New IRS Rule Spoils SEP-IRA for Musicians

The SEP-IRA has been a key retirement tool for self-employed and 1099 musicians, but its value just got unexpectedly reduced last month, buried in the details of a 249-page release of new IRS regulations. I’m afraid that many self-employed musicians who read this may want to fund a different type of retirement account or may decide to stop their SEP contributions altogether going forward. If you’re a W-2 musician, this doesn’t apply to you, and if you are strictly a W-2, you weren’t eligible for a SEP anyways.

The new regulations don’t directly change a SEP contribution – it’s still a tax deductible contribution. Self-employed musicians are also eligible for a new 20% tax deduction, called the Qualified Business Income or QBI deduction, officially IRC Section 199A. The QBI Deduction is new for 2018 as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act put into law in December 2017. 

The QBI Deduction is available to pass-through entities, including S-corporations, LLCs, and sole proprietors. You do not have to be incorporated, anyone with self-employment income (including 1099 “independent contractor”) is eligible. For “Specified Service Businesses”, including performing artists such as musicians, the QBI deduction is phased out if your income is above $157,500 (single) or $315,000 (married) for 2018.

(I’ve written about the QBI Deduction for musicians previously on my site HERE, as well as for the International Musician.)

What was a surprise announcement in the January 2019 regulations, some 13 months after Congress signed the new law, is that all self-employed people have to subtract any “employer paid retirement contributions” from their Qualified Business Income. It was previously thought this would only apply to S-corporations. This was not mentioned or hinted at in the legislation or in the regulations the IRS published in August. In fact, many tax software programs are having to be rewritten because of the January announcement. The SEP-IRA, even for a sole proprietor, is considered a type of employer-sponsored retirement plan, even though the employer and the employee are the same person.

It may be easiest to explain this with an example. Let’s say you make $60,000 as a self-employed musician and choose to contribute $10,000 to a SEP IRA. (In this example, I am assuming that your taxable income and your Qualified Business Income are the same, but in some cases, they will be different.) Now, instead of getting the 20% deduction on the $60,000 of Qualified Business Income, worth $12,000 off your income, you have to subtract your SEP contribution of $10,000 to reduce your QBI to $50,000. Now your QBI deduction will be $10,000, $2,000 less than if you had not made the SEP contribution.

Your SEP contribution reduced the value of your QBI deduction by $2,000, so instead of adding a $10,000 benefit, your SEP contribution only increased your deductions by $8,000. Another way of looking at this: if you are eligible for the QBI, you are only getting 80% of the value of a SEP Contribution, but 100% of your SEP contribution will be taxable when you withdraw it in the future.

And that’s a problem. The $10,000 you contributed to a SEP only provided an increase of $8,000 in deductions, but the full $10,000 will be taxable when you withdraw it later in retirement, plus the tax on any growth. Who wants to get an $8,000 deduction today and immediately have a $10,000 future tax liability? 

You might pay less in lifetime taxes by not making the SEP contribution, receiving 100% of the QBI deduction and then investing your $10,000 in a taxable account. The growth of the taxable account, by the way, could be treated as long term capital gains, which for most taxpayers is at a lower rate than the ordinary income rates applied to growth of your SEP (when withdrawn).

There are three additional solutions which you might consider rather than a funding SEP, given this new rule.

1. Traditional IRA. The Traditional IRA contribution will reduce your personal taxes, unlike a SEP, which is considered an employer sponsored plan. The SEP reduces the amount of your QBI deduction, but the Traditional IRA does not. However, there are two issues with the Traditional IRA:

  • The contribution limit is only $5,500 for 2018 ($6,500 over age 50). With a SEP, you could contribute as much as $55,000, ten times more than a Traditional IRA.
  • If you or your spouse are covered by any employer retirement plan, your eligibility to deduct a Traditional IRA contribution depends on being under income limits.  (Details here.)

If you are single and are not covered by any employer plan (or married and neither spouse is eligible for a company plan), then there are no income restrictions on a Traditional IRA. And if you were planning on contributing less than $5,500 to your SEP, just skip the SEP altogether and fund a Traditional IRA so you can receive the full QBI deduction.

