10 IRA terms you need to know

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Businessman holding a book in library © Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/

© Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/

If you already have an IRA or are thinking of opening one, give yourself a pat on the back. An IRA is a great retirement resource that offers the benefits of tax savings and growth through compounding. But the language of finance sometimes makes simple concepts seem more complicated. Here are 10 IRA terms that retirement savers should understand.

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10 must-know IRA terms

  1. Adjusted gross income.
  2. Individual retirement account.
  3. Retirement plan contribution.
  4. Deductible or nondeductible.
  5. Modified adjusted gross income.
  6. Required minimum distribution.
  7. Rollover.
  8. Roth IRA.
  9. Tax-free and penalty-free withdrawals.
  10. Education IRA.

1. Adjusted gross income, or AGI

Used to calculate federal income tax, your AGI includes all the taxable income you received over the course of the year, such as wages, interest, dividends and capital gains, minus things such as business expenses, contributions to a qualified traditional IRA, moving expenses, alimony and capital losses, interest penalty on early withdrawal of bank CDs and payments made to retirement plans such as SEPs and Simple IRAs.

2. Individual retirement account, or IRA

This IRA -- what the IRS officially calls an "individual retirement arrangement" -- is a retirement account with tax advantages. There are 2 types of IRAs: a traditional IRA, which, for some people, provides a tax deduction; and a Roth IRA (more on this account later). Regardless of the type of IRA, your investment grows tax-free until you begin making withdrawals, usually after age 59 1/2. If you take out money before then, you could be hit with a 10% penalty unless you meet certain specific requirements.

3. Retirement plan contribution

You must earn money through work to make retirement plan contributions. If you have a traditional IRA, you can't contribute to that account once you reach the year you will turn 70 1/2. However, you can put money in a Roth IRA as long as you earn income, regardless of your age. Age 50 also is a key birthday. Once you celebrate this milestone, you can make additional catch-up contributions to any type of IRA.

4. Deductible or nondeductible

Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible if you are not covered by your employer's retirement plan. Even if you do participate in a company pension or 401(k) plan, you still may be able to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA depending on your income and filing status. Contributions to a Roth IRA are not deductible.

5. Modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI

For the purpose of determining your contribution limit, some people use their MAGI. For most people, this will be the line on your taxes that says "adjusted gross income," but some taxpayers will have to modify their AGI by adding back some income or tax breaks. These add-backs range from foreign income you didn't have to count in your AGI to interest income for Series EE bonds that you used to pay for qualified educational expenses to a deduction for student loan interest or a traditional IRA contribution.

6. Required minimum distribution, or RMD

Generally, if you have a traditional IRA, you must begin taking money out of the account by April 1 of the year after you turn 70 1/2. The amount is a minimum distribution determined by your age and life expectancy. The IRS has established simplified tables that a traditional IRA owner can use to determine the RMD. If required payments are not made on time, the IRS will collect an excise tax. Roth IRAs aren't subject to minimum distribution requirements until after the Roth owner dies.

7. Rollover

This is the term used when reinvesting assets from one tax-deferred retirement plan to another within 60 days. Generally, 20% of the funds are withheld for tax purposes if you take possession of the funds. You can avoid this by doing a direct rollover, which is a trustee-to-trustee transfer from one retirement account to another. Note that in 2015, the IRS began limiting IRA rollovers to once per year, though that rule doesn't apply to trustee-to-trustee transfers.

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8. Roth IRA

The most notable thing about a Roth is withdrawals are tax-free if the account has been open for at least 5 years and you're at least 59 1/2 when you start to withdraw money. Contributions to a Roth are not tax-deductible. "You can withdraw your contributions anytime you want, no penalty or taxes," says Barry Picker, CPA with Picker & Auerbach. You also can withdraw earnings for a qualifying event if the account is at least 5 years old. Qualifying events include death or disability of the account holder and a first-home purchase.

9. Tax-free and penalty-free withdrawals

You can take money out of your IRA tax-free and penalty-free as long as you repay the full amount within 60 days, but you may only do it once in a 12-month period. The withdrawal provision was intended to make IRAs portable, says Picker. "It's not for short-term loans." But some account holders use the rule to make loans to themselves. And many financial planners caution against it.

The situation is "fraught with the potential for missing the deadline, not having the money and having a taxable event," says Peggy Cabaniss, CFP professional and co-founder of HC Financial Advisors, who is now retired. A short-term IRA loan "would be my last resort," she says.

10. Education IRA

This account was years ago renamed Coverdell Education Savings Account, or ESA, in honor of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, but you still hear the term "education IRA" pop up. This is not strictly an IRA, since it doesn't finance retirement, but when it was created, the general rules reminded folks of an IRA, hence the nickname. Instead, you make annual contributions, of up to $2,000 per child, to a Coverdell ESA to help pay education costs. You can't deduct the Coverdell contributions from your income taxes, but earnings are tax-deferred and qualified withdrawals, for certain school costs from elementary school to college, are tax-free.

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