MONEY Ask the Expert

Can Debt Collectors Go After My Retirement Savings in Court?

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My wife retired late last year and we are thinking about rolling some of her 401(k) assets into an IRA account. We live in California and understand that the protections from creditors and in bankruptcy vary. Does this move make sense for us? —Max Liu

A: There are a lot of good reasons to roll money from a 401(k) plan into an IRA after retiring. In an IRA, you have greater control over your assets. You can own individual stocks, ETFs, or even real estate, and not be bound to the often-limited menu of investment options in your company’s plan. Since you are not working any longer, there is no concern over getting an employer match. If the fees seem high or you just don’t like maneuvering the plan’s website, a rollover may make sense.

But you are right to consider protection from creditors. In general, all assets inside a 401(k) plan are out of reach of creditors, both inside or outside of bankruptcy. That’s often true of 401(k) assets rolled into an IRA, as well—though you may be required to prove that those assets came from a 401(k). For that reason, never co-mingle rolled over assets with those from a self-funded IRA, says Howard Rosen, an asset protection attorney in Miami, Fla. He advises opening a new account for the roll over.

Federal law sets these protections. But through local bankruptcy code, 33 states have put their own spin on the rules—and California is one of those. “You need to understand that when you move assets from a 401(k) plan to an IRA, you are moving from full protection to limited protection,” says Jeffrey Verdon, an asset protection attorney in Newport Beach, Calif.

States like Texas and Florida make virtually no distinction between assets in a 401(k) and those rolled into an IRA, he says. Assets are fully protected from creditors in both types of retirement account. Further, in such states the distributions from such accounts are also protected.

But in California, creditors may come after any IRA assets not deemed necessary for living expenses. They may also come after any distributions you take from your IRA. You can protect up to $1.25 million through bankruptcy, a figure that resets every three years to account for inflation. But that is a total for all IRA assets, not each account, says Cyrus Amini, a financial adviser at Charlesworth and Rugg in Woodland Hills, Calif. And note, too, that a critical ruling last year determined that inherited IRAs are no longer protected.

To understand IRA protections in other states, you may need to speak with the office of the state securities commissioner or state attorney. Many of the state rules have been shaped through case law, and so you may want to consult a private attorney, says Amini. Another good starting point is the legal sites Nolo.com and protectyou.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why a High Income Can Make It Harder to Save for Retirement

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My employer’s 401(k) plan considers me a “highly compensated” employee and caps my contribution at a measly 5%. I know I am not saving enough for retirement. What are the best options to maximize my retirement savings? I earn $135,000 a year and my wife makes $53,000. – E.O., Long Island, NY

A: It’s great to have a six-figure income. But, ironically, under IRS rules, being a highly compensated worker can make it harder to save in your 401(k).

First, some background on what it means to be highly compensated. The general rule is that workers can put away $18,000 a year in pre-tax income in a 401(k) plan. But if you earn more than $120,000 a year, or own more than a 5% stake in your employer’s company, or are in the top 20% of earners at your firm, you are considered a “highly compensated employee” (HCE) by the IRS.

As an HCE, you’re in a different category. Uncle Sam doesn’t want the tax breaks offered by 401(k)s only to be enjoyed by top executives. So your contributions can be limited if not enough lower-paid workers contribute to the plan. The IRS conducts annual “non-discrimination” tests to make sure high earners aren’t contributing disproportionately more. In your case, it means you can put away only about $6,000 into your plan.

Granted, $120,000, or $135,00, is far from a CEO-level salary these days. And if you live in a high-cost area like New York City, your income is probably stretched. Being limited by your 401(k) only makes it more difficult to build financial security.

There are ways around your company’s plan limits, though neither is easy or, frankly, realistic, says Craig Eissler, a certified financial planner with Halbert Hargrove in Houston. Your company could set up what it known as a safe harbor plan, which would allow them to sidestep the IRS rules, but that would mean getting your employer to kick in more money for contributions. Or you could lobby your lower-paid co-workers to contribute more to the plan, which would allow higher-paid employees to save more too. Not too likely.

Better to focus on other options for pumping up your retirement savings, says Eissler. For starters, the highly compensated limits don’t apply to catch-up contributions, so if you are over 50, you can put another $6,000 a year in your 401(k). Also, if your wife is eligible for a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan through her employer, she should max it out. If she doesn’t have a 401(k), she can contribute to a deductible IRA and get a tax break—for 2015, she can contribute as much as $5,500, or $6,500 if she is over 50.

You can also contribute to an IRA, though you don’t qualify for a full tax deduction. That’s because you have a 401(k) and a combined income of $188,000. Couples who have more than $118,000 a year in modified adjusted gross income and at least one spouse with an employer retirement plan aren’t eligible for the tax break.

