Saver's Credit Can Spur Retirement Plan Contributions

Many employees are not aware of employer-sponsored retirement accounts, or individual retirement accounts (IRA), which could be costing those more money. Tax season is the best time for employers to educate their employees on how they can earn extra tax credits through their 401(k) plans. Read this blog post to learn more about how to educate employees on what retirement account opportunities that are available to them.


Many workers don't know that they're eligible for a tax credit by saving in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or individual retirement account (IRA)—and that could be costing them money. Tax time, however, is prime time for employers to inform eligible workers about the saver's credit.

The Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, or saver's credit, is available to low- and moderate-income workers who are putting money aside for retirement. But only 29 percent of workers with annual household income below $50,000 know about the saver's credit, according to the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies in Los Angeles, which surveyed nearly 6,000 employees last fall.

"Tax season is an ideal time to tell eligible workers how they can earn extra tax credits by saving through their employer's 401(k) or a similar retirement plan," said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center. "The saver's credit might just be the motivator for those not yet saving for retirement to get started."

Scott Spann, a senior financial planner with Financial Finesse, a provider of workplace financial wellness programs in Charleston, S.C., said, "Saving for retirement is a challenge for many households in America. Special tax incentives help make the process of saving easier."

What Is the Saver's Credit?

Like other tax credits, the saver's credit can increase a taxpayer's refund or reduce the tax owed. Here's how it works:

The amount of the credit is a maximum of 50 percent of an employee's retirement plan contributions up to $2,000 (or $4,000 for married couples filing jointly), depending on the filer's adjusted gross income as reported on Form 1040. Consequently, the maximum saver's credit is $1,000 (or $2,000 for married couples filing jointly).

The saver's credit "is different than a tax deduction due to the fact that a tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your gross tax liability, which is the total amount of taxes you're responsible for paying before any credits are applied," Spann explained.

The saver's credit also differs from the separate tax benefit of contributing pretax dollars to a qualified retirement plan, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) or an IRA. "Many eligible retirement savers may be confusing these two incentives because the notion of a double tax benefit"—pretax contributions and an additional tax credit—"seems too good to be true," Collinson said.

Who Can Claim the Saver's Credit?

The credit is available to workers age 18 or older who have contributed to a company-sponsored retirement plan or an IRA in the past year and meet the income requirements shown in the table below. The filer cannot be a full-time student nor claimed as a dependent on another person's tax return.

Income Caps for Tax Years 2019 and 2020

For eligible workers, the amount of the available tax credit diminishes as adjusted gross income (AGI) rises. To help preserve the credit's value, income thresholds are adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation. Below are the AGI caps for tax year 2019 (for tax returns filed this year) and 2020 (for returns filed next year).

2019 Saver's Credit
Tax Credit Rate Single Filers and Married, Filing Separately* Married, Filing Jointly Heads of Household
50% of contribution AGI not more than - $19,250 AGI not more than $38,500 AGI not more than $28,875
20% of contribution AGI of $19,251 - $20,750 AGI of $38,501 - $41,500 AGI of $28,876 - $31,125
10% of contribution AGI of $20,751- $32,000 AGI of $41,501 - $64,000 AGI of $31,126 - $48,000
No credit AGI more than $32,000 AGI more than $64,000 AGI more than $48,000

 

2020 Saver's Credit
Tax Credit Rate Single Filers and Married, Filing Separately* Married, Filing Jointly Heads of Household
50% of contribution AGI not more than $19,500 AGI not more than $39,000 AGI not more than $29,250
20% of contribution AGI of $19,501 - $21,250 AGI of $39,001 - $42,500 AGI of $29,251 - $31,875
10% of contribution AGI of $21,251 - $32,500 AGI of $42,501 - $65,000 AGI of $31,876 - $48,750
No credit AGI more than $32,500 AGI more than $65,000 AGI more than $48,750

Deadlines for Retirement Contributions

"You must make eligible contributions to your employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA for the tax year for which you are claiming the income tax credit," Spann said.

While 401(k) contributions for a tax year can be made only up to Dec. 31, those who are eligible but did not save last year can still make a tax year 2019 IRA contribution until April 15, 2020.