If you are eligible for both a Traditional IRA and a SEP, I would always fund the IRA first to the maximum, and only then make a contribution to the SEP.

2. Roth 401(k). A Traditional 401(k) or Profit Sharing Plan, like a SEP, can also land you in the penalty box for the QBI as a self-employed person. However, if you set up an Individual 401(k) plan that allows for Roth 401(k) contributions, then you will receive the full QBI deduction, even if you put $18,500 into your Roth 401(k). 

Of course, you won’t get a tax deduction for the Roth contributions you make, but that account will grow tax-free going forward, which is a lot better than a taxable account. It’s a great option if you anticipate being in the same or similar tax bracket in retirement as you have today. The only problem is that unlike a Traditional IRA, you cannot establish a 401(k) today for the previous year (2018). 

But you can establish one for this year, and if you’d like to do so, I can help you with this. 

3. Spouse’s 401(k)/IRA. If you are self employed, but your spouse has a regular W-2 job, have your spouse increase their 401(k) contributions through their employer. That won’t ding your QBI Deduction and will reduce your joint taxable income dollar for dollar. If your spouse is eligible for a Traditional IRA – including a Spousal IRA if they do not have any earned income – that would also be preferable to having the self-employed spouse fund a SEP-IRA.

I do not want to suggest anything to discourage musicians from saving for retirement! But when one type of retirement account will reduce other tax deductions, I want to make sure that all my clients are informed to make the best choices for their situation. Feel free to email or call me if you’d like more information.

This article does not offer or imply individual tax advice; please consult your tax professional for information regarding your personal situation. 

7 Missed IRA Opportunities for Musicians

The Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is the cornerstone of retirement planning, yet so many musicians miss opportunities to fund an IRA because they don’t realize they are eligible. With the great tax benefits of IRAs, you might want to consider funding yours every year that you can. Here are seven situations where many musicians don’t realize they could fund an IRA.

1. Spousal IRA. Even if a spouse does not have any earned income, they are eligible to make a Traditional or Roth IRA contribution based on the household income. Generally, if one spouse is eligible for a Roth IRA, so is the non-working spouse. In some cases, the non-working spouse may be eligible for a Traditional IRA contribution even when their spouse is ineligible because they are covered by an employer plan and their income is too high.  This is great if one spouse is a stay-at-home parent or in school.

2. No employer sponsored retirement plan. If you are single and your employer does not offer a retirement plan (or if you are married and neither of you are covered by an employer plan), then there are NO income limits on a Traditional IRA. If you are a self-employed musician, and looking to get started with saving for retirement, start with a Traditional or Roth IRA.

(Note that this eligibility is determined by your employer offering you a plan and your being eligible, and not your participation. If the plan is offered, but you choose not to participate, then you are considered covered by an employer plan, which is number 2:)

3. Covered by a employer plan. Here’s where things get tricky. Anyone with earned income can make a Traditional IRA contribution, but there are rules about who can deduct their contribution. A tax-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA is greatly preferred over a non-deductible contribution. If you cannot do the deductible contribution, but you can do a Roth IRA (number 4), never do a non-deductible contribution. Always choose the Roth over non-deductible. The income limits listed below do not mean you cannot do a Traditional IRA, only that you cannot deduct the contributions.

If you are covered by an employer plan, including a 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, pension, etc., you are still eligible for a Traditional IRA if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below these levels for 2018:

  • Single: $63,000
  • Married filing jointly: $101,000 if you are covered by an employer plan
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000 if your spouse is covered at work but you are not (this second one is missed very frequently!)

Your Modified Adjusted Gross Income cannot be precisely determined until you are doing your taxes. Sometimes, there are musicians who assume they are not eligible based on their gross income, but would be eligible if they look at their MAGI.

4. Roth IRA. The Roth IRA has different income limits than the Traditional IRA, and these limits apply regardless of whether you are covered by an employer retirement plan or not. (2018 figures below.) If you don’t need a tax deduction for this year and are eligible for both the Traditional and Roth, I’d go for the Roth. 