Instead, consider opting for a Roth IRA, says Eissler. In a Roth, you contribute after-tax dollars, but your money will grow tax-free; withdrawals will also be tax-free if the money is kept invested for five years (withdrawals of contributions are always tax-free). Unfortunately, you bump up against the income limits for contributing to a Roth. If you earn more than $183,000 as a married couple, you can’t contribute the entire $5,500. Your eligibility for how much you can contribute phases out up to $193,000, so you can make a partial contribution. The IRS has guidelines on how to calculate the reduced amount.

You can also make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA, put it in cash, and then convert it to a Roth—a strategy commonly referred to as a “backdoor Roth.” This move would cost you little or nothing in taxes, if you have no other IRAs. But if you do, better think twice, since those assets would be counted as part of your tax bill. (For more details see here and here.) There are pros and cons to the conversion decision, and so it may be worthwhile to consult an accountant or adviser before making this move.

Another strategy for boosting savings is to put money into a Health Savings Account, if your company offers one. Tied to high-deductible health insurance plans, HSAs let you stash away money tax free—you can contribute up to $3,350 if you have individual health coverage or up to $6,650 if you’re on a family plan. The money grows tax-free, and the funds can be withdrawn tax-free for medical expenses. Just as with a 401(k), if you leave your company, you can take the money with you. “So many people are worried about paying for health care costs when they retire,” says Ross Langley, a certified public accountant at Halbert Hargrove. “This is a smart move.”

Once you exhaust your tax-friendly retirement options, you can save in a taxable brokerage account, says Langley. Focus on tax-efficient investments such as buy-and-hold stock funds or index funds—you’ll probably be taxed at a 15% capital gains rate, which will be lower than your income tax rate. Fixed-income investments, such as bonds, which throw off interest income, should stay in your 401(k) or IRA.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: Why Regular Retirement Saving Can Improve Your Health

MONEY retirement planning

3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

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Whether your retirement goal is six figures or seven figures, it's harder to achieve in today's market—unless you have a plan.

A new Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey found that $1 million is the median savings balance people estimate they’ll need for retirement. And many savers have been able to reach or exceed that goal, according a report last year by the Government Accountability Office showing that some 630,000 IRA account owners have balances greater than $1 million.

But most of these people accumulated those hefty sums in an era of generous investment returns. Between 1926 and 2014, large-company stocks gained an annualized 10.1%, while intermediate-term government bond returned 5.3% annually, according to the 2015 Ibbotson Classic Yearbook. During the go-go ’90s annualized gains were even higher—18.2% for stocks and 7.2% for bonds. Today, however, forecasts like the one from ETF guru Rick Ferri call for much lower gains, say, 7% annualized for stocks and 4% or so for bonds. Which makes building a seven-figure nest egg more of a challenge.

Still, the goal remains doable, if you go about it the right way. Here are three steps that can increase your chances of pulling it off.

1. Get in the game as early as possible—and stay in as long as you can. The more years you save and invest for retirement, the better your chances of building a big nest egg. Here’s an example. If you’re 25, earn $40,000 a year, receive annual raises of 2% during your career and earn 5% a year after expenses on your savings—a not-too-ambitious return for a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds—you can accumulate a $1 million account balance by age 65 by saving a bit more than 15% of salary each year. That’s pretty much in line with the recommendation in the Boston College Center For Retirement Research’s “How Much Should People Save?” study.

Procrastinate even a bit, however, and it becomes much tougher to hit seven figures. Start at 30 instead of 25, and the annual savings burden jumps to nearly 20%, a much more challenging figure. Hold off until age 35, and you’ve got to sock away more a far more daunting 24% a year.

Of course, for a variety of reasons many of us don’t get as early a start as we’d like. In that case, you may be able to mitigate the savings task somewhat by tacking on extra years of saving and investing at the other end by postponing retirement. For example, if our hypothetical 25-year-old puts off saving until age 40, he’d have to sock away more than 30% a year to retire at 65 with $1 million. That would require a heroic saving effort. But if he saved and invested another five years instead of retiring, he could hit the $1 million mark by socking away about 22% annually—still daunting, yes, but not nearly as much as 30%. What’s more, even if he fell short of $1 million, those extra years of work would significantly boost his Social Security benefit and he could safely draw more money from his nest egg since it wouldn’t have to last as long.

2. Leverage every saving advantage you can. The most obvious way to do this is to make the most of employer matching funds, assuming your 401(k) offers them, as most do. Although many plans are more generous, the most common matching formula is 50 cents per dollar contributed up to 6% of pay for a 3% maximum match. That would bring the required savings figure to get to $1 million by 65 down a manageable 16% or so for our fictive 25-year-old, even if he delayed saving a cent until age 30. Alas, a new Financial Engines report finds that the typical 401(k) participant misses out on $1,336 in matching funds each year.

