Income Bunching Under Obamacare ACA Premium Subsidy

Bunch of roses cake

The previous post Stay Off Obamacare Premium Subsidy Cliff showed that when you retire before age 65, ideally you should keep your income below 400% FPL so that you will qualify for the premium subsidy for purchasing health insurance. What if you need more income than that?

Suppose you are already over 59-1/2 and you are withdrawing living expenses from your pre-tax Traditional IRA. Say your expenses are higher than usual in one year and you need to withdraw more. That pushes you over the cliff and you lose the premium subsidy. Now what?

Now that you are already over, you should take a big bath and jack up your income some more. Convert some more money from Traditional IRA to Roth, to the top of the 15% bracket, or even to the top of the 25% bracket. For married filing jointly taking the standard deduction and two personal exemptions in 2014, the top of the 15% tax bracket is AGI $94k; it’s AGI $169k to the top of the 25% tax bracket.

With more money in Roth accounts, you make it easier to qualify for the subsidy in future years, because withdrawing from Roth accounts doesn’t add to your income. In future years, you withdraw less from your Traditional accounts and you withdraw more from your Roth accounts. You’d rather be over the cutoff in one year, way over, and be under the cutoff in the next several years, as opposed to being over the cliff in all years.

This is similar to deduction bunching, when you put more of your tax deductible expenses into one year and take the higher itemized deductions in alternate years.

This also means if you want to live on more income than the 400% FPL cutoff when you retire before age 65, it could be beneficial to build up your Roth accounts beforehand. A large Roth account will help you stay under the 400% FPL cutoff after you retire.

On the other hand, if the need for income is only temporary, it can make sense to borrow the shortfall, say from a HELOC, instead of taking additional withdrawals from your pre-tax IRA and pushing yourself over the cliff. Borrowed money does not count as income.


Please read these related articles in the series about the Affordable Care Act:

[Photo credit: Flickr user mags20_eb]

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  1. Jeff says

    You have previously argued against Roth 401k for most people, and I had agreed with that stance. However, given your statement “A large Roth account will help you stay under the 400% FPL cutoff after you retire.”, I’m starting to question it and wonder if putting at least some of my 401k dollars into Roth would be a good idea now. This would give flexibility during retirement to choose what level of taxable income I’d want year by year by having the mixture to choose from.

    • Harry says

      Yes this weakens the case against Roth 401k if you are planning to retire before 65 and get health insurance under Obamacare. Then again you have to weigh the risk of laws changing, as noted by Evan in the comment below.

  2. Evan says

    I would be very hesitant to follow this advice. Tax laws can always change in the future. In particular, a provision that allows income manipulation like this to earn large government subsidies is going to be a prime candidate to be abolished by either party in power. Nearly all other government welfare programs not only have income means testing, but means testing on wealth/assets as well.

    If you are talking about pulling extra taxable income into 2013, and thereby being eligible for subsidies in 2014-2015, it probably makes sense to do. But if you are talking about converting to a Roth and playing large amounts of tax now because you might then be able to qualify for subsidies 5-10 years from now, I think it is a bad bet.

    I stick with a simple premise – always defer income taxes unless there is a high probability of net savings in a very short time frame.

    • Harry says

      I agree we can’t count on the laws staying the same as they are now. I also agree with your bird-in-hand simple premise. That’s why I said “it could be beneficial …” The main point of the article deals with someone already getting insurance under Obamacare — bunch more income when you already blew the cliff so you can qualify the next year. Obamacare isn’t welfare. However, the simplest “fix” would be including Roth withdrawals in the definition for MAGI.

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