S&S ISA Experiment – May 2021 Update

First update on my S&S ISA Experiment – I don’t know that I’ll actually do these monthly for the long term, but at least for now I’m curious to see how it’s doing.

Quick recap of the experiment: Americans can’t hold index funds in a S&S ISA due to PFIC regulations 😦 But we can hold individual stocks! Now, I’m generally a strong believer in indexing, the Bogleheads philosophy, buy and hold, etc., but the vagaries of the US/UK tax system are forcing me into individual stocks. So, I’ve constructed a “pseudo-index” of 20 stocks, roughly replicating the FTSE 100 index of the largest UK stocks. I’m not trying to beat the market, just match it without spending a fortune in fees – my bet is really that my performance is close enough to the index that the UK tax advantages of an ISA save more money than the fees and tracking error cost, compared to investing in an actual index fund in a US taxable brokerage account.

My S&S ISA is at Hargreaves Lansdown, one of the few UK brokers that is willing to work with Americans. Their fees aren’t the lowest (£11.95 per trade adds up if you aren’t careful!), but they are manageable with some planning, and really, there aren’t any better options I’ve found. I have been pleased with their service, interface, etc. – no hesitation recommending them for people in the same situation.

To track the performance of my pseudo-index, I’m comparing my ISA against the Vanguard FTSE 100 ETF (VWRP) – that’s probably what I’d buy if I could actually buy a FTSE 100 ETF. I’m mostly interested in whether or not my selection of 20 stocks is a reasonably close approximation of the FTSE 100, but I’ll also keep track of fees along the way (I expect that will mostly just show that Americans in the UK are forced to pay higher fees than necessary, but that’s life…).

This investment makes up part of my UK equities asset allocation – it’s cheaper to buy UK-listed individual stocks (no currency exchange fees), and the the UK market is a lot smaller than the US, so I’m hoping that 20 stocks is a better representation of the FTSE 100 than it could be of the S&P 500 or something like that.

April 2021 Activity

I opened my ISA in March, but only bought 2 (AstraZeneca & Unilever) of my 20 stocks to start with – just enough to get the account open. The way the HL fees work, it’s far cheaper (£1.50 a trade instead of £11.95) if you buy stocks on a monthly plan. Fortunately, you can change the stocks and the amount every month, so as long as you have patience you can save a good chunk on fees.

April was my big startup month – I bought about £500 each of 16 more stocks, plus brought my first two up to around £500 cost basis. I’ll contribute to the last two stocks in May, fully constituting my roughly equally weighted (on a cost basis) 20 stocks. From there, I’m planning on just working my way through the 20 stocks by lowest cost basis, adding every month. I probably won’t hit the full £20k annual ISA limit, barring some unexpected good fortune.

So, as of now, I own roughly £500 each of the following: Associated British Foods, AstraZeneca, Aviva, BAE Systems, bp, Compass Group, CRH, Diageo, Experian, InterContinental Hotels, International Consolidated Airlines Group, London Stock Exchange Group, Ocado, RELX, SSE, Tesco, Unilever, and Vodafone. I’ll top that up with GSK and Reckitt Benckiser in another week or so.

There’s also about £15 in uninvested cash – with on-demand trades costing £11.95, I plan to wait until there’s at least £100 in cash before doing any trades other than the monthly £1.50 ones, and I need to keep a little cash to pay for the platform fee (0.45% a year, capped at £45, paid monthly). I have been tailoring the purchase amounts of each stock to try not to leave any more uninvested cash than necessary – for example, if a stock is £75 a share, I’ll try to buy 6 (£450) or 7 (£525) shares, not allocate £500 and leave £50 in uninvested cash, but with price movements between the day I allocate the money and the day of purchase, some cash is inevitable.

FTSE 100 vs Pseudo-Index

I’m taking a unitized approach to comparing my performance vs the FTSE 100. So whenever I buy stocks, I’m also making an Excel entry noting how much it was, the price of VWRP (the Vanguard FTSE 100 ETF), and how many units of the ETF I would have bought with that money.

For example, on 12 April I bought £8,370 of stocks, £8,293 after fees. On that day, VWRP was £78.61 a share, so I would have bought 105.49 shares (£8,293/78.61). Now, at the end of April, I see that VWRP is priced at £78.98, so those 105.49 shares are worth £8,331, as a benchmark to compare against.

Actual numbers: between March & April, I contributed £8,870 to my ISA – I actually bought £8,740 of stocks plus £15 of cash, with another £73 going to fees and £42 to stamp duty. As of the end of April, that’s worth £8,787. So I’m up £32 (0.4%) ignoring fees, down £83 with fees. If I’d bought the same £8,755 (actual invested + cash, after fees) in VWRP, I’d have £8,823, up 0.8%, or a whole £36 more than I actually have. So, definitely not the same as VWRP, but this is a short comparison period, I’m not panicking about VWRP returns being twice what I have, yet.

Graphically, two months looks very exciting – not so much, it’s dominated by my April contributions, but this should get more interesting over the months.

Observations

I’ve been spending too much time watching my account, purely out of curiosity (not doing any frequent trading!). No surprise, on any given day, the 18 stocks I own are all over the place, some up, some down. But these are all big companies – over a fairly quiet few weeks, most of them are up or down a few percent in a day, not radical swings.

We can certainly see differences in performance – the best performers are up 6-8% so far, the worst down 5%. But what I’m really curious about is whether the portfolio as a whole is a reasonably close approximation of the FTSE 100 – far too early to see that.

Here’s my summary of overall performance across the 18 stocks:

I’ve also signed up for press releases and such from all of the companies. I will say, it’s interesting to learn more about some of these giants of the UK market – some are household names, others less obvious. For example, before this experiment started I had no idea Primark was owned by a company that would sound like primarily a food manufacturer (Associated British Foods – they do also make food!).

RMDs vs Lifetime Allowance – Which Alligator Should You Focus On?

Fair warning: this post is for people who have reason to be concerned about both RMDs and the Lifetime Allowance. If you don’t have a Traditional 401k/IRA/etc. balance or you have no concerns about exceeding the LTA, you can skip on past – just focus on the one that affects you.

Also – this one gets into the weeds. Grab a cuppa first!

What are we dealing with?

Both the IRS and HMRC want to make sure they get paid eventually and ensure “rich” people don’t get too many tax advantages, they just have very different ways of doing it: the IRS has Required Minimum Distributions, while HMRC has the Lifetime Allowance.

In a nutshell:

  • RMDs force you to withdraw an increasingly large percentage of your Traditional balance (401(k), IRA, etc.) from age 72 – this can be big enough to force you above the 20% basic rate, and with a big enough balance (somewhat over £1M at age 72), even into the higher 40% rate.
  • The Lifetime Allowance means that if your total pension/SIPP value gets over about £1 million, HMRC gets extra tax, either when you take benefits or no later than age 75. This is a flat benefits tax, roughly working out to 25% (plus you or your heirs still have to pay normal income tax at some point)

These are not small differences – from a £1M portfolio at age 55, you can be looking at over a £1M difference in the value you pass on to your heirs, and a total tax burden that can be 4 times smaller than if you didn’t plan for them.

Conclusion up front: Every situation is different and there’s no one right answer. To minimize your total tax burden (and thus maximize your wealth), you want to try to do two things:

  • Get RMDs under control – ideally eliminate them entirely. As long as you’re convinced that Roth conversions aren’t UK taxable, you can avoid UK tax on your Traditional balance entirely (but might pay some 10% and 12% US tax). Even if you can’t eliminate them completely, get them down enough so that you stay in the UK 20% bracket even with the RMDs
  • If you need to worry about the LTA, try to get some money out of your pension early in retirement. This is a bit of threading the needle, trying to avoid the 25% LTA penalty but also preserving wealth out of the reach of the 40% inheritance tax.

For most people at comfortable but not “fat” levels of wealth, RMDs are probably the bigger concern, unless you happen to have almost everything in a Pension and very little, if anything, in Traditional.

For example, at a 5% growth rate, you’d need about £1.6M in pension and £600k in Traditional at age 75 before you would be paying more in the Lifetime Allowance penalty than in “forced” taxes on RMDs (about £200k each in taxes here, although you do get the RMDs to spend without any additional tax while the Pension will be subject to income tax if you take any out).

Good problems to have

Before we get into the potential pain associated with RMDs and the Lifetime Allowance, a quick reminder – both of these are very good problems to have! If you’ve retired at all early and made it to 72 with enough money in your Traditional balance to worry about RMDs, or made it to 75 with enough in your UK Pension/SIPP to worry about the Lifetime Allowance, you’ve done well. You’ve survived any sequence of returns risks and made it to the other side with a good chunk of change.

  • The taxes associated with the Lifetime Allowance only apply to pension balances over £1,073,100, and they’re marginal. If you have £1,073,101 when you turn 75, you’ll pay about a 25% penalty on that £1.
    • At a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate, the £1,073,100 is enough for about £43k a year – after tax, that’s more like £39k a year – more than median UK household spending. Add in Social Security, State Pension, and any other savings, and you’ve got a comfortable living.
    • If you have so much more than £1,073,100 that you’re paying a material amount of tax at 75, that’s honestly a pretty good bit of gravy. We’re really talking about managing taxes for generational wealth, significant charitable giving, or a lot of luxury/leisure spending after age 75 – not making sure you can put food on the table.
  • RMDs will hit everybody with a Traditional balance when they turn 72, regardless of how big the balance is.
    • But, even if we assume that your personal allowance is already full from State Pension and Social Security, you’ll only ever get into higher rate (40%) taxes from about a £470k balance at age 75 (assuming 5% real growth). And that’s just barely getting into the bracket, once you’re into your 90s.
    • To have to pay higher rate taxes from age 72, you’d need a balance of over £960k. At that point, your RMDs alone are throwing off £37k a year and rising – even after tax, you’ve got a very comfortable retirement with RMDs plus Social Security and/or State Pension, at roughly £42k at age 72, rising to £66k at age 95 (5% growth). Add in any additional withdrawals or other savings, and you’re doing very well.

Management Options

RMDs and the Lifetime Allowance have the same three basic strategies to minimize their impact:

  1. Contribute less: keeping balances low enough can completely avoid the Lifetime Allowance problem and keep RMDs to a manageable level.
    • The obvious drawback is that you either have less money, or the money goes somewhere else, which will be less tax advantageous during the accumulation phase. For example, a Roth IRA doesn’t have RMDs, but contributions are post-tax. An ISA doesn’t have a Lifetime Allowance, but contributions are post-tax and gains are UK taxable as they arise.
    • This is really only a useful option is you’re very close to the edge on the LTA and are picking where to put some marginal money.
  2. Grow less: within your intended asset allocation, preferentially hold your bonds, and any other asset classes you think are likely to grow more slowly, in your Traditional and/or Pension accounts. The earlier you do this, the bigger the impact (reduced compound interest in your Traditional or Pension accounts), but most people don’t have a large bond allocation early in the accumulation phase. Unless you have a large bond allocation, or large amounts saved outside of Traditional and Pension accounts so that they can be mostly or entirely bonds, this is a tweak, not a solution.
    • Don’t change your asset allocation to be more bond-heavy just due to RMDs and the Lifetime Allowance – that’s the tail wagging the dog. But if you have bonds anyway, it makes sense to put them in your Traditional and/or Pension accounts.
  3. Withdraw aggressively
    • In Traditional accounts, you can start this early with Roth conversions – as soon as your earned income puts you in a low enough income bracket that it makes sense (ideally 0%, but 10% or 12% may be reasonable, too). With a long enough time horizon, this can deal with almost any plausible Traditional balance and avoid RMDs completely, or at the very least make a big dent in them.
    • In a Pension, you have to wait until age 55 (or 57, whenever you get access to your pension) before you can start withdrawing. We’ve seen that you can withdraw the entire Lifetime Allowance between age 55 and 75 while staying within the 20% basic rate tax bracket, either spending it or moving it to a different account to continue growing but without the worry of a Lifetime Allowance (probably an ISA). Of course, this doesn’t deal with any value above the Lifetime Allowance when you start, so isn’t a complete solution. It also has inheritance tax implications, since you’re potentially moving money from an account outside your estate (pension) into somewhere inside your estate and thus subject to 40% inheritance tax.

Which is worse?

This is a hard question to answer – I’ve been playing with a bunch of different scenarios, trying to make a concrete answer. The result: for the same amount of money, RMDs will likely incur more forced taxes. If, in the absence of RMDs and Lifetime Allowance concerns, you were on track to never pay taxes again, this can blow up that plan.

On the other hand, you do get those RMDs to spend – for example, if you wanted to spend £36k a year and had a Personal Allowance’s worth of State Pension/Social Security, the RMDs alone on a Traditional balance of £750k would make up the rest of the £23,250 spending in every year from age 72. The problem is that they make up way more income than you need in later years, and you have to pay tax on that – we’re talking an additional £40k/year more than you wanted, some of it taxed at 40%.

Exceeding the Lifetime Allowance causes you to pay extra tax without getting any extra money – effectively a 25%+ penalty on anything above the allowance. You still have to pay income tax if/when you or your heirs want the money, although your there’s no inheritance tax on the money in your pension.

Quick graph to illustrate – assuming a 5% growth rate, this shows both the 25% penalty on exceeding the Lifetime Allowance at age 75 and the total income taxes paid on RMDs from age 72. But remember – you’ll likely have to pay income taxes on something, whether it’s RMDs or pension withdrawals or a fat Social Security check, so this isn’t a straight comparison – the 25% penalty is in addition to income tax on whatever you’re using to fund your retirement. The only way out of paying income taxes on something are a lot of Roth conversions early on, which then become tax free on withdrawal.

For the same balance in Traditional vs Pension, you’ll always pay more income tax on RMDs than Lifetime Allowance penalty, but whether that’s a larger or smaller total tax burden depends on your overall financial picture.

So there’s no generic answer – let’s look at a few examples to try to illustrate how they could play out.

Some Examples

Bob, Polly, and Tracey are in similar situations:

  • Age 55 and have just retired, with no plans for any future earned income
  • Have £1,000,000 invested:
    • Balanced Bob has £500,000 in his UK Pension and £500,000 in his Traditional IRA
    • Pension Polly has £750,000 in her UK Pension and £250,000 in her Traditional IRA
    • Traditional Tracey has £250,000 in her UK Pension and £750,000 in her Traditional IRA
    • They have nothing in ISAs, Roth IRAs, or taxable accounts – the UK Pension and Traditional IRA will fund their retirement.
  • They all expect to take State Pension and/or Social Security at age 68, in an amount equal to the Personal Allowance (£12,570). We’ll assume a 50/50 split, so only half is US taxable (US doesn’t tax social security paid to a UK resident, per the tax treaty).
  • They will all experience steady 5% real returns in any invested balance, reflecting a moderate bond allocation in these accounts (we won’t model more bonds in one vs the other – it’s a small difference and the assumptions have a bigger impact than the strategy)
  • They’re all American citizens living in the UK. They’re each married, but their spouse has no investments or income (for the sake of simplicity in illustration)
  • They each want to spend £36,000 a year in retirement, for the rest of their lives.
  • They all expect to live to age 95
  • Tax brackets don’t change, and $1.40 buys a £
  • Their house is paid off and not considered in the examples, but it fills their entire UK inheritance tax allowance, so anything not sheltered by a pension is taxed at 40%.