  • Single: $120,000
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000

5. Back-door Roth IRA. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, and you do not have any Traditional IRAs, you might be able to do a “Back-Door Roth IRA”, which is a two step process of funding a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then doing a Roth Conversion. We’ve written about the Back Door Roth several times, including here.

6. Self-Employed. If you have any self-employment income, or receive a 1099 as an “independent contractor”, you may be eligible for a SEP-IRA on that specific income. This is on top of any 401(k) or other IRAs that you fund. It is possible, for example, that you could put $18,500 into a 403(b) at a University job, contribute $5,500 into a Roth IRA, and still contribute to a SEP-IRA for self-employed gigs.

There are no income limits to a SEP contribution, but it is difficult to know how much you can contribute until you do your tax return. The basic formula is that you can contribute up to 20% of your net income, after you subtract your business expenses and one-half of the self-employment tax. The maximum contribution to a SEP is $55,000 for , and with such high limits, the SEP is essential for any musician who is looking to save more than the $5,500 limit to a Traditional or Roth IRA. 

Learn more about the SEP-IRA.

7. Tax Extension. For the Traditional and Roth IRA, you have to make your contribution by April 15 of the following year. If you do a tax extension, that’s fine, but the IRA contributions are still due by April 15. However, the SEP IRA is the only IRA where you can make a contribution all the way until October 15, when you file an extension. 

Bonus #8: If you are over age 70 1/2, you generally cannot make Traditional IRA contributions any longer. However, if you continue to have earned income, you may still fund a Roth IRA after this age.

A few notes: For 2018, contribution limits for Roth and Traditional IRAs are $5,500 or $6,500 if over age 50. For 2019, this has been increased to $6,000 and $7,000. You become eligible for the catch-up contribution in the year you turn 50, so even if your birthday is December 31, you are considered 50 for the whole year. Most of these income limits have a phase-out, and I’ve listed the lowest level, so if your income is slightly above the limit, you may be eligible for a reduced contribution. 

Retirement Planning is our focus, so we welcome your IRA questions! Most musicians are going to be responsible for funding their own retirement plans and we want to see you succeed. Be sure you don’t miss an opportunity to fund an IRA each and every year that you are eligible. 

What Would Happen If The AFM-EPF Fails?

Pensions offer what may be the ideal source of retirement income. I have written a number of times about the critical status of the American Federation of Musicians Employer Pension Fund (AFM-EPF), a multiemployer pension plan which covers 50,000 professional musicians in America. Given that the Actuaries do not believe that their rehabilitation plan will enable the plan to emerge from critical status, you may wonder: What would happen to your pension if the plan were to terminate or fail?

The AFM-EPF is covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that was chartered to protect pension plan participants. The PBGC is funded through required employer contributions and receives no tax dollars.

Even though the pension plan is insured, there are limits on the amount of coverage available to individuals through the PBGC. If a plan terminates and you are vested, but not yet retired and receiving benefits, you would be covered only for your currently vested benefits and would not receive any further credit for future work. This is important: The PBGC will only cover vested benefits and a plan termination will halt the accrual of future benefits.

If you are retired and already receiving benefits, the PBGC has limits on the monthly benefit they would cover. If a plan terminates and is taken over by the PBGC, you could see your monthly benefit drop by a significant amount. The PBGC provides different levels of coverage for single-employer plans and multiemployer plans. All the information below relates to multiemployer plans, such as the AFM-EPF.

(If you are also a participant in a single-employer plan, you can find information on PBGC coverage here: PBGC Monthly Maximum Tables.)

For participants the AFP-EPF, your maximum coverage under the PBGC is based on your years of service. If your pension benefit is above the monthly guaranty amount, and the plan were to fail, your benefit would be reduced to the PBGC maximum. Here’s how the PBGC calculates their coverage:

PBGC formula for Multiemployer Plans
100% of the first $11 of monthly benefits,
Plus 75% of the next $33 of monthly benefits,
Times the number of years of service.