Filing for the Saver's Credit

Employers can advise eligible workers to take the following steps to claim the saver's credit, according to the Transamerica Center:

  • If using tax-preparation software, including those programs offered through the IRS Free File program, use Form 1040 or Form 1040NR for nonresident aliens. Answer questions about the saver's credit, which may be referred to as the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit or the Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions.
  • If preparing tax returns manually, complete Form 8880, Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions, to determine your exact credit rate and amount. Then transfer the amount to the designated line on Form 1040 (Schedule 3) or Form 1040NR.
  • If using a professional tax preparer, ask about the saver's credit.

Financial planners advise having tax refunds directly deposited into an IRA to further boost your retirement savings.

The Transamerica Center has additional information, in English and Spanish, on its Saver's Credit webpage, along with a downloadable fact sheet.


IRS Free File Program Is Available

Another potentially overlooked opportunity for workers is the IRS Free File program, which offers federal income tax preparation software at no charge to tax filers with an AGI of $69,000 or less.

Free File opened on Jan. 10, 2020, for the preparation of 2019 tax returns. Eligible taxpayers can do their taxes now, and the Free File provider will submit the return once the IRS officially opens the tax filing season on Jan. 27.

For 2020, the Free File partners are: 1040Now, Inc., ezTaxReturn.com (English and Spanish), FileYourTaxes.com, Free tax Returns.com, H&R Block, Intuit, On-Line Taxes, Inc., Tax ACT, TaxHawk, Inc. and TaxSlayer (English and Spanish).

Here's how Free File works:

  1. Taxpayers go to IRS.gov/FreeFile to see all Free File options.
  2. They browse each of the offers or use a "look up" tool to help find the right product. Each Free File partner sets its own eligibility standards generally based on income, age and state residency. But if the taxpayer's adjusted gross income was $69,000 or less, they will find at least one free product to use.
  3. They select a provider and follow the links to their web page to begin a tax return.
  4. They complete and e-File a tax return if they have all the income and deduction records they need. The fastest way to get a refund is by filing electronically and selecting direct deposit. For taxes owed, they can use direct pay or electronic options.

Many Free File online products also offer free state tax preparation, although some charge a state fee. Taxpayers should read each provider's information carefully.

"The IRS has worked to improve the program for this year, and we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov, and consider using the Free File option to get a head start on tax season," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.

Nearly 57 million returns have been filed through the Free File program since it began in 2003, and 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers (about 100 million people) are eligible for Free File, according to the IRS.


SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 January 2020) "Saver's Credit Can Spur Retirement Plan Contributions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/remind-low-wage-earners-about-savers-credit.aspx


How to Find an Old 401(k) — and What to Do With It

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are more than 25 million people with money left behind in a previous employer-sponsored retirement plan. Read this blog post from NerdWallet for information on how to find an old retirement plan and what to do with it.


There are billions of dollars sitting unclaimed in ghosted workplace retirement plans. And some of it might be yours if you’ve ever left a job and forgotten to take your vested retirement savings with you.

It happens. A lot.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that from 2004 through 2013, more than 25 million people with money in an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) left at least one account behind after their last day on the job.

But no matter how long the cobwebs have been forming on your old 401(k), that money is still yours. All you have to do is find it.

Following the money

Employers will try to track down a departed employee who left money behind in an old 401(k), but their efforts are only as good as the information they have on file. Beyond providing 30 to 60 days notice of their intentions, there are no laws that say how hard they have to look or for how long.

If it’s been a while since you’ve heard from your former company, or if you’ve moved or misplaced the notices they sent, there are three main places your money could be:

  1. Right where you left it, in the old account set up by your employer.
  2. In a new account set up by the 401(k) plan administrator.
  3. In the hands of your state’s unclaimed property division.

Here’s how to start your search:

Contact your old employer

Start with your former company’s human resources department or find an old 401(k) account statement and contact the plan administrator, the financial firm that held the account and sent you updates.

"You may be allowed to leave your money in your old plan, but you might not want to."