We’ll look at four strategies for Bob, Polly, & Tracey:

  • Do nothing – don’t actively plan for RMDs or the Lifetime Allowance and let the chips fall where they may. They mostly split the withdrawals to fund their £36k expenses evenly between Traditional and Pension.
  • Focus on RMDs – Heavy on the Roth conversions as soon as they retire (age 55), getting Traditional balance to zero ASAP
  • Focus on Lifetime Allowance – Heavy on Pension withdrawals starting from age 55, trying to minimize LTA penalties
  • Balanced – Try to split the difference between Roth conversions & Pension withdrawals and get the overall best outcome

And a couple of big tax assumptions – these are both hugely up for debate:

  • Traditional to Roth conversions are taxed in the US but are tax-free in the UK
  • UK Pension withdrawals are 25% tax free, 75% taxed in the UK (that is certain), and 100% taxed in the US (that is debatable), but UK tax on the 75% generates enough FTC so that no US tax is owed (typically true, but there are exceptions)

These aren’t just semantic issues, either – if Roth conversions are only taxed in the US and UK pension withdrawals are only taxed in the UK, there’s a potentially huge ability to move money and avoid both RMDs and LTA penalties. But I think these are reasonable, fairly middle of the road assumptions – you have to decide for yourself, or get professional advice.

There are also some simplifying assumptions in the calculations – no interest, dividends, or capital gains, and slightly simplified US tax calculations. The outcomes should be considered illustrative, not exact.

Example Outcomes

I’ll put a vignette for each outcome at the end of this post, if you’re really interested. But for those who don’t want quite so much detail, here’s the summary, with the best outcome for each of them in bold:

PersonStrategyEnding Traditional
Balance
Ending Pension
Balance
Ending ISA + Roth
Balance
Ending Net WorthIncome Tax PaidLTA Penalty PaidTotal Tax PaidInheritance Tax (40%)Value to Heirs
After Inheritance Tax
BobDo Nothing5341,3675812,48239703974462,036
PollyDo Nothing1522,28002,432195123319612,371
TraceyDo Nothing79901,2112,01066806688041,206
BobRMD Focus02,2326882,920990992752,645
PollyRMD Focus02,68002,6809012421502,680
TraceyRMD Focus03842,3262,71016401649301,780
PollyLTA Focus002,428.2,428.19091999711,457
PollyBalanced02,68902,6898412420802,689
All values are in thousands of GBP – may not add due to rounding

There are no Bob or Tracey LTA Focus scenarios, because there’s no LTA payable even when RMDs are the focus. Bob is very close to exceeding his LTA in the RMD Focus scenario, but doesn’t quite tip over, Tracey basically can’t get to a point of worrying about LTAs from her lower starting balance, without growth well above the 5% assumption (around 8% or so she might get close to the LTA).

There’s no Bob or Tracey balanced scenarios, because there’s nothing I can find that improves on the RMD focus. There might be an option deep in the weeds to optimize on US taxes, but we’re talking about paying a little more at 10% instead of 12% – a tiny difference swamped by uncertainty and assumptions in these models.

Some observations:

  • All of these are successful retirements – Bob, Polly, and Tracey all wanted to spend £36k a year and were able to, plus pass on ample inheritances.
  • You should not ignore RMDs – even Polly benefits from managing them, despite having a relatively low Traditional balance. If Bob or Tracey ignore RMDs, they get whacked with more money than they want, paying 20%, 40%, or even 60% tax on them.
  • Focusing on the LTA while ignoring RMDs can wind up with a higher overall tax bill, even if you avoid or minimize the LTA penalty. Compare Polly’s LTA Focus to her RMD focus – her LTA penalty goes almost to zero, but her total tax paid is significantly higher due to her very high Pension withdrawals, taxed at 20%. Because her Pension has gone to zero, her estate pays a LOT in inheritance tax. After tax, her estate is more than £1M less than in her other strategies.
  • You probably won’t have a choice whether your scenario is closer to Bob, Polly, or Tracey, unless you’re still in the US contributing to a Traditional account and deciding when you want to move to the UK. I wouldn’t let retirement tax withdrawal planning drive that decision! And it’s not clear which scenario is better – for the same total balance, a higher Pension balance makes it easier to shelter from inheritance tax and RMDs easier to deal with, a higher Traditional balance helps avoid LTA penalties.
  • The apparent big advantage of a Pension in inheritance tax needs a caveat – a big ISA or Roth balance is subject to 40% inheritance tax, but not income tax when your heirs take it. A Pension doesn’t face that 40% inheritance tax, but is taxable income if your heirs take it – at whatever their marginal income tax rate is. They can choose when that is, though, whereas inheritance tax is assessed when you die.
  • The calculus changes as the total balance increases above £1M, especially if a lot of that is in a Pension. LTA becomes more and more of a concern, but there’s also less you can do about it. Big Pension withdrawals can push you into the US 22% tax bracket, so Roth conversions don’t make much sense anymore. There’s still a balance to be struck, but it becomes a lot more difficult to optimize. I haven’t done a lot of scenarios with bigger balances because it gets a lot fuzzier (and all the Excel is already making my eyes go cross!)
  • The calculus also changes a lot if Bob, Polly, and Tracey aren’t married and including their spouse on their US taxes – Roth conversions get a lot harder with only Single or Married Filing Separately US tax brackets, instead of Married Filing Jointly.

Some of the difference sin the scenarios are easier to see in graphs (balances on the left axis, annual tax on the right):

The differences in the tax curve really shows how differently these approaches behave – a simple withdrawal approach without Roth conversions has tax steady or exponentially increasing over time. A Roth conversion approach has all the tax up front, then driven to zero.

Obviously these are unrealistic scenarios with steady 5% growth – reality will be much choppier, and you won’t get that clean exponential growth in the Pension balance. Still, it shows just how small of a hiccup a even a moderate LTA penalty is (about £124k in both Polly scenarios)

Conclusions

That was a whole lot of words to say “it depends”! But really, it’s important you do pay some attention to this as part of your retirement planning and at least play out the scenarios. Some very rough guidelines that helped me arrive at the “best” scenarios:

  1. Big Pension withdrawals up front help in two ways – knock down growth in your Pension to help with the LTA and bridge your spending until US retirement accounts become available at age 59.5
    • After those first few years, dropping Pension withdrawals way down helps overall. If you do need some Pension withdrawals to support spending, it’s better to spread them out. If you have enough after Roth conversions that you never have to touch your Pension again, that’s even better (and helps with inheritance tax planning).
  2. Start Roth conversions ASAP, for another two reasons – they help knock down Traditional growth to help with RMDs and, after 5 years, they give you a pot of tax-free cash to work with. In most cases, Roth conversions to fill the US 12% tax bracket were optimal – this makes sense, because it’s avoiding 20%+ UK tax on the RMDs
    • It does make sense to continue Roth conversions all the way until you turn age 72, at least to fill the US Standard Deduction. It’s a small tweak, but saves a little tax compared to just getting Traditional to zero ASAP (moves money from 10% or 12% brackets to 0%)
    • Accepting RMDs only makes sense if you can’t get your Traditional balance to zero by age 72 without going into the 22% US bracket – then you’re balancing 22% earlier vs 20% UK tax later.

After this detour into RMDs and the LTA, I will return to the overall withdrawal strategies series. I might do a few smaller standalone posts before going into Part 3, Putting it All Together – I could use a little break from too many Excel models 🙂

Example Vignettes

Bob – Do Nothing

  • Starts with equal £500k balances in his Pension and Traditional. He can’t get to his Traditional balance until age 59.5, so starts with his Pension funding his spending, staying well within the 20% basic rate.
  • At 60, he starts splitting withdrawals 50/50 between his Pension and Traditional, still safely within the 20% basic rate.
  • When Social Security/State Pension kick in at 68, his withdrawals drop but overall income stays the same.
  • At 72, RMDs kick in. They’re big enough from the beginning to fund his retirement, when combined with SS/SP, so he never touches his pension again.
  • At 75, his remaining pension balance plus all his withdrawals to date are tested against the LTA – he comes in safely under, and pays no penalty (about £166k to spare).
  • From 76 onward, his RMDs plus SS/SP are sufficient to fund his retirement, and he takes no further withdrawals from his Pension, or anything above RMDs on his Traditional.
  • From age 76, RMDs are big enough they’ve pushed him into the 40% higher rate income tax band
  • At 95, his RMDs alone are over £66k, plus £12k from SS/SP means he has taxable income of £79k a year, despite only wanting to spend £36k
  • His pension has grown without any withdrawals since age 72, so by 95 it’s worth almost £1.4M – that can be passed to his heirs without paying inheritance tax. His traditional balance at death is about £534k, which is subject to inheritance tax. He also has £581k in savings outside his Pension & Traditional balance, probably in an ISA. That’s a total net worth of about £2.5M
  • Over the course of his retirement, Bob paid £397k in UK income tax, mostly in the 20% band with a bit into 40% in his later years, pushing his annual UK tax up to almost £20k late in life.

Polly – Do Nothing

  • Starts with £250k in her Traditional and £750k in her Pension, with Pension withdrawals to fund retirement. Comfortably in the 20% basic rate and using about £20k of LTA each year. When she can get to her Traditional balance at 59.5, she starts splitting withdrawals 50/50 between Pension and Traditional.
  • When SS/SP kick in at 68, withdrawals drop, overall income stays the same, 20% basic rate.
  • At 72, RMDs kick in. At first, they aren’t enough to keep up the 50/50 split, so she makes additional withdrawals. But as they ramp up, the RMDs alone exceed 50/50 from age 82, although she needs some Pension withdrawals to make up the rest of her spending needs.
  • At 75, her pension balance is tested against the LTA. Since she started with more than Bob but withdrew only a little bit more (withdrawals from age 72 to 75), she’s got a bigger balance – about £1.1M, and has already used about £459k of the LTA on the withdrawals., so she has £493k above the LTA. She pays 25% tax on that, totaling £123k.
  • At 95, Polly’s pension is worth about £2.3M, all of which can be passed to her heirs without inheritance tax. She has about £152k left in her Traditional
  • Over the course of her retirement, Polly paid £195k in income tax, plus the £123k LTA penalty, for a total tax bill of £319k. She was never above the 20% basic rate and paid no US tax, but the LTA penalty takes a chunk.

Tracey – Do Nothing

  • Starts with £750k in her Traditional and £250k in her Pension, initially funding spending from her Pension and then splitting 50/50 once she can access her Traditional balance.
  • At age 64, she’s fully depleted her pension, and switches to withdraw all her spending from her Traditional balance.
  • When SS/SP kick in at 68, withdrawals drop, overall income stays the same, still 20% basic rate.
  • At 72, RMDs kick in and are immediately more than her £36k spending, even ignoring SS/SP. They start at almost £49k per year, and rise to £100k at age 93. This immediately pushes her into the 40% higher rate tax bracket, and by 87 she’s creeping into the 60% bracket where the personal allowance phases out. She starts moving the excess RMDs into an ISA first, and if she uses both her and her spouse’s ISA allowance, she can just about stay under the combined £40k annual limit ( a few years in her 90s where she’s less than £2k over).
  • At 75, her pension balance is tested against the LTA, but its zero. She has more than £776k of LTA remaining anyway.
  • At 95, Polly’s Traditional balance has been significantly reduced by RMDs, but is still about £799k, down from a peak of over £1.3M in her late 70s. She has amassed a large savings in her ISA, over £1.2M, for a total net worth of about £2M, fully exposed to inheritance tax.
  • Over the course of her retirement, Tracey paid a whopping £668k in income tax, with every year from age 72 onward in the 40% bracket or higher.

Bob – RMD Focus

  • Starts with £500k each in Traditional and Pension.
  • From age 55, Bob does two things in parallel:
    • Start a Roth conversion ladder, filling up his US taxes until he’s maxed out the 12% tax bracket (over £32k of conversions every year)
    • Draw down his Pension to fund his retirement (£44k/year gives £36k after taxes on both the pension withdrawals and US tax on the Roth conversions)
  • After 5 years of Roth conversions, Bob is able to start accessing those conversions
    • So at age 60, Bob starts using tax-free withdrawals from his Roth account to fund his retirement spending
    • He ramps up his Roth conversions, completely filling his US taxes to the 12% bracket (almost £76k/year)
    • He’s not touching his Pension now, and will never touch it again, just letting it grow
    • Because all his income is coming from the Roth balance, Bob has no UK taxable income at this point.
  • By age 67, Bob has fully depleted his Traditional balance and converted it all to Roth, and is using that Roth balance to fund his retirement spending
  • From age 68, SS/SP kick in, so Bob can slow down his Roth withdrawals proportionally
  • This continues until Bob’s death at 95 – living off his Roth withdrawals and SS/SP, leaving his Pension to grow
  • At age 75 his pension is tested against the Lifetime Allowance. Because of his 5 years of withdrawals at the beginning of retirement, he knocked the balance down just enough to avoid any penalty (with about £54k to spare to the limit)
  • At 95, Bob has £2.2M in his Pension, which he can pass to his heirs tax free, and £688k in his Roth balance, which will be subject to inheritance tax.
  • Over the course of his retirement, Bob paid only £99k in income tax.

Polly – RMD Focus

  • Start with £750k in Pension and £250k in Traditional, but Polly is going to focus on RMDs, not the Lifetime Allowance
  • She can’t completely follow Bob’s approach, because she won’t be able to convert enough from her Traditional to Roth to fund her retirement – she’ll need some Pension withdrawals to make up the difference.
  • Her first 5 years are identical to Bob – pension withdrawals for income, Roth conversions to max out the 12% US bracket
  • At age 60, they start to diverge:
    • Polly starts taking some income from her Roth balance (£19k), but withdraws the remainder from her Pension
    • She keeps converting to Roth while staying within the 12% US bracket – her Traditional is depleted by age 62.
  • When SS/SP kicks in, she reduces her Pension withdrawals, but they’re still about £5k a year, along with £19k from Roth and £12k from SS/SP to make up £36k spending.
  • She continues that pattern from age 68 until her death at 95, except that around age 91 her Roth balance runs out, so she switches all of her withdrawals to her Pension.
  • At age 75, her Pension is tested against the Lifetime Allowance. With a balance of almost £1.2M plus about £386k used for previous withdrawals, she’s well over the LTA. 25% of the excess is levied as a tax, £125k.
  • At 95, Polly has £2.7M in her Pension to pass along tax free.
  • Over the course of her retirement, she paid even less income tax that Bob, just £90k, but that big LTA penalty pushes her total tax paid to £215k.

Tracey – RMD Focus

  • Start with £750k in Traditional and £250k in Pension – makes sense that she’ll focus on RMDs, since LTA will almost certainly not be a problem (it’d take some great investment returns, about 8% annually for 20 years, just to hit it)
  • She has essentially the same approach as Bob, it will just take Tracey longer to completely deplete her larger Traditional balance.
  • Her first 5 years are identical to Bob & Polly – pension withdrawals for income, Roth conversions to max out the 12% US bracket
  • At age 60, she follows Bob – shift to taking her spending from her Roth balance and increasing her Roth conversions to completely fill the 12% US bracket.
  • At age 68, SS/SP come in, being used for spending and reducing the amount of Roth conversions (although still high, almost £70k/year)
  • At age 72, she hasn’t quite depleted her Traditional balance, so starts taking some RMDs, but these are modest, starting at about £7k per year. She continues aggressive Roth conversions to fill the rest of the 12% bracket, after RMDs and SS/SP, while still drawing most income from her Roth balance.
  • At age 75, she’s finished depleting her Traditional balance and RMDs stop. From here on out, she lives off her Roth balance plus SS/SP, leaving her relatively small Pension balance to grow.
  • Her Pension is tested against the LTA at 75, but she was never in any real danger of exceeding the Lifetime Allowance, with more than £717k to spare. The 5 years of withdrawals up front just allowed her to bridge to access her Roth balance.
  • At 95, Tracey has £384k in her Pension plus £2.3M in her Roth balance. That big Roth balance is subject to UK inheritance tax at 40%.
  • Over the course of her retirement, she paid £151k in income tax, all at either the US 10 or 12% rate or the UK 20% basic rate.