The maximum monthly benefit under the PBGC then is $35.75 times the number of credited years of service. For example, if you were a participant for 30 years, your maximum benefit would be $1072.50 a month, or $12,870 a year. And in order to get $35.75 from the PBGC, you’d have to be receiving at least $44 from the pension. In other words, to get the PBGC benefit of $12,870 a year, your pension benefit amount would need to be at least $15,840.

Please note that this example is based on 30 years of service; if you had more or less than 30 years of service, your benefits under the PBGC could be higher or lower. The amounts for Multiemployer plans are not indexed for inflation and do not receive Cost of Living Adjustments. There is no plan to increase these amounts. Link: Multiemployer Benefit Guarantees.

Musicians need to have multiple legs on their retirement plan: pension, Social Security, investment accounts including IRAs, and other sources of income. If you try to have a plan that rests entirely on one leg, you are potentially asking for trouble. The trustees of the AFM-EPF are looking to forestall possible insolvency, but the plan actuaries do not calculate that the plan will ever recover to a fully funded status. In your planning, please consider not only the benefit offered by the EPF, but also make sure you understand and calculate what your benefit would be if the plan were to terminate and be taken over by the PBGC.

AFM Pension Plan Slide Continues

Participants in the AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) received the annual funding notice and notice of critical status this week. Unfortunately, this year’s report is not good, and this notice does little to explain why.

Each year, pension administrators are required to evaluate their plan’s “funded percentage” as a measure of the plan’s financial capacity. The funded percentage is the actuarial value of the plan’s assets divided by the actuarial value of its liabilities. A funded percentage of 100% or higher would indicate a fully funded plan. Our plan has been in critical status since 2010, as have many plans, following the crash of 2008-2009 which greatly impacted asset values.

Two years ago, the AFM-EPF, reported a funded percentage of 85.7%. This declined to 81.6% last year, and then to 76% this year, which means that the plan presently has only 76 cents for every dollar of future benefits promised. The funded percentage is based on “actuarial” values, which means that these numbers are actually adjusted to smooth out stock market fluctuations and to discount future benefits back to today’s dollars. Also alarming is a large decline is the actual, “fair market value” of assets.

The fair market value of plan assets sat at $1,823,000,326 as of 3/31/2014, and stayed fairly level over the following year, to $1,818,080,945 as of 3/31/2015. Over the past year, however, assets declined by $114 million to $1,703,971,000, a drop of over 6%. During the most recent plan year (April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016), the S&P 500 Index delivered a total return of 1.78%, so this wasn’t due to a terrible stock market environment.

It is also worth noting that the fair market value of assets is substantially lower than the actuarial values. As of April 1, 2015 (the most recent value made public), the actuarial value of assets was listed as $2,066,699,976, or $248 million more than the fair market value. That is a quarter billion dollars in smoothing! Over time, as we get further away from 2009, this gap should narrow. The actuarial values should eventually decline towards the fair market values – meaning that the funded percentage is unlikely to improve significantly even if the market performs strongly next year.

Over this same time period, the actuarial value of liabilities has been steadily increasing, from $2.39 billion in 2013 to $2.46 billion in 2014 and $2.53 billion in 2015. Increasing liabilities and decreasing assets are why the funded percentage has worsened.

One of the most significant changes to the plan has been dramatic reduction in the Benefit Multiplier. Put bluntly: the current participants are going to receive less than one-quarter of the benefits promised to previous beneficiaries and are going to bear the pain of the rehabilitation plan, while older participants will still receive their full benefits. Over time, the lower Benefit Multiplier should help improve the funded percentage.

The Benefit Multiplier is used to calculate a monthly payment for each $100 that has been contributed to the plan in your name. The multipliers below are all for retirement at age 65, and contributions earned in the following dates:

  • Before 1/01/2004: $4.65
  • Between 1/01/2004 and 4/01/2007: $3.50
  • Between 4/01/2007 and 4/01/2009: $3.25
  • Between 4/01/2009 and 1/01/2010: $2.00
  • After 1/01/2010: $1.00

Over this time period, the monthly benefit fell from $4.65 per $100 contribution to $1.00. I have to admit, I am baffled how the old payout was ever going to work. Someone who had $100 in contributions in 2003 and retired in 2004 at age 65 would get $4.65 a month, or $55.80 a year for the rest of their life? From $100?