If there was more than $5,000 in your retirement account when you left, there’s a good chance that your money is still in your workplace account. You may be allowed to leave it there for as long as you like until you’re age 70½, when the IRS requires you to start taking distributions, but you might not want to. Here’s how to decide whether to keep your money in an old 401(k).

Plan administrators have more leeway with abandoned amounts up to $5,000. If the balance is $1,000 or less, they can simply cut a check for the total and send it to your last known address, leaving you to deal with any tax consequences. For amounts more than $1,000 up to $5,000, they’re allowed to move funds into an individual retirement account without your consent. These specialty IRAs are set up at a financial institution that has been federally authorized to manage the account.

The good news if a new IRA was opened for the rollover: Your money retains its tax-protected status. The bad: You have to find the new trustee.

Look up your money’s new address

If the old plan administrator cannot tell you where your 401(k) funds went, there are several databases that can assist:

Search unclaimed property databases

If a company terminates its retirement plan, it has more options on what it’s allowed to do with the unclaimed money, no matter what the account balance.

"If your account was cashed out, you may owe the IRS."

It might be rolled into an IRA set up on your behalf, deposited at a bank or left with the state’s unclaimed property fund. Hit up missingmoney.com, run in part by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, to do a multistate search of state unclaimed property divisions.

Note that if a plan administrator cashed out and transferred your money to a bank account or the state, a portion of your savings may have been withheld to pay the IRS. That’s because this kind of transfer is considered a distribution (aka cashing out) and is subject to income taxes and penalties. Some 401(k) plan administrators withhold a portion of the balance to cover any potential taxes and send you and the IRS tax form 1099-R to report the income. Others don’t, which could leave you with a surprise IRS IOU to pay.

What to do with it

You might be able to leave your old 401(k) money where it is if it’s in your former employer’s plan. One reason to do so is if you have access to certain mutual funds that charge lower management fees available to institutional clients — like 401(k) plans — that aren’t available to individual investors. But you’re not allowed to contribute to the plan anymore since you no longer work there.

Reasons to move your money to an IRA or to roll it into a current employer’s plan include access to a broader range of investments, such as individual stocks and a wider selection of mutual funds, and more control over account fees.

If your money was moved into an IRA on your behalf, you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — leave it there. The GAO study of forced-transfer IRAs found that annual fees (up to $115) and low investment returns (0.01% to 2.05% in conservative investments dictated by the Department of Labor regulations) “can steadily decrease a comparatively small stagnant balance.”

Once you find your money, it’s easy to switch brokers and move your investments into a new IRA of your choosing without triggering any taxes.

Unless you enjoyed this little treasure hunt, the next time you switch jobs, take your retirement loot with you.

SOURCE: Yochim, D. (27 February 2019) "How to Find an Old 401(k) — and What to Do With It" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/how-to-find-an-old-401k-and-what-to-do-with-it/


CenterStage: Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, 401(k), 403(b): What’s the Difference?

In this month’s CenterStage article, we are going to take a look at the difference between traditional IRA, Roth IRA, 401(k), 403(b), curtesy of Kevin Hagerty, a Financial Advisor at Saxon.

The earlier you begin planning for retirement, the better off you will be. However, the problem is that most people don’t know how to get started or which product is the best vehicle to get you there.

A good retirement plan usually involves more than one type of savings account for your retirement funds. This may include both an IRA and a 401(k) allowing you to maximize your planning efforts.

If you haven’t begun saving for retirement yet, don’t be discouraged. Whether you begin through an employer sponsored plan like a 401(k) or 403(b) or you begin a Traditional or Roth IRA that will allow you to grow earnings from investments through tax deferral, it is never too late or too early to begin planning.

This article discusses the four main retirement savings accounts, the differences between them and how Saxon can help you grow your nest egg.

“A major trend we see is that if people don’t have an advisor to meet with, they tend to invest too conservatively because they are afraid of making a mistake,” said Kevin. “Then the problem is that they don’t revisit it and if you’re not taking on enough risk you’re not giving yourself enough opportunity for growth. Then you run the risk that your nest egg might not grow to what it should be.”

