Q: I need to start taking my minimum required distribution from my IRA soon. Is there any tax advantage to taking it in monthly installments as opposed to taking a lump sum once a year? —Sherwood Kahmer, Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania
A: There is no tax advantage to taking your required minimum distribution (RMD) in one lump sum annually vs. installments throughout the year. But the timing of your distribution is important, says Mark Copeland, a founding partner at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors in Irvine, Calif.
First, a little background on how RMDs work. At age 70½, you must start taking money out of your IRA and other tax-advantaged investment accounts such as 401(k)s, according to IRS rules. After years of waiting, Uncle Sam wants to collect the taxes you’ve deferred on your contributions. You must take your distribution by April 1 of the year following the calendar year in which you turn 70½. But after that, you can wait until December 31 of each year to receive the money.
You can choose to take the payments monthly, quarterly, or annually. You’ll pay the same amount of income tax no matter when you receive the money. But taking payments earlier in the year is a “lost opportunity,” says Copeland. “The longer you keep the money in a tax-deferred account, the more time your investments grow without the drag of taxes.”
In fact, most people do take the money in one lump sum at the end of the year, says Copeland. You shouldn’t wait till the last minute to do the paperwork though. If you don’t take the distribution by the December 31 deadline, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to regular income tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn. A surprising number of people wait to the very end of the year.
You’ll also pay a penalty if you underestimate how much you owe in taxes. Withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed as regular income, based on your tax bracket for the year in which you make the withdrawal. How much you must withdraw depends on the account balance and your age. The IRS has a worksheet that can guide you through it. Or you can use a calculator like this one from T. Rowe Price to estimate your distribution (you must take a minimum amount but you can always take out more). To make paperwork easier, you can also have the taxes withheld from your distribution (10% will automatically be held for federal taxes if you choose this option, but you can elect to have more than 10% withheld).
Of course, there may be good reasons to take the money earlier in the year or in installments. Maybe you need it to cover day to day living expenses, or want the consistent cash flow from monthly distributions.
If you have a complex investment portfolio, there may be advantages to taking withdrawals quarterly; consult with a tax adviser.
The bottom line: “You can’t avoid the taxes, but keep what you don’t need tax deferred for as long as you can,” Copeland advises.