Polly – LTA Focus

  • Polly is the only one who winds up paying the LTA penalty above, so let’s try to avoid or at least minimize that
  • She starts with £750k in Pension, £250k in RMDs
  • She wants to get as much money out of her Pension as fast as she can, so any compounding takes place elsewhere, probably an ISA
    • So she starts with £65k a year, paying 20% tax on a good chunk of that. She moves the proceeds into an ISA.
    • In parallel, she starts Roth conversions, up to the 12% US bracket. LTA is her focus, but we don’t want RMDs to run away with her, either, and these don’t have any UK tax impact
  • Once SS/SP starts at age 68, she scales back the Pension withdrawals a little bit, to stay in the 20% basic rate tax
    • Counterintuitively, this means she can increase her Roth conversions slightly – since 25% of Pension withdrawals are UK tax free, but 100% are US taxable, while 100% of SS/SP are UK taxable, the £12,570 of SS/SP only results in a cut of £9,600 in Pension withdrawals – that gap can be used for Roth conversions while staying in the 12% bracket
  • It all comes together at age 75 and 76:
    • She’s used the entire LTA on withdrawals and paid a small £9k penalty on her withdrawals at age 74, but those withdrawals bring her Pension balance to £0 – there’s no further penalty.
    • She finishes converting her entire Traditional balance to Roth – she had a couple of years of small RMDs starting at 72, but nothing big, although they did push her slightly into the 40% tax rate.
    • She switches from dumping money from her Pension into her ISA and from her Traditional to Roth while funding her spending from her Pension, to funding her spending from her ISA, Roth, & SS/SP.
    • From age 76, all her spending is from ISA, Roth, and SS/SP.
    • At 95, Polly has £2.4M in ISA/Roth that’s all subject to inheritance tax.
    • Over the course of her retirement, she paid £190k in income tax – much more than in RMD focus (that was £90k), because she’s just about maxing out the 20% basic rate every year until she turns 75, moving money from her Pension to her ISA and from her Traditional to Roth balance. She also paid £9k in LTA penalties, compared to £125k in RMD focus). Her total tax bill dropped from £215k in RMD focus to £199k, but now all her savings are subject to inheritance tax, instead of none of them.

Polly – Balanced

  • This is really only a very small tweak from Polly’s RMD focus – the change is just to stretch out her Roth conversions from age 55 to 72, finishing just as RMDs come in. This allows more of those conversions to be taxed at 0% or 10% US rates, instead of 12%. It’s only a modest change, reducing income tax from £90k to £84k and final net worth increasing from by about £10k, still all in a Pension.

Managing the Lifetime Allowance

We learned a little bit about the Lifetime Allowance in my post on UK Pension Withdrawal Options – mostly by pointing to the excellent Monevator post on the topic.

Today, we’ll dig a little bit deeper, to see how we might avoid paying HRMC an extra 25% of our hard earned savings. I’m going to focus on the benefit crystallisation event at age 75, where your entire pension balance is tested against the Lifetime Allowance – the principle applies to the other benefit crystallisation events too, it’s just conceptually simpler to think about a single test.

We’ll start the analysis by assuming that you haven’t touched your pension before age 75, you’ve just let it grow – maybe you’ve drawn a retirement income from other savings, Social Security, State Pension, etc. Then we can expand to look at what happens if you draw from your pension before 75, like many of us will want to.

We’ll also only look at defined contribution plans – defined benefit plans are also subject to the Lifetime Allowance, but it works a bit differently. And we’ll assume UK pensions are subject to US tax (not much changes if they aren’t – the US doesn’t care about the Lifetime Allowance, but some of the management strategies might have US tax impacts).

Bottom line up front: it’s nice to try to avoid or minimize the 25% penalty, but don’t let it overwhelm the basics of investing for growth and a comfortable retirement.

What happens if you do nothing?

If you have a pension/SIPP balance greater than the Lifetime Allowance (£1,073,100 in 2021, and frozen there until 2026 at least), the excess is subject to a penalty tax of 25%. For the test at age 75, this 25% charge would be assessed when you turn 75 – you’re still subject to income tax when you withdraw the money from the pension.

  • There’s also a 55% penalty option, which only applies if you take money in excess of the Lifetime Allowance as a lump sum. But this money isn’t subject to income tax later, so it’s basically the same as paying the 25% penalty and 40% income tax (£100 with the penalty tax at 25% leaves £75, which is then subject to 40% income tax, leaving £45 – the same as a 55% tax).
  • I’ll just call it a 25% penalty in the rest of this post for the sake of simplicity.

This 25% penalty basically limits the amount of money that the government is prepared to treat in a tax advantaged way – they want to incentivize savings for retirement, but not give too many advantages to the “rich” (we can debate if £1M in a pension saved over a lifetime of work is really “rich”, but that’s a topic best addressed over a pint).

You also can only take the 25% tax free pension commencement lump sum (PCLS) up to 25% of the lifetime allowance – so you can get £268,275 UK tax free, but not above that.

When should you care?

Simply, if you think you’ll have more than £1,073,100 in your pension – either all at one time, or if you take out some and leave enough to grow that your withdrawals plus the remainder (growth in your drawdown and the full balance in your main pot) is over the limit. The calculations get complicated, but a few examples of where you’d get to the limit – anything over these would be subject to the 25% penalty.

  • 6.5% average real growth rate, saving £2,500 a year (about 8% of the median UK salary) from age 22 to age 68
  • 5% growth rate, save and grow enough to have a £100k balance when you turn 30, and then you don’t touch it again for the next 45 years
  • 6% growth rate, save £10,000 a year in your 30s, never touch your pension again
  • 5% growth rate, saving £20,000 a year from age 45 to 65

Obviously we could make many more scenarios, but you get the idea – there are a variety of ways of getting there that require some decent contributions and discipline, but these also aren’t dramatically huge amounts of savings for many readers of this blog.

Very rough rule of thumb – if you have £750k in your pension at age 68 (State Pension age) and invested moderately (5% growth rate), you’ll likely be close to using the full the lifetime allowance at age 75.

Benefits of exceeding the lifetime allowance

Before we talk about avoiding the 25% penalty, a quick reminder of the benefits we’ve enjoyed to get to the point of caring about the penalty at all:

  • You expect to have more than £1,073,100 in your pension. At a 4% withdrawal rate, the amount under the lifetime allowance is almost £43k – after tax, that’s about £37k a year. That’s more than median household spending in the UK, and potentially a fairly comfortable retirement on its own. Add in State Pension and maybe Social Security, and you’re in pretty decent shape – the 25% penalty is hitting us on the gravy, not the foundation of a comfortable retirement.
  • You’ve benefited from tax-deferred growth for the whole time your pension has been invested. No capital gains, dividend, or interest taxes along the way to slow down your compounding.
  • Your whole pension balance is protected from inheritance tax (40%), including the amounts over the Lifetime Allowance.
  • You may have benefited from salary sacrifice when you put the money in, saving you on National Insurance (12% or 2% tax, depending on your tax rate). You never have to pay that back.
  • You may have benefited from more tax relief on your contributions than you’ll pay on your withdrawals, even with the 25% penalty. If you were in the effective 60% tax bracket (£100,000 to £125,140), you’ve saved 60% (62% with National Insurance using salary sacrifice) up front. Paying the 25% penalty plus income tax on withdrawals means that if you can keep your withdrawals and any other income under £100k a year, you’ll have an effective tax rate of 40% or 55% (25% penalty followed by 20% or 40% tax rate).

How to manage the Lifetime Allowance

There are a few options to avoid going over the Lifetime Allowance, or at least reduce the amount you go over. We’ll go into each of these in a little detail:

  • Contribute less
  • Grow less
  • Withdraw aggressively

Option: Contribute Less

This is the most straightforward option – if you don’t want to go over the Lifetime Allowance, put less money in your pension. This can have a fairly dramatic effect early on, due to compounding.

Obviously, we still want to save and grow our money, so that means you’re putting your money somewhere else. The likely options include:

  • Your spouse/partner’s pension or SIPP: probably the best option, if your spouse a) exists and b) has a lower amount in his or her pension.
    • But, you can lose out on tax relief in some cases – for example, if you’re getting 62% tax relief (salary sacrifice, with your income in the £100k to £125,140 range), but your spouse is a basic rate (20%) taxpayer and doesn’t have access to salary sacrifice (so they’re still paying 12% national insurance), you’re effectively paying an “extra” 42% on tax that you wouldn’t have to if you used your pension. Even if you then have to pay the 25% penalty, you’re losing out. Same idea applies even in less extreme parts of the tax brackets.
    • For the SIPP, we’re assuming it is actually a pension, protected by the US/UK tax treaty
  • A Roth IRA: No tax on growth or withdrawals, no Lifetime Allowance or Required Minimum Distributions to worry about, but you do give up all the tax relief on contributions – that can be very big. Also, the limit is fairly low ($6,000) and you need to be eligible.
  • A Stocks & Shares ISA: No UK tax on growth or withdrawals, no Lifetime Allowance or RMDs. But you give up tax relief on contributions and have to pay US tax on capital gains and dividends, plus have the hassle of using individual stocks. Fairly generous annual limit (£20,000 per person).
  • A Lifetime ISA: Same as with S&S, but with the added bonus of effectively 20% UK tax relief (paid as a 25% bonus), balanced with locking your money up until age 60 unless you want to pay a penalty (small – 5% plus giving back the tax relief). Very low annual limit, though (£4,000, plus another £1,000 from the 25% bonus).

Aside from potentially your spouse’s pension, depending on individual circumstances, all of those options have significant drawbacks, especially for higher income/higher tax people. You’ll have to do your own calculations to see if it’s worth it.

Oddly enough, the case is clearest for basic rate taxpayers, especially without salary sacrifice – if you happen to already be on track to meet/exceed the lifetime allowance, I don’t see a compelling argument to save 20% now just to pay 25% + income tax (probably at least 20%) later. Even with salary sacrifice, saving 32% now to pay 25% + income tax later is pretty questionable.

Once you get into the 40% higher rate bracket, and especially if you think you can keep your taxes in the 20% basic rate bracket in retirement, you’re probably better off just paying the 25% penalty later on, or at least no worse off. But that depends on a lot of factors in your individual case!

Important Caveat: It should almost go without saying, but you should never reduce your contributions to the point that you start losing out on employer contributions. That’s free money, often a 100% or more instant return. No taxes or penalties are going to beat that.

  • There’s a sub-caveat where you’re over both the annual allowance and lifetime allowance and you might actually have a tax + penalty rate of more than 100%. – you lose money by getting paid more. That’s a special situation (and a stupidly designed system) – I won’t go into it more here, things just get weird in that case.

Option: Grow Less

This is also a pretty simple option, but limited in its power. Basically, within your desired asset allocation, you choose to put assets that tend to grow more slowly in your pension – typically, this means bonds. We already want to have bonds in some kind of US & UK tax advantaged account anyway, so we don’t pay tax at income rates every year on the interest – this just means picking your pension over your IRA or 401k.

The more slowly your pension grows, the less chance of breaching the lifetime allowance, or at least you reduce the amount you go over. There’s no impact on your total growth rate – your portfolio allocation stays the same, just picking where to put bonds.

  • This is an equally applicable option to Traditional 401(k) and IRA balances to manage Required Minimum Distributions, and, unless you have a large bond allocation and/or small tax-deferred balances, you probably can’t do both. I’ll talk about the tradeoffs between Lifetime Allowance vs RMDs in my next post.

Option: Withdraw Aggressively

This last one is a bit more complicated, but it’s potentially the most powerful, especially if you’ve already got a healthy balance in your pension and the modest reduction in growth by moving your bonds there won’t really move the needle.

The basic idea:

  1. Once you turn 55 (or 57, whenever you can get access to your pension), you start withdrawing from it quickly. You can use lump sums (UFPLS) or flexi-access drawdown and then take the income from the drawdown right away, either way does the same thing – you get 25% UK tax free, 75% taxable. Possibly 100% US taxable, but the foreign tax credits from the UK tax usually wipe that out – you will want to double check for your personal situation, though, because that’s not a certainty.
  2. Every time you withdraw, that withdrawal is a Benefit Crystallisation Event, so the amount you’ve withdrawn is tested against your lifetime allowance.
  3. Because you’ve completely removed that money from the pension, it will never be tested against the Lifetime Allowance again – you can reinvest it in an ISA or wherever, without worrying about the Lifetime Allowance or it’s 25% penalty, or you can spend it.
  4. With the current (2021) lifetime allowance and tax rates, it works out that you can withdraw the entire Lifetime Allowance without paying tax above 20%, when spread across age 55 to 75.

Let’s do a quick example. The situation:

  • George is 55 and currently has £750,000 in his pension.
  • George has stopped working and doesn’t expect to have any earned income. He doesn’t have any other taxable income either (any dividends, capital gains, and interest are below the UK allowances – we’ll just ignore them).
  • At age 68, he’s eligible for State Pension and Social Security that total £12,570 a year (the Personal Allowance), so any income over that will be taxed starting at 20%
  • Because George has made his asset allocation more conservative as he approached retirement and is preferentially putting bonds in his pension, with more equities elsewhere, we’ll assume only 4% average annual real growth of his pension.
  • We’ll also assume the Lifetime Allowance is indexed to inflation, so we can just ignore inflation entirely.

Update 24Apr21: Reader John pointed out that I’d forgotten to include the 25% tax free amount, which effectively increases the withdrawal amount by a third without getting into the 40% tax rate. I’ve updated the example to reflect the tax free amounts – the concept is unchanged, but my math was wrong. Thanks John!

How does the aggressive withdrawal strategy work?

  1. Every year, George withdraws £57,000 from his pension (either UFPLS or Flexi-Access Drawdown with immediate withdrawal of the drawdown – doesn’t matter). He’ll change this to £47,400 at age 68, when he starts taking State Pension/Social Security. 25% of this is tax free, so his taxable income from the pension is £47,750 and £35,550, respectively.
  2. The taxable income (either £47,750 taxable withdrawal or £35,550 taxable withdrawal plus State Pension/Social Security) puts him near the top of the 20% basic rate bracket – George would rather not pay 40% if he can help it.
  3. Every time George withdraws that £47,4700 or £47,400, it’s tested against his Lifetime Allowance. Over the years from age 55 through 74, he uses £1,072,800 of the Lifetime Allowance (£1,073,100) – he has £300 of Lifetime Allowance left at age 75.
  4. When George turns 75, his remaining balance is tested against the Lifetime Allowance. Between 4% growth but the aggressive withdrawals, George has £21,816 in his pension when he turns 75.
  5. £21,816 is more than the £300 of remaining Lifetime Allowance, so George has to pay the 25% Lifetime Allowance penalty on the difference – 25% of £21,516 is £5,379, which comes out of his remaining balance, leaving him with £215,649 in his pension. He can use that for future income, pass it to his heirs without inheritance tax, donate to charity, etc.
  6. George also paid £193,602 in income tax on pension withdrawals along the way, for a total paid to HMRC from age 55 to 75 of £198,981.

