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Rich Professionals Are Using Pension Plans As a Tax Dodge

August 19, 2018

By Ben Steverman

Bloomberg

There’s one area where the traditional pension plan is getting new life -- as a tax dodge for wealthy business owners.

Pensions, also known as defined-benefit plans, can be used by doctors, law partners and wealth managers to stash hundreds of thousands of dollars in income a year. By doing so, they’ll get around the income limits Congress created to bar them from a generous new tax break for owners of pass-through entities, who report the firms’ income on their individual tax returns.

The Treasury Department proposed regulations specifying who qualifies for the 20 percent deduction, which effectively slashes the top tax rate to just under 30 percent from 37 percent. The rules also say that planning techniques such as the “crack and pack” -- where business owners split their firms into different entities to lower their tax bills -- are considered abusive.

That’s pushing top-earning service professionals to figure out other ways to get below the income limits of $315,000 if they’re married, or $157,500 if they’re single, so they can take full advantage of one of the tax law’s biggest gifts. One of the workarounds is a retirement plan more associated with union workers.

“Doctors and lawyers got really annoyed when they were excluded from the pass-through deduction,” said Daniel Kravitz, president of retirement plan administrator Kravitz. “After tax reform, these plans become even more beneficial.”

Kravitz said his firm, a specialist in defined-benefit plans for small businesses, is actively marketing pensions as a way for service professionals to get around the new rules. Before the tax overhaul, clients typically used them to defer paying taxes on income.

Defined-benefit plans are generally set up in the last few months of the year, but Kravitz said he’s already having his busiest sales year ever, as clients start new pensions called cash balance plans and boost contributions on existing plans.

With a cash balance plan, participants know each year how much they individually hold. Employers make contributions according to a set formula and manage all participants’ investments collectively, usually guaranteeing a set return.

The contribution limits are based on age: Generally, workers in their 30s and early 40s can pitch in less than $100,000, but limits for older workers rise quickly, to above $200,000 for those in their late 50s and above $300,000 for those in their late 60s.

Many large law firms and medical groups already offer cash balance plans to help their highly paid partners lower their tax bills. While these professionals may boost contributions, if possible, to try to take advantage of the pass-through deduction, the biggest potential opportunity under the new law is for the thousands of smaller businesses that don’t yet have such offerings.

Even before the tax law, the popularity of cash balance plans was surging for small business owners. There were 20,500 such plans in 2016, up almost threefold since 2010, according to Kravitz estimates based on Internal Revenue Service data. The majority are run by businesses with fewer than 10 employees; 37 percent of plan holders were doctors or dentists, while 10 percent were accounting, finance or insurance firms and nine percent were legal firms. One of the biggest players in the space is Kravitz’s parent Ascensus, which has acquired 20 retirement service firms in recent years.

The interest is a change for the traditional pension plan, which has been slowly dying after most big U.S. employers replaced guaranteed retirement benefits with less-costly 401(k) retirement accounts.

Defined-benefit pensions can shield more income from the IRS than a 401(k)-style defined contribution account or individual retirement account, or IRA. Annual employee contributions are capped at $18,500 this year for 401(k)s and $5,500 for IRAs for those under 50.

A cash balance pension is the “next logical step” for successful business owners who are already funding their 401(k) profit-sharing plans up to their limits and want to avoid taxes by deferring even more income, said Keith Steidle of Steidle Pension Solutions, a small plan administrator based in New Jersey.

A 61-year-old married doctor with a practice earning $650,000 a year could set up a defined-benefit pension to get his taxable income under $315,000. He could put $268,000 in a cash balance pension, in addition to putting money in his 401(k) and contributing to employee retirement accounts, and get down to an effective tax rate of 20 percent, according to Kravitz’s calculations.

After several years of saving in a cash balance plan, recipients generally roll their account balance into an IRA and manage the money themselves. Most choose to do so since the IRA is a more cost-effective vehicle and they can invest more aggressively than in a cash balance plan. There’s no limit on how much users can roll over. They don’t pay taxes until they pull the money out, typically when they’re in retirement and in a much lower tax bracket.

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