There are plenty of other ways to bulk up your nest egg. Even if you’re covered by a 401(k) or other retirement plan, chances are you’re also eligible to contribute to some type of IRA. (See Morningstar’s IRA calculator.) Ideally, you’ll shoot for the maximum ($5,500 this year; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older), but even smaller amounts can add up. For example, invest $3,000 a year between the ages of 25 and 50 and you’ll have just over $312,000 at 65 even if you never throw in another cent, assuming a 5% annual return.

If you’ve maxed out contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, you can boost after-tax returns in taxable accounts by focusing on tax-efficient investments, such as index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds, that minimize the portion of your return that goes to the IRS. Clicking on the “Tax” tab in any fund’s Morningstar page will show you how much of its return a fund gives up to taxes; this Morningstar article offers three different tax-efficient portfolios for retirement savers.

3. Pare investment costs to the bone. You can’t force the financial markets to deliver a higher rate of return, but you can keep more of whatever return the market delivers by sticking to low-cost investing options like broad-based index funds and ETFs. According to a recent Morningstar fee study, the average asset-weighted expense ratio for index funds and ETFs was roughly 0.20% compared with 0.80% for actively managed mutual funds. While there’s no assurance that every dollar you save in expenses equals an extra dollar of return, low-expense funds to tend to outperform their high-expense counterparts.

So, for example, if instead of paying 1% a year in investment expenses, the 25-year-old in the example above pays 0.25%—which is doable with a portfolio of index funds and ETFs—that could boost his annual return from 5% to 5.75%, in which case he’d need to save just 13% of pay instead of 15% to build a $1 million nest egg by age 65, if he starts saving at age 25—or just under 22% instead of 24%, if he procrastinates for 10 years. In short, parting investment expenses is the equivalent of saving a higher percentage of pay without actually having to reduce what you spend.

People can disagree about whether $1 million is a legitimate target. Clearly, many retirees will need less, others will require more. But whether you’ve set $1 million as a target or you just want to build the largest nest egg you can, following the three guidelines will increase your chances of achieving your goal, and improve your prospects for a secure retirement.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Get a Double Dose of Tax-Deferred Savings

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: When I turn 70½ I’m required to start withdrawing funds from my 401(k) and pay taxes on it. I don’t need this money to live on. Is it too risky for me to invest it? – Dolores

A: What you’re referring to are required minimum distributions (RMD), which generally begin in the calendar year after you turn 70½.

Even if you can afford to keep your money parked in your retirement plans, the Internal Revenue Service insists that you start withdrawing money annually from your retirement accounts once you reach a certain age.

“It typically starts at 3% to 4% of the value of your account and goes up from there,” says Gretchen Cliburn, a certified financial planner with BKD Wealth Advisors headquartered in Springfield, Mo. You can estimate your RMD using a worksheet from the IRS.

Fail to withdraw the minimum and you’ll face a hefty penalty – 50% on the amount that should have been withdrawn, plus regular income taxes.

“Where things can get confusing is if you have multiple accounts,” says Cliburn. “I recommend consolidating accounts so you avoid missing an RMD.”

To add to the confusion, you can take your first distribution the year you turn 70½, or postpone it until April 1 the following calendar year – though you’ll need to take double the distributions that year. Likewise, if you’re still working, you’ll need to take RMDs on your IRAs, but you can delay taking distributions on your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan until the year after you retire.

Now, what should you do with that distribution?

“The answer really depends on your situation and your goals for that money,” says Cliburn. “Will you use it to support your lifestyle over the next 10 or 20 years, or do you want it to go to future generations?”

“If you want to hang onto those funds, your best bet is to open a taxable investment account and divide the distributions into three buckets,” she says. One bucket can be cash; another bucket might go into a balanced mutual fund, which owns stocks and bonds; the final bucket might go to a tax-efficient exchange-traded stock fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500.

Just how much goes into each bucket depends on your other sources of income. “If you have a guaranteed source of income, you may feel more comfortable taking on a little more risk,” says Cliburn.

If you’re absolutely certain that you won’t need these required minimum distributions to live on — and that you have other funds to cover your retirement living expenses — then you could use the distributions to help others, and possibly get some tax savings.

You need earned income to contribute to a Roth IRA. But you could, for example, help your children fund a Roth IRA (assuming they qualify). You can gift any individual up to $14,000 a year before you have to file a gift tax return. They’ll make after-tax contributions to the Roth, but the money will grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals of principal are tax-free — provided the account has been open at least five years — and all withdrawals are tax free after the account holder turns 59½.

Another option is to open or contribute to a 529 college savings plan. The money grows tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualified education expenses are exempt from federal and state tax. Depending on where you or your children live, there may be a state tax deduction to boot.

A tax-free charitable transfer is another possibility, though you’ll need to wait to see if so-called qualified charitable contributions, or QCDs, are renewed for the 2015 tax year. Taxpayers didn’t hear about last year’s renewal until December.