What would have happened if George didn’t withdraw from his pension? Instead, maybe he was taking his income from an ISA, IRA, etc.

  1. George still starts with £750,000 in his pension at age 55, growing at 4% a year.
  2. He doesn’t touch it from age 55 to 75, so it grows to £1,643,342.
  3. At age 75, the balance is tested against the Lifetime Allowance. George hasn’t used any of his Lifetime Allowance, so it remains £1,073,100. £1,643,342 is more than £1,073,100, so George pays the 25% penalty on £570,242 – a tax bill of £142,560 taken out of his pension when he turns 75.
  4. That leaves George about £1.5M in his pension. It won’t be tested against the Lifetime Allowance again, and he can choose to take an income (subject to income tax but no more penalties), pass it to his heirs without inheritance tax, donate to charity, etc.
  5. George didn’t pay any income tax on his pension, but obviously needed to draw money from somewhere to fund his living from age 55 to 75, so may have paid tax on that.

At the end of the day, Withdrawal George paid a 25% penalty of £5,379, while Non-Withdrawal George paid £142,560. If Withdrawal George had been willing to pay some 40% tax on the income from his pension, he could have gotten the penalty to zero with more aggressive withdrawals early on, but obviously would have paid more in income tax. Paying 20% extra tax to avoid a 25% penalty, which will then reduce the taxable balance anyway, is basically a wash.

Personally, I think it often makes sense to fill up your 20% basic rate, but not to go into the 40% unless you actually need the income now and can’t get it from an tax free ISA or Roth IRA, or from a taxable account under the capital gains and dividends allowances. That approach also help with inheritance tax, keeping more in your pension and outside your taxable estate.

We didn’t mention US tax, because the UK foreign tax credits were enough to offset any concerns for Withdrawal George, even if his withdrawals were fully US taxable. Non-Withdrawal George hasn’t had any US income at all, so nothing to worry about.

Conclusions

To be honest, I don’t think there’s a clear right answer here – it depends on your whole financial picture. All else equal, it’s nice to avoid the 25% penalty over the Lifetime Allowance. But it’s not going to ruin you, because you’re already in pretty good shape if it’s even a concern. And a lot depends on the rest of your tax picture – trying to avoid the 25% penalty at the cost of more taxes elsewhere, or the cost of reduced growth and compounding, can really be counterproductive.

The only one that’s almost an easy win is making sure your bonds are in your Pension, or your US Traditional balance for RMD management. I can’t see any good argument for putting bonds in a Roth account, much less an ISA or taxable account.

In the next post, we add the complication of Required Minimum Distributions to the Lifetime Allowance picture. This is where it gets really fun.

UK Pension Withdrawal Options

Continuing with our interlude from the Withdrawal Strategies series – this is the second of three posts:

  • Required Minimum Distributions from Traditional IRA, 401(k), etc. and how to manage them
  • UK Pension withdrawal options
  • Managing the Lifetime Allowance (I added this one because it was going to be too long to fit in the others!)
  • RMD vs Lifetime Allowance Horse Race – how to deal with both of these at the same time

After that, we’ll get back to the Withdrawal Strategy series.

Why are pension withdrawals so confusing?

Compared to US IRAs and 401(k)s, the UK makes this a complicated topic with a lot of jargon – stuff like “flexi-access drawdown, “uncrystallised funds pension lump sums,” “money purchase allowance”, and “benefits crystallization events.” Plain English, right?

And of course, all the advice you find about pensions is largely focused on UK taxpayers only – not considering Americans in the UK. There are some articles on US tax on UK pensions, but they tend to get very focused on individual details, not the big picture.

Fair warning: there is a lot of grey area here, regarding US tax on UK pensions. I’ll explore that grey area a bit so you’re aware of the questions, but I don’t have solid answers.

Also, some assumptions:

  • We’re only talking about defined contribution pensions here, whether a workplace pension or a SIPP (the withdrawal rules are the same)
  • We’re talking about a substantial pension, say £30,000+ (there are some simpler rules for small ones that I won’t cover today)
  • We’re assuming you’ll live for a fair amount of time after being able to withdraw your pension at age 55 or 57 – there are some special rules if you’re terminally ill or die before age 75 that I won’t cover
  • Your pension plan allows for all the withdrawal options, and doesn’t have any other limits, like ages when you need to start taking withdrawals, etc. Check your pension documentation.
  • We’re only talking about post-A day (post 2015) pensions here
  • You’re using Foreign Tax Credits for US taxes, not the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. FTCs are usually better for Americans in the UK, anyway.

We’ll start with a quick reminder of how the US taxes UK pensions, go through a few key concepts, then explore the withdrawal options considering both the UK rules and the US impacts.

US Tax on UK Pensions

Big warning – this is not an especially clear tax topic, and the various interpretations can have very significant impacts. 80% of the time, the interpretation doesn’t really matter – you wind up paying no US tax due to Foreign Tax Credits. But the 20% gets confusing – if you find yourself in that 20%, I’d recommend some professional advice.

Americans have two options for how to report their contributions to UK pensions – this impacts how they are taxed on withdrawal:

  1. By default, the IRS expects you to report your contributions and any employer contributions as taxable income, just like your wages (line 1 on your 1040). You probably won’t pay any US tax though, because Foreign Tax Credits more than offset your US tax.
  2. You can claim a treaty-based position (Form 8833) that your contributions and any employer contributions should be excluded from your taxable income, so you don’t even calculate the tax on them. You still don’t pay any US tax, and build up FTCs faster because you’re paying the same UK tax but using less of it to offset a smaller US tax.

Option 2 has the simplest US tax treatment on withdrawal – all your withdrawals are taxed as US income (with some caveats around the UK 25% tax free). This is basically the way a Traditional IRA or 401(k) works, for comparison.

Within Option 1, I’ve seen two interpretations on how this impacts your US taxes on withdrawal:

1a. Basically the same as Option 2, all your withdrawals are taxable income. However, you have a stepped-up basis to reflect the fact that your contributions have already been taxed, even though you probably didn’t pay anything. So very roughly, if your balance at withdrawal is 25% contributions and 75% gains, you’ll only be taxed on the 75% gains. Again, you can use FTCs to offset US tax – you likely don’t pay anything (unless you aren’t paying UK tax – more on that later).

1b. The tax treaty (Article 18 paragraph 5c) says that contributions to a UK pension scheme are treated by the IRS as if they were made to a generally corresponding pension scheme in the US. The logical corresponding pension scheme where the contributions are from post-tax money is a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA. Thus, all the withdrawals are tax free, no need to worry about FTCs.

I like Option 1b better, but I’m not confident enough (yet) to fully rely on it. So this post will focus on Option 1a and Option 2 – if you’re confident in Option 1b, you can pretty much ignore every upcoming mention of US tax, because there isn’t any.

Update 26May21: I’m less and less convinced by option 1b these days, although I welcome any arguments! I wrote a followup post going into more detail on taxes on UK pension withdrawals.

25% Tax Free

The UK government allows you to take 25% of your pension tax free, called a “pension commencement lump sum” (PCLS). The other 75% gets taxed as income (like wages). This applies across all the different withdrawal options, although in different ways – you can take it all up front, or spread throughout withdrawals. It is limited to 25% of the Lifetime Allowance, as well – withdrawals over the Lifetime Allowance don’t get 25% tax free (more on that in a minute).

The US position on this 25% tax free is unclear – I have seen some pretty passionate arguments both ways. I am not enough of an expert to make any recommendation here and I’m not convinced either way.

Here’s some of the arguments I’ve read – you don’t need to read them to keep going with this post, but they may help you decide how you want to plan:

For the sake of conservatism, I’m planning as if the US does tax the 25% tax free amounts. In most scenarios, Foreign Tax Credits mean there isn’t any US tax due, but it does limit some of the withdrawal possibilities. For example, if you were only a UK taxpayer, you could take 25% of your pension tax-free up front – if you do that as a US taxpayer, that could be a big chunk of US tax.

If the US position on the 25% tax free becomes more clear, I’ll revise my planning – it can basically only get better than my current assumption, and even that isn’t too bad, just has to be planned for.

Lifetime Allowance

This one gets complicated, but the basic gist is that if your pension value goes over £1,073,100 (2021 value – changes over time but not necessarily with inflation), you get to pay a penalty tax of 25% on top of your income tax for the value over that limit. Rather than me trying to explain it, go see this excellent post from Monevator for all the gory details, then come back.

How do you avoid the Lifetime Allowance? Either don’t save enough in your pension that you’ll never exceed the Lifetime Allowance, including compound interest, or take enough money out of your pension early in retirement to avoid going over. I’ll look at these options in the next post.

Crystallisation

What do crystals have to do with pensions? Nothing – crystallisation is just a term that defines whether or not a part of your pension has been “tested” against the lifetime allowance.

This is one of those things that’s kind of ludicrously complex (there are 13 different Benefit Crystallisation Events!), but the basic concept isn’t too bad:

  • Before you’ve taken any money from your pension, your entire balance is “uncrystallised”
  • At each Benefit Crystallisation Event, some (or all) of your balance gets “crystallised” – that means it gets tested against your Lifetime Allowance. Typically, the amount crystallised is the amount you withdraw, use to buy an annuity, or designate as “drawdown”
  • If this crystallised amount, added to any previous crystallised amounts, puts you over the lifetime allowance, you pay the 25% penalty (technically 55% for a lump sum, but that is essentially including income tax at 40%)
  • When you reach age 75, there’s a specific Benefit Crystallisation Event on any so far unused balance. You’ll pay the 25% penalty at age 75 if your balance plus any previously crystallised amounts are over your Lifetime Allowance. However, from that point forward, your entire balance is crystallised, and you don’t face any more Benefit Crystallistion Events.

If you want to know more, here’s HMRC’s Pensions Tax Manual on the topic – some light bedtime reading. I also found Aegon’s article on the topic to be comparatively easy to read.

What are the withdrawal options?

The helpful UK government PensionWise website calls out 6 different options. All of these apply to withdrawing your money between the age when you can first access your pension (55 or 57), and before age 75. After age 75, you can still get your money but you stop caring about the Lifetime Allowance.

The options:

  1. Leave it be – just let your pension balance grow until you want to take it.
  2. Annuity – take your 25% tax free and use the rest to buy a guaranteed income for life. Income from the annuity is taxable.
  3. Flexi-access drawdown – take a chunk (or the entire balance) as 25% tax free cash and invest the other 75%. Take a taxable income from that investment over time – if you take more than is sustainable, you may run out of money.
  4. Partial uncrystallised funds pension lump sums (UFPLS) – take a chunk as 25% tax free cash and 75% taxable cash. Take too many or too big of chunks and you may run out of money.
  5. Full balance UFPLS – take out your entire pension balance as cash, 25% will be tax free, 75% taxable.
  6. Mix and match – do some combination of all of the above.

Ruling out options

Two of those options are pretty unsuitable from a tax perspective:

Annuity: Assuming that 25% of the total value of your pension is not taxed in the UK but is taxable income in the US, that could be a very substantial lump sum, pushing you into higher US tax brackets for the year. The annuity income will then be out of your control – probably only UK taxed, but if Social Security and/or State Pension are filling your personal allowance, this will be at least 20% basic rate income. Plus, with interest rates as low as they are these days, annuities aren’t very attractive to me.

Full balance lump sum (UFPLS): Even just from a UK tax perspective, this one could be painful – in one year, you’re going to shove 75% of your pension balance into the income tax brackets. For any kind of a sizable pension, that’s a lot of tax – if your total balance is over about £67k, you’ll be paying some 40% higher rate tax. Over about £133k, you’re into the small but painful 60% bracket, and from about £200k on up, you’re paying 45%. £200k is hardly a massive pension if you’ve been saving for a decade or two, with some compound interest.

Because of the potentially big UK tax here, US tax is likely zero due to FTCs – but I don’t want to pay 45% tax to the UK, either!

This option could make sense if you have a small pension and just want to simplify things, like if you only worked at one employer for a couple of years and never consolidated pensions. It doesn’t make sense for a big pension that’s a substantial chunk of your retirement savings.

Non-Options

Two of the options aren’t really options at all, so we can move past them:

Mix and match: This is just reminding you that you can do more than one. You could take out an annuity with part of your pension, do an UFPLS lump sum with another part, put some into drawdown, and leave the rest invested. It’s very likely you’ll want to do this, but this option doesn’t tell you which options to mix, just that you can.

Leave it be: This is the default if you don’t choose to do anything else. Your money just stays in the pension and stays invested, hopefully compounding the whole time. This is great until you need the money, but doesn’t actually get you any money to spend in retirement.

If you’re in the fortunate position to have enough other savings to live off of, this might actually be the option you pick. A UK pension is a good place to leave money for later and maybe for your heirs, charity, etc. It doesn’t count as part of your estate, so there’s no concerns about inheritance tax.

The one thing to watch out for is the Lifetime Allowance test (“benefit crystallisation event”) at age 75. If your balance is over the Lifetime Allowance (£1,073,100 in 2021) and you just leave your money be, you’ll get hit with a 25% penalty tax on the the portion over the Lifetime Allowance.

Picking between two good options

That leaves us two good ways of actually getting to our money: Partial Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum and Flexi-Access Drawdown. Theoretically, these are quite different options, but in practice they may wind up pretty much the same. Let’s take a deeper look – we’ll start with the slightly simpler one:

Partial Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum (UFPLS)

That’s a really long name – let’s break it down a bit:

  • Partial: only part of your balance (not an official part of the name, I’m just using it to differentiate from taking your entire balance as a lump sum)
  • Uncrystallised Funds: the money comes from the “uncrystallised” part of your balance – from your pension itself, not from a designated drawdown fund. This means you have to have uncrystallised funds to withdraw from.
  • Lump Sum: this is a one off withdrawal, not a series of payments

Basically, you choose to take £x from your pension, get 25% of it UK tax free and 75% UK taxable. You can choose to do whatever you like with the money – spend it, invest in an ISA or brokerage account, etc. (you’re very limited on putting it back into a pension, to avoid making free money). The tax on the 75% is probably enough to provide enough FTCs to offset any US tax, if it’s payable.

Quick example, assuming your UK pension is fully US taxable: Withdraw £40,000 to fund spending for a year. Only £30,000 is UK taxable, let’s say all at the 20% rate, so that’s £6,000 in UK tax. If we assume that’s $56,000 of income ($1.40 to the £) in the 12% US tax bracket, that’s $6,720 due in US tax. Our £6,000 in UK tax translates to a $8,400 FTC, more than offsetting the $6,720 US tax liability.

You do have to be a little careful at higher withdrawal rates and especially if you’re filing as single or married filing separately in the US. A quick illustration: withdraw £50,000 to fund spending for a year. Only £37,500 of that is UK taxable – lets say it’s all at the 20% rate, so that’s £7,500 in tax. Say the withdrawal is $70,000 split 50/50 in the 12% & 22% US tax brackets, that’s a US tax liability of $11,900. £7,500 in FTCs is $10,500, leaving US taxes due of $1,400. You might have FTCs to carry forward to cover this, but otherwise you could owe real money to the IRS.

There’s no easy solution to this one, except keeping your withdrawals small enough to avoid US tax. A good reason to have multiple sources of income in retirement – you could withdraw some from your pension, some from an ISA (taxed as capital gains, not income), some from a Roth IRA (tax free), etc., so you can get the spending you want without paying excessive taxes.

