After decades of squirreling away money in tax-advantaged retirement accounts, investors entering their seventies have to flip the script. Starting at age 70½, Uncle Sam requires taxpayers to draw down their retirement account savings through annual required minimum distributions. Not only do you need to calculate how much must be withdrawn each year, you must figure and pay the tax on the distributions.
There’s no time like the present to get up to speed on the RMD rules. Once you know the basic rules, graduate to smart strategies that can whittle down these taxable distributions and make the most of the money that you must withdraw. Uncle Sam may not give you a choice on taking these distributions, but you do have options for handling the money. “Retirement income planning is as much about managing distributions as investment income,” says Rob Williams, vice president of financial planning for the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
RMD Basics No. 1: When is your First RMD Due?
First, let’s start with the basics. Original owners of traditional IRAs are subject to required minimum distributions when they turn 70½. The RMD is taxed as ordinary income, with a top tax rate of 37% for 2019.
You must take your first RMD by April 1 of the year after you turn 70½. The second and all subsequent RMDs must be taken by December 31.
An account owner who delays the first RMD will have to take two distributions in one year. For instance, a taxpayer who turns 70½ in March 2019 has until April 1, 2020, to take his first RMD. But he’ll have to take his second RMD by December 31, 2020.
To determine the best time to take your first RMD, compare your tax bills under two scenarios: taking the first RMD in the year you hit 70½, and delaying until the following year and doubling up RMDs. “It’s important to look at whether [doubling up] will push you into a higher tax bracket,” says Christine Russell, senior manager of retirement and annuities for TD Ameritrade, and whether it will subject you to higher income-related Medicare premiums. Doubling up could be the right strategy, however, if you’re retiring in the year you turn 70½ and your wages plus the first RMD would push you into a higher tax bracket.
RMD Basics No. 2: How to Calculate RMDs
To calculate your RMD, divide your year-end account balance from the previous year by the IRS life-expectancy factor based on your birthday in the current year. For most people, the appropriate factor is found in Table III toward the end of IRS Publication 590-B. Let’s say an IRA owner with an account balance of $750,000 as of December 31, 2018, turns 72 in 2019. The RMD for 2019 will be about $29,297. (Calculate your 2019 RMD right now.)
If you own multiple IRAs, you need to calculate the RMD for each account, but you can take the total RMD from just one IRA or any combination of IRAs. For instance, if you have an IRA that’s smaller than your total RMD, you can empty out the small IRA and take the remainder of the RMD from a larger IRA.
A retiree who still owns 401(k)s at age 70½ is subject to RMDs on those accounts, too. But unlike IRAs, if you own multiple 401(k)s, you must calculate and take each 401(k)’s RMD separately. A retired Roth 401(k) owner is also subject to RMDs from that account at age 70½, though the distributions would be tax-free.
You can take your annual RMD in a lump sum or piecemeal, perhaps in monthly or quarterly payments. Delaying the RMD until year-end, however, gives your money more time to grow tax-deferred. Either way, be sure to withdraw the total amount by the deadline.
RMD Basics No. 3: Penalties for Missing RMD Deadlines
What happens if you miss the deadline? You could get hit with one of Uncle Sam’s harshest penalties—50% of the shortfall. If you were supposed to take out $15,000 but only took $11,000, for example, you’d owe a $2,000 penalty plus income tax on the shortfall. “Fifty percent is a hefty price to pay,” says Williams.
But this harshest of penalties may be forgiven—if you ask for relief. “Fortunately, the IRS is relatively lenient, as long as once you realized you missed it, you take your RMD,” says Tim Steffen, director of advanced planning at Robert W. Baird & Co. You can request relief by filing Form 5329, with a letter of explanation including the action you took to fix the mistake.
One way to avoid forgetting: Ask your IRA custodian to automatically withdraw RMDs. At Fidelity Investments, “about 50% have chosen to automate” RMDs, says Joe Gaynor, Fidelity’s director of retirement and income solutions.