Assuming it’s a go, it’s a sweet deal. Last year, IRA owners age 70½ or over were able to directly transfer up to $100,000 per year from their accounts to eligible charities, sans tax.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Save For Retirement When You Don’t Have a 401(k)

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: The company I work for doesn’t offer a 401(k). I am young professional who wants to start saving for retirement but I don’t have a lot of money. Where should I start? – Abraham Weiser, New York City

A: Millions of workers are in the same boat. One-quarter of full-time employees are at companies that don’t offer a retirement plan, according to government data. The situation is most common at small firms: Only 50% of workers at companies with fewer than 100 employees have 401(k)s vs. 82% of workers at medium and large companies.

Certainly, 401(k)s are one of the best ways to save for retirement. These plans let you make contributions directly from your paycheck, and you can put away a large amount ($18,000 in 2015 for those 49 and younger), which can grow tax sheltered.

But there are retirement savings options beyond the 401(k) that also offer attractive tax benefits, says Ryan P. Tuttle, a certified financial planner at Connecticut Wealth Management in Farmington, Ct.

Since you’re just getting started, your first step is to get a handle on your spending and cash flow, which will help you determine how much you can really afford to put away for retirement. If you have a lot of high-rate debt—say, student loans or credit cards—you should also be paying that down. But if you have to divert cash to pay off loans, you won’t be able to put away a lot for savings.

That doesn’t mean you should wait to put money away for retirement. Even if you can only save a small amount, perhaps $50 or $100 a week, do it now. The earlier you get going, the more time that money will have to compound, so even a few dollars here or there can make a big difference in two or three decades.

You can give an even bigger boost to your savings by opting for a tax-sheltered savings plan like an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which protects your gains from Uncle Sam, at least temporarily.

These come in two flavors: traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. In a traditional IRA, you pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement. Depending on your income, you may also qualify for a tax deduction on your IRA contribution. With a Roth IRA, it’s the opposite. You put in money after paying taxes but you can withdraw it tax free once you retire.

The downside to IRAs is that you can only stash $5,500 away each year, for those 49 and younger. And to make a full contribution to a Roth, your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $131,000 a year if you’re single or $193,000 for those married filing jointly.

If your pay doesn’t exceed the income limit, a Roth IRA is your best option, says Tuttle. When you’re young and your income is low, your tax rate will be lower. So the upfront tax break you get with a traditional IRA isn’t as big of a deal.

Ideally, you’ll contribute the maximum $5,500 to your IRA. But if you don’t have a chunk of money like that, have funds regularly transferred from your bank account to an IRA until you reach the $5,500. You can set up an IRA account easily with a low-fee provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price.

Choose low-cost investments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs); you can find choices on our Money 50 list of recommended funds and ETFs. Most younger investors will do best with a heavier concentration in stocks than bonds, since you’ll want growth and you have time to ride out market downturns. Still, your asset allocation should be geared to your individual risk tolerance.

If you end up maxing out your IRA, you can stash more money in a taxable account. Look for tax-efficient investments that generate little or no taxable gains—index funds and ETFs, again, may fill the bill.

Getting an early start in retirement savings is smart. But you should also be investing in your human capital. That means continuing to get education and adding to your skills so your earnings rise over time. Your earnings grow most quickly in those first decades of your career. “The more you earn, the more you can put away for retirement,” says Tuttle. As you move on to better opportunities—with any luck—you’ll land at a company that offers a great 401(k) plan, too.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: Quick Guide to How Much You Need to Retire

MONEY retirement planning

Answer These 10 Questions to See If You’re on Track to Retirement

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More Americans are confident about retirement—maybe too confident. Here's how to give your expectations a timely reality check.

The good news: The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey says workers and retirees are more confident about affording retirement. The bad news: The survey also says there’s little sign they’re doing enough to achieve that goal. To see whether you’re taking the necessary steps for a secure retirement, answer the 10 questions below.

1. Have you set a savings target? No, I don’t mean a long-term goal like have a $1 million nest egg by age 65. I mean a short-term target like saving a specific dollar amount or percentage of your salary each year. You’ll be more likely to save if you have such a goal and you’ll have a better sense of whether you’re making progress toward a secure retirement. Saving 15% of salary—the figure cited in a recent Boston College Center for Retirement Research Study—is a good target. If you can’t manage that, start at 10% and increase your savings level by one percentage point a year, or go to the Will You Have Enough To Retire tool to see how you’ll fare with different rates.

2. Are you making the most of tax-advantaged savings plans? At the very least, you should be contributing enough to take full advantage of any matching funds your 401(k) or other workplace plan offers. If you’re maxing out your plan at work and have still more money you can save, you may also be able to save in other tax-advantaged plans, like a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. (Morningstar’s IRA calculator can tell you whether you’re eligible and, if so, how much you can contribute.) Able to sock away even more? Consider tax-efficient options like broad index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds within taxable accounts.

