When you reach age 70½, the IRS instructs you to start making withdrawals from your Traditional IRA(s). These IRA withdrawals are also called Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). You will make them annually from now on.
If you fail to take your annual RMD or take out less than what is required, the IRS will notice. You will not only owe income taxes on the amount not withdrawn, you will owe 50% more. (The 50% penalty can be waived if you can show the IRS that the shortfall resulted from a “reasonable error” instead of negligence.)
Many IRA owners have questions about the options and rules related to their initial RMDs, so let’s answer a few.
How does the IRS define age 70½? Its definition is pretty straightforward. If your 70th birthday occurs in the first half of a year, you turn 70½ within that calendar year. If your 70th birthday occurs in the second half of a year, you turn 70½ during the subsequent calendar year.
Your initial RMD has to be taken by April 1 of the year after you turn 70½. All the RMDs you take in subsequent years must be taken by December 31 of each year.
So, if you turned 70 during the first six months of 2019, you will be 70½ by the end of 2019 and you must take your first RMD by April 1, 2020. If you turn 70 in the second half of 2019, then you will be 70½ in 2020 and you don’t need to take that initial RMD until April 1, 2021.
Is waiting until April 1 of the following year to take my first RMD a bad idea? The IRS allows you three extra months to take your first RMD, but it isn’t necessarily doing you a favor. Your initial RMD is taxable in the year it is taken. If you postpone it into the following year, then the taxable portions of both your first RMD and your second RMD must be reported as income on your federal tax return for that following year.
An example: James and his wife Stephanie file jointly, and they earn $73,800 in 2019 (the upper limit of the 15% federal tax bracket). James turns 70½ in 2019, but he decides to put off his first RMD until April 1, 2020. Bad idea: this means that he will have to take two RMDs before 2020 ends. So his taxable income jumps in 2020 as a result of the dual RMDs, and it pushes them into a higher tax bracket for 2020. The lesson: if you will be 70½ by the time 2019 ends, take your initial RMD by the end of 2019 – it might save you thousands in taxes to do so.
How do I calculate my first RMD? IRS Publication 590 is your resource. You calculate it using IRS life expectancy tables and your IRA balance on December 31 of the previous year. For that matter, if you Google “how to calculate your RMD” you will see links to RMD worksheets at irs.gov and free RMD calculators provided by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Kiplinger, Bankrate and others.
If your spouse is at least 10 years younger than you and happens to be designated as the sole beneficiary for one or more IRAs you own, you should refer to Publication 590 instead of a calculator; the calculator may tell you that the RMD is larger than it actually is.
If you have your IRA with one of the big investment firms, it might calculate your RMD for you and offer to route the amount into another account that you specify. Unless you state otherwise, it will withhold taxes on the amount of the RMD as required by law and give you and the IRS a 1099-R form recording the income distribution.
When I take my RMD, do I have to withdraw the whole amount? No. You can also take it in smaller, successive withdrawals. Your IRA custodian may be able to schedule them for you.
What if I have multiple traditional IRAs? You then figure out your total RMD by adding up the total of all of your traditional IRA balances on December 31 of the prior year. This total is the basis for the RMD calculation. You can take your RMD from a single IRA or multiple IRAs.
What if I have a Roth IRA? If you are the original owner of that Roth IRA, you don’t have to take any RMDs. Only inherited Roth IRAs require RMDs.
It doesn’t pay to wait. At the end of last year, Fidelity Investments found that 14% of IRA owners required to take their first RMD hadn’t yet done so – they were putting it off until early 2018. Another 40% had withdrawn less than the required amount by December 31. Avoid their behaviors, if you can: when it comes to your initial RMD, procrastination can invite higher-than-normal taxes and a risk of forgetting the deadline.