“Saxon is here to help people make the best decision on how to invest based upon their risk tolerance. We have questionnaires to determine an individual’s risk factors, whether it be conservative, moderate or aggressive and we make sure to revisit these things on an ongoing basis.”

Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

Who offers the plans?

Both Traditional and Roth IRAs are offered through credit unions, banks, brokerage and mutual fund companies. These plans offer endless options to invest, including individual stocks, mutual funds, etc.

 

Eligibility

Anyone with earned, W-2 income from an employer can contribute to Traditional or Roth IRAs as long as you do not exceed the maximum contribution limits.

With Traditional and Roth IRAs, you can contribute while you have earned, W-2 income from an employer. However, any retirement or pension income doesn’t count.

Tax Treatment

With a Traditional IRA, typically contributions are fully tax-deductible and grow tax deferred so when you take the money out at retirement it is taxable. With a Roth IRA, the money is not tax deductible but grows tax deferred so when the money is taken out at retirement it will be tax free.

“The trouble is that nobody knows where tax brackets are going to be down the road in retirement. Nobody can predict with any kind of certainty because they change,” explained Kevin. “That’s why I’m a big fan of a Roth.”

“A Roth IRA can be a win-win situation from a tax standpoint. Whether the tax brackets are high or low when you retire, who cares? Because your money is going to be tax free when you withdraw it. Another advantage is that at 70 ½ you are not required to start taking money out. So, we’ve seen Roth IRA’s used as an estate planning tool, as you can pass it down to your children as a part of your estate plan and they’ll be able to take that money out tax free. It’s an immense gift,” Kevin finished.

Maximum Contribution Limits

Contribution limits between the Traditional and Roth IRAs are the same; the maximum contribution is $5,500, or $6,500 for participants 50 and older.

However, if your earned income is less than $5,500 in a year, say $4,000, that is all you would be eligible to contribute.

“People always tell me ‘Wow, $5,500, I wish I could do that. I can only do $2,000.’ Great, do $2,000,” explained Kevin. “I always tell people to do what they can and then keep revisiting it and contributing more when you can. If you increase a little each year, you will be contributing $5,500 eventually and not even notice.”

Withdrawal Rules

With a Traditional IRA, withdrawals can begin at age 59 ½ without a 10% early withdrawal penalty but still with Federal and State taxes. The Federal and State government will mandate that you begin withdrawing at age 70 ½.

Even though most withdrawals are scheduled for after the age of 59 ½, a Roth IRA has no required minimum distribution age and will allow you to withdraw contributions at any time. So, if you have contributed $15,000 to a Roth IRA but the actual value of it is $20,000 due to interest growth, then the contributed $15,000 could be withdrawn with no penalty.

 

 

Employer Related Plans – 401(k) & 403(b)

A 401(k) and a 403(b) are theoretically the same thing; they share a lot of similar characteristics with a Traditional IRA as well.

Typically, with these plans, employers match employee contributions .50 on the dollar up to 6%. The key to this is to make sure you are contributing anything you can to receive a full employer match.

Who offers the plans?

The key difference with these two plans lies in if the employer is a for-profit or non-profit entity. These plans will have set options of where to invest, often a collection of investment options selected by the employer.

Eligibility

401(k)’s and 403(b)’s are open to all employees of the company for as long as they are employed there. If an employee leaves the company they are no longer eligible for these plans since 401(k) or 403(b) contributions can only be made through pay roll deductions. However, you can roll it over into an IRA and then continue to contribute on your own.

Only if you take possession of these funds would you pay taxes on them. If you have a check sent to you and deposit it into your checking account – you don’t want to do that. Then they take out federal and state taxes and tack on a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are not age 59 ½. It may be beneficial to roll a 401(k) or 403(b) left behind at a previous employer over to an IRA so it is in your control.

Tax Treatment

Similar to a Traditional IRA, contributions are made into your account on a pretax basis through payroll deduction.

Maximum Contribution Limits

The maximum contribution is $18,000, or $24,000 for participants 50 and older.

Depending on the employer, some 401(k) and 403(b) plans provide loan privileges, providing the employee the ability to borrow money from the employer without being penalized.

