long ago), the things on my mind were whether my wife’s workplace would soon be implementing mandatory work-from-home, whether local schools would be closing, and things of that nature. I definitely wasn’t sitting there thinking, “maybe today will be one of the best days in stock market history.” Frankly, if anything, I would have bet on a further decline.

Let’s Try an Experiment

Below are three charts, made using the Morningstar website. Each one shows the performance of the Vanguard 500 Index Fund over a particular 1-month period. The specific dates are intentionally omitted.

Unspecified Decline #1:

Unspecified Decline #2:

Unspecified Decline #3:

In each case, the fund has fallen by a considerable amount over the month in question. Again, I’ve cropped the dates from the charts intentionally. But I promise that in each case, investors were scared.

Want to guess what happened next?

[Spoilers below.]

It depends.

Our first chart was from 9/18/1987 – 10/19/1987. The huge single-day drop at the end is “Black Monday” — the worst day in U.S. stock market history. Here’s what happens when we zoom out and show the results through the end of the following year. (You can click the image to see it full-size.)

By the end of the 1-month period in the original image, the market had finished falling. The 28% decline was the extent of it. The market’s return over the next next year was positive.

Our second chart was from 9/10/2008 – 10/10/2008 (i.e., early stages of the global financial crisis). Here’s what happens when we zoom out and show the next few months of returns.

Point being, the 27% decline in the original image turned out to be only about half of the total decline this time. The market still had much farther to fall.

But, at least for me, when I look at the first two undated 1-month charts above, there’s no way I would have known which one marks the beginning of a recovery and which one marks the halfway point of a larger decline.

So what’s the third undated chart? The third chart is the fund’s 1-month return as of today.

And I have no idea what comes next.

So I’m doing what I do when I don’t know what comes next (which is all the time) — just sticking with my same, simple/boring all-in-one fund, continuing to invest steadily, and continuing to pay attention to all the other important aspects of financial planning (tax planning, insurance, monitoring spending, etc.).

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My new Social Security calculator (beta): Open Social Security