The corona crisis has likely taken a bite out of your portfolio, whether it’s your tax-advantaged retirement accounts or your investments. 

From its all-time high near 29,570 in February to the 25,000s in May, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen by 15%. But there were days when the Dow closed below 20,000. Any transaction then would have locked in a virtual loss of 32%. 

How much you gain or lose depends, of course, on what you paid originally. Portfolios are an accumulation of buy-ins over the years or even decades. 

But it feels like a vulnerable time for any retiree who has completed the “accumulation phase” and is in the “distribution phase” of retirement planning. That’s when you might be living partly off the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that the IRS requires you to take or the sale of investment assets. 

You’d rather not have to touch your deflated IRAs, mutual funds, or stocks. 

The CARES Act comes to your rescue

Now, along comes the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In one of its provisions, it allows you to forgo taking RMDs from your 401(k)s, IRAs or other qualified accounts in 2020. And this relief applies to you if you are the account owner or a beneficiary – such as a surviving spouse – taking distributions.

(By the way, if you had already taken all or any of your RMDs for 2020 before the CARES Act was signed into law, check with your financial advisor on whether a reversal is possible. It is more complicated than it sounds, and is not available to everyone.)

But you still need to fund your living expenses for this year. And even if you have a reprieve from having to take RMDs – with their burdensome tax implications – what do you use?

Let’s look at a few tax-free income options.

And in that absence of “busy-ness,” some of you were given the opportunity – and the motivation – to re-evaluate what your lives had become.

Words like “value” and “purpose” took center stage. And some aspects of life that had been on autopilot went under the microscope.

Five aspects received most of the attention.

Sources of non-taxable retirement income

This is a time to be creative and to look at other sources of funds that minimize your tax burden for 2020 without having negative consequences on your overall financial picture.

Roth IRA distributions – Contributions to Roth IRAs were made with after-tax dollars. So, distributions from these accounts will be tax-free and will not affect your 2020 taxable income. If they haven’t been hurt badly by the markets, they could be a source of tax-free income. Beyond that, if you can keep your taxable income low enough this year, it may provide an opportunity to convert some traditional IRA funds to Roth IRAs for future tax-free income. 

Health savings account (HSA) distributions – Contributions made over the years, related to a High-Deductible Health Plan (HDPD), eventually act as a personal savings account. Their original purpose is to cover medical expenses. But, unused funds each year can be carried forward, invested and allowed to grow tax-free. Withdrawals are tax-free if used for approved medical reasons (such as prescription medicines and Medicare premiums). They will be taxable if used for other reasons, but at least medical expenses can be covered tax-free.

Reverse mortgage payments – Advisors are becoming more comfortable with retirees using the equity in their houses as an asset. (It is a way to create liquidity out of an illiquid asset.) Your house is the security for a type of home loan available to homeowners age 62 or older. Funds are considered loan proceeds, not income. Confer with your trusted advisor about whether a HUD-administered reverse mortgage program is wise in your particular situation. 

Life insurance proceeds – If you have received proceeds of a life insurance policy, these are typically not taxable income. And if the proceeds are sitting on the sidelines, not yet invested, they can be useful to help cover living expenses this year.

Profit from selling your home – If you sold your primary home after owning it for at least two of the prior five years, the capital gains might be free of federal income tax. Any funds not reinvested – whether in another home or something else – might be useful at this time.

Keeping taxable income low has benefits beyond just minimizing your tax burden and making Roth conversions attractive. It can also affect the “combined income” calculation that determines how much of your Social Security benefits are taxable. 

And every little bit counts.

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