Flexi-Access Drawdown

Another long name – this one is a bit confusing, because it’s really comparing this option to options that don’t exist anymore since the pension reforms in 2015 (at least not for new pensions – capped drawdowns are grandfathered in for some, but we won’t cover them here).

There’s a little more flexibility on this option – basically, you choose to designate £x of your pension as drawdown. You get 25% of it UK tax free, and the other 75% gets put into a crystallised drawdown account. In practice, this is just a different bucket within your pension, invested in whatever you pick (within the limits of what the pension offers). You don’t pay any tax on that 75% until you choose to take it out, then it’s taxed as income.

For a UK-only taxpayer, that sounds pretty good, I think. Take out tax-free cash when you need it, but then only take taxable money when you want to – easy to manage your income tax liability. But there’s a catch, for Americans paying tax on their UK pensions. If you take 25% tax-free, there’s obviously no UK tax paid. However, if that’s US taxable income, now you don’t have any FTCs to offset it – you owe the IRS your full US taxes on that income (unless you have enough FTCs to carry over, for up to 10 years).

In practice, that means that you probably won’t diverge too far from the 25/75 split of UFPLS, since that is right about the split that avoids US tax for most cases, barring somewhat large withdrawals. That’s sheer coincidence or good luck, nothing by design!

You might try to optimize your FTCs to take a little more out without paying US tax and not continuing to build up FTCs that you’ll struggle to use – honestly, I think this is more trouble than its worth and mostly has the same end result, but something to think about.

Quick illustration, if you’re interested: You designate £28,000 for drawdown. Take £7,000 as the 25% tax free. Take an additional £16,750 taxable at a UK 20% tax rate, resulting in £13,400 after tax of £3,350. Effective tax rate is 12% ($4,690). If you’re in the 12% US tax bracket, there no US tax because your FTCs exactly match your US tax liability. £4,250 remains crystallized in the drawdown account and will be fully UK & US taxable on withdrawal.

This gets even a bit more complicated if you’ve been reporting your pension contributions on your US tax returns – now your US tax liability is smaller because you’re only taxed on the gains, so you can take out more as income before you would owe any US tax. That calculation is beyond the scope for today – maybe I’ll look at it in the future.

Which is better, Lump Sum or Drawdown?

Honestly, for people who are liable for both UK and US tax on their UK pensions, I think it’s a tossup. You’re either stuck with the 25/75 split using the lump sum method (UFPLS), or you’re going to want to stay pretty close to it anyway to avoid a US tax liability if you’re using drawdown, which means they both do the same thing.

I think this one likely comes down to the nuances of your actual pension plan and provider, and maybe just whether their website makes UFPLS or Drawdown easier to do. From a financial and tax perspective, they’re basically identical.

In both cases, you probably also only want to withdraw money you’re actually planning to spend in the near term – maybe you’re doing withdrawals quarterly, annually, whatever. If you take more out than that, you’ll want to get some of it invested, but that’s kind of a hassle compared to just leaving it in the pension. An ISA is probably your best bet, but between transaction costs and needing to be in individual stocks to avoid PFICs, it’s still a faff.

There’s also a UK inheritance tax consideration. In general, your pension does not form part of your estate and is not subject to inheritance tax (typically, if you die after age 75, your heirs will be taxed on the income from the pension at income tax rates if they choose to take anything out; if you die before 75, it’s tax free to them but gets tested for the lifetime allowance first). However, once you take a withdrawal or income from your pension, that money is now subject to inheritance tax. The caveat is that money that is designated for drawdown still remains within the pension, and thus is still free from inheritance tax.

So if you’re doing some strategy where you designate a drawdown but don’t take all of it as cash, leaving some in drawdown, that might be helpful for estate planning. In practice, we’ve seen that you’ll probably want to take most of that 75% in drawdown as income, so you have FTCs to offset US tax on the 100%.

I’d be interested in feedback from any readers who have actually done a UFPLS or Drawdown designation – were there any stumbling blocks in practice that I’ve missed in theory? How easy was it actually to do?

In my next post, I’ll look at the Lifetime Allowance and some strategies for managing it, and follow that up with a post on trying to manage both the Lifetime Allowance and Required Minimum Distributions.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defuse the RMD Bomb

Time for a quick pause in my bigger Withdrawal Strategies series – there’s a few detailed topics we need to get to before we can get to Part 3, combining when you get access to accounts with how to minimize your taxes and get to your money. Before Part 3 will make sense, I’m going to cover 3 more specific topics:

  • Required Minimum Distributions from Traditional IRA, 401(k), etc. and how to manage them (this post)
  • UK Pension withdrawal options and the Lifetime Allowance
  • RMD vs Lifetime Allowance Horse Race – how to deal with both of these at the same time

After that, we’ll get back to the Withdrawal Strategy series.

If you haven’t read my post on Roth Conversions, start there first. This post builds on that.

Why you should care about RMDs

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are withdrawals that the IRS requires you to take from your Traditional balances once you turn 72. If you don’t plan for them, they’ll wind up as UK wage income, probably taxed at 20% or even 40%+. If you do plan for them, you can get a big chunk tax free, and probably any remainder at 10% or 12%. Plus, the same strategy that helps manage RMDs can help you access your Traditional money before age 59.5, aiding your early retirement.

RMDs apply to Traditional IRA, 401(k), 403(b), TSP, etc., but critically not to Roth IRAs. They technically apply to Roth 401(k), but that be rolled over to a Roth IRA with no taxes or penalties once you leave that employer – do that when you can.

Part of the challenge with RMDs is that, at least for the first few years, they increase more slowly than typical investment growth rate assumptions (increasing around 4-5% a year), but then they keep going up, so you’re now taking a larger percentage of a larger pot. They’re fixed percentages set by the IRS – you take the same percent at age 72 whether your balance is $10,000 or $10,000,000. A few graphs to illustrate:

You can see RMDs increasing exponentially every year until they plateau at over half your Traditional balance from age 115 – if you’ve made it that far and still have a Traditional balance worth mentioning, you’ve won!

For those of us that don’t live that long, you’ve still got around a 25% chance of making it to your mid-90s, if you’ve already made it to 65. It’s how RMDs behave early on that’s part of the problem:

If you assume something like 7% growth, your Traditional balance will keep increasing (on average) until about age 100, despite your RMDs – so your RMDs keep increasing both because the % required to withdraw goes up and because your pot keeps getting bigger. By the time RMDs outstrip annual growth, you’re either dead, or your pot has had another 30ish years to grow, albeit dragged by the RMDs.

So what, you’re thinking? A bunch of theoretical percentages – let’s put some £ signs on there in an example.

Assumptions: 7% growth, Personal Allowance is filled by Social Security and/or State Pension

At your peak, you’re paying £25k+ a year in UK income taxes, and if you only need something like £36k a year to spend, you’re still getting more than £60k a year after taxes – uncontrolled income that you don’t necessarily want. Now, this isn’t the end of the world, since you’ve basically got plenty of money to spend in retirement, more than you want or need. That’s not exactly the worst problem to have. But here’s the thing – you could get exactly the same money out of your Traditional accounts, but without paying any taxes, or at least staying within the 20% bracket or lower. Let’s look at the options for managing these RMDs.

RMD Management Options

You’ve got three main options for dealing with RMDs:

Option 1: Take the RMDs

  • Take the RMDs from age 72 and pay any taxes due – this isn’t a bad option if your Traditional balance isn’t too high and your Social Security & State Pension aren’t too high.
    • In many typical cases, just Social Security and State Pension will fill up your £12,570 Personal Allowance.
      • Since RMDs, Social Security, and State Pension are all UK taxable as wages, and UK wage tax rates are higher than US ones, it’s the UK allowance we really care about – and remember, you don’t get to combine with a spouse, whatever comes out of your account counts against your Personal Allowance.
    • That pushes all your RMDs into the 20% basic rate tax bracket. If your Traditional balance at age 72 is over £500k ($700k) or so, you can get into the 40% higher rate bracket later in retirement.
    • I don’t want to pay 20% or 40% if I can avoid it – so, we need option 2.

Option 2: Withdrawals from 59.5

  • Traditional withdrawals, from age 59.5: You only have max 10 years where this really helps (age 59.5 when you can start to access the Traditional balance to age 67-70 when you start getting Social Security & State Pension), and at £12,570 a year, that’s “only” about £125k before you pay tax, and don’t forget that you’ll still be getting x% growth on the invested balance.
    • With a 7% real growth rate, you can get about an £80k ($112k) balance at age 59.5 to zero by age 68 without paying tax. Anything bigger than this, and you’ll have RMDs at 72, likely taxed at 20%.
    • You could plan to take more than the Personal Allowance to accelerate this, but you’ll pay at least 20% tax or higher at withdrawal.
    • Or, you can tackle the problem earlier and at a lower tax rate with…

Option 3: Roth Conversions

  • Roth conversions reduce your Traditional balance and manage the taxes. I recommend you start as early as possible, if you go down this route – at retirement or even semi-retirement.
    • As soon as your wage income is below the US standard deduction ($24,800 if you’re sharing with your spouse), you can convert Traditional to Roth, tax free. It’s taxed as wages, so keep your total wages (if any) + Roth conversions under the standard deduction.
    • After 5 years, you can also withdraw the Roth conversions as Roth contributions – tax free. Helpful if you’ve retired well before 59.5.
    • If you have a large Traditional balance, you may even want to convert more than the Standard Deduction – you’ll pay US tax on this, but you can keep it to 10 or 12% under $81,050 total (be careful of how this impacts your capital gains tax rate, though, if you’re also withdrawing from taxable investments or a S&S ISA). That compares favorably to UK tax on the RMDs at 20% or more, and then you get to invest the remainder tax-free forever. Very roughly, you’d want to start thinking about intentionally paying US tax at the starting values in the table below.
Retirement Age303540455055
Danger Traditional Balance at Retirement (MFJ Standard Deduction, $24,800)$330k$325k$310k$295k$270k$240k
Danger Traditional Balance at Retirement (single Standard Deduction, $12,400)$165k$160k$155k$145k$135k$120k
Danger Traditional Balance at Retirement (UK personal allowance, £12,570)£165k£160k£155k£145k£135k£120k
Assumptions: constant 7% real growth, target of zero Traditional balance at age 72. At starting balances above the values in the table, you’ll need to go above the Standard Deduction in order to get to zero. Values are rounded to be conservative, so you can start thinking, even if you don’t take action.

To illustrate this point a bit more, here’s the value of a £100 (or $100) investment growing at 7%/year in both scenarios: paying 10% tax at age 50 and never paying tax again, or paying 20% tax on withdrawal (at age 72 here):

Paying 10% tax now will always beat paying 20% later, at any growth rate. Even if you get into the 12% US tax bracket, that still beats paying 20%. If filling the 12% bracket still isn’t enough to get your RMDs to zero, you’re going to want to look at the possibility of using the 22% US bracket on Roth conversions vs the concern of RMDs getting into the 40% UK bracket. This becomes a concern around a Traditional balance of £600k at age 72, very roughly – if you’re at $750k or so age 50, you’ll struggle to get down to £600k by 72 without getting into the 12% bracket (assuming $1.4 to the £ – adjust as needed if the exchange rate drifts too far).

Big Caveat: I think Roth conversions are UK tax free, although I’m not 100% sure. Even if you think they’re UK taxable, you could convert up to the Personal Allowance (£12,570) without paying UK tax. In early retirement, unless you’re still working part time, you don’t have anything else in your wages tax bucket, so fill it with Roth conversions. Because of the lower Personal Allowance compared to a joint Standard Deduction, you can’t reduce as large of a balance – see the last row of the table above. There’s not a lot of point in exceeding the Personal Allowance – you’re picking between paying 20% now or 20% later on the RMDs, so it’s a tossup unless you think tax rates will change, or if you’re worried about getting above the 20% bracket on RMDs.

Of course, if you’re married and both partners have a Traditional balance, you can both do Roth conversions and fill each of your Personal Allowances. Be careful of exceeding the US Standard Deduction in this case; maybe you could use carried over Foreign Tax Credits to exceed it without paying tax (gets a bit complicated – I haven’t worked this one out in detail).

Comparing the Options

I’ll get into more details on some scenarios in Part 4 of the Withdrawal Strategies series, but just as a quick comparison, let’s look at four examples. All of them have a couple retiring at age 50 with £900,000 of savings, £300,000 of which is in a Traditional 401(k). They both live to age 94. There are other assumptions, but they’re pretty middle of the road and they’re all the same for each scenario – I’m just trying to show the magnitude of the difference the different strategies can make.

#RMD StrategyRMD @ 72RMD @94Total Tax Paid in Retirement
1No 401(k) withdrawals until RMDs start at age 72£31k£59k£311k
2a401(k) withdrawals up to a single Personal Allowance from age 59.5£23k£45k£213k
2b401(k) withdrawals starting at age 59.5, high enough to reach a zero balance at age 72£0£0£113k
3Roth Conversions from age 52, 401(k) withdrawals at 59.5 to reach a zero balance at age 72£0£0£28k
I’m also ignoring any Lifetime Allowance excesses in a UK Pension/SIPP – more on that in an upcoming post.

A little help from asset allocation

One more thing – you might also consider where you hold the various parts of your asset allocation, moving the bond part into your Traditional balances where possible. This has three advantages:

  1. Bonds tend to grow more slowly (but steadily) than stocks, so your future RMDs grow more slowly the more bonds you have in a Traditional account – move that growth to somewhere that doesn’t have RMDs.
  2. Bond income in a taxable account would be taxed as interest as it arises, at the higher wage tax rates, although with a healthy tax-free allowance in the UK. So you’re better off with bonds in a tax-deferred account anyway, paying the income/interest rates there, and leaving stocks in your taxable account, paying only the lower capital gains and dividends rates.
  3. Keeping bonds out of your tax-free accounts in favor of equities should allow them to grow more, without paying tax.

This applies from today, not just in retirement – if you allow your Traditional balances to grow less over the decades, you don’t need to manage them as aggressively in retirement. Based on this, I’m going to revisit my asset allocation – I won’t change the 10% target in bonds, but I may move my bonds from my Roth IRA into my TSP (similar to a 401(k), and subject to RMDs). Shouldn’t affect total returns across my portfolio, but helps reduce the size of the RMD problem.

Never Pay US or UK Taxes Again

This is Part 2 of our Retirement Withdrawal Strategies series. Part 1 is here.

Or at least, get pretty close to paying nothing – might be hard to completely escape the tax man when you have to work in two systems at once!

For a sample £900,000 portfolio at retirement, the difference between a good withdrawal strategy and a sub-optimal one could be the difference between paying less than £30,000 in taxes over 40 years, or paying more than £300,000.

Got your attention? Good – this seemingly esoteric topic can really make a difference to how much you have to spend in retirement, or however else you might want to use your money.

I need to give credit to Go Curry Cracker – his post on never paying taxes again inspired this one, but we need to extend it to include consideration of the the UK tax system. If you haven’t read his post, I encourage you to take a look and then come back here.

