Distributions from a 401(k) to its owner are subject to a 20% withholding tax whereas distributions from an IRA are not subject to a withholding tax. As a result, any amounts distributed from a 401(k) to its owner will be reduced by 20% and that 20% will be sent to the IRS in expectation of the taxes that will be due from the account owner for the distribution. Any amounts distributed from an IRA, however, are not subject to the 20% withholding as the IRA owner can elect out of withholding. The discrepancy in the rules is one advantage of using an IRA in retirement as opposed to a 401(k) since the amounts distributed from the IRA can be received in their entirely. Keep in mind, the tax owed on a distribution from an IRA or 401(k) is the exact same. The difference is when you are required to pay it. In both instances you will receive a 1099-R from your custodian/administrator but in the 401(k) distribution you are required to set aside and effectively pre-pay the taxes owed.
The 401(k) Withholding Rule in Practice
Let’s walk though a common situation that outlines the issue. Sarah is 64 and has a 401(k). She would like to distribute $100,000 from the 401(k). She contacts her 401(k) administrator and is told that on a $100,000 distribution they will send her $80,000 and that $20,000 will be sent to the IRS for her to cover the 20% withholding requirement. Since this 20% withholding requirement does not apply to IRAs, Sarah decides to roll/transfer the $100,000 from her 401(k) directly to an IRA. Once the funds arrive at the IRA, Sarah takes the $100,000 distribution from the IRA and there is no mandatory 20% withholding so she actually receives $100,000 in total. Keep in mind, Sarah will still owe taxes on the $100,000 distribution from the IRA and she will receive a 1099-R to include on her tax return. That being said. Sarah has given herself the ability to access all of the amounts distributed for her retirement account without the need for sending withholding to the IRS at the time of distribution.
It’s that simple. Don’t take distributions from a 401(k) and subject yourself to the 20% withholding tax when you can roll/transfer those 401(k) funds to an IRA and receive the entire distribution desired without a 20% withholding.