RMD Strategy No. 1: Work Waiver
Now that we’ve covered the basic RMD rules, it’s time to look at all the options for minimizing those required distributions.
First, check to see if you have an RMD escape route. Every rule has an exception, and the RMD rules are no different. There are a number of instances where you can reduce RMDs—or avoid them altogether.
If you are still working beyond age 70½ and don’t own 5% or more of the company, you can avoid taking RMDs from your current employer’s 401(k) until you retire. You must still take RMDs from old 401(k)s you own and from your traditional IRAs.
But there’s a workaround for that: If your current employer’s 401(k) allows money to be rolled into the plan, says Kelly Famiglietta, vice president and partner of retirement plan services at financial-services firm Charles Stephen, “you could roll in the other accounts to postpone all RMDs.” And, voila!, you won’t have to take any RMDs until you actually retire.
RMD Strategy No. 2: Roth Rollovers
For those who own Roth 401(k)s, there’s a no-brainer RMD solution: Roll the money into a Roth IRA, which has no RMDs for the original owner. Assuming you are 59½ or older and have owned at least one Roth IRA for at least five years, the money rolled to the Roth IRA can be tapped tax-free.
Another Roth solution to say goodbye to RMDs: Convert traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA. You will owe tax on the conversion at your ordinary income tax rate. But lowering your traditional IRA balance reduces its future RMDs, and the money in the Roth IRA can stay put as long as you like. “It’s something to consider, particularly now that tax rates are lower,” says Scott Thoma, principal at Edward Jones.
Converting IRA money to a Roth is a great strategy to start early, but you can do conversions even after you turn 70½. You must take your RMD first. Then you can convert all or part of the remaining balance to a Roth IRA. You can smooth out the conversion tax bill by converting smaller amounts over a number of years.
“Roth conversions are a hedge against future increases in taxes, and they provide flexibility,” says Williams. For instance, while traditional IRA distributions count when calculating taxation of Social Security benefits and Medicare premium surcharges for high-income taxpayers, Roth IRA distributions do not. And if you need extra income unexpectedly, tapping your Roth won’t increase your taxable income.
RMD Strategy No. 3: Carve Outs
About five years ago, a new option known as the qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, arrived. You can carve out up to $130,000 or 25% of your retirement account balance, whichever is less, and invest that money in this special type of deferred income annuity. Compared with an immediate annuity, a QLAC requires a smaller upfront investment for larger payouts that start years later. The money invested in the QLAC is no longer included in the IRA balance and thus is not subject to RMDs. Payments from the QLAC will be taxable, but because it is longevity insurance, those payments won’t kick in until about age 85.
Another carve-out strategy applies to 401(k)s. If your 401(k) holds company stock, you could take advantage of a tax-saving opportunity known as net unrealized appreciation, says Russell. You roll all the money out of the 401(k) to a traditional IRA, but split off the employer stock and move it to a taxable account, paying ordinary income tax on the cost basis of the employer stock. You’ll still have RMDs from the traditional IRA, but they will be lower since you removed the company stock from the mix. And any profit from selling the shares in the taxable account now qualifies for lower long-term capital-gains tax rates.
RMD Strategy No. 4: Younger Spouse
In the beginning of this story, we gave you the standard RMD calculation that most original owners will use—but original owners with younger spouses can trim their RMDs. If you are married to someone who is more than ten years younger, divide your year-end account balance by the factor listed at the intersection of your age and your spouse’s age in Table II of IRS Publication 590-B—rather than Table III—to calculate your RMD. Table II factors in the younger spouse’s longer life expectancy, reducing your required distribution.
For instance, if you are 72 and married to a 59-year-old, Table II tells you to use a factor of 27.7. If your IRA was worth $500,000 at year-end 2018, you’d take out about $18,051 in 2019. That’s about $1,480 less than if you used the calculation that didn’t take into account your younger spouse’s life expectancy.
RMD Strategy No. 5: Pro Rata Payout
If you can’t reduce your RMD, you may be able to reduce the tax bill on the RMD—that is, if you have made and kept records of nondeductible contributions to your traditional IRA, says Steffen. In that case, a portion of the RMD can be considered as coming from those nondeductible contributions—and will therefore be tax-free.
