By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
A frequent technique used by life insurance salesmen to sell you permanent life insurance you probably don't need, is to invoke what is often called “the retirement tax trap.” I see these in books, in comments left by insurance agents on this blog, and in videos on the internet like the one below. Let me summarize this video and show you how this schpiel generally goes. If you want to test your “insurance agent defenses,” watch the video first and see if you can spot the fallacies before I point them out.
Taxes Are Going Up, Right?
The video begins with this statement:
Tax increases are inevitable.
That makes sense, right? We all think we're paying too much in taxes, right? We see the government getting bigger and running deficits and all that, right? However, we fail to realize that, with the salesman's help, we're making a jump between the government needing more money and our personal tax burden being heavier in the future than it is now. That not only isn't necessarily true, but it isn't even probable.
Think about your marginal tax rate now. I'm probably in the 33% tax bracket the year I originally wrote this . I then pay 15.3% in payroll taxes on the first $117K and 2.9% after that. Then I pay 5% in state tax. Total tax burden close to six figures with an effective tax rate in the 23% range. Let's say I retire to Florida at age 55 on $50K–$100K of taxable income? What tax bracket will I be in? 15% or 25% Federal, 0% payroll and 0% state. My marginal tax rate is lower, but more importantly, my effective tax rate is far lower since a much higher percentage of my income is taxed at 0%, 10%, or 15%. The overall tax burden is also dramatically lower due to the lower effective tax rate and the much lower income level.
Even if you just wanted to look at marginal tax rates, they certainly don't always go up. Historically, they go up and down and our current rates are in the middle of the historical range. So don't let the fear-mongering get to you.
One of the sillier techniques I've seen is to talk about how Social Security is in trouble and somehow use that to make you afraid of taxes in retirement. First, Social Security is easily fixed by slightly increasing either payroll taxes or the amount of income subject to the payroll taxes, and/or slightly increasing the retirement age, and/or slightly decreasing benefits. It's hardly an unsolvable problem. Second, Social Security is paid for with payroll taxes, which you don't pay on passive income (like rental properties), portfolio income (from your taxable investing account), or on tax-deferred (or tax-free) retirement account withdrawals. It's just pure fear-mongering. Back to the video.
The Tax Trap
The video next talks about the tax trap. It uses the following example.
You save $100 a month into a 401(k) and earn 10% on it over 30 years. After 30 years, you've contributed $36K. Your marginal tax rate is 20%. So you save $7,200 total in taxes contributed to the 401(k). There is now $226K in the 401(k). If you pull it out at that same 20%, you will have to pay $45,210 in taxes! What is worse, however is that your marginal tax rate in retirement could be 30% or even 40%. You could owe as much $90,417 in taxes. Which would you rather pay, $7,200 or $90,417? Tax qualified plans don't avoid tax, they simply delay it! Conclusion—pay your taxes now, buy life insurance, and get that same $226K tax-free!
It's breathtaking how much sleight of hand is involved here. First, there is no 20% bracket, but that's neither here nor there, since the example works just fine with the 24% bracket that actually exists.
Second, the example doesn't account for the time value of money. Money in your pocket now is worth more than money in your pocket later. If you actually apply that same 10% growth rate to the money saved in taxes each year, you're not just saving $7,200. You're saving $45,210. Wait a minute! That's exactly the same tax bill! Yup, that's right. If your marginal rate at contribution is exactly the same at retirement, the tax bill is the same whether it is paid now or paid later.
Third, the truth is that most people, including physicians, are going to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement. You simply don't need as much income in retirement because you're not paying as much in taxes (you have no payroll taxes for instance), you're not saving for retirement, you're not saving for college, you're not paying for your kids, you're not paying work expenses, etc. A physician making $250K now may have exactly the same lifestyle on $100K in retirement, and if they have some tax diversification from doing Backdoor Roth IRAs, a good chunk of that might not be taxable.