3. Have you gauged your risk tolerance? You can’t set an effective retirement investing strategy unless you’ve done a gut check—that is, assessed your true risk tolerance. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing what what many investors do—investing too aggressively when the market’s doing well (and selling in a panic when it drops) and too conservatively after stock prices have plummeted (and missing the big gains when the market inevitably rebounds). You can get a good sense of your true appetite for risk within a few minutes by completing this Risk Tolerance Questionnaire-Asset Allocation tool.

4. Do you have the right stocks-bonds mix? Most investors focus their attention on picking specific investments—the top-performing fund or ETF, a high-flying stock, etc. Big mistake. The real driver of long-term investing success is your asset allocation, or how you divvy up your savings between stocks and bonds. Generally, the younger you are and the more risk you’re willing to handle, the more of your savings you want to devote to stocks. The older you are and the less willing you are to see your savings suffer setbacks during market downturns, the more of your savings you want to stash in bonds. The risk tolerance questionnaire mentioned above will suggest a stocks-bonds mix based on your appetite for risk and time horizon (how long you plan to keep your money invested). You can also get an idea of how you should be allocating your portfolio between stocks and bonds by checking out the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund for someone your age.

5. Do you have the right investments? You can easily get the impression you’re some sort of slacker if you’re not loading up your retirement portfolio with all manner of funds, ETFs and other investments that cover every obscure corner of the financial markets. Nonsense. Diversification is important, but you can go too far. You can “di-worse-ify” and end up with an expensive, unwieldy and unworkable smorgasbord of investments. A better strategy: focus on plain-vanilla index funds and ETFs that give you broad exposure to stocks and bonds at a low cost. That approach always makes sense, but it’s especially important to diversify broadly and hold costs down given the projections for lower-than-normal investment returns in the years ahead.

6. Have you assessed where you stand? Once you’ve answered the previous questions, it’s important that you establish a baseline—that is, see whether you’ll be on track toward a secure retirement if you continue along the saving and investing path you’ve set. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to do this sort of evaluation. Just go to a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo analysis to do its projections, enter such information as your age, salary, savings rate, how much you already have tucked away in retirement accounts, your stocks-bonds mix and the percentage of pre-retirement income you’ll need after you retire retirement (70% to 80% is a good starting estimate) and the calculator will estimate the probability that you’ll be able to retire given how much you’re saving and how you’re investing. If you’re already retired, the calculator will give you the probability that Social Security, your savings and any other resources will be able to generate the retirement income you’ll need. Ideally, you want a probability of 80% or higher. But if it comes in lower, you can make adjustments such as saving more, spending less, retiring later, etc. to improve your chances. And, in fact, you should go through this assessment every year or so just to see if you do need to tweak your planning.

7. Have you done any “lifestyle planning”? Finances are important, but planning for retirement isn’t just about the bucks. You also want to take time to think seriously about how you’ll actually live in retirement. Among the questions: Will you stay in your current home, downsize or perhaps even relocate to an area with lower living costs? Do you have enough activities—hobbies, volunteering, perhaps a part-time job—to keep you busy and engaged once you no longer have the nine-to-five routine to provide a framework for most days? Do you have plenty of friends, relatives and former co-workers you can turn to for companionship and support. Research shows that people who have a solid social network tend to be happier in retirement (the same, by the way, is true for retirees who have more frequent sex). Obviously, this is an area where your personal preferences are paramount. But seminars for pre-retirees like the Paths To Creative Retirement workshops at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and tools like Ready-2-Retire can help you better focus on lifestyle issues so can ultimately integrate them into your financial planning.

8. Have you checked out your Social Security options? Although many retirees may not think of it that way, the inflation-adjusted lifetime payments Social Security provides are one of their biggest financial assets, if not the biggest. Which is why it’s crucial that a good five to 10 years before you retire, you seriously consider when to claim Social Security and, if you’re married, how best to coordinate benefits with your spouse. Advance planning can make a big difference. For each year you delay taking benefits between age 62 and 70, you can boost your monthly payment by roughly 7% to 8%. And by taking advantage of different claiming strategies, married couples may be able to increase their lifetime benefit by several hundred thousand dollars. You’ll find more tips on how to get the most out of Social Security in Boston University economist and Social Security expert Larry Kotlikoff’s new Social Security Q&A column on RealDealRetirement.com.

