The original idea behind tax-deferred savings was to provide Americans a tax break in order to encourage us to save towards retirement. Individuals could stash away money tax-free while they were working and then take it out again once they retired, when they were presumably earning less and at a lower tax rate. The government determined that once you reached 70 1/2 you have until April 1 of the next tax year to take your first distribution. If you are older than that, you only have until the end of the year.
Officially, it's called a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) and applies to all employee sponsored retirement plans. That includes profit-sharing plans, 401(K) plans, Self Employed Persons IRAs (SEPS), SARSEPS and SIMPLE IRAs, as well as contributory or traditional IRAs. The individual owner of each plan is responsible for computing the MRD and taking it from their accounts. There are stiff IRS penalties (of up to 50 percent of the total MRD) levied on those who fail to comply.
The RMD is calculated by taking the total amount of money and securities in each IRA, or other tax-deferred plan, as of December 31 of the prior year and dividing it by a life expectancy factor that the Internal Revenue Service publishes in tables.
Remember that you must compute your RMD for every tax-deferred account you own. However, you can withdraw your entire distribution from just one account if you like. You can always withdraw more than the MRD from your accounts, but remember that whatever you withdraw is taxed at your tax bracket. If you make an error and withdraw too much in one year, it cannot be applied to the following year. And before you ask, no, you can't roll the RMD over into another tax-deferred savings account.
What happens if you forget or for some reason you cannot take your RMD in the year it is required? You might be able to avoid the 50 percent penalty if you can establish that the shortfall in distributions was the result of a reasonable error and that you have taken steps to remedy the situation. You must fill out Form 5329 and attach a letter of explanation asking the IRS that the penalty be waived.
For those who have an Inherited IRA, you too may have to take a RMD before the end of the year. The calculations and rules are somewhat different.
Generally, if you have received the inheritance this year, as the beneficiary, you have the choice of taking one lump sum, taking the entire amount within five years or spreading out the distributions over the course of your life expectancy, starting no later than one year following the former owner's death. The IRS produces a table for use by beneficiaries in Publication 590 as well.
Many retirees have a hard time remembering to take their MRD each year.
It is a good idea to ask your money manager or your accountant to handle the distribution or at least to remind you each year when the RMD is due. The last thing you want to do is give back to the IRS half your hard-earned savings each year.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.