I studied Pension Accounting in the CFA Program, and I understand how these decisions were made. The assumptions are crucial decisions. They assume a rate of return, a number of new and retiring participants, wage and contribution growth, and even the life expectancy of the average beneficiary. Unfortunately, many of these assumptions have proved overly optimistic, not just for the AFM-EPF, but for many pension plans. The rate of return has been lower in stocks since 2000, and is going to be much lower in bonds, going forward. Participants are living longer than the mortality tables (created decades ago) predicted. Growth in contributions and inflation make what seems like high pension payments possible in the future. Unfortunately, employers in music – specifically orchestras and the recording industry – are not areas of high contribution growth either in the number of musicians employed or in covered wages.

The EPF created the Rehabilitation Plan in 2010, which the Actuaries originally thought would enable the plan to emerge from critical status by 2047. Today, they no longer believe that the rehabilitation plan will work, only that it should forestall insolvency for at least 20 years. Past 20 years, they say that it is difficult to predict. This is a troubling development, and it’s not information which was shared in the plan mailing. If you want to find this information, you have to go online and download the June 27, 2016 update to the Rehabilitation Plan. On page 9:

“Currently, Milliman does not project that the Plan will emerge from critical status. Accordingly, the objective of the Rehabilitation Plan is to take reasonable measures to forestall possible insolvency.”

What does all this mean to you?

  1. The plan remains in critical status, and may worsen. The plan actuaries now believe that the rehabilitation plan will not enable to the plan to emerge from critical status. The funded status would be even worse if they used the fair market value of assets rather than the actuarial value.
  2. The plan has already slashed benefits going forward, but may need to lower payouts further if they want to guarantee solvency.
  3. Each year that the funded ratio declines, we are closer to the eventual possibility that the plan will be taken over by the Federal Government, via the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, or PBGC. Note that the PBGC provides a reduced benefit and has a maximum guarantee of $35.75 times the number of years of service. (For example, if you participated for 30 years, your maximum monthly benefit would be $1072.50, even if the AFM-EPF had planned to pay you $2,000 a month.)
  4. Even in the best case scenario, musicians who joined the plan since 2010 will receive a small fraction of the benefits paid to those who had earnings before 2004. Newer participants had better have other sources of retirement income.
  5. The conversation we are having now on the AFM-EPF, all Americans should be having about Social Security. It is also in jeopardy and will not work as originally designed. Benefits promised cannot be delivered. We must make changes, including lowering benefits, lifting the retirement age, and increasing personal savings.

I trust our AFM Leadership to take the steps to fix the EPF. As a multi-employer plan with contribution rates determined by hundreds of CBAs and union agreements throughout the country, increasing contributions further is not a feasible option. Getting the plan to be fully funded may require tough decisions about cutting benefits. If you are concerned about your retirement, whether it is next year or 35 years away, give me a call and we will create a plan for your needs and goals.

Self Employed? Discover the SEP-IRA.

The SEP-IRA is a terrific accumulation tool for workers who are self-employed, have a family business, or who have earnings as a 1099 Independent Contractor. SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension, but the account functions similar to a Traditional IRA. Money is contributed on a pre-tax basis, and then withdrawals in retirement are taxable. Distributions taken before age 59 1/2 may be subject to a 10% penalty.

The AFM Pension Plan: What Every Musician Needs to Know

If you’re a professional musician in the US, you likely received your annual statement from the American Federation of Musicians Employers’ Pension Plan in the past several weeks. The main purpose of the mailing is to verify your Covered Earnings from the past year. Professional musicians often have basic questions about the AFM Pension, in part, because the annual statement doesn’t tell you very much about your personal situation other than your reported earnings and the amount your employer(s) contributed to the pension fund.