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Figure out the damage
For a lot of people, RMDs are relatively painless because they are pulling out money from savings that they need and paying the required taxes. But even if you think you are complying with the RMD rules automatically, it is wise to figure out the requirements using the IRS RMD tables to protect yourself from the ire of the IRS. Choose the correct table based on your situation:
- Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy. Pick Table II if your spouse is more than 10 years younger than you are and the sole beneficiary of your account if you should die.
- Uniform Lifetime. Use Table III if your spouse is not your sole beneficiary or if your spouse is not more than 10 years younger than you are.
- Single Life Expectancy. Table I is for sole beneficiaries who inherit an IRA from someone other than a spouse.
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RMDs aren't optional
The IRS levies a harsh penalty on people who get it wrong.
If you fail to withdraw the full amount of the RMD or you miss the deadline, the IRS will tax the amount you failed to withdraw by 50%.
If you have $1 million in your IRA, the IRS says that in the first year, you must take out $36,496 and pay taxes on it. If you fail to do that, you'll owe a 50% penalty to the tune of $18,248. Ugh!
What if you fell ill and overlooked the deadline or otherwise just inadvertently screwed up? The IRS will cut you a break and waive the penalty as long as you can establish that the error was "reasonable" and you are taking steps to fix the problem. To qualify for relief, you must file Form 5329 and attach a letter of explanation.
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IRS cuts first-timers a break -- sort of
You must take your first RMD for the year in which you turn age 70½, but the first distribution and tax payment can be delayed until April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½. For all subsequent years, you must take the RMD by Dec. 31.
Yes, this gives you a little wiggle room, but if you delay taking your first RMD until next year, you'll owe 2 RMDs in a single year, warns Tom Hamlin, founder and CEO of Somerset Wealth Strategies. He points out that may not be all bad, especially if you have a year when your taxes are going to be low. For instance, you retired this year and you are taking it easy. You aren't earning income, and you haven't yet claimed Social Security. In that case, you might owe very little in taxes, and even two RMDs in the same year won't cause you to owe the IRS an exorbitant amount.
But be careful. Before you decide when to withdraw the RMD, figure out your tax bracket -- or get your tax adviser to do it. If taking 2 RMDs in the same year is going to drive your income above $75,300 (assuming you're married and filing jointly), it is going to push you from the 15% tax bracket to the 25% bracket. "That is a 67% tax increase -- a quantum leap," Hamlin says.
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Ways to mitigate the pain
If you don't want or need to spend the money from your tax-advantaged account right away, one good way to reduce the tax bite is to take the money out of your IRA before you turn 70 ½.
You can do this in a variety of ways:
- Spend the money in your IRA or other account instead of taking Social Security. This works particularly well if it allows you to delay taking your Social Security, letting it grow 8% a year between ages 66 and 70. This is a better return on your money than you're likely to find anywhere else.
- Do a Roth conversion. If you withdraw money from your RMD and convert it to a Roth IRA, you'll have to pay taxes, but as Hamlin says, "It defuses the tax-deferred time bomb."
- Buy a life insurance policy. Use the money in your IRA to buy a second-to-die life insurance policy with your heirs as your beneficiaries. Or buy a first-to-die policy to protect yourself or a spouse from losing income when the other spouse dies. The money from the life insurance policy is tax free.
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A QLAC can pay off
A qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, is an IRS-approved annuity bought within your IRA that allows you to delay payment of RMDs on that portion until no later than age 85. The purchase amount is limited to 25% of your IRA, up to a maximum of $125,000.
"You spread taxation over time," Hamlin says. "You put it off until tomorrow instead of dealing with it today."
There are pros and cons. If you think you are going to spend up all your money before you reach 85, then this may not be a tax problem for you at all. But if you plan to slide into your final years with plenty of money still left in your tax-advantaged accounts, adding the income from a QLAC could leave you owing what Hamlin describes as "a massive tax payment."
The bottom line: Do your homework before you buy.
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Give to your favorite charity
Instead of withdrawing your RMD, you can send up to $100,000 directly to your favorite charity.
If your estate is worth more than a certain threshold ($10.9 million for a married couple; $5.45 million for single folks), it pays to adopt this strategy because you can transfer money during your lifetime that won't be subject to estate taxes. Plus you won't pay income taxes if you do a direct contribution this way.
"By making a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD, equal to your RMD or up to the $100,000 cap, the rollover removes the amount given directly to charity from tax consideration," says Kay Bell, tax editor at Bankrate. "You've never received the RMD money. The charity did. So you don't owe tax on that amount."
But if you take the RMD money out yourself and then give it to the charity, she says, "Yes, you get a deduction, but you owe the tax on the RMD amount you received.
"No tax at all on the RMD via a direct QCD is much better than a deduction on taxable income," says Bell.