I’m routinely asked questions about what taxes and rules apply when a distribution occurs from a retirement account. Here are the top ten rules you should know about distributions from retirement accounts.
The First 5 Facts Apply to Traditional IRA and 401(k) Accounts.
1. Early Withdrawal Penalty. A distribution from a traditional IRA or 401(k) before the account owner reaches 59 1/2 causes a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the amount distributed. This is in addition to taxes owed on the amount distributed. So, for example, if you take a $10,000 distribution from your traditional IRA at age 45 then you will be subject to a $1,000 penalty and you will also receive a 1099-R from your IRA custodian and will need to report $10,000 of income on your tax returns. Once you reach age 59 1/2, the 10% early withdrawal penalty does not apply.
2. Required Minimum Distributions. Whether you need the money or not, at age 70 1/2, the IRS requires a traditional IRA or 401(k) owner (unless still employed by employer 401(k)) to begin taking distributions from their retirement account. These distributions are subject to tax and the account owner will receive a 1099-R of the amount distributed that will be included on their tax return. The amount of the distribution is based on the person’s age and the account’s value. For example, someone with a $100K IRA who has turned 70 1/2 and is taking their first RMD would take $3,639 (3.79%).
3. Avoid Taking Large Distributions In One-Year. Because distributions from traditional retirement accounts are subject to tax at the time of distribution, it is wise to avoid taking too much in one year as a large distribution can push your distribution income and your other income into a higher tax bracket. For example, if you have employment and or rental/investment income of $50,000 annually then you are in a joint income tax bracket of 15% on additional income. However, if you take $100,000 as a lump-sum that year this will push your annual income to $150K and you will be in a 28% income tax bracket. If you could instead break up that $100K over two tax years then you could stay in 15% to 25% tax bracket and could reduce your overall tax liability. In short, only pull out what you need when you need it to lesson the immediate year’s tax liability.
4. Distribution Withholding. Most distributions from an employer 401(k) or pension plan (including solo K), before the age of 59 1/2, will be subject to a 20% withholding that will be sent to the IRS in anticipation of tax and penalty that will be owed. In the case of an early distribution from an IRA, a 10% withholding for the penalty amount can be made but you can also elect out of this automatic withholding provided you make an estimated tax payment or that you will otherwise be current on your tax liability.
5. If You Have Tax Losses, Consider Converting to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k). When you have tax losses on your tax return you may want to consider using those losses to offset income that would arise when you convert a traditional IRA or 401(k) to a Roth account. Whenever you convert a traditional account to a Roth account, you must pay tax on the amount of the conversion. In the end though, you’ll have a Roth account that grows entirely tax-free and that you don’t pay taxes on when you distribute the money. Using the losses when they are available is a good way to get your Traditional retirement funds over to Roth.
The Final 5 Rules are For Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.
1. Roth IRAs Are Exempt from RMD. While traditional IRA owners must take required minimum distributions (“RMD”) when the account owner reaches age 70 1/2, Roth IRAs are exempt from RMD rules. That’s a great perk and allows you to keep your money invested as long as possible.
2. Roth 401(k)s Must Take RMD. Roth 401(k) designated accounts are subject to RMD. This is a confusing rule since Roth IRAs are NOT subject to RMD. Such is the tax code. How can you avoid this? Simply roll your Roth 401(k) funds over to a Roth IRA when you reach 70 1/2.
3. Distributions of Contributions Are Always Tax-Free. Distributions of contributions to a Roth IRA are always tax-free. Regardless of age, you can always take a distribution of your Roth IRA contributions without penalty or tax.
4. Distributions of Roth IRA Earnings. In order to take a tax-free distribution from a Roth IRA, you must be age 59 1/2 or older and you must have had a Roth IRA for five years or longer. As long as those two criteria are met, all amounts (contributions and earnings) may be distributed from a Roth IRA tax free. If your funds in the Roth IRA are from a conversion, then you must have converted the funds at least 5 years ago and must be 59 1/2 or older in order to take a tax-free distribution.
5. Delay Roth Distributions. Roth retirement accounts are the most tax efficient way to earn income in the U.S. As a result, it is best to distribute and use other funds and assets that are at your disposal before using the funds built up in your Roth account as those funds aren’t as tax efficient while invested.
By: Mat Sorensen, Attorney and Author of The Self Directed IRA Handbook
All retirement account owners must be familiar with the required minimum distribution (“RMD”) rules applicable to their accounts. These rules require you, in most instances, to take partial distributions from your retirement account when you reach age 70 ½. And, surprise, the rules for Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401(k)s differ. In fact, even 401(k)s where you are a 5% or greater owner have different rules than 401(k)s where you aren’t an owner. Thanks, Congress.
