When you retire, your income usually flows from three possible sources: Social Security benefits, distributions from IRAs and retirement plans, and funds from savings and other investments. Depending on your income level, you may want to use certain tax strategies to minimize what Uncle Sam takes from you in retirement. Here are a few to consider.

Key Takeaways

  • Most retirees rely on a few different sources of income and there are ways to minimize taxes on each of them.
  • One of the best strategies is to live in or move to a tax-friendly state.
  • Other strategies include reallocating investments so that they are tax efficient and postponing distributions from retirement accounts.
  • Don’t forget to be strategic about Social Security: Depending on your other income, benefits may be subject to taxes.

Live in a Tax-friendly State

One of the best strategies for saving taxes on retirement income is to live in or move to a state that is tax friendly. In the wake of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, this will be especially important through 2025 when only a total of $10,000 in local property and state and local income or sales taxes will be deductible for federal income tax purposes.

Seven states have no income taxes: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. New Hampshire and Tennessee tax only interest and dividends but, starting in 2022, Tennessee will join the list of states with no taxes.

States are barred by federal law from taxing residents on retirement benefits earned in another state. So, for example, earning a pension in California or New York (high tax states) and relocating in retirement to Florida or Texas (no tax states) avoids state tax on this income.

Other states may have low income taxes or special breaks for retirement income. Some, for example, may have no tax on Social Security benefits and/or on some or all of the income from IRAs and retirement plans. 

Reassess Your Investments

You may want to change your investment holdings in retirement—not only to save on taxes but also to preserve principal. Here are a few ways to go about it:

Municipal bonds

Interest on municipal bonds is free from federal income tax, although the interest may affect the tax on Social Security benefits.

Dividend stocks

If you receive qualified dividends—essentially regular dividends from publicly-traded U.S. corporations, as well as certain foreign corporations—they are taxed at more favorable rates than ordinary income. The tax rate may be zero, 15%, or 20%, depending on your taxable income.

Losses that offset capital gains

You can use losses on the sale of securities and other property to offset capital gains, so that you pay no tax on the gains. What’s more, if you have excess capital losses, you can use up to $3,000 to offset ordinary income (for example, bank interest) and any additional losses can be carried forward.

Avoid or Postpone RMDs

If you are at least 70½, you do not have to pay tax on required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your traditional IRA if you transfer the funds to a charity. Here’s what’s required:

  • Your IRA trustee or custodian must transfer the funds directly to an IRS-approved public charity.
  • You must receive a written acknowledgment from the charity as you would for a charitable contribution.

There is a $100,000 annual limit for this strategy. If you are married, each spouse has a separate $100,000 limit. This strategy can only be used for IRAs, not for IRA-like accounts such as SEP IRAs or SIMPLE IRAs.

Roth IRAs are not subject to RMDs.

You can also postpone the need to take RMDs and ensure that you won’t run out of retirement income by investing in a special deferred annuity. You can use up to $125,000 (but no more than 25% of your account balance) from your IRA or 401(k) to buy a qualified longevity annuity contract (QLAC) within the retirement account. Funds allocated to the QLAC are exempt from RMD calculations.

Payments from a QLAC do not have to begin immediately, but must start no later than age 85. The payments are taxable to you, and the funds from the QLAC automatically satisfy RMD requirements for this portion of the IRA or retirement plan.

Be sure to consider a QLAC's drawbacks before proceeding. There is no cash value that can be tapped before annuitizing. There may be higher fees for this type of investment than others available through an IRA or 401(k) plan. And you must live to the targeted age (e.g., 85) to enjoy the income.

Be Strategic About Social Security Benefits

If you don’t need Social Security at full retirement age because you have other income, consider delaying the receipt of benefits until age 70. You’ll earn additional credits to boost your monthly benefits at that time, and you won’t have to pay taxes now on the benefits.

Depending on the year you were born, full retirement age ranges from 65 to 67.

When you receive benefits, they are either fully tax free or are included in your gross income at 50% or 85%, depending on your other income (including tax-free interest on municipal bonds). More specifically, if your provisional income (a term unique to the calculation of the taxable portion of Social Security benefits) is less than $25,000 if you’re single, or $32,000 if you’re married filing jointly, none of your Social Security benefits are taxed.

If you're single and your income is between $25,000 and $34,000—or between $32,000 and $44,000 if you’re married filing jointly—then 50% of benefits are taxable. Having income over $34,000, or $44,000 respectively, means 85% of benefits are included in gross income. Married persons filing separately automatically have 85% of benefits included in gross income. 

Because the portion of Social Security benefits that is taxable depends on your other income, control this to the extent possible. Here are some ideas:

  • Reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI) by contributing to deductible IRAs and 401(k) plans if you are still working.
  • Limit the sale of securities. While sales should primarily be dictated by financial considerations, where you can you may want to limit sales so that your income doesn’t push you over the 50% inclusion to the 85% inclusion.
  • Make withdrawals from a Roth IRA if you have one. Withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax free in retirement and are not taken into account in the computation of the tax on Social Security benefits.

The Bottom Line

Paying attention to tax strategies for your retirement income is important, but there is no single right strategy. Each person’s personal situation is different and a tax strategy needs to be customized for you. Talk with a tax or financial advisor to learn more and put together a personalized plan.