401K and IRA for foreigners in the United States?

We have been busy with other things in life since more than a year ago and just responded to questions/comments sparingly. I (Yannick) didn’t expect to do another post for a long time but obviously changed my mind because of the excellent question from Abhishek: are there any strings attached to these retirement accounts for foreigners?

If a foreigner plans to stay in US until retirement, then the answer is a straight-forward “no extra string”. For tax purpose, Abhishek has been in the States long enough (6 years) to be treated as a Resident Alien, same as a US citizen. So same rules and penalty apply regarding distribution and early withdraw.

If on the other hand, Abhishek plans to return to his home country after a few years, the answer depends on the tax policy of his home country and the tax treaty (if there’s one) between that country and US. It may very well be less strings (or one more way out) for foreigners. The key questions are usually:
How does the foreigner’s home country treat retirement accounts in US? Is the investiment in a US 401K or Traditional IRA treated as tax deferred as well? Is the Roth IRA treated as tax-free? If not, there’s little reason to use them except contributing to the minimum level in a 401K to get employer match.

If the answers for above questions are yes, then you can have the option to leave the money grow tax-defered or tax-free in US until you reach retirement. US still has the most efficient captial market and lots of long term potenial. So this could be a good diversification investment strategy. Be sure to choose an institution/custodian which keep accounts open when you leave the country. I also recommend to roll-over 401K balances into an IRA accont before you leave. 

What if I need to leave US and also need the money before retirement? First, you want to file a W8BEN with your US custodian to avoid a automated 20% tax withholding at the time of withdraw.  To avoid 10% early withdraw penalty, you need to see if a tax treaty allows a trustee-to-trustee transfer of your money from a US account to a pension fund in your home country.  If not, you want to see if you are okay with annuitizing your traditional IRA money (roll-over 401K to traditional IRA first) or just withdraw your Roth contributions. A SmartMoney article  summarized this approach very well. This applies to all US residents.

If however, you want all of your money within a few years and your home country doesn’t double tax you for incomes in US, then maybe the best bet is to bite the bullet of 10% penalty, while managing the withdraw in each year low enough to avoid US income tax. Income tax is usually much higher than 10%, therefore you may be better off doing withdraw this way, which is not available for most folks staying in US all the time. 🙂

In summary, if you don’t know your long term plan yet, you are likely better off by contributing to 401K and Roth IRA as long as your home country doesn’t double tax you for income earned in US. Please check out our ranked list for savings to manage the trade-off between tax-advantage and liquidity. BEST OF LUCK to Abhishek and all you visitors!

Who can contribute to an IRA?

We are looking into the possibility of letting Jacqui stay at home as a housewife. However, we’re concerned that if it will impact our plan to catch up on retirement savings. So I studied IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements and found the following excerpts:

Traditional IRA:

  • You (or, if you file a joint return, your spouse) received taxable compensation during the year, and
  • You were not age 701/2 by the end of the year.

Roth IRA:
Generally, you can contribute to a Roth IRA if you have taxable compensation (defined later) and your modified AGI (defined later) is less than:

  • $160,000 ($166,000 for 2007) for married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er),
  • $10,000 for married filing separately and you lived with your spouse at any time during the year, and
  • $110,000 ($114,000 for 2007) for single, head of household, or married filing separately and you did not live with your spouse at any time during the year.

Besides the age restriction for traditional IRA and the income restriction for Roth IRA, a person need to have taxable compensation to contribute to an IRA. The taxable compensation includes salaries, tips, bonuses, commissions, self-employment income, alimony and separate maintenance, nontaxable combat pay but does not include passive income derived from property and investment (Table 1-1, Page 9). However, a non-working spouse (aka a housewife) can contribute to either IRA with the same maximums given the working spouse qualifies for the above criteria (Refer to spousal IRA in the above document).

So the good news is that if Jacqui stay at home, both of us will be able to contribute to IRA though it’s not necessarily Roth.

Lower tax with Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet

Today I was about to mail out my state tax return and saw a blank space in my schedule D line 22. It asked if I had any qualified dividend, which we did have. I was surprised Taxcut didn’t fill in this blank for me. So I decided to follow the instruction and take a look at the worksheet myself.

Dividends are usually taxed at the marginal tax rate of your ordinary income. However, take a look at the form 1099-DIV and you may find some of them are qualified dividends, which are taxed at the tax rate of long-term capital gain (15%).