So what rules apply to Solo 401(k) owners? Well, generally speaking, you must begin taking distributions from your Solo K when you reach age 70 ½. Despite what you may think or presume, there are three quirks to be aware of when it comes to RMD and Solo 401(k):
Still Working Exception Does Not Work on Solo Ks
There is a general RMD 401(k) rule which states that even after age 70 ½, you are not required to take distributions from an employer 401(k) when you are still working for that employer. However, this exception does not apply to account holders or their spouses who own 5% or more of the company. In other words, business owners who use a Solo 401(k) will be forced to take RMD from their Solo 401(k) after age 70 ½ even if they are still working in the business.
Roth 401(k) Funds are Subject to RMD
RMD applies to Roth 401(k)s. I know what you’re thinking, “Wait, but why would RMDs apply to Roth 401(k)s when Roth IRAs are exempt?” Because Congress said so. I know, it doesn’t make much sense, Roth 401(k) distributions at retirement will be tax-free, like Roth IRA distributions, and the IRS will not receive any revenue from the distribution so why treat Roth 401(k)’s differently? There’s not a good answer, but you should write your Congressperson or Senator and ask. In the meantime, if you’re 70 ½ and you have funds in a Roth 401(k) which you don’t want distributed, you can roll those Roth 401(k) funds out to a Roth IRA and you can avoid the distribution requirement by letting those funds sit in your Roth IRA where no RMD is required. Checkmate, IRS.
Every 401(k) Must Have RMD Taken, No Aggregating
Every 401(k) account you have must take RMD. So, for example, if you have a Solo 401(k) and a 401(k) account with an old employer then you need to take RMD from each 401(k) account. You cannot aggregate those accounts together and take RMD out of one to satisfy both RMD requirements. This aggregating is allowed in Traditional IRAs but unfortunately does not work with different 401(k) plan accounts. If taking RMDs from multiple accounts is getting too complex, you can roll the old employer 401(k) to the Solo K or to a Traditional IRA (or Roth IRA if Roth 401(k) funds) to consolidate your accounts and your RMD requirements.
Make sure take RMD when you are required to do so. Failure to take RMD results in a 50% penalty tax on the amount you failed to take. As a result, it’s critical that you understand the RMD rules for each retirement account you hold. If you have made a mistake though, the IRS does have penalty waiver programs whereby you can correct some failed RMDs and request a waiver of the penalty due. This doesn’t work in every instance, but if you’ve failed to take RMD ask your tax lawyer or accountant on whether a penalty waiver could apply in your instance.
If you’ve inherited an IRA from a parent or other loved one, it is likely that you have a beneficiary IRA. These can be powerful accounts, but you need to understand the required minimum distribution (“RMD”) rules for your beneficiary IRA to properly utilize it. The inherited IRA may be a traditional or Roth IRA and there are three different distribution options you may elect when you inherit the IRA.
You will have three distribution options upon the death of your loved one to receive the funds from their IRA. In general, the best option is the “Life Expectancy Method” as it allows you to delay the withdrawal of funds from the IRA, and allows the money invested to grow tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth). The three options are outlined fully below:
1. Lump Sum
The first option is to simply take a lump-sum and be taxed on the full distribution. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty (regardless of your age or their deceased owner), but you are taxed on the amount distributed if it is a traditional IRA. You’re also giving up the tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth) benefits of the account. Don’t take this option. It’s the worst tax and financial option you have.
2. Life Expectancy Method
The Life Expectancy Method is the best option. Under this option, you take distributions from the inherited IRA over your life-time based on the value of the account. These distributions are required for traditional IRAs and even for inherited Roth IRAs. For example, if you inherited a $100,000 IRA at age 50, you would have to take about $3,000 a year as a required minimum distribution each year. The RMD amount changes each year as you age and as the account value grows or decreases. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty. Traditional beneficiary IRA distributions are taxable to the beneficiary, and Roth IRA distributions are tax-free. And yes, beneficiary Roth IRAs are subject to RMD even though there is no RMD for regular Roth IRAs.
3. 5-Year Method
This option is available to all inherited Roth accounts, but is only available to inherited traditional IRAs where the deceased account owner was under age 70 1/2 at the date of their death. Under this option, the beneficiary IRA is not subject to RMD. However, it must be fully distributed by December 31st of the fifth year following the year of the account owner’s death. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty, and distributions are subject to tax. Again, this option is only available to traditional accounts.