Withdrawal Rules

In most instances, comparable to a Traditional IRA, withdrawals can begin at age 59 ½ without a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Federal and State government will mandate that you begin withdrawing at age 70 ½. Contributions and earnings from these accounts will be taxable as ordinary income. There are certain circumstances when one can have penalty free withdrawals at age 55, check with your financial or tax advisor.

In Conclusion…

“It is important to make sure you are contributing to any employer sponsored plan available to you so that you are receiving the full employer match. If you have extra money in your budget and are looking to save additional money towards retirement, that’s where I would look at beginning a Roth IRA. Then you can say that you are deriving the benefits of both plans – contributing some money on a pretax basis, lowering federal and state taxes right now, getting the full employer contribution match and then saving some money additionally in a Roth that can provide tax free funds/distributions down the road,” finished Kevin.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2017 and was updated in January 2018 for accuracy.


10 tips to help employees boost their retirement savings

Originally posted on http://ebn.benefitnews.com.

Even if they began saving late or have yet to begin, it's important for your plan participants to know they are not alone, and there are steps they can take to kick-start their retirement plan. Merrill Lynch has provided the following tips to help boost their savings - no matter what their stage of life - and pursue the retirement they envision.

1: Focus on starting today

Especially if you're just beginning to put money away for retirement, start saving and investing as much as you can now, and let compound interest have an opportunity to work in your favor.

2: Contribute to your 401(k)

If your employer offers a traditional 401(k) plan, it allows you to contribute pre-tax money, which can be a significant advantage; you can invest more of your income without feeling it as much in your monthly budget.

3. Meet your employer's match

If your employer offers to match your 401(k) plan, make sure you contribute at least enough to take full advantage of the match.

4: Open an IRA

Consider an individual retirement account to help build your nest egg.

5: Automate your savings

Make your savings automatic each month and you'll have the opportunity to potentially grow your nest egg without having to think about it.

6: Rein in spending

Examine your budget. You might negotiate a lower rate on your car insurance or save by bringing your lunch to work instead of buying it.

7: Set a goal

Knowing how much you'll need not only makes the process of investing easier but also makes it more rewarding. Set benchmarks along the way, and gain satisfaction as you pursue your retirement goal.

8: Stash extra funds

Extra money? Don't just spend it. Every time you receive a raise, increase your contribution percentage. Dedicate at least half of the new money to your retirement savings.

9: Take advantage of catch-up contributions

One of the reasons it's important to start early if you can is that yearly contributions to IRAs and 401(k) plans are limited. The good news? Once you reach age 50, these limits rise, allowing you to try to catch up on your retirement savings. Currently, the 401(k) contribution limit is $17,500 for 2013. If you are age 50 or older the limit increases by $5,500.

10: Consider delaying Social Security as you get closer to retirement

For every year you can delay receiving a Social Security payment before you reach age 70, you can increase the amount you receive in the future." The delayed retirement credits range from 3% to 8% annually, depending on the year you were born. Pushing your retirement back even one year could significantly boost your Social Security income during retirement.


Biggest boomer retirement regrets

Originally posted by Lisa Barron on http://www.benefitspro.com

The last of the baby boomer generation will be turning 50 this year, and it's time for them to get a fix on how they are going to prepare for retirement.

Fortunately, there are valuable lessons, financial and otherwise, to be learned from those who have already reached their later years.

On the financial front, there is of course room for many regrets.  "Generally, the failure to have a plan is number one," Pete Lang, president of Lang Capital in Hilton Head and Charlotte, N.C., told BenefitsPro.

"I find people five years into retirement with no plan whatsoever."

Lang said that includes a tax plan, an income plan and an investment plan.  Otherwise, he cautioned, "All your money is slipping through your fingers."

He left out an estate plan, Lang said, because while it may be needed for a financial blueprint it is not needed to retire, as are the other three.

On taxes, according to Lang, the biggest regret is the failure to use a tax-forward plan, such as deferring Social Security. "If you don't take it at 65 or 66, you can defer it and that will minimize taxes."

Other tax regrets include withdrawing money from tax-deferred IRAs too early, and not spreading Roth IRA conversions over a period of time.

