Tax the rich! Raise their rates! Limit their deductions! That seems to be the populist mantra. It's perpetuated in the press, and there's some indication that the general public seems to support the idea. Now, middle-class workers with higher-than- average incomes seem to be caught up in discussions defining those that are "rich."
As this applies to tax-exempt organizations, we're talking about hospital administrators, educators, executive directors of local community and other charitable organizations - people who generally earn a better-than-average income, yet by no stretch of the imagination do their incomes compare to Warren Buffett's. And when it comes to the impact on their employers' retirement plans, shouldn't the tax structure support retirement readiness for those who have dedicated their careers to giving back to their communities?
For example, current conventional belief supports that people should be saving 11% to 15% of their pay, including matching contributions, every year throughout their working careers in order to save enough to be retirement-ready. Assuming a 3% match, and therefore an average of a 12% annual savings need, anyone earning less than approximately $146,000 annually should be fine. (12% of $146,000 is approximately the $17,500 annual limit.)
However, what about the person making $250,000 per year? Contributing a maximum of $17,500 only equates to 7% of pay. When the match is included, it's still short of the target necessary for retirement readiness - yet as the numbers show, these limitations currently in place put these people at a disadvantage for retirement savings. In addition, one of the alternatives under consideration is limiting qualified plan contributions even further.
Fortunately, there is something that can be done. Private (nongovernmental) tax-exempt organizations can maintain a deferred compensation plan under Section 457 of the Internal Revenue Code. These 457 plans allow for additional benefits for a select group of management or highly compensated individuals, over and above the limitations in their 403(b) or 401(k) plan.
457 plans are an excellent tool for tax-exempt organizations to be able to recruit, retain, reward and retire key personnel. In other words, they help meet the goals of the organization, which in turn, serves their communities, while empowering key employees to meet their financial goals.
Last summer, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, released a report called "The Retirement Crisis and a Plan to Solve It." One premise of the report is that there is inadequate savings for baby boomers and Gen Xers to pay for basic expenses in retirement. The report footnotes studies that show this "retirement income gap" is between $4.3 and $6.6 trillion, but as we see above, there is already pressure in regular tax rules that make it difficult for higher-than-average income people to achieve retirement readiness.
As Congress continues the tax debate, it's important that we consider what's good for the long term, and helping all plan participants achieve retirement readiness should be of paramount importance. Tax reform and retirement policy should not be at odds.
Friedman is the tax-exempt national practice leader with the Principal Financial Group, an investment management and retirement company. A noted expert on 403(b) plan design, he has been consulting with tax-exempt organizations for over 20 years and has been in the retirement plan business since 1986. This commentary originally ran on The Principal blog.
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