Now the good news is that some people may qualify for an even lower tax rate at 5%. Please take a look at the following to see if you qualify:
1. If you have qualified dividends or long-term capital gains;
2. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is
less than $30,650 if single or married filing separately;
or less than$61,300 if married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er);
or less than $41,050 if head of household
Then you could lower your tax with the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gain Worksheet (Page 38 of 1040 instructions for 2006 and Page 35 of 1040 instructions for 2007) on line 44 of Federal tax form 1040.

I believe many graduate students and young fellows with lower income qualify for this. I used to be quite skeptical about usefulness of all kinds of the worksheets in 1040. This time, it really saved us hundreds of dollars in tax!

What investments to hold in your IRA?

What investments to hold in your IRA?

I wrote a post to recommend Roth IRA earlier. Another article The Best Investments for Your IRA let me recall a class I took.

I took a PhD level tax class cross-listed in the finance department two years ago. I’ve forgotten most things learned in the class, since it’s pretty theoretical. However, sometimes the professor discussed some very practical questions at the request of the students. Think finance or economics PhD students are all financially savvy? Some students didn’t know what IRA was and asked this question to the professor.

There is no absolute answer. The common wisdom is to hold bonds and CDs in tax sheltered account since dividends and interests are usually not deferrable and taxed as ordinary income’s higher marginal rate. On the other hand, a buy-and-hold strategy for stock investments could defer the capital gain from price appreciation almost forever, which is much more tax efficient (same effect as a 401K type of tax deferment without employer matching). As a famous example, Warren Buffet argues that dividend is much worse to a shareholder than stock price appreciation, thus Berkshire Hathaway does not distribute any dividends despite being one the most profitable companies in the world.

However, some people argue that stocks should be kept in tax sheltered account because the expected annualized return for stocks is much higher than savings and bonds over the long term (>20 years). Given same contributions, stocks grow much faster. Therefore, this strategy gives more assets the tax benefit. This strategy makes even better sense for Roth IRA, since its future earning is tax-free, not tax deferred.

Assuming you have a portfolio of $10,000 bonds and $10000 stocks, with a marginal tax bracket of 33% (including both Federal and state income tax). The long term annualized return of bonds and stocks are 6% and 9% respectively. Compare strategy 1 of holding bonds in Roth, and stocks in regular account, and strategy 2 the opposite, what’s the outcome in 30 years? To simplify, let’s assume a passive stock investment using a highly tax-efficient ETF on market index, with 0.5% taxed on capital gain and dividends annually. Capital gains and dividends are reinvested.

Strategy 1 = 10000*1.06^30+10000*((1.085^30-1)*0.67+1) = 57.4K+80.7K=138.1K
Strategy 2 = 10000*1.09^30+10000*1.04^30 = 132.6K+32.4K = 165.1K

So keeping stocks in Roth IRA will win (Strategy 2). There are a few caveats on this conclusion:
This conclusion relies upon the 3% difference in annualized return between stocks and bonds. If as some authors have argued in their books that the future difference between the rate of return of stocks and bonds are about the same at 6-7%, you should hold bonds in Roth, and use a buy-and-hold strategy to defer taxes on capital gains from stock price appreciations.
The stock investment strategy is also critical. If we assume that the difference in the rates of return of the two are not that large, however, if you really trade your stocks frequently, then it’s still advantageous to keep your stocks in Roth.
I also learned both in class and from my experience how tax policy exerted distortion in your trading decision. I had hold stocks just to get the long-term capital-gain tax rate even though the market condition for that stock had turned south. If you want pure undistorted trading decision for yourself, hold stocks in Roth. On the other hand, you lose the leverage on claiming loss on your trades as well.

I hold stocks in my Roth and have done some trading. I really love the tax-free capital gains. Roth IRA is really a very powerful tool for us to catch up.

I only discussed bonds versus stocks. People have used IRA holding to buy futures, options, land contracts etc., which enable them to have larger leverage and gain larger tax-free earnings. However, if you are old enough to believe no free lunch, you will probably want to think about the risk carefully before shooting for the “big gain”.

Any questions and comments?

