Susan Noon, legislative assistant for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, wrote to question my Dec. 30 column in which I answered a reader's query about the application of the special three-year rule for excluding 100 percent of your retirement pay until you have recovered an amount equal to your contributions.
I had said that the writer -- who had retired early for disability -- had to amortize her contributions to the fund the first year after termination of the disability income exclusion (which she had been using up to that point), even though she didn't need the deduction that year.
Unfortunately, I neglected to qualify my answer to clarify one piece of information that didn't appear in the letter. An employe who is retired for disability may wait until "minimum normal retirement age" to begin excluding retirement pay that represents a return of the employe's contributions into the fund.
There is no standard "minimum normal retirement age." It depends on both the agency policy and the job classification. For example, a law enforcement officer may have an earlier minimum retirement age than a computer programmer. If you retire for disability, your personnel people should tell you what the specific minimum retirement age is for your job in your agency.
Sorry for the omission -- and thank you, Ms. Noon, for calling it to my attention. I hope this clarification straightens out any confusion.
Q: The Feb. 17 issue of Washington Business carried a column titled "How 8 Investment Pros Picked Their IRA Portfolios." Their investment choices leaned heavily to developing equities such as growth stocks. I found that puzzling inasmuch as the main benefit of the IRA program is the deferral of taxes on dividends and interest. I would appreciate your comments.
A: I can understand your puzzlement, but the key to their choices is easy to understand. These people are "pros," as the headline says, and their approach can be expected to be -- and usually is -- different from the approach of the ordinary guy who doesn't have the same degree of expert knowledge.
An investment professional who spends his or her time following the markets and trends in the economy usually will believe that he or she can beat the steady but slow pace of relatively safe investments by trading "hot" stocks on the basis of that special knowledge.
I'm not exempt from that particular ego trip; a part of my Keogh retirement money is in a self-directed account at a brokerage, where I buy and sell growth stocks from time to time. And -- although I'm not in this category -- a young man or woman can afford some risk and should put some IRA money in a growth investment that may, in the long run, come up with a bigger payoff.
Conservative investors of any age, and those who are getting close to retirement time in particular, should take advantage of the tax-deferral feature you mention and stay with high-income investments, such as certificates of deposit at savings institutions and income-yield regular or zero-coupon corporate bonds or utility and other high-dividend stocks.
Q: The IRS would like taxpayers to get their returns in early. I sent for some publications and schedules I needed on Jan. 7 and still have not received them from the Richmond distribution center. (The letter was written on Feb. 18.) The 800 number in the tax booklet is always busy; do they have just one number for the whole country?
A: There is only one 800 number for ordering forms and publications, but there are a number of local numbers to use. In Richmond, for example, the local number is 329-1052; but, of course, that is a long-distance call from the Washington area.
Many public libraries have reference sets of IRS publications that you may read and photocopy, as well as fairly complete sets of forms and schedules. To ease the acknowledged overload, the IRS plans to open two more distribution centers in the next couple of years -- one in Indiana, the other in California. Meanwhile, they do the best they can with the resources available.