Fourth, if all you can save is $100 a month, taxes are the least of your worries. Even on an average American income of $50K per year, $100 a month is a dismally low 2.4% savings rate. If that's all you save, and you end up with this $226K 401(k), you're not going to be paying taxes in retirement at all. A 4% withdrawal from a $226K nest egg is just $9K per year. Add that to your Social Security and your tax bill will be indistinguishable from zero.
Last, agents love to make the assumption that somehow, magically, their insurance products are going to have the same return as a wisely invested 401(k). That's unlikely. For instance, a typical whole life policy purchaser should expect a long-term return on their cash value between 2%–5% per year. That $100 a month at 2% a year adds up to only $49,655. Would you rather have $226K in a 401(k) or $50K in a whole life policy? I can tell you which one I'd rather have, even if I, for some bizarre reason, had a 40% marginal tax rate in retirement.
The Access Trap
Next, the video goes into “the access trap.”
If you want to withdraw money from your retirement savings to pay for education, that money actually gets added to your income each year. Plus there is state taxes! Plus the 10% penalty for withdrawal before age 59 1/2! You might be pushed into the top tax bracket and be crushed by a 40%–50% tax rate!
Hey, here's a tip. Save for college in a 529 instead of your 401(k). You don't need an insurance policy to avoid this issue. Besides, even if you did decide to withdraw from your 401(k) to pay for education (a dumb idea by the way) you wouldn't owe the penalty. It's one of the covered exceptions to the 10% penalty rule. Besides, this guy saving $100 a month with a nest egg of at best $226K, is hardly going to be pushed into the 39.6% tax bracket by taking some money out of his IRA. I also love how the “solution” to this problem doesn't mention that you don't get to withdraw money from your insurance policy cash value. You have to borrow it, and pay interest for the privilege of using your own money.
The Distribution Trap
Let's get back to the video. It calls its next trap the “distribution trap.”
The government wants you to withdraw your money between age 59 and 70. Trap #3 Government wants you to withdraw your money between 59 and 70. What if you don't need the money? Can you let it accrue? The answer is frightening! Beware the 50% excise tax. Buy permanent life insurance instead to leave money to your heirs.
Yet more fear-mongering. First, the government doesn't want you to withdraw your money between ages 59 and 70. It does want you to wait until age 59 1/2 to start taking retirement withdrawals, but there are so many exceptions it is practically a suggestion rather than a rule. Second, the government doesn't want you to take all your money out of qualified plans by age 70. It doesn't care. The only rule is that once you are 70, you have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMD) which start at 3.6% per year. As long as you take out that RMD each year after 70, there is no 50% excise tax. None at all. The tax is completely avoidable. The solution to this dilemma isn't to buy life insurance. In fact, retirement accounts have wonderful estate planning benefits. You can name beneficiaries for them. Your heirs can “stretch” your IRAs over many decades, further deferring tax. In addition, if you do Roth conversions (decreases your estate, lowering any possible estate taxes) and leave them a stretch Roth IRA, your heirs can enjoy tax free income for many decades to come.
The Death Trap
Although it said it was going to, the video never did go into the fourth trap mentioned at the beginning, the death trap. However, I think it's pretty easy to predict where this one is going. It's going to be even more fear-mongering about estate taxes. The fact is that the vast majority of Americans, including physicians, aren't going to die with an estate worth more than $12.93M ($25.86M married) in 2023 dollars. You're not going to make that much or save that much. Even if you did, you're going to spend enough of it that there isn't $12M left. And even if you don't, with some rather simple estate planning you can get your estate down below that level without ever buying any life insurance to do so.
If you haven't been approached by an insurance agent selling whole life or a similar product yet, rest assured that you will be at some point. Don't fall for simplistic, irrational, and absolutely wrong reasons to buy it like “the tax trap.”
What do you think? Have you heard “the tax trap” argument before? Do you expect your tax-deferred accounts to become so large that your effective tax rate in retirement will be higher than your marginal tax rate in your peak earnings years when you made the contributions? Comment below!
[This updated post was originally published in 2014.]