Win a free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file by sharing your tax filing experience

Our dear readers:

Thank you for visiting our blog. Yannick and I shared our tax filing experience on various topics such as filing as a non-resident alien or resident alien, claiming tax treaty benefits after becoming a resident alien for international students, an unpleasant experience with encrypted pdf tax forms, contributing to a 2006 Roth IRA and most recently how to deal with incomes from two states as a double-income couple.

Now here is the fun part. Someone from TaxCut came across my last post and thought my sharing was good. He has kindly given me a free coupon code to download a copy of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. I have no use of it and will give it away to one lucky reader through a lottery.

Here is how to enter the lottery:
You can either
1. Comment on this post and leave your email and nickname to enter the lottery for one chance to win,
or better yet, 2. share your tax filing method (manual, TaxCut, Turbo Tax, Turbo Tax+Quicken, or TaxCut+MS Money like us) to double your chance to win,
or the best, 3. share with us your experience briefly on how well the approach works for three times your chance to win.
You can enter the lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT and the winner will be announced by Sunday night.

How to decide the winner:
Each entry will be assigned to 1, 2 or 3 unique numbers sequentially starting from 0. I will use a random number generator to generate a winner from the above numbers.

We were really satisfied with the TaxCut interview process and how seamless it generated 1040, Schedule A, B, Ds after pulling data out of MS Money. We are curious about how well the other approaches work.

Questions and comments? Good luck!!!

Free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file at latestartersblog.com!

Please enter a lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT, for a free download of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. at my other web site: http://www.latestartersblog.com. I have only one copy to give away, thus, it’s only hosted there.

Good luck!

Tax returns with incomes from two states, file jointly or separately?

NOTE: Enter a lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT, for a free download of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. at my other web site: http://www.latestartersblog.com!

I finished our tax return last weekend, which was much more time-consuming than I had expected. For 2006, Jacqui and I need to file income taxes with two states because both us graduated and moved. Jacqui had income from her job in the current state, while my full year income was from the previous state.

Starting from Federal tax return, we needed 1040 because we had over $1,500.00 in interest and capital gains respectively, and a tax treaty benefit to claim. I used TaxCut to extract our financial transactions and categorized spending from our Microsoft Money account. It filled in 1040, lacking the tax treaty benefit; automatically produced Schedule B, D and schedule D-1 with short term capital gain and long term CG separated, which was very slick. I downloaded 1040 etc. and fill in the forms electronically in Acrobat Reader to claim a treaty benefit which TaxCut does not include. So the 1040 in TaxCut was not usable directly, but the Schedule B and D were. I knew what change I need to make on 1040, thus, I was able to reference the TaxCut 1040 often to make sure I wasn’t missing any deductions. We did not have a mortgage to pay, therefore Schedule A was empty.

Getting into State tax returns, I was first surprised to see the states claim tax on both in-state income and out-of-state income for state residents; and in-state income for non-residents. To be concrete, the first state is a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin) which claims all my income derived in the state and half of Jacqui’s income as taxable as long as we were the residents of that state. The 2nd state is better in the sense that it will claim Jacqui’s 100% income as taxable while my income as taxable only if I am a resident of the state.

Generally speaking, married filing jointly shows less Federal tax compared to filing separately. On the other hand, filing separately would allow us to claim resident status in two states separately, which minimizes our state taxes. However, you cannot mix and match. You need to have the same state filing status as the Federal filing status. Filing separately disqualifies us as a couple from Roth IRA contributions (AGI > 10000), which we already made in early 2006. We could withdraw our IRA contributions and pay taxes on capital gains before this April 16th; however that will be quite a hassle. For the reasons I stated before, I do not want to lose this tax benefit.

As the state income taxes do not amount that much compared to federal taxes, my strategy is to file tax return jointly, but try to minimize state taxes. The solution is to establish the domicile for both of us (permanent legal address) in the new state with lower income tax rates as soon as possible (since Jacqui moved there), so that Jacqui’s job income (higher than my PhD student stipend) will be taxed only in the new state. Of course, as I moved to the current state, my income in the 2nd half of the year become taxable in the current state as well. However, I found a schedule to claim a tax credit for the tax rate paid and the previous state. Most states have similar schedules for you to claim credits on taxes paid to other state governments, however, usually the lower-rate states give credits only up to an allowance computed using lower-rates. So you could avoid being double-taxed, but will still be taxed at higher rate if unlucky.