Figure the ratio of your nondeductible contributions to your entire IRA balance. For example, if you contributed a total of $200,000 to your IRA and $20,000 was nondeductible, 10% of a distribution from the IRA will be tax-free. Each time you take a distribution, you’ll need to recalculate the tax-free portion until all the nondeductible contributions have been accounted for.
RMD Strategy No. 6: Re-invest
If you can’t reduce or avoid your RMD, look for ways to make the most of that required distribution. You can build the RMD into your cash flow as an income source. But if your expenses are covered with other sources, such as Social Security benefits and pension payouts, put those distributions to work for you. After all, “the IRS isn’t telling you to spend the money,” Williams says. “It just wants the tax dollars from you.”
While you can’t reinvest the RMD in a tax-advantaged retirement account, you can stash it in a deposit account or reinvest it in a taxable brokerage account. If your liquid cash cushion is sufficient, consider tax-efficient investing options, such as municipal bonds. Index funds don’t throw off a lot of capital gains and can help keep your future tax bills in check.
If you’re selling investments to satisfy your RMD, review your portfolio’s allocation. “You could use the RMD to reallocate,” says Gaynor. Meet the RMD by selling off investments in overweighted categories, and you’ll rebalance your portfolio back to your target allocations at the same time.
RMD Strategy No. 7: Transfer In-Kind
Remember that the RMD doesn’t have to be in cash. You can ask your IRA custodian to transfer shares to a taxable brokerage account. So you could move $10,000 worth of shares over to a brokerage account to satisfy a $10,000 RMD. Be sure the value of the shares on the date of the transfer covers the RMD amount. The date of transfer value serves as the shares’ cost basis in the taxable account.
The in-kind transfer strategy is particularly useful when the market is down. You avoid locking in a loss on an investment that may be suffering a temporary price decline. But the strategy is also useful when the market is in positive territory if you feel the investment will continue to grow in value in the future, or if it’s an investment that you just can’t bear to sell. In any case, if the investment falls in value while in the taxable account, you could harvest a tax loss.
RMD Strategy No. 8: Give to Charity
If you are charitably inclined, consider a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD. This move allows IRA owners age 70½ or older to transfer up to $100,000 directly to charity each year. The QCD can count as some or all of the owner’s RMD, and the QCD amount won’t show up in adjusted gross income.
The QCD is a particularly smart move for those who take the standard deduction and would miss out on writing off charitable contributions. But even itemizers can benefit from a QCD. Lower adjusted gross income makes it easier to take advantage of certain deductions, such as the write-off for medical expenses that exceed 10% of AGI in 2019. Because the QCD’s taxable amount is zero, the move can help any taxpayer mitigate tax on Social Security or surcharges on Medicare premiums.
Say your RMD is $20,000. You could transfer the whole $20,000 to charity and satisfy your RMD while adding $0 to your AGI. Or you could do a nontaxable QCD of $15,000 and then take a taxable $5,000 distribution to satisfy the RMD.
The first dollars out of an IRA are considered to be the RMD until that amount is met. If you want to do a QCD of $10,000 that will count toward a $20,000 RMD, be sure to make the QCD move before taking the full RMD out.
Of course, you can do QCDs in excess of your RMD up to that $100,000 limit per year. “A QCD can be your RMD, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Steffen.
RMD Strategy No. 9: RMD Solution
You can also use your RMD to simplify tax payments. With the “RMD solution,” you can ask your IRA custodian to withhold enough money from your RMD to pay your entire tax bill on all your income sources for the year. That saves you the hassle of making quarterly estimated tax payments and can help you avoid underpayment penalties.
Because withholding is considered to be evenly paid throughout the year, this strategy works even if you wait to take your RMD in December. By waiting until later in the year to take the RMD, you’ll have a better estimate of your actual tax bill and can fine-tune how much to withhold to cover that bill.