How Your IRA Can Become a Tax Nightmare

Required minimum distributions force retirees to make withdrawals, which are heavily taxed, from their retirement accounts. A financial expert offers tips to avoid this hefty bill from Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam wants you! That is, he wants you to spend your IRA in a manner that he finds appropriate, says independent retirement advisor Gary Marriage, Jr.

“Millions of Americans have put away money into their IRA throughout their professional life, which the government encourages with tax-deferred growth throughout the working years, allowing employees to accumulate more money faster — but there’s a catch,” says Marriage, chief executive officer of Nature Coast Financial Advisors, which specializes in maximizing retirees’ finances. He is also responsible for Operation Veteran Aid, which benefits wartime veterans and their families. “The government’s Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) including 401(k)s, 403(b)s or 457 plans, paint retirees and their employer-sponsored retirement plans into a corner.”

That’s because by the time retirees reach the age of 70-and-a-half, RMDs require individuals to make withdrawals, which are heavily taxed, he says.

Marriage explains the process further with the theoretical example of John and Mary Smith:

Smooth sailing … at first

By age 65, the couple has saved $500,000 in their IRA, and because they have been taking no income from it, they’re averaging a 6% return each year. They sail along smoothly, compounding the growth in the account and earn a return of $40,147 by age 70. But halfway through that year…

Compounded tax liability

At age 70-and-a-half, John’s IRA has an accumulated value of $669,113. Therefore, his RMD — the amount he’s required to withdraw — is $24,420. John and Mary weren’t expecting the tax bill this creates, which in their 25% tax bracket is a staggering $6,105! However, more upsetting to the couple is that this scenario will continue for the rest of their lives.

Down the road

Fast forward to age 90 and the total withdrawals the couple have been forced to take reaches $908,005. The total taxes owed are a staggering $227,001 — which goes straight to Uncle Sam! Worse still, when John and Mary pass away, their children will pay taxes on the remaining money — likely at a much higher tax rate.

The solution

Rather than wait for the inevitable RMD, John and Mary can convert to a Roth IRA. This entails taking their distributions early, at age 65, even though they are not required to do so. Each year for 10 years they withdraw $67,934, pay a tax bill of $16,983 from that sum and return the balance to the account. The net effect throughout the 10-year period is a total taxable distribution of $679,340 for a total tax bill of $169,835.

The good news for John and Mary, however, is that they are now done paying taxes on this account … forever. They went from taxable distributions of $1.6 million to just $679,000, thus reducing the amount they owe on taxes by almost $1 million dollars! And the money that their beneficiaries receive will be tax-free.

“This scenario considers a number of variables, all of which are different for every client we work with,” Marriage says. “As a general rule, however, the sooner you begin the conversion process, the more you stand to gain.”