9. Do you have a Plan B? Sometimes even the best planning can go awry. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans said their retirement planning has been disrupted by such things as major health bills, spates of unemployment, business setbacks or divorce, according to a a recent TD Ameritrade survey. Which is why it’s crucial that you consider what might go wrong ahead of time, and come up with ways to respond so you can mitigate the damage and recover from setbacks more quickly. Along the same lines, it’s also a good idea to periodically crash-test your retirement plan. Knowing how your nest egg might fare during a severe market downturn and what that mean for your retirement prospects can help prevent you from freaking out during periods of financial stress and better formulate a way to get back on track.

10. Do You Need Help? If you’re comfortable flying solo with your retirement planning, that’s great. But if you think you could do with some assistance—whether on an ongoing basis or with a specific issue—then it makes sense to seek guidance. The key, though, is finding an adviser who’s competent, honest and willing to provide that advice at a reasonable price. The Department of Labor recently released a proposal designed to better protect investors from advisers’ conflicts of interest. We’ll have to see how that works out. In the meantime, though, you can increase your chances of getting good affordable advice by following these four tips and asking these five questions.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY 401(k)s

401(k) Savings Hit a Record High. How Do You Stack Up?

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Workers are socking away more for retirement in their 401(k)s, a Fidelity report finds. But it may not be enough.

Some good news on the retirement front: The average 401(k) account balance reached a record high and workers are stashing away more in their plans, according to Fidelity, the largest retirement savings plan provider.

The average 401(k) held $91,800 in the first quarter of this year, up 3.6% from a year ago. Meanwhile, a record 23% of employees in Fidelity plans hiked their 401(k) contributions in the past year. The average savings rate, including both employer and employee contributions, climbed to 12.5%.

For employees in a 401(k) plan for 10 or more years, the average balance was a hefty $251,600, up 12% year over year. For those with both a 401(k) and IRA at Fidelity, the average combined balance rose 2.2% to $267,200.

Impressive, but it may not be enough. The Fidelity report doesn’t spell it out, but most of these gains are owed to the bull market, which will eventually fade. Meanwhile, the typical employee is still far behind in retirement saving.

That may seem counter-intuitive, given those lofty balances, but the averages are skewed upwards by high-income savers. The typical working household nearing retirement with a 401(k) and an IRA has a median $111,000 combined, which would yield less than $400 a month in retirement, according to a recent report by the Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

For households ages 55 to 64 earning $40,000 to $60,000 a year, the median balance in 401(k) and IRA accounts is just $53,000. For the same age group earning $138,000 or more, the median account is $452,000, according to CRR.

Financial planners recommend saving 10% to 15% of your income annually, starting in your 20s. The goal: amass 10 to 12 times your final annual earnings in order to have enough to maintain your standard of living in retirement. So if you make $60,000 a year, you should accumulate $600,000 to $720,000 by the time you retire.

That’s a tall order, and you could certainly live on less—many people do. Still, to have a shot at affording a decent retirement, you need to save consistently over the long term. And to do that, you need a plan, which gives a huge advantage to workers who have a 401(k).

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s latest Retirement Confidence survey, those with 401(k) plans are much more optimistic about their retirement prospects: 71% of those with a plan are very or somewhat confident they will live comfortably in retirement, vs. just 33% of those who are not, EBRI found. Similarly, the CRR report shows that 68% of older households with the highest median retirement account balances had a 401(k) vs. just 22% for the group with the least savings.

Employers could be doing more to encourage that kind of savings behavior. Just one-third of 401(k) plans automatically enroll new workers but only 13% of companies automatically increase contribution rates each year, according to Fidelity.

To see if you’re on track, run your numbers on an online retirement savings calculator, such as those offered by T. Rowe Price or Vanguard. Get MONEY’s advice on how to make the most of your 401(k) at every stage of your life here. If you don’t have a 401(k), here’s what you need to know about IRAs.

Get more tips on investing for retirement:
What Is the Right Mix of Stocks and Bonds for Me?
How Many Funds Do I Need?
How Often Should I Check on My Retirement Investments?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can I Put My Required Minimum Distribution into a Roth IRA?

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Can I convert the required minimum distribution from my regular IRA into a new Roth IRA account after paying the income taxes if I am not working? I want to have access to the money in case an emergency comes up. — Richard D’Arezzo, Acworth, GA

A: Sorry, no. According to IRS publication 590-A, the annual required minimum distribution (RMD) from your traditional IRA cannot be converted to a Roth IRA, says Tom Mingone, a financial planner at Capital Management Group of New York. But you do have options that can minimize taxes yet provide access to your money for emergencies.

Before we get to these alternatives, here’s a quick review of RMDs. These distributions are required under IRS rules starting at age 70 ½—after all, you’ve been deferring the taxes that are owed on contributions to your IRAs, and the bill has to come due sometime. If you don’t take the distribution, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to the regular income tax on the amount you are required to withdraw.