As for income, Lang goes back to Social Security deferrals. "Everybody thinks the government will go out of business. That's not the case. The checks will always continue," he said.

"If the government gets into trouble with inflation, that's another issue. But the checks will be there, and deferral is a great way to guarantee enhanced income stream."

Finally, turning to investment, Lang said the big regret is the failure to hedge against inflation. "The inflation rate over the last 15 years has averaged 2.5 percent. And when you look at portfolios, they are also taxable. You have to use a tax co-efficient.  I use 3.4 percent. So, if you're not growing at that rate you are not hedging money against inflation. If that's the case, you're losing buying power," he explained.

Given the risk inherent in equities and the current low yields on Treasuries, Lang said, "Use the standard rule to diversify a portfolio to create an income stream from safer allocations short term and in the long term from a more aggressive plan."

Clarence Kehoe, executive partner in accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin, told BenefitsPro he sees regrets over some very basic mistakes made during the peak earning years.

"From my experience, a lot of people when they get to retirement age look back and say 'why didn't I' or 'I wish I had,'" he said.

The two biggest killers are a lack of savings and a lack of understanding of how much will be needed in retirement, according to Kehoe.

"If you look at it realistically, many see a rise in income as they mature in their career, and when they see salaries go up, instead of saying now I have a chance to save, they are spending it. A lot of people don't pay attention, and don't say I have excess cash and I should save it," he said.

Going hand in hand with this is the problem of excessive borrowing. "Consumer debt has gone but the affluent person who wants a bigger house will have taken a mortgage or taken a second mortgage to take a vacation. Excess leveraging can squash the ability to save for retirement," Kehoe said.

Among other regrets sees is retiring too early. "There are people who have taken themselves out of the work force, some even in their mid- 50s, but they are robbing themselves of extra years of savings."

"A lot of people don't realize life expectancy is longer than they think, which means they need more money," he added.

Finally, Kehoe stresses the need to plan for age-related expenses. "People look at themselves unrealistically. They are not thinking about some of the extremes in older age. But even if you keep yourself in great shape your body wears down," he said.

That means more regular doctor visits, not all of which will be covered by the government or insurance, Kehoe warned.

Not all of the retirement-related regrets pertain strictly to finances, notes Daniel Kraus, an advisor and branch manager with Raymond James & Associates in Boca Raton, Fla.

One of the biggest one he sees among clients is the lack of a plan for what to do with their time. "A recent client commented, 'I'm bored. I don't know what to do with myself,'" Kraus told Benefitspro.

"After working for 50 years, he retired at 73 and said he wasn't prepared for the lack of activity. So there's a psychological impact of going into retirement that is dreadfully overlooked," he said.

Another area that can be overlooked has to do with way of life. "We do experience clients unwilling to change their lifestyle or unable to make that change," he said.

"I've got a client who's 84 and is burning down her money because she won't change her lifestyle. So that's an investment and psychology issue."

Another client can't make the tough decisions she needs to. "In her case, she knows she has to sell her real estate but she can't bring herself to price it at a price where it will sell," he explained.

"Retirement is all about making choices and compromise."

The person who isn't willing to change their lifestyle and runs out of money has regrets, said Kraus, as does the person who retired too early and finds the market is down and the person who pulled all of their money out of the market in 2008 and 2009 and put it in the bank.

His final cautionary tale: Regret is having long-term care expenses and not having planned for it.

Pointing to statistics showing that two-thirds of those over age 65 will incur long-term care costs, Kraus said, "There's nothing certain in life but death, taxes and long-term care."

 


Tools to Better Understand Your 401(k)

Originally posted September 11, 2013 by Philip Moeller on http://money.usnews.com

The Lifetime Income Disclosure Act proposed in May seems to have a reasonable objective: help people determine how much retirement income would be produced by their 401(k). For years, financial experts have touted the benefits of helping consumers understand their retirement trajectories. Otherwise, how will they know if they're on the right track to a successful retirement?

Reasonable or not, the legislation has become a perennial in the garden of consumer finance proposals. It gets introduced. Consumer groups applaud it. Investment firms say the goal has merit. Then they raise a host of operational problems in implementing such a law. Leading the list is their opposition to pretty much any government mandate. They prefer voluntary compliance.