A quick recap of his four rules for not paying taxes:

  • Choose leisure over labor: applies to Americans in the UK just as much as anywhere else. Just like the US, the UK tax system takes much higher taxes from people with income from wages than it does from capital gains or dividends.
  • Live well for less: the less money you spend, the less you need. In the UK, you could get up to £31,870 a year per person, totally tax free. That doesn’t even include tax-free income from ISAs or Roth IRAs, and 25% tax-free from pensions. The average household in the UK spends around £31,200 – if you can live within double the average spending (as a couple), you may be able to do it without paying a penny.
  • Leverage Roth IRA Conversions: this still applies, if you have US retirement accounts (401(k), IRAs, etc.). These conversions (probably) aren’t taxed by the UK, and if you can stay below the US’s standard deduction of $24,800 (MFJ), they can be tax free in the US, too. That means you can take the money you saved (often without paying tax on it, like in a 401(k)), convert it to a Roth IRA without paying anything, and then withdraw it, still not paying anything.
  • Harvest Capital Losses and Capital Gains: applies just as much in the UK as the US. With the £12,300 UK capital gains exempt amount plus 0% US capital gains rate up to $80,800 (MFJ), there’s ample opportunity to get your capital gains for free.

Your Tax-Free Buckets

Both the US and UK tax systems have a variety of allowances, below which you don’t pay any tax at all. The short answer to minimizing your taxes in retirement is to keep your income within these buckets – anything that spills over gets taxed.

Your UK tax free buckets (if you’re married, you each get these, but you can’t share):

  • £12,570 personal allowance: covers almost everything, but especially wages (including deferred wages, like in a pension or 401(k))
  • £12,300 capital gains annual exempt amount: just capital gains (the UK doesn’t distinguish between long and short term)
  • £2,000 dividend allowance
  • £5,000 starting rate for savings: just for savings interest, you only get this if your other income is under £17,570 (it tapers from £5,000 to £0 between the personal allowance and £17,570)
  • £1,000 personal savings allowance: also just for savings interest; this drops to £500 if you enter the additional rate income tax bracket, and £0 at the higher rate level
These are best case – personal allowance and the savings buckets phase out at high enough incomes

Also worth a quick reminder of what the taxes are if you exceed those limits (this is a simplification, but close enough for us):

  • Wages & interest:
    • 20% basic rate above £12,570
    • 40% higher rate above £50,270
    • 60% effective rate between £100,000 and £125,140 as the Personal Allowance phases out
    • 45% additional rate over £150,000
  • Dividends
    • 7.5% if your overall income puts you in the basic rate
    • 32.5% higher rate
    • 38.1% additional rate
  • Capital Gains:
    • 10% if your overall income puts you in the basic rate
    • 20% higher and additional rate
    • Changes to 18% and 28% if the asset is residential property

The US has a similar system, although slightly fewer but bigger buckets. Big caveat is that most of the time, your UK taxes are higher than US, and Foreign Tax Credits will mean that you pay nothing to the US.

There are only a couple of common instances where the US taxes you on something that the UK doesn’t, and thus you may not have any FTCs to offset US taxes: ISAs and Roth Conversions (probably).

I’m using Married filing jointly numbers throughout – Single and Married filing separately are mostly half of the MFJ, with Head of Household in between. The US lets couples share 🙂

  • $24,800 Standard Deduction: covers almost everything
  • $80,000 capital gains 0% rate: covers long term capital gains and qualified dividends. This is on top of the Standard Deduction, but if your other income goes over $80,000, this pushes you in to the 15% rate

And if you go over those tax free buckets, you get taxed at:

  • Wages, Interest, Short Term Capital Gains, & Ordinary Dividends:
    • 10% up to $19,900 above the standard deduction
    • 12% from $19,901 to $81,050
    • 22% from from $81,051 to $172,750
    • And up from there, topping out at 37% above $628,301
  • Long Term Capital Gains & Ordinary Dividends
    • 15% from $80,001 to $496,600
    • 20% above $496,601
    • There’s a few exceptions at 25% and 28%, for collectibles, some small business stock, and depreciable real property – we’ll ignore those

Filling your buckets

Quick example – we’ll get into more details in future parts, but let’s see how this could work for just one year. Let’s say that Polly and Pat are 60 years old, have stopped working, and have savings across a variety of accounts: Traditional IRA (rolled over from a 401(k), Roth IRA, UK pension/SIPP, S&S ISA, and a taxable brokerage account. And they’d like to spend £48,000 this year – that’s 1.5x the national average, and probably a pretty comfortable retirement.

Let’s fill up their buckets and see how they can avoid paying any tax, plus planning for the future. Remember that UK taxes are always filed separately – they don’t get to share allowances as a couple (very small exception for the marriage allowance – we’ll ignore that for now).

  • Polly’s buckets:
    • £5,000 personal allowance: she fills this from her tax deferred accounts – Traditional IRA, Traditional 401(k), UK Employer Pension, and/or SIPP. If you use the Employer Pension or SIPP, you can actually take £16,750 before paying tax, because 25% of the withdrawal is tax free. We could use more, but we want to keep our US taxable income low, we’ll see why. In a future part, we’ll see why she probably wants to use her US Traditional accounts first (hint: RMDs).
    • £5,000 capital gains annual exempt amount: from your taxable brokerage account (US or UK). We could use up to £12,300, but Polly doesn’t have enough gains in her account to do that. Because this is just on the gain, let’s say Polly actually gets £15,000 to spend, but she only includes the gains on her taxes.
    • £1,000 dividends allowance: also from her taxable brokerage account. Again, Polly’s account isn’t big enough to use the full £2,000.
    • £3,000 from tax free accounts: S&S ISA, Roth IRA, and 25% of your UK pension/SIPP. We use this to make up the balance – it’s the last place to go after filling up your buckets as best you can.
    • With the starting rate for savings or the personal savings allowance, whatever Polly has in taxable savings accounts is likely tax free (at a 1% interest rate, Polly could have up to £600,000 in cash before paying tax – you probably don’t want this much cash!)
    • All total, that’s £24,000 from Polly without paying a cent
  • Pat does exactly the same – maybe Pat has a slightly different mix of accounts or balances in each, but the same principles apply.
    • This does get more difficult if one spouse has much higher balances than the other, for example if one had a long working career and the other did a mix of full time working, unpaid work at home with young kids, part time work, etc.
  • Together, Polly & Pat have £48,000 to spend, with no UK tax due.

Let’s take a quick look at this from the US side (I’m assuming a pound buys $1.40):

  • Standard deduction: $14,000 from tax deferred accounts is less than $24,800 – no tax here
    • Looking to the future, Polly & Pat use the remaining $10,800 for a Roth conversion – they pay no taxes now, because they’re under the standard deduction, and when they want the money at least 5 years in the future, it’s tax-free.
  • Capital Gains: £10,000 capital gains + £2,000 dividends + maybe £2,000 of the tax free accounts is capital gain on a S&S ISA, which is US taxable. Total of $19,600 – way under the $80,000 0% capital gains rate
    • Again looking to the future, Polly & Pat harvest some more of their capital gains – £7,300 each, until they hit the UK limit. That’s an additional $20,440 here, still well below the point at which they pay any US or UK tax. And now that they’ve realized those gains, they don’t have to pay tax on them again. In practice, they probably sell one stock/fund and buy a slightly different one – that money is still invested and growing, but starts the capital gain calculations over from zero.

Conclusion & Next Steps

By managing our retirement income based on the tax-free buckets provided by both the US and UK and living slightly modestly (at about the 80th percentile of household spending – not THAT modest!), we can avoid paying any tax this year, and set ourselves up to continue paying no (or very low) taxes for the rest of our lives.

In Part 3, I’ll put together the approach to not paying taxes with the phases of retirement – each phase needs a different approach, and has a few unique pitfalls to avoid.

In Part 4, I’ll wrap it all together with some scenarios and examples of how an entire retirement’s worth of withdrawals can look, and how following a sensible plan could save hundreds of thousands in tax for a typical retirement.

Retirement Withdrawal Strategies – Part 1

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while, trying to find a way to make it simple and straightforward. There’s already some great work out there on withdrawal strategies, including from GoCurryCracker and the Mad Fientist/JL Collins, but they’re specific to Americans in the US. You could work out a similarly simple approach for non-Americans in the UK. But when you combine the two systems and the broad range of accounts, it just gets complicated.

The aim of this series is to keep it as simple as possible, and to cover two things:

  • When can you get your money so you can retire (part 1)
  • A basic approach to minimizing taxes during withdrawal (part 2)
  • Putting it all together – tax management in the phases of retirement (part 3)
  • Some illustrative scenarios (part 4)

I’m not going to cover asset allocation, rebalancing, safe withdrawal rates, inflation, or capital gain/loss harvesting – these are all important, but let’s keep it as simple as possible for the moment.

I’m also going to mostly ignore the cash portion of your portfolio. Not because it’s unimportant – it’s critical to funding your day to day needs. Just because it’s a) already easily accessible and b) not going to generate a ton of taxable income. Even if you have 5% of a £1,000,000 portfolio in cash (£50,000), at today’s interest rates you’re maybe getting £500 a year at 1% interest. If you’re already managing your taxes, an additional £500 of income isn’t going to move the needle.

For the examples, I’ll mostly use a married couple where both are US taxpayers and are staying in the UK for retirement – this is the hardest case, in many ways. If you’re a single US taxpayer, all the same ideas apply, just with most of the US limits cut in half. If you’re a couple where only one person pays US tax, you have some advantages (try to keep stuff that is taxed by the US but not by the UK in the name of only the non-US taxpayer).

All numbers are for 2021 – this stuff changes every year, mostly going up with inflation although bigger changes are possible, depending on what Congress or Parliament decide to do. Some of the ages change over time too – I’ve used the ones that apply to somebody in their mid-30s, but if you’re somewhat older, a few will be earlier.

Where is your money?

If you’ve followed the flowchart, you likely have a variety of accounts, probably in both the US and UK, and with a variety of tax treatments. Something like this:

Edited 07May21, to move UK pension/SIPP to US Tax Deferred with an updated footnote. I think this its fair to present a reasonably conservative interpretation as baseline, and I’m less convinced of the US tax free nature than I once was.

Quick reminder on those three different tax treatments, focusing on how you get your money out (not tax advantages when you contribute to them):

  • Tax Free: When you take money out of these accounts, there are no taxes, including on any gains on top of what you put in originally
  • Tax Deferred: You don’t pay taxes on gains as they happen, but when you take money out, it is taxable as income (not capital gains – even though some of the value will be gains on the invested capital).
    • Both the US and UK have mostly higher tax rates for income than capital gains. For the US, they need to be long term capital gains, held over a year.
  • Taxable: Gains are taxable as they arise – if you sell something that has appreciated, that’s subject to capital gains tax. If you get interest or dividends, that’s subject to tax.
    • The US taxes interest at income rates, and dividends are at either income or capital gains rate depending if they’re ordinary or qualified. If you’re doing buy and hold investing, most of your dividends will typically be qualified.
    • The UK also taxes interest at income rates. Dividends are taxed at a rate in between income and capital gains.

When can you get your money?

Except for non-Lifetime ISAs and taxable brokerage accounts (aka general investment accounts), there are restrictions on when you can get your money. There are also exceptions to many of these rules – we’ll ignore those here, because they tend to apply in cases of hardship, first home purchases, or tragedy. The one we won’t ignore is the Traditional to Roth conversion – I’ll include those in this plan, although will save the nitty gritty details for a future post.

Those ages are spread out from 55 to 70, with a bunch of option and nuance in between. At a very high level, here’s a timeline – the color-coding matches up to the tax treatment, although most wind up as that ugly yellow/green color that means they’ve got some kind of mixed treatment.

That’s kind of a mess, right? To me, it helps to break this up into three phases:

The boundaries aren’t perfect, but there are big conceptual differences between each of these. Let’s explore each one in a little more detail:

Phase 1: Early Retirement

This phase starts whenever you retire, or even partially retire and expect to start needing to withdraw funds from your savings.

This is a pretty simple phase – there aren’t all that many options to get to your money without paying penalties, and the order is pretty clear:

  1. Taxable accounts – you can get to these any time, but will need to be careful about realizing capital gains and the taxes you pay on those. If you can do any capital gain & loss harvesting before retirement, that can help.
  2. S&S ISA – the only investment account with both some tax advantages and full penalty-free withdrawals at any time. But, you need to keep an eye on the US tax consequences, same as a taxable account. And, once you’ve withdrawn the contributions, you can’t replace them – you’ve lost the future tax-advantaged growth forever.
  3. Roth contributions – these can also be withdrawn any time without penalty (not the gains! Keep good records). Barring Traditional to Roth conversions, this is probably a relatively low number just because the Roth IRA contribution limit is low (if you had a Roth 401(k) and contributed a lot to it, that could be different). You also can’t replace the contributions once they’re gone – you’ve lost the future US and UK tax-free growth on those contributions forever. So this is my last resort – it may make sense to use a little bit each year to keep your taxes out of higher brackets, but don’t go too heavy.
  4. Depending on how much you’re spending vs your available savings, you may have some headroom before you start paying too much tax. If so, there there’s an opportunity to convert Traditional to Roth (via an IRA, if your Traditional contributions are in a 401(k) or similar). This is a US taxable, UK tax free event (most likely), and needs some careful planning to make sure you don’t pay excessive tax on it. Once you do the conversion, you can get to the money after 5 years with no penalty.
    • I do plan a future post exploring this from the perspective of an American in the UK – for now, this great Mad Fientist explanation will get you started.
    • The very short answer to the UK implications is that Traditional to Roth conversions aren’t taxed in the UK.

Phase 2: Middle Retirement

Things start to get more complicated here, and the options get much more variable. This is where you get access to all your money, so assuming you have enough invested and no terrible sequence of returns happens, the challenge stops being making sure you don’t run out of money and starts really focusing on tax and estate planning. The key changes:

  • UK Pension/SIPP – withdrawing from this early can help if you’re in danger of exceeding the Lifetime Allowance, but it’s also the best account if you’re planning on leaving a significant inheritance, since it’s not included in your UK estate.
  • Traditional IRA, 401(k), etc. – withdrawing early, along with Roth conversions, can help manage Required Minimum Distributions
  • Roth gains – fully accessible without penalty or tax, a great place to get spending if you’ve already filled up your tax buckets (we’ll talk more about buckets in Part 2).
  • Lifetime ISA – once you hit 60, it’s basically the same as a S&S ISA – UK tax free, US taxable.
  • HSA – now available for uses other than health expenses, although taxable in both countries.

The mix in which you access these will depend a lot on your individual situation, we’ll look at it in more detail in Part 3.

Phase 3: Traditional Retirement

The key change here is that you start getting income again, beyond just withdrawals from accounts:

  • UK State Pension – probably from age 68, although you can delay it (or that age might get pushed out over time)
  • US Social Security – somewhere between age 62 and 70, your choice (the longer you wait, the more money you get, but the fewer years you’ll collect it before passing away)
  • Traditional IRA/401(k) Required Minimum Distributions – starts from age 72, and can be quite huge if you haven’t planned for them

You also get the final Lifetime Allowance test on your UK Pension/SIPP at age 75.

Conclusion & Next Steps

That was a bit of a whirlwind tour through the timing of when you can access various accounts, across the three phases of retirement. In Part 2, we’ll look at how you might be able to pay zero (or at least very little) taxes across your retirement!