Investing with a Self-Directed Beneficiary IRA
Yes, you can self-direct your beneficiary IRA. Before you do, make sure you understand the amount of funds you’ll need to take as an RMD, and that you will have available cash in the account to cover the those RMDs. As I described above, assume you are 50 and inherited a beneficiary IRA for $100,000. You will need to take annual distributions of around $3,000. So, if you invest all of the $100,000 into an illiquid asset, then you will be unable to take RMDs and force the IRA account to pay stiff penalties. Consequently, when making a self-directed investment from a beneficiary IRA, you must take into account the amount of the investment, the total value of the account, and the time-line of the investment (when will it generate cash back to the IRA). If you inherited the $100,000 account above, you may decide to only invest $70,000 of the beneficiary IRA into an illiquid investment (e.g. real estate or private company), while leaving the other $30,000 to be invested into liquid investments like publicly-traded stocks, CDs, cash or mutual funds. This will leave funds available for RMD until such time as the illiquid investment generates income or is sold for profit.
Stretching out the benefits of an inherited IRA can be powerful, but make sure you plan for RMDs before you make any self-directed investment from your beneficiary IRA.
Do you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.
Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.
10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses
Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.
1. Who can the IRA money be used for?
Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.
2. What schools qualify?
Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.
3. What expenses qualify?
There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.
4. How much is exempt?
The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.
Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.
Her expenses for the year are as follows:
- Tuition: $22,000
- Room and Board: $13,000
- Books: $1,000
- Supplies: $500
- Equipment: $500
- Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000
Jane received the following aid:
- Federal Grant: $2,400
- Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
- Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
- Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
- Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600
You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.
For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.
Many investors and financial professionals are familiar with the primary benefits of a Roth IRA: that the plans investments grow tax-free and come out tax-free. But if tax-free investing isn’t enough to get you excited, rest assured, there are more benefits to the Roth IRA. I’ll note just three more in this article.
Remember, Roth IRAs are for nearly everyone with earned income. They’re not restricted to high income earners. Check out my prior article here if you’re unfamiliar with the back-door Roth IRA. Okay, now lets over the other perks of Roth IRAs.
No Required Minimum Distributions
First, Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD. Traditional retirement plan owners are subject to rules known as Required Minimum Distribution rules which require the account owner to start taking distributions and paying tax on the distributions (since traditional plan) when the account owner reaches the age of 70 ½. Not being subject to RMD rules allows the Roth IRA to keep accumulating tax free income (free of capital gain or other taxes on its investment returns) and allows the account to continue to accumulate tax free income during the account owner’s life time. Learn more about the facts and fiction about IRA RMDs here.
Spousal Rollover: The Best Asset to Leave to Your Spouse
Second, a surviving spouse who is the beneficiary of a Roth IRA can continue contributing to that Roth IRA or can combine that Roth IRA into their own Roth IRA. Allowing the spouse beneficiary to take over the account allows additional tax free growth on investments in the Roth IRA account. Non spouse beneficiaries (e.g. children of Roth IRA owner) cannot make additional contributions to the inherited Roth IRA and cannot combine it with their own Roth IRA account. The non-spouse beneficiary becomes subject to required minimum distribution rules but can delay out required distributions up to 5 years from the year of the Roth IRA account owner’s death and is able to continue to keep the tax free return treatment of the retirement account for 5 years after the death of the owner. The second option for non-spouse beneficiaries is to take withdrawals of the account over the life time expectancy of the beneficiary (the younger the beneficiary the longer they can delay taking money out of the Roth IRA). The lifetime expectancy option is usually the best option for a non-spouse beneficiary to keep as much money in the Roth IRA for tax free returns and growth.
Tax and Penalty Free Withdrawals Before Age 59 ½ On What You Put In
Third, Roth IRA owners are not subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty for distributions they take before age 59 ½ on amounts that are comprised of contributions or conversions. Growth and earning are subject to the early withdrawal penalty and taxes too, but you can always take out the amounts you contributed to your Roth IRA or the amounts that you converted without paying taxes or penalties (note that conversions have a 5 year wait period before you can take out funds penalty and tax free). This makes the Roth IRA the most powerful savings account out there because you can take out what you put in without penalty or tax for whatever reason you may have as hardship is not required. Traditional IRAs have no such benefits.
Roth IRAs are a great tool for many investors. Keep in mind that there are qualification rules to being eligible for a Roth IRA that leave out many high income individuals. However, you can convert your traditional retirement plan dollars to a Roth IRA (sometimes known as a backdoor Roth IRA) as the conversion rules do not have an income qualification level requirement on converted amounts to Roth IRAs. This conversion option has in essence made Roth IRAs available to everyone regardless of income.