July 12, 2024

Expats: You May Still Buy IRA’s, but Beware of Limitations

Editor’s Note: The following column was written by IRS enrolled agent and chartered financial analyst (CFA) John Ohe of Hola Expat Tax Services. Medellin Herald does not specifically endorse the author’s opinion; this column is for general information only and should not be construed as personal tax advice.

An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is a popular and smart way that many North Americans save for retirement. One can contribute up to US$5,500 per year ($6,500 if age 50 or more).

There are four things to keep in mind when contributing to an IRA:

1. IRAs have tax advantages;
2. To contribute, one must adhere to certain rules; and
3. For USA expats that exclude foreign earned income, there is additional complexity;
4. There are multiple choices when a person inherits an IRA.

There are two basic types of IRAs: traditional and Roth. With a traditional IRA, one receives a tax deduction in the year of the contribution. As a result, it is possible to lower the amount of taxes owed to the USA government by contributing to a traditional IRA.

The second tax advantage is that the assets in the IRA are allowed to grow year-after-year without being taxed (referred to as tax deferral). However, taxes are owed at the back-end when one takes distributions, or cashes out of the IRA.

With a Roth IRA, the tax advantage works in the opposite direction. There is no upfront tax deduction in the year of the contribution. However, the assets in the IRA grow year-after-year without being taxed, and distributions are also tax-free.

The general theory is that a traditional IRA is better than a Roth if your tax rate at retirement is lower than during one’s working years.

On the flip side, a Roth is preferable to a traditional IRA if your tax rate at retirement is higher than during one’s working years. The issue with this theory is that it’s often difficult to estimate one’s future tax rates. Therefore, we advise clients to take advantage of both vehicles. That way, one can manage distributions (traditional vs. Roth) in a tax-efficient manner.

To contribute to an IRA, one must adhere to certain rules:

1. One must have taxable compensation or business income in order to contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA;
2. With a traditional IRA, one cannot contribute after reaching 70½ in age;
3. With a Roth IRA, there are income limitations. With the exception of married filing separately status, the income limitations are reasonably high, so most people do qualify.

Modified adjusted income (MAGI) thresholds for making IRA contributions for tax-year 2016 are up-to US$117,000 for single persons or head-of-household (up to maximum limit); $117,000 to $132,000 (reduced amount). Those making $132,000 or more are blocked. For married filing jointly, the MAGI threshold is up-to US$184,000 (up to maximum limit) or $184,00 to $194,000 (reduced amount).

However, for USA expats that exclude foreign earned income, there is some additional complexity. Many USA expats utilize the foreign earned income exclusion (FEIE) to avoid paying taxes.

For 2016, one can exclude up to $101,300 in foreign earned income under the FEIE rules. If 100% of compensation were to be excluded on the tax return, then that person is ineligible to contribute to an IRA (referencing rule-1 above).

There are several work-arounds or solutions to the “zero taxable compensation” problem, including:
• If you earn slightly more than the FEIE amount, then potentially you could decide not to exercise the foreign housing exclusion;
• If exercising the FEIE via the physical presence test, then you could utilize a 365-day period that allows for some taxable compensation;
• If you are married filing jointly, then you could potentially exercise the FEIE for one spouse and not for the other.

There are multiple choices when a person inherits an IRA.

The rules regarding inherited IRA are complex, and we cover only the basics (the two most common options).
1. Spouses can treat the inherited IRA as his or her own; or
2. Lump sum distribution – one can take the money all at once, but will owe income taxes on a traditional IRA (but not on a Roth).

The rules for a foreign spouse and other foreign beneficiaries are very similar to when the beneficiary is a US person.

Many USA expats should consider contributing to an IRA. Saving for retirement as an expat is arguably more important than when one lives in the United States. An IRA has clear tax advantages.

Although the qualifications may be more complicated for expats, they are surmountable with adequate planning. For more information on retirement savings and other tax-related issues, visit us at: www.holaexpat.com.

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