Acknowledging the need for and value of professional guidance in the long-term management of investment assets, the Internal Revenue Code allows investment advisory fees to be deducted as IRC Section 212 deductible expenses. Additionally, tax law also allows for Section 212 deductible expenses to be paid directly from the retirement account which accrued the expense, without fear of being treated as a taxable distribution (potentially subject to early withdrawal penalties) or a “prohibited transaction” (which could otherwise disqualify the entire account). However, while the benefits of investment advisory services are implicitly acknowledged in current tax law, the same is not true of financial planning services; unfortunately, financial planning fees cannot be paid from a retirement account without triggering the aforementioned adverse tax consequences… even though they may be equally (if not more) important in helping someone accomplish their long-term financial goals!
In this guest post, Derek Tharp – our new Research Associate at Kitces.com, and a Ph.D. candidate in the financial planning program at Kansas State University – delves into why it’s problematic that financial planning fees can “only” be paid from after-tax accounts, the behavioral advantages of being able to pay financial planning fees from a retirement account instead, and explores how modifying current tax rules could allow more consumers to access financial advisors (while also creating better incentives for all advisors to be able to give advice that aligns with the clients’ best interests).
The reason why the source of financial planning fees matters is Shefrin and Thaler’s mental accounting framework, which finds that consumption is broadly divided into three buckets: current income, current assets, and future income (or the assets that support future income). We know from behavioral research that people treat these “buckets” of money differently, where certain purchases are more or less likely to occur from one bucket versus another (depending on the nature of the expense). When it comes to financial planning services in particular, which is generally associated with “long-term” planning, mental accounting alignment suggests that consumers would be most comfortable paying such expenses from the “long-term” (i.e., future income) bucket. However, as noted earlier, paying financial planning fees from a retirement account isn’t permitted… unless the financial planning services are bundled into a primarily-investment-management AUM fee, or a product commission paid with IRA dollars, which isn’t always feasible or desirable.
There are alternative options that could be considered for giving consumers more control over their future income assets, though. One simple solution is to allow consumers to write checks or transfer funds to licensed financial advisors directly from their retirement accounts, and make the expense permissible (without adverse tax consequences) as long as it’s paid to a (registered?) financial advisor. Other possibilities include giving consumers greater flexibility to roll money out of employer-sponsored retirement plans (similar to current HSA rules), or opening up paths for consumers to pay for services without rolling their funds out of employer-sponsored plans in the first place. Though, perhaps the simplest solution of all is to modify IRC Section 212 to recognize financial planning fees, which would both allow financial planning fees to be deductible when paid from an after-tax account, and also to be “safely” paid pre-tax from a traditional qualified account (perhaps with a complementary safe harbor under Section 4975 to make it clear that “comprehensive” financial planning fees are not prohibited transactions).
But ultimately, if the aim of tax policy is to facilitate better outcomes for consumers, it’s worth acknowledging that the current framework unintentionally exhibits poor behavioral characteristics by limiting the ability of consumers to pay for long-term financial planning advice from accounts that are ear-marked for long-term goals (or forcing those financial planning fees to be bundled with AUM fees or product commissions that may not be practical or feasible in all situations)!