For nearly all investors, the importance of asset allocation and security diversification cannot be overlooked. Diversification can mean different things to investors, but the concept is pretty well understood – hold several different types of investments and you will be better served than those who are concentrated in one stock or in one narrow investment strategy.

I would like to introduce the topic of “tax diversification” here – since it’s not a phrase that is generally understood or discussed among a large percentage of investors and retirees.  The type of account you are eligible to open and maintain will determine how and when the funds are taxed.

For example, whether a withdrawal from your account will affect your taxable income, and ultimately how much you pay in federal and state income taxes depends on the type of account.

Account types generally fall in one of three categories: Tax-Deferred, Tax-Free and Taxable.

  • Tax-Deferred: Funds held in Traditional IRAs, a 401k, 403b, pensions or profit-sharing plans are tax-deferred. Contributions to an employer’s sponsored plan are made on a pre-tax basis before wages are taxed (such as with a 401k or 403b or 457 plan). Most insurance annuities are tax-deferred – gains are taxable when you or a beneficiary receives a withdrawal. In the case of a Traditional IRA, contributions are normally made on a pre-tax basis. Contributions are allowed but complicate the future reporting that is required to avoid paying tax again.
  • Tax-Free: Funds held in Roth IRA’s are tax-free. Contributions to the account are after-tax, but there is no tax charged on earnings or normal distributions. Additionally, certain types of municipal bonds produce tax-free income and may not have to be reported as income on either your state or federal return – or both.
  • Taxable: A typical Brokerage account is taxable. The dividends, interest, capital gains or capital losses are reported to the taxpayer at the end of each year and you will have to pay tax on any income or realized gains. A withdrawal from this type of account are not a taxable event, because tax is paid on the income each year.

When in retirement, there may be compelling reasons to accelerate or delay tax-deferred distributions or rely on those that are deemed tax-free. Rather than simply withdrawing from only one account type, it may make sense to rely on two or even three of those category-types in later years, depending on personal circumstances.  We generally advise our clients, when appropriate and advantageous, to have and maintain a combination of accounts that are “tax-diversified” to maximize the efficiency of distributions, and the favorable tax treatment given to long-term capital gains, dividends and capital losses.  Certain account types are better suited for gifting to individuals or charities during life, while others can more effectively meet philanthropic goals upon death and avoid income tax.

As with many facets of financial planning, there is rarely an absolute right or wrong method, but rather, a better method for distributions, gifts and asset classes held in certain account types. If you believe you stand to benefit from being more “tax-diversified” with your account types, please contact your Rockbridge advisor for a more detailed discussion of this topic.