US & UK Tax on Traditional to Roth Conversions

I’m working on a series of posts about retirement withdrawal strategies and managing US and UK taxes in retirement, and I keep drafting a comment that “I’ll do a post on Roth conversions in the future” – I’m just going to do it now 🙂

There’s already a lot out there about a Roth Conversion Ladder – I recommend this Mad Fientist post. The quick and dirty for Americans who live in the US is:

  1. Start with a Traditional IRA – this can be from contributions to the IRA, or from rolling over your 401(k) (or similar, like a 403(b) or TSP) to a Traditional IRA. There’s no tax or penalties on this rollover.
  2. Convert some or all of your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This is taxable – the amount you convert gets added to your US taxable income and is taxed like wages, not capital gains (makes sense, since you previously deferred tax on the income you used to fund the 401(k), or took a tax deduction for contributions to the Traditional IRA – now the IRS gets paid).
    • If your other taxable income is low enough, the tax rate might be 0%, though
  3. Wait five years, for your conversion money to turn into contributions within your Roth IRA
    • You can do more conversions in following years while you’re waiting
  4. After five years, you can withdraw the conversions tax and penalty free – they’re now treated as Roth IRA contributions.

This way, you can do two important things:

  1. Get to the money that’s locked away in your Traditional 401(k) or IRA before you turn 59.5 – this can help you bridge from early retirement to a more typical retirement age.
  2. Gets the money out of the grasp of Required Minimum Distributions. RMDs are a ticking time bomb in your Traditional 401(k)/IRA.

Of course, this assumes that you already have Traditional IRA or 401(k) savings when you move to the UK, or build them up when you’re in the UK (less common). If you don’t, this won’t help you much, I’m afraid.

Side Note: Required Minimum Distributions

Until I started the research for this post and the upcoming series on withdrawal strategies, I was vaguely aware of RMDs but kind of thought of them as a problem to worry about for the future, not too big a deal. Turns out, they’re potentially huge!

Quick example: say you retire at 52 with $250,000 in your Traditional 401(k) or IRA – pretty reasonable if you maxed out your 401(k) for several years in the US, then moved to the UK and let it grow untouched. You still don’t touch it until you have to take RMDs at 72 – at only a 5% real growth rate, that’s now more than $600,000. When you turn 72, you have to take over $23k a year out of that, and that only grows every year. Social Security and the State Pension could easily fill your UK personal allowance (£12,300 – can’t share it with a spouse), so now you’re paying 20% tax on all of that RMD – $4,600 a year and climbing. If you live to 94 (and you have about a 25% chance of living that long if you’ve made it to 72), you’ll pay over $165k in UK taxes on your RMDs:

With Roth Conversions, you can anticipate and manage RMDs, instead of being stuck with whatever you get at age 72. With the right planning, you can get the RMDs to match the amount you actually want to take out, or you can get your Traditional balance to zero and not worry about them at all (there are no RMDs on Roth balances).

Done right, you’ll manage the tax on the Roth Conversions, so that instead of paying 20% you pay 0% or a smidge more – that’s $165k more you can spend, pass on, or do whatever you want with.

Roth Conversions and the UK

Everything above applies to Americans in the US, but how does the UK treat Roth Conversions? I have very good news (probably): Roth Conversions are completely tax free in the UK.

I say probably, because, while I completely understand the logic, and have found numerous reports of people actually doing this, there’s nothing in black and white from HMRC that clearly says yes. If you have any doubt, seek professional advice – with the sums that could be involved if you have a large 401(k), you don’t want to mess this up.

The logic is fairly straightforward, thinking back to our exploration of the US/UK tax treaty:

  • Article 18 Paragraph 1 says, in part: “income earned by the pension scheme may be taxed as income of that individual only when…it is paid to…that individual from the pension scheme (and not transferred to another pension scheme) (emphais mine)
  • Article 18 Paragraph 1 is not excluded by the Savings Clause
  • A transfer from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is a transfer from one pension scheme to another.

There are some other arguments that get to the same point, mostly using the lump sum clause – this is the one that holds the most water to me, though.

There’s nowhere to include the conversion in your Self Assessment, but I’ve seen people put a note along the lines of “During the yyyy tax year, I transferred a lump sum from my Traditional IRA Pension Fund to my Roth Pension Fund totaling $xx,xxx.xx. Since this is a transfer of a lump sum between pension schemes, it is exempt from UK tax and has therefore not been included in this return.”

It seems prudent to include some kind of statement, so that you can never be accused of trying to hide it if HMRC decides they don’t agree that Roth conversions aren’t taxed in the UK.

I’ve also seen some advice to do the conversions at most every other year, and not in the same value every time. This is based on an argument around the conversions being a “lump sum”, which isn’t taxed by the UK. The arguments aren’t mutually exclusive (can be both a transfer and a lump sum) – if you’re feeling cautious, there’s not much harm in spacing out the conversions in different values, anyway.

Using Roth Conversions

What does this mean for you? It means that if you have significant savings in a 401(k) or Traditional IRA, you can convert it into a tax-free Roth IRA, without paying UK taxes and, through some prior planning, paying no or minimal US taxes.

The amount of the conversion winds up in your taxable income on your US tax return, before any deductions. If your total taxable income is less than the standard deduction, you’ll pay nothing. Depending on your specific situation, you may be able to go above the standard deduction and cancel it out with credits, still paying no tax. Or even if you pay taxes, you start in the 10% bracket, not the 20% basic rate in the UK.

I’ll look at how this fits in to an overall retirement withdrawal strategy in the upcoming series, but it can be a key part of reducing tax if you have a substantial Traditional balance.

Advanced Mode: Roth Conversions and Foreign Tax Credits

I feel pretty confident about what’s above – this section is where I feel like we’re on a little bit of uncertain ground. Basically, there are some sources saying that not only can you pay zero UK tax on your Roth conversion, but also can use Foreign Tax Credits (from other income) to offset some or all of the conversion on your US taxes, even if they’re over the standard deduction.

The typical American in the UK who is earning an income will have excess general category Foreign Tax Credits, because the UK tax on earned income is essentially always higher than the US tax. The excess FTCs can be carried over for up to 10 years – this is all very clear. Where it gets less clear is whether you can use these general category FTCs against Roth conversions.

There’s an argument that this only applies to the portion of your conversion that is composed of contributions form foreign source general category income. This paper spells that position out pretty clearly, and it makes logical sense – you’ve contributed foreign income to this pension and were already taxed on that income, so you can use the FTCs from that tax on the conversion. This feels like reasonably solid ground, although limited applicability – it only helps for the portion of your Traditional IRA or 401(k) that you funded from foreign earned income. That may well be zero (it is for me).

There’s another argument that you can use any general category FTCs against the whole of the conversion, not just any portion that’s attributable to foreign earned income. I can’t find anything clearly saying you can’t do this, but it feels a little dicey. You’re basically saying that you haven’t paid foreign income tax on either the income that funded the 401(k)/IRA (because it’s from US income before moving to the UK, for our purposes), and you didn’t pay foreign income tax on the conversion itself (because it’s not taxable in the UK), but you’re going to use FTCs that came from other income to offset the US tax on the conversion. It feels like cherrypicking, trying to make the US tax system that doesn’t quite make sense.

I’m not willing to dismiss it out of hand, though – if any of you have a clear argument for how this works, I’d love to hear it!

Side Note: 72(t) SEPP

If you read the Mad Fientist article at the top, he also discusses a 72(t) Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP) option, instead of a Roth conversion, so that you can withdraw from a Traditional IRA prior to reaching age 59.5.

Three quick thoughts on this option for Americans in the UK:

  • I’m confident this is UK-taxable income – it’s clearly a periodic payment, right there in the name. I don’t see any reason why it would be penalized beyond being normal income – still gets taxed at the higher UK tax rates, though.
  • I could make an argument that it shouldn’t be US-taxable income, because it’s a periodic payment from a US pension to a UK resident. In practice, it doesn’t really matter – the UK tax will almost certainly be higher than the US anyway, so Foreign Tax Credits would wipe it out.
  • It helps you get money early, and in so doing reduces your Traditional balance, helping with the RMD time bomb.

Therefore, it’s probably an option for getting to your money early, if you a) want to deal with the complexity, b) have a pretty good idea how much you’ll need and don’t expect that to change, and c) don’t mind paying the higher UK tax on it.

For me, I think Roth conversions are the better deal, due to paying US rather than UK tax, and are simpler.

Social Security & State Pension

This is the last of my series on account types that Americans in the UK might use to save for retirement. US Social Security and the UK State Pension maybe aren’t accounts, strictly speaking, but they’re certainly worth understanding and considering how you’ll use them in your planning.

I’ll start with an overview and comparison of the two systems, then a few notes on how the systems can interact, both to your advantage and disadvantage. I’ll wrap up with some quick thoughts on how Social Security benefits get calculated and how to be most efficient, and on long-term futures for these programs.

For the purposes of this post, I’m using values that make sense for somebody who hasn’t retired yet, and is in their 30s or 40s. There might be slight differences depending on age – the biggest one would be that there’s a different UK state pension system if you’re born before 1951 (men) or 1953 (women) – I’m not even going to touch on that system.

I’m also only going to discuss retirement benefits, not disability, blindness, etc.

These are both fairly complicated systems – this is just a high-level overview, and there’s a ton of nuance and specifics. I might do future posts on some of the details, if there’s interest.

Overview & Comparison

AttributeUS Social SecurityUK State Pension
How do you qualify?40 work credits – typically 4 per year of employment, so 10 years of working and paying Social Security tax10 qualifying years on your National Insurance record (not necessarily in a row – typically from working, credits for unemployment or parenting, or paying voluntary contributions)
When can you get it?62 at the earliest, for a reduced amount. 67 is “full”68 (if you were born after 06 April 1978, somewhat earlier if before)
How much do you get?Based on your highest 35 years of eligible Social Security earnings (typically not including foreign earnings where you aren’t paying Social Security tax) and when you choose to start getting paid (between age 62 and 70, the longer you wait the more you get)

At 67 (full retirement age), the benefit replaces roughly 75% of your income for very low earners, about 40% for medium earners, and about 27% for very high earners.
Based on how many qualifying years you have – maximum benefit at 35 qualifying years.

Straight proportion of the full benefit – e.g. if you have 20 qualifying years, you get the (full benefit divided by 35 years) x 20 qualifying years. That is, (£175,20/35)*20 = £100.11

Does not depend on your income
What’s the maximum benefit (2021)?Age 62: $2,324/month
Age 67: $3,113/month
Age 70: $3,895/month

These assume that you’ve maxed out your earnings for 35 years – the max is $142,800 in 2021, indexed for inflation (anything above that level doesn’t have SS tax taken out and is ignored for SS calculations)
Full benefit is £175.20/week – this can be increased by delaying claiming the pension, which increases it by 1% for every 9 weeks you defer (about 5.8% a year)

Example: if you defer to age 70, you could increase £175.20/wk to about £196/wk (plus any inflation adjustments in those 2 years).

For comparison, full benefit is about £761 per month – $1,053 at today’s exchange rate. State pension is potentially much less money than social security, if you have a moderate to high US earning record.
What’s a typical benefit (2021)?Estimated average of about $1,543 a month.

For somebody who averaged $60,000/year over a 35 year career, it’s about $2,178.

To get to about the same $1,053 monthly benefit as the UK state pension, you’d need to average about $18,000 per year (or a higher value for fewer years).
As long as you’ve achieved the full 35 qualifying years, you get the full benefit of £175.20/week (about $1,053/month).
Can your spouse benefit?Yes – typically up to half of your benefit (or their own benefit, if that’s higher from their employment history). This typically includes foreign spouses and divorced spouses if you were married for 10 years and they haven’t remarried.Typically not, under the new (2016) rules. There are some legacy rules that don’t apply moving forward, but could still affect some people.
Your spouse would need to qualify based on their own National Insurance record.
Can your widow/widower benefit?Yes – can take some benefits from both their own and their deceased spouses benefitsTypically not, under the new (2016) rules. There are some legacy rules that don’t apply moving forward, but could still affect some people.
Can you keep working?Yes, but benefits are be reduced depending how much you earn over the annual limit (reduced by $1 for every $2 over $18,960 while under 67, reduced by $1 for every $3 over $50,520 in the months before your birthday of the year you turn 67). Once you turn 67, there’s no reduction.Yes, with no penalties. You can defer claiming state pension to allow the benefit to increase.
Are your benefits taxable?Yes – but for Americans in the UK, they will only be taxed by the UK due to the tax treatyYes, they are treated as earned income by the UK and the US (probably no US tax due, because of Foreign Tax Credits).
How much is the tax while working?6.2% from you, 6.2% from your employer (if you’re self employed, you pay both), up to the maximum taxable income ($142,800 in 2021)While employed, National Insurance is 12% from £797 to £4,189 a month, and 2% above that.
If self employed, you also pay National Insurance – the amount depends on your profits
You can choose to pay voluntary contributions if you’re not working/self-employed
Does my work in the other country count?Generally no – you won’t be paying Social Security tax, earning SS credits, or building up SS earnings for UK employment.

If you’re self-employed and still paying Social Security tax, this will count.

If you wouldn’t otherwise have enough SS credits to qualify, you can get UK credits to count, so you get to your 40 total credits (10 years of work). This reduces your benefit but lets you get something.
Only to get you to the minimum 10 years to qualify – the benefits will be prorated based on your time in the UK. For example, if you have 7 years in the UK but 10 in the US, the UK will count 3 of the US years to allow you to qualify. But, you’ll only get 7/35 (20%) of the full amount of £175.20/week
Interactions between Social Security & State Pension

Quick answer to the most common question: yes, you can get paid by both Social Security and the State Pension! But, the devil is in the details…

There are two main ways Social Security & the State pension can interact: Totalization and the Windfall Elimination Provision.

Totalization

Totalization is briefly mentioned in the last line of the table above – basically, if you’re short of the 10 years you need to qualify for either system, but have enough years in the other system to get to a total of 10, you’ll be treated as eligible (at a prorated benefit – you only get paid for the years you’re actually paying into the system or getting credits).

The most likely scenarios for this are if you left the US early in your career and then stayed in the UK permanently, or if you only stayed in the UK temporarily.

As a quick example of working in the relevant country for 9 years, and only being 1 year short of qualifying without needing totalization:

  • US Social Security: If you come to the US, earn more than the maximum social security income for every year, and then leave, you’d be eligible for about $1,400 per month – pretty substantial! Even at a more common $50,000/year income, you’re looking at about $900 a month. This hopefully won’t be the bulk of your retirement even in the leanest of retirement scenarios, but it can help.
  • UK State Pension: the most you could qualify for is 9/35 of the full amount (£175.20/week) – that’s £45/week or about £195 a month. Nice to have, but not the foundation of your retirement!

Obviously these are the most generous cases, since you were only 1 year short – the benefit amounts go down the less you were in the country. But the bottom line is, if you ever paid in to Social Security or the State Pension, and you’ve got a total of 10 years combined between the systems, you should be able to get something out of both of them, even if it isn’t much.

Windfall Elimination Provision

This one only applies to Social Security, there isn’t a corresponding State Pension provision that I’m aware of.

The idea is that, if you’re getting benefits by another retirement system like the UK State Pension, Social Security will reduce your SS benefit, so that you’re not getting a “windfall” due to getting double benefits.

The maximum reduction is half the amount of the monthly pension that is based on work not covered by Social Security – in our case, half the amount of the State Pension that you’re receiving.

WEP doesn’t apply if you have 30 or more years of substantial earnings covered by Social Security – but for many people leaving the US in their early or mid careers, it will apply.

Let’s walk through an example – I’ll use my own numbers here, because I think I’m a reasonably typical example of somebody who leaves the US mid-career and plans on staying in the UK permanently.

WEP Example

This example is based on the official WEP calculator and my estimates for my State Pension. All values are current year – obviously will be much inflated over the decades.