IRS rules prohibit putting your RMD into another tax-advantaged retirement account. But you can convert the remaining portion of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA, though it will mean paying more taxes. “You just have to satisfy the RMD requirement before you do a Roth conversion,” says Mingone. (If you aren’t working and receiving earned income, you can’t make a contribution to a Roth but once the money is in a traditional IRA, you don’t need to have additional earned income to move the money to a Roth IRA.)

If you make a mistake and roll over or convert your RMD, it will be treated as an excess contribution, and you’ll pay a penalty of 6% per year for each year it remains in the Roth or traditional IRA. You have until October 15 of the year after the excess contribution to correct it.

Is it a smart move to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth? That depends on your goals and your finances, says Mingone. Putting money into a Roth gives you a lot more flexibility because you’ll no longer be subject to the RMD rule—you can choose when and how much you take out. And unlike traditional IRA withdrawals, money pulled from a Roth won’t trigger taxes.

Still, there’s a downside to the conversion: that tax bill on the amount you convert. Depending on the size of the bill and the years you have to invest, the benefit may be small. In any case, consider this move only if you can pay the taxes with money outside your IRA, says Mingone. (To get an idea of the taxes you would owe, try this Vanguard calculator.)

The case for a Roth is generally strongest for younger people who have more time for the money to grow tax-free. Still, even at 70 ½, you could have many years of growth. And if you want to leave money to heirs, a Roth offers the greatest flexibility.

But if you need access to the money for emergencies, a new Roth may prove costly. You can take the principle out, but any earnings on the amount you deposit will be taxed if you withdraw it in the first five years.

If you don’t want to tie your money up in a Roth, you could just invest in a taxable account. Look for tax-efficient options such as index mutual funds. And consider putting some of your RMD in municipal bonds, which are free from federal income tax and often state and local taxes too, Mingone says. Tax-exempt bonds have been a tear recently, which suggests that risks are rising. Still, if you’re willing to hold on through market dips, munis may provide higher after-tax yields than taxable bonds.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

Read next: Why Roth IRA Tax Tricks Won’t Rescue Your Retirement

MONEY IRAs

Why Roth IRA Tax Tricks Won’t Rescue Your Retirement

magician balancing an egg on a paper fan
George Karger—Getty Images/Time & Life Picture Collection

It's a myth that a Roth IRA is a sure way to add wealth. Saving more will make a bigger difference.

Roth IRAs are in fashion. Many people seem to believe that the Roth’s tax-free nature somehow generates more wealth in the end than other retirement savings options. But Roth IRAs have no magical capabilities.

A simple example of putting $5,000 to work in two types of IRAs—Roth and Traditional—shows there is no difference in the ending values of the two accounts, assuming your tax rate is unchanged between the initial contribution and withdrawal.

If your tax rate does change, the story is different. If your rate goes down, a Traditional IRA does better. And if your rate goes up, then the Roth does better. So neither IRA is a slam-dunk for tax savings: It all depends on whether your tax rate changes, and in which direction.

RMDs May Be No Big Deal

Roths are also touted for their ability to sidestep required minimum distributions. RMDs are the government’s way of making sure you pay taxes on Traditional IRAs. They are calculated as your IRA account balance divided by a “distribution period” corresponding to your life expectancy. You must begin RMDs at age 70 1/2, and include those withdrawals as part of your taxable income.

RMDs can be a nuisance to those with significant savings, and the dwindling few who receive pensions, because they can generate unnecessary taxable income. That is money you don’t need for living expenses, which will be taxed anyway. Even worse, in some scenarios, RMDs plus Social Security can force you into a higher tax bracket.

But RMDs may be a moot point. Many of today’s retirees are tapping their portfolios well before 70½ or relying on Social Security. And for many pre-retirees, the problem won’t be having to take out more than they need—it’s not having enough retirement savings in the first place! The government’s RMD rules won’t force much, if any, “extra” income on them.

Because of the threat of RMDs pushing you into a higher tax bracket, the conventional advice is that you should “top-off” your tax bracket in low-income years of early retirement by doing a Roth Conversion. That means transferring money from your Traditional IRA to a Roth, and paying income tax on the converted amount. You would be choosing to pay taxes now, in hopes that will save you on higher taxes in the future.

Consider the Margin for Error

But conventional rules of thumb can be inaccurate. You have to run your own numbers and, even then, the accuracy of the answers will be limited by your ability to predict your income far into the future. RMDs and Roth conversions lead to some very complex financial scenarios.

Analyzing my own situation using the best retirement calculators shows only modest levels of RMDs into our 90s, with our current 10% to 15% tax bracket unchanged. In theory, I could generate about 2% to 3% more wealth in the end if I did Roth conversions, as long as I paid the conversion tax from non-IRA assets. If I paid the tax from IRA funds, there would be no value in doing a conversion.

However, that 2% to 3% gain is well within the margin of error for retirement calculations. Who knows if I would ever see it? But, in doing Roth conversions, I would see additional complexity and paperwork in my financial life starting right now. Given that, I’m foregoing Roth conversions for the time being.

