Americans and Their 401(k)s

A recent survey found that working households experiencing financial strain due to the pandemic have not been inclined to make withdrawals from their 401(k)s to help make ends meet. In fact, the vast majority haven’t even changed their rate of contributions. Instead, these households are relying on the “old standbys” of surviving during economic decline: Reduced spending, using savings or an emergency fund, and maxing out credit cards.1

A reduction in spending shouldn’t be that difficult in the wake of today’s pandemic. After all, many people have cancelled vacations, no longer commute to work, and don’t spend nearly as much money going out to eat or for other entertainment activities. Some folks are even keeping their college students out of school for a semester or two, or at least taking the online route and saving on room and board. For those who remain employed, it’s actually a good time to increase savings.2

The coronavirus pandemic offers an ideal scenario to demonstrate the importance of diversifying retirement savings accounts. While some workers may defer as much salary as they can into a 401(k) to help reduce their current income taxes, others may spread those contributions over a work retirement plan and an IRA. There are a couple of strong reasons to consider including a Roth IRA in the mix. While Roth contributions do not offer a current tax deduction, remember that there are no tax consequences when you withdraw the money. Those funds have the opportunity to grow tax-free, and you’re free to tap your contributions without penalty when needed to supplement household income. However, keep in mind that you should consult with a qualified professional before taking any withdrawals from your retirement assets.

It’s also strategically key right now as income taxes are historically low. The income taxes you currently pay on Roth contributions now could be less than what you’ll have to pay on 401(k) distributions in the future. If you’d like to discuss ways to help maximize your retirement savings — including financial vehicles that allow for tax diversification and emergency funds for situations like pandemics — give us a call. We can tailor recommendations for your situation.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), which is an agency under the U.S. Department of Labor, recently announced an interim final rule for employers offering retirement plan benefits. The agency will require 401(k) and other types of retirement plan sponsors to provide employees with annual lifetime income illustrations. This is a customized statement designed to show each plan participant how his current account assets would likely translate into monthly income at a projected retirement age.3 This is similar to the Social Security Statement which projects future payouts for beneficiaries, updated annually.

The Labor Department also proposed a new rule this summer that is designed to incentivize more investment in fossil-fuel companies. Specifically, the rule would require pension and 401(k) plan wealth managers to always place economic interests ahead of “non-pecuniary goals” when it comes to Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) investing. Some money managers are investing more in renewable energy companies out of concern for the environment and for the long-term investment opportunities presented by sustainable power sources. While this new rule reflects the current administration’s position on fossil fuels, many money managers are concerned that the rule ignores evidence that ESG investing offers strong potential for favorable returns.4

One final note on Americans and their 401(k)s: Pay careful attention to how these plans are utilized in divorce settlements. Normally, dividing such a plan requires a court order separate from the divorce decree, called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Also bear in mind that some plan administrators will not officially divide 401(k) assets until the plan participant retires.5

Another way to negotiate 401(k) assets in a divorce settlement is to allow one ex-spouse to retain the 401(k) plan while the other receives an asset of equal value (be sure to compare tax consequences and take those into account when determining equal value). Another option is to roll a portion of the 401(k) into a traditional IRA, which would avoid current penalties and tax liability and permit the ex-spouse to choose her own investments. However, this option is only available to those who have left their employer or are over age 59½.6 Not matter what route you choose, be sure to work with an experienced financial advisor, tax advisor and attorney to understand the full ramifications of splitting up a 401(k) account.

Content prepared by Kara Stefan Communications.

1 Mike Scarcella. BenefitsPRO. Aug. 20, 2020. “New virus-era survey shows tapping 401(k)s is ‘last resort’ for most participants.” Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.

2 Fox Business. Sept. 1, 2020. “3 important 401(k) strategies to employ for the remainder of 2020.” Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.

3 Allison Bell. BenefitsPRO. Aug. 20, 2020. “5 things to know about the new 401(k) plan illustration regs.” Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.

4 Tim Quinson. Bloomberg. Aug. 31, 2020. “Trump Plan to Block Green 401(k)s Stirs Fund Industry Fury.” Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.

5 Steven Wittenberg. Kiplinger. Sept. 1, 2020. “Tricky Divorce Issue: How to Divide 401(k)s, IRAs and Annuities.”  Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.

6 Ibid.

Neither our firm nor its agents or representatives may give tax or legal advice. Be sure to speak with a qualified professional about your unique situation.

We are an independent firm helping individuals create retirement strategies using a variety of insurance and investment products to custom suit their needs and objectives. This material is intended to provide general information to help you understand basic financial planning strategies and should not be construed as financial or investment advice. All investments are subject to risk including the potential loss of principal. No investment strategy can guarantee a profit or protect against loss in periods of declining values.

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