Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) — both traditional and Roth IRAs — are among the most popular retirement savings vehicles today. Protecting the value of your IRA (and other retirement accounts) is incredibly important. While some factors affecting the value of your retirement savings may be out of your control, there are many things within your control that can help you safeguard the wealth of those accounts and further their growth. This article addresses common mistakes regarding IRA distributions and contributions, and how to avoid them.
A recent report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which oversees IRS activities through investigative programs, reports that an increasing number of taxpayers are not complying with IRA contribution and distribution requirements. Mistakes include, among other things, making excess contributions that are left uncorrected or failing to take required minimum distributions from their IRAs.
Making excess contributions
Knowing the maximum amount that you can contribute to your IRA is imperative to avoid negative tax consequences. A 6-percent excise tax applies to any excess contribution made to a traditional or Roth IRA. In 2010, individuals can contribute up to $5,000 to both traditional and Roth IRAs. Individuals age 50 or older can also make “catch-up” contributions of up to $1,000 to their IRA in 2010 as well.
If you withdraw the excess contribution amount on or before the due date (including extensions) for filing your federal tax return for the year, you will not be treated as having made an excess contribution and the 6-percent excise tax will not be imposed. You must also withdraw any earnings on the contributions as well.
Not contributing enough
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may be contributing too little to your IRA. Although your financial and personal situation will dictate how much you contribute to your IRA each year, and whether you are able to contribute the maximum amount, there are benefits to making the maximum contribution. Contributing the maximum amount means larger tax-free or tax-deferred growth opportunity for your dollars, and a higher – expectedly – account value upon retirement. Moreover, contributing more to your traditional IRA means a larger tax deduction come April 15. Thus, failing to contribute the maximum allowable amount means you may be missing out on tax deductions in addition to tax-deferred, or tax-free earnings.
Not taking your RMDs
Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are minimum amounts that a traditional IRA account owner must withdraw annually beginning with the year that he or she reaches age 70 1/2. The RMD rules also apply to 401(k) plans, Roth 401(k)s, 403(b) plans, 457(b) plans, SIMPLE IRAs, and SEP IRAs. However, Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD rules (beneficiaries of Roth IRAs must take RMDs, however).
If you fail to take a RMD, or fail to take the correct amount for the year, the IRS imposes a 50 percent penalty tax on the difference between the actual amount you withdrew and the amount that was required. This is a stiff penalty to pay. A specific formula is used to compute annual RMDs, based on your current age, the amount in your IRA as of a certain date, and your life expectancy. Generally, RMDs are calculated for each account (if more than one) by dividing the prior December 31st balance of the IRA (or other retirement account) by a life expectancy factor that the IRS publishes in Tables in IRS Publication 590, which can be found on the agency’s website.
Note. RMDs were suspended for the 2009 tax year, in order to help retirement plans hit by the economic downturn. However, individuals must begin taking RMDs again in 2010 and thereafter.
Failing to rollover IRA funds within 60-days
If you receive funds from an IRA and want to roll over the money to another, you have only 60 days to complete the rollover in order to escape paying taxes on transaction. In general, failing to complete a rollover from one IRA to another within the 60-day window has significant tax ramifications. If the funds are not rolled over within this timeframe, the amount is considered taxable income, subject to ordinary income tax rates. And, if you are younger than age 59 1/2, you will pay an additional 10 percent tax. The distribution may also have state income tax consequences as well. (Note: Rollovers from traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs are taxable, regardless of whether they are completed within 60 days). If you have the option, make a direct rollover or transfer. A direct, trustee-to-trustee transfer involves your funds being directly rolled over from one financial institution to the other, avoiding the 60-day requirement since you never directly receive the money.
Also, you can generally only make a tax-free rollover of amounts distributed to you from IRAs only once in 12-month period. As such, you can not make another rollover from the same IRA to another IRA (or from a different IRA to the same IRA) for one year without the amount being subject to tax. And, individuals age 70 1/2 or older cannot rollover any RMD amounts. Make sure that if you must take an RMD for the year, you withdraw the amount prior to rolling over the IRA. Make Roth IRA contributions after age 70 1/2
If you continue earning income after reaching age 70 1/2, you can continue contributing to your Roth IRA, on top of not having any RMD requirement. Therefore, you continue to accumulate tax-free savings. If you have earned income, and your financial and personal situation allows, consider continuing contributions to your Roth, building up tax-free money when you withdraw the funds.
Failing to name an IRA beneficiary
Don’t make the mistake of neglecting to name a beneficiary for your IRA. IRAs do not pass by will, but rather pass under the terms of an IRA Beneficiary Designation Form. If you have not named a beneficiary of your IRA, such as your spouse or child(ren), the “default” beneficiary usually is the account holder’s estate. Where there is no named beneficiary, distributions from the IRA must then generally be made as a lump sum or within five years after the owner’s death.
When you designate your child(ren) as the IRA beneficiary, the rules regarding distributions differ from those that govern IRAs held by a surviving spouse beneficiary. Non-spouse IRA beneficiaries must generally begin taking required distributions over their life expectancy or within five years after the IRA owner’s death. Although taking required distributions, the undistributed IRA assets continue to grow in a tax-deferred manner. On the other hand, a surviving spouse beneficiary may elect to treat the IRA as his or her own, or take minimum distributions as a non-spouse beneficiary would.
Distributions from inherited IRAs are taxable to the recipient as ordinary income. Generally, the income tax rate tends to be higher when an IRA is paid to the estate instead of an individual beneficiary.
Roth IRA conversions
This year may be the first time you are eligible to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth. Beginning in 2010, any individual regardless of adjusted gross income (AGI) or filing status can take advantage of a Roth IRA conversion. Prior to 2010, the ability to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth was limited to individuals with AGIs of less than $100,000. Also, married individuals filing a separate return could not convert to a Roth IRA either. If you convert in 2010, you can elect to split (and defer) the tax you will owe on the conversion and pay half in 2011 and half in 2012.
The decision to convert to a Roth IRA depends on many factors, including the financial and tax consequences of the transaction. Sometimes, it may be wiser depending on your situation to stick with your traditional IRA, especially if you will pay more tax on the conversion than in the account, or you don’t have outside funds to pay for the conversion tax.