[Read: How to Take Control of Your 401(k).]

Fidelity, the biggest provider of retirement accounts, responded last month to U.S. Department of Labor proposals to implement lifetime income disclosure rules: "Information provided in a static format does not promote participant engagement," Fidelity wrote in a letter to the labor department. "As an equally important consideration, the disclosures that would need to accompany the projections and illustrations would greatly add to both the length and complexity of participant statements, increasing the risk of reader disengagement from any of the information provided on the statement."

Please raise your hand along with me if you aren't really sure what this means. In Fidelity's defense, adding any additional required materials to customer statements may produce diminishing returns. Consumers have greeted recent expansions in 401(k) statements – aimed to provide more transparency to account fees and performance – with disinterest.

Many other investment firms also weighed in with their own objections. More fundamentally, exactly what assumptions about future investment returns and rates of inflation should be used in calculating lifetime income projections? What is the ideal or "right" rate of withdrawing assets from a plan during retirement? Even Nobel Prize winners wouldn't agree on such numbers.

What does Washington say? Here is the description provided by the Congressional Research Service of the current version of the proposed law:

"[The Lifetime Income Disclosure Act] requires such lifetime income disclosure to set forth the lifetime income stream equivalent of the participant's or beneficiary's total benefits accrued. Defines a lifetime income stream equivalent of the total benefits accrued as the monthly annuity payment the participant or beneficiary would receive if those total accrued benefits were used to provide lifetime income streams to a qualified joint and survivor annuitant.

"Directs the Secretary of Labor to: (1) issue a model lifetime income disclosure, written in a manner which can be understood by the average plan participant; and (2) prescribe assumptions that plan administrators may use in converting total accrued benefits into lifetime income stream equivalents."

[Read: 3 Highly Personal Threats to Your Retirement.]

Are we all clear on this?

In the interest of plain language – whether driven by government mandate or voluntary industry compliance – employees and retirees with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts would be better off with clear answers to practical questions. Here are 10 basic retirement plan questions that merit clear and helpful answers, and some tips about trends and where to find answers.

1. Based on your current 401(k) contribution level and investment results, what kind of retirement is in store for you?

The Employment Benefit Research Institute does an annual retirement confidence survey that contains troubling conclusions about the state of retirement prospects for many Americans. The 2013 survey results can be found at http://www.ebri.org/surveys/rcs/2013/.

2. Do you know what your Social Security benefits would be for different claiming ages?

The Social Security Administration has a tool to provide you access to your earnings history and projected benefits at www.ssa.gov/myaccount.

3. Are you saving enough?

Most people should be saving 10 to 15 percent of their salaries, with higher levels needed for those who wait until their 40s to get serious about retirement savings. Yet most people are saving far less.

4. How much money do you have?

Make a date with yourself to spend an hour with your latest plan statement. It may be time very well spent.

5. What are you paying in fees?

Investment management companies have been steadily lowering retirement plan fees in response to sustained criticism and competition from Vanguard and other low-fee investment firms. The Department of Labor has a primer on retirement plan fees at www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/undrstndgrtrmnt.html.

6. How has your account performed?

See the advice for question #4.

7. How does your 401(k) performance compare with other investment choices you can make within your plan?

This will require more work on your part, but your plan statement and usually your plan's website will include tools to let you look at investment returns of the various funds and other investment choices offered by the plan.

[See: 10 Things to Watch When Interest Rates Go Up.]

8. How does your performance compare with investment results in the plans of other companies?

Check out BrightScope at www.brightscope.com or Morningstar at www.morningstar.com/Cover/Funds.aspx.

9. What is your employer's match policy, how does it compare with industry standards and are you taking full advantage of the match?

Smart401k provides a helpful discussion of employer matches at http://www.smart401k.com/Content/retail/resource-center/retirement-investing-basics/company-match.

10. If you change jobs, what are you going to do with your current employer's 401(k)?

Many people cash in their retirement plans when they change jobs instead of rolling them over into new plans or IRAs. Most of them are making a mistake.