Roth conversions are unlikely to save you from high taxation of retirement assets. That’s because the total amount you can convert is limited by the number of years you spend in a lower tax bracket and your “headroom” to the next higher bracket.

Still, there are scenarios where Roths can save you money, particularly for those in higher tax brackets. And Roths can be useful to tax diversify your savings. To clarify the issues in your situation, use one or more of my recommended high-fidelity retirement calculators to run your own numbers.

And before you invest too much time in Roth tax tricks, make sure your overall retirement savings rate is on track: that will have a much bigger impact on your long-term financial success!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com.

Read next: Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?

MONEY retirement planning

How to Make Sure Your Retirement Adviser Is On Your Team

two people the same bike
Claire Benoist

A new rule would require financial advisers to act solely in their clients' best interest when giving retirement advice. Until that happens, here's how you can protect yourself.

In a move aimed at improving consumer protection for investors, the U.S. Labor Department today proposed a rule that would reduce conflicts of interest for brokers who advise on retirement accounts.

The proposed rule would require brokers to act solely in their clients’ best interests when giving advice or selling products related to retirement plans, including 401(k)s or IRAs.

Conflicted advice has been a longstanding problem for anyone nearing retirement—a parade of financial advisers will line up to help you roll over your 401(k) into an individual retirement account. And all too often, the guidance you get may improve your adviser’s returns more than yours.

A report issued in February by the Council of Economic Advisers found that conflicted financial advice costs retirement investors an estimated $17 billion a year. That’s why President Obama announced his support for the proposal back in February.

The new rule would require brokers to follow what is known as a fiduciary standard, which already applies to registered investment advisers. In contrast to RIAs, stockbrokers—who may go by “wealth manager” or some other title—follow a less stringent “suitability” standard, which lets them sell investments that are appropriate for you but may not be the best choice.

Many brokers do well by their customers, but some don’t. “A broker might recommend a high-cost, actively managed fund that pays him higher commissions, when a comparable lower-cost fund would be better for the investor,” says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

During the next 75 days, the rule will be open to public comments. After that, the Labor Department is expected to hold a hearing and receive more comments. After that, the rule could be revised further. And it’s not clear when a final rule would go into effect—perhaps not before Obama leaves office.

An earlier Labor Department measure was derailed in 2011 by Wall Street lobbyists, who argued it would drive out advisers who work with small accounts. The new measure carves out exceptions for brokers who simply take orders for transactions. It also permits brokers to work with fiduciaries who understand the nature of their sales role.

Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White has also announced support for a fiduciary standard that would protect more individual investors beyond just those seeking help with retirement accounts. And the New York City Comptroller recently proposed a state law that would require brokers to tell clients that they are not fiduciaries.

Until those measures take effect—and even if they do—protect your retirement portfolio by following these guidelines:

Find out if you come first. Ask your adviser or prospective adviser if she is a fiduciary. A yes doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior, but it’s a good starting point, says Roper.

Then ask how the adviser will be paid. Many pros who don’t receive commissions charge a percentage of assets, typically 1%. Some advisers, however, are fiduciaries in certain situations but not all. So ask if the adviser is compensated in any other way for selling products or services. “You should understand what the total costs of the advice will be,” says Fred Reish, a benefits attorney with Drinker Biddle.

Many RIAs work with affluent clients—say, those investing at least $500,000—since larger portfolios generate larger fees. That’s one reason other investors end up with brokers, who are often paid by commission. Have a smaller portfolio? Find a planner who will charge by the hour at GarrettPlanning.com or findanadvisor.napfa.org (select “hourly financial planning services”). Your total cost might range from $500 for a basic plan to $2,500 or more for a comprehensive one.

Beware a troubled past. Any financial professional can say he puts his clients’ interests first, but his past actions might contradict that. To see whether a broker has run afoul of customers or regulators, inspect his record at brokercheck.finra.org. RIAs, who are regulated by the SEC and the states, must file a disclosure form called ADV Part 2, which details any disciplinary actions and conflicts of interest; you can look it up at adviserinfo.sec.gov.

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Favor a low-cost approach. A fiduciary outlook should be reflected in an adviser’s investment choices for you—and their expense. “Before making any recommendations, your adviser should first ask how your portfolio is currently invested,” says Mercer Bullard, a securities law professor at the University of Mississippi. Your 401(k) may have low fees and good investment options, so a rollover might be a bad idea.

If the adviser is quick to suggest costly, complex investments such as variable annuities, move on. “Most investors are best off in low-cost funds,” says Bullard. And with so much at stake, you want an adviser who’s more concerned with your costs than his profits.

Read Next: Even a “Fiduciary” Financial Adviser Can Rip You Off If You Don’t Know These 3 Things

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