State Pension first: I expect that I’ll have about 15 qualifying years for the State Pension when I retire (early). So my State Pension is 15/35 (42.9%) of the full State Pension. 42.9% * £175.20 = £75.09/week. The SS calculator wants this in monthly dollars; let’s call it $455/month at a $1.40 to the pound.

For reference, I had 12 years of SS earnings, plus a little bit in college. My earnings are all over the place – half that time I was in the Navy, so my social security earnings were relatively low (a good chunk of military pay are non-taxable allowances). There’s a couple years where I maxed out social security earnings. On average, it’s just under $70k a year – fairly typical for an American with a college degree.

When I plug my data into the WEP calculator, it spits out a monthly retirement benefit of $1,083 at age 67. My non-WEP, “normal” benefit would be $1,311 at the same age, so it’s taking out $228 a month due to the WEP – that’s half of the $455/month I’d get for State Pension.

If I delay to 70, it goes up to $1,343, compared to a normal benefit of $1,626. Taken early at 62, it’s $763 instead of $923 – however, WEP won’t apply until I start getting the State Pension, so I’d actually get the $923 until State Pension age at 68.

When I’m closer to taking these two, I’ll do some more detailed math to figure out when it makes sense for both me and my wife to take Social Security and State Pension – lots of variables there.

Bottom line, you’ll still wind up with more money by having both Social Security & State Pension, but you’ll lose out on about half the value of the State Pension by having it taken it out of SS.

Social Security Benefits & Income

The way that Social Security calculates your benefit amount is pretty complicated – it’s easy to Google if you really want to know, or start here from the horse’s mouth. Honestly, just use the calculators on the SS website if you want to play around with the variables.

But, there’s a very important underlying concept – Social Security is a highly progressive program. It helps people with lower lifetime incomes a lot, but as your lifetime income gets higher, it helps proportionally less and less.

The calculation starts with your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings – basically, sum up your top 35 years of earnings, adjusted for inflation, and divide by 420 (35 years x 12 months). Based on your monthly average, your Primary Insurance Amount is calculated – the amount you get at full retirement age (no adjustments for early or late retirement). In 2021 dollars:

  • From $0 to $996 of monthly earnings, you get 90% added to your Primary Insurance Amount – up to about $896 a month
  • From $996 to $6,002 of monthly earnings, you get 32% added to your PIA – an additional up to $1601 a month
  • From $6,002 on up, you get 15% added to your PIA, until you hit the cap (if you’ve maxed out your social security income for 35 years – well done!)

What does that mean for us? There’s a pretty good return on all your income up to $996 AIME – that’s about $418k over 35 years. If you live for 20 years after age 67, you’ll get about $215k in SS benefits but have paid about $26k in SS taxes (8.3x return, albeit with a really long holding period)

But, it doesn’t have to be over 35 years – if you hit that $418k in just 3 years, with each year around the $142,800 maximum earnings cap, you get the same benefit as somebody who make about $12k/year for 35 years (all numbers are a little rough with the inflation calcs – think of them as 2021 numbers). You’d need 7 more years of credits to qualify, of course, but that could be from the UK or very low income.

For a more middle scenario, if you have about $42k of social security wages for 10 years or $84k for 5 years, you’ve maxed out that 90% bracket. If you are able to hit this level before leaving the US, it probably makes sense – you’re getting the biggest bank for your buck.

After the 90% bracket, the return drops dramatically. As a quick example, I plugged 10 years of $42k earnings into the official SS calculator – you get a monthly retirement benefit of $935 (not adjusting for WEP). But double that to 10 years of $84k earnings, and your monthly benefit goes up to $1,294. Double the income (double the work?) for only a 38% increase in benefit. And, if you live for 20 years, you get about $310k, and paid about $52k in SS taxes (down to 6x return).

Depending where you are in life, you may already be in this 32% bracket when you decide to move to the UK. It’s up to you, but once you get out of the 90% bracket, I don’t see this as a factor in timing the move. And especially once you’ve reached the 15% bracket (about $2.5 million in SS eligible lifetime earnings, in 2021 dollars), that extra 15% doesn’t do much for me!

Will Social Security & the State Pension Still Be There?

Without a crystal ball, there’s no way of knowing for sure. But for me, I can’t see them disappearing completely. Far too many people have little to no retirement savings, and having hordes of old people unable to feed and house themselves, especially when they tend to be active voters, doesn’t sound like something that will happen.

I could see one or both of them being means tested, and I could see the benefits amounts being eroded by inflation. Those seem plausible – “tax the fat cats” usually goes down reasonably well, and people don’t notice as much when their checks get bigger, but by less than inflation.

Personally, I include both Social Security and the State Pension in my retirement planning, but I discount both by 50%. That feels reasonable to me, and is close enough for now – if I have some extra money in retirement, I will find ways of spending it, or doing some kind of good with it. Do what lets you trust your planning and sleep at night!

Intro to Buying a House in the UK

This post is a quick guide on purchasing a primary residence in the UK, focusing on the issues that are specific to US citizens living in the UK. I’m not going to cover second homes, buy-to-let, US properties, etc., nor will I go through the details of the UK homebuying process that aren’t unique to Americans. A few good places to start understanding that basic process (which is somewhat different from the US system!):

To me, there are four key areas where Americans need to be aware of specific considerations when buying their home in the UK – I’ll cover each in turn:

  • Getting a Mortgage – Credit History
  • Getting a Mortgage – Immigration Status
  • Tax Implications – Capital Gains
  • Tax Implications – Foreign Currency Gains

Getting a Mortgage – Credit History

The US and UK credit history & scoring systems are essentially completely separate. No matter how good (or bad!) your credit was in the US, when you move to the UK you’re starting over from scratch. MoneySavingExpert has a good guide on UK credit scoring to get you started – it can even be difficult to check your UK credit report at all without three years of address history, because you won’t pass the automated ID checks!

That doesn’t mean you can’t get a mortgage until you’ve been in the UK 3 years, though. I got my first mortgage after a year of renting, and I know there are people who have bought upon arrival, including a mortgage. I do usually recommend renting for a year for most people, to give you time to get to know the area, establish your UK finances, and deal with all the homebuying stuff while actually in the country (it’s enough of a faff when you’re here; doing it from abroad is possible, but adding that stress to an already stressful transatlantic move doesn’t sound like fun to me).

There are a lot of things you can do to start building credit once you’re in the UK. This is not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order – you don’t have to do everything here, but doing several should start to get your credit building:

  • Pay all your bills on time
  • Try to get some credit, even if it’s just a small amount like a mobile phone contract
  • If you have an American Express credit card in the US, they will take this into account an help you open a UK Amex. You might not get the same credit limit (I only got £1,000 when I first arrived), but its much better than nothing.
  • If you can’t get an Amex, try to get a credit card for building credit. You’ll get a very low limit (often a few hundred pounds), but it starts building history. You may find that you can’t even get through the application screens without 3 years of UK address history, but try a few different options. MoneySavingExpert has a good list to start with.
  • You can register to get your rent payments applied to your credit history, through Experian or Credit Ladder
  • LoqBox is a product specifically designed to build credit. Basically, you take out a small 0% interest loan but they keep the money, so they aren’t worried about whether you’ll pay it back. As you pay it back, you build up a savings account, and the loan repayments get reported to the credit companies.
    • Quick example: you take out a 12 month loan for £600 at 0%, but you don’t actually get any money – LoqBox keeps the £600. You pay back the loan at £50 per month, which builds up as savings.
    • Once the loan is repaid, you transfer the money out. You can either open a banking account with one of LoqBox’s partners (they get a fee from this, but if you don’t like the account you could just transfer from the new account and close it), or you can pay £30 to transfer the savings to one of your existing accounts.
  • It’s commonly recommended to get on the “electoral roll” to help your credit. However, you can’t do this unless you’re eligible to vote. A few options:
    • You might actually be eligible to register to vote. In Scotland & Wales, if you have an appropriate visa you should be able to register. In England & Northern Ireland, you’re usually only eligible if you’re a UK, EU, or Commonwealth citizen.
    • You can send the credit reporting agencies proof of residency, instead of registering to vote. I’ve seen this recommended, but also seen anecdotes of it backfiring and somehow making it harder to get credit.

Personally, I did a combination – I used my US Amex to get a UK Amex, I used a rent payment reporting service (for a little while, then it broke – it’s been replaced by the ones listed above), I used LoqBox, and I paid all my bills on time. I can’t say which one, or which combination, was effective, but I didn’t have any challenges getting a mortgage because of my credit history. I may also have been helped because my wife/co-applicant was an EU citizen with a very old and fairly small UK credit history from before she moved to the US.

Getting a Mortgage – Immigration Status

Some UK lenders are less willing to work with immigrants, compared to UK citizens, and the specifics of your immigration status can matter (visa type, leave to remain, etc.). Basically, they’re concerned about your ability to stay in the UK and keep paying the mortgage, and maybe about the possibility of you skipping the country and abandoning the mortgage.

Because of this, it’s probably best to use a mortgage broker to help search the breadth of the UK mortgage marketplace, narrowing down to lenders that will work with you. MoneySavingExpert has a list of recommended brokers. Personally, I used London & Country for my first mortgage and Habito for a recent remortgage, and have no problem recommending either of them, I’d used them both again (I checked with both of them and they came up with the exact same recommendations, so it was basically a coin toss as to who to actually use).

Mortgage brokers get paid by the bank issuing the mortgage, no direct cost to you, although I’m sure their fees are baked into the mortgage.

Tax Implications – Capital Gains

Easy part first – the UK generally does not impost capital gains tax on the sale of your home (there are a few exceptions, if you rent it out, bought it just as an investment, it’s really big, etc.).

The US makes things more complicated – capital gains on the sale of a primary residence are taxable in the US, but with a significant exclusion of $250,000 ($500,000 for married filing jointly). This applies only to the gains – if you bought for $600,000 and sold for $700,000, the gain is only $100,000, so it’s under the exclusion. There are some conditions for the exclusion as well – mostly, you need to have owned it and lived in it for at least 2 of the last 5 years, although it can get more complicated.

For many people, that will reduce the tax to zero, but if you’ve lived in a house for a long time and/or house prices have gone up significantly, you could be above this and liable to pay capital gains tax.

Big caveat: the US tax calculations will be done in US dollars, at the exchange rate at the time of purchase and the time of sale. Therefore, it’s possible to have a gain in dollars that is larger than in pounds, or even a dollar gain but a pound loss. As a hypothetical example:

  • Buy a house for £500,o00 while the exchange rate is $1.25 to the pound – to the IRS, you bought the house for $625,000
  • Sell the same house 5 years later for £500,000 while the exchange rate has gone up to $1.50 to the pound – to the IRS, you’ve now sold the house for $750,000
  • The IRS sees a $125,000 gain, even though you didn’t make any money in pounds and will have lost some through stamp duty, legal fees, etc. (some of these expenses you may be able to include in your basis, see the IRS link above).
  • This example is under the $250,000/$500,000 exemption, but with an increase in house prices or bigger changes in the exchange rate, you could exceed the exemption.

There’s not really a way around this – all your US taxes are done in US dollars. You could sell your house whenever you get close to the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion, but that has plenty of other costs. You can try to time buying and selling with highs and lows in the exchange rate, but you still need somewhere to live!

Tax Implications – Foreign Currency Gains

This one only applies to US taxes, nothing to think about for UK taxes.

To the IRS, every transaction you make is made in US dollars, regardless of the currency that it is actually used. So for the purchase of a house using a mortgage, the IRS actually sees two separate transactions:

  1. Exchanging USD for a real asset (the house)
  2. Receiving USD in exchange for a promise to pay the money back, with interest (the mortgage)

We talked about #1 above, but #2 can have it’s own pitfalls – you can have a taxable USD gain on the mortgage, regardless of what happens to the value of the house. This is best explained in a couple of examples:

Example 1 – Mortgage Refinancing

UK mortgages are frequently on a 2 or 5 year fixed rate, after which they change to a “standard variable rate”, which is typically much higher. So it’s completely normal to get a new mortgage in the UK every 2 or 5 years.

You take out a mortgage for £100,000 while the exchange rate is $1.50 to the pound. Let’s call it an interest only mortgage just for the sake of simple calculations – the principle still applies if it’s also repaying principal.

  • The IRS sees this as you receiving $150,000 in exchange for a promise to pay it back plus interest.

You then refinance that mortgage 2 years later, for another £100,000. But, the exchange rate has dropped to $1.25 to the pound (a dramatic drop, but actually happened after the Brexit vote).

  • The IRS sees this as you having exchanged a debt of $150,000 for a debt of $125,000 – you’ve made $25,000 on the exchange! That’s taxable income to the IRS, even though your financial situation in GBP hasn’t changed at all.
  • That income is foreign passive income, typically taxed at income rates (not lower capital gains rates). It can be offset by the Foreign Tax Credit, but only if you have excess FTCs in your “passive” category bucket that covers UK tax on interest, dividends, & capital gains, not the “general” one for UK income tax on salary. You might or might not have enough passive FTCs to cover it, in which case you’re paying real $$$ to the IRS.

Sadly, the reverse example doesn’t help you – if the exchange rates were swapped and you “lost” $25,000, you can’t deduct that from your US taxes.

This example could just as easily be on the sale of the house, rather than a remortage – if you only pay back $125,000 when you sell the house after taking out a $150,000 mortgage (both of which are actually £100,000), you still get this gain, and it’s not excluded as part of the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion – the mortgage transactions are separate from the purchase and sale of the house.

There isn’t a ton you can do to mitigate this, either. If you have a non-US spouse who doesn’t file US taxes, you only need to report your half of the gain, which helps. And when you buy the house, you may be able to structure it so the non-US spouse owns most or all of it – this can get complicated, and is probably worth seeking professional advice if you want to pursue.

You could get a longer fixed mortgage (there are now options up to 40 years, more like the traditional US 30 year mortgage) – this mostly delays the pain, but could avoid it if you happen to be due for a remortgage at the time of a temporary exchange rate swing. But you’ll typically pay a higher interest rate for a longer fixed term, all else equal.

Other than that, if the exchange rate has moved in the “wrong” direction while you have your mortgage, you may be stuck between paying the higher “standard variable rate” to the mortgage company or paying income tax to the IRS 😦

Example 2 – Mortgage Payments

This foreign currency gain tax could even apply on your normal monthly payments. There’s an exception of $200 per transaction that can help avoid this on smaller mortgages, but with big exchange rate changes and/or large mortgages, each mortgage payment could exceed the $200 limit.

For example, you’re repaying a mortgage where your monthly payments are £1,000 of interest and £1,000 of principal. You started the mortgage with an exchange rate of $1.50 to the pound, so each month you’re paying off $1,500 of principal (there’s nothing to worry about for the interest).

However, the exchange rate now drops to $1.25 to the pound – you’re now repaying $1,500 of principal but only spending $1,250 a month to do it. To you, this looks like paying £1,000 a month, exactly what you agreed to in the mortgage. But to the IRS, it looks like you’re getting a $250 gain every month due to your clever foreign exchange trading.

This is something you should be tracking and reporting on your US income taxes – I’d be curious how any of you are actually doing this tracking. I haven’t done it for my own mortgage, just because the exchange rate has been going up, not down (I took out my mortgage near the depths of the post-Brexit exchange rate drop), and the principal part of my mortgage is small enough that the exchange rate would have to drop below parity before I’d be above the $200 limit – this could happen, but we’re nowhere close to it.