Under federal tax rules, any lump-sum distribution that is not transferred directly from one retirement account to another is subject to a special withholding of 20%.
Have you switched jobs recently and are wondering what to do with the retirement plan assets at your previous employer? You could roll them over into your new employer’s plan, but a rollover IRA may be a better choice. A rollover IRA can provide you with the broadest range of investment choices and the greatest flexibility for distribution planning, and can typically be operated with fewer restrictions.
For example, a rollover IRA gives you:
• More flexibility: IRAs can be more useful in estate planning than employer-sponsored plans. IRA assets can generally be divided among multiple beneficiaries in an estate plan. Each of those beneficiaries can make use of planning structures such as the Stretch IRA concept to maintain tax-advantaged investment management during their lifetimes. Beneficiary distributions from employer-sponsored plans, in contrast, are generally taken in lump sums as cash payments. Also, except in states with explicit community property laws, IRA account holders have sole control over their beneficiary designations.
Efficient Rollovers Require Careful Planning
One common goal of planning for a lump-sum distribution is averting unnecessary tax withholding. Under federal tax rules, any lump-sum distribution that is not transferred directly from one retirement account to another is subject to a special withholding of 20%. This withholding will apply as long as the employer’s check is made out to you — even if you plan to place equivalent cash in an IRA immediately. To avert the withholding, you must first create your rollover IRA, and then request that your employer transfer your assets directly to the custodian of that IRA.
Keep in mind that the 20% withholding is not your ultimate tax liability. If you spend the lump-sum distribution rather than reinvest it in another tax-qualified retirement account, you’ll have to declare the full value of the lump sum as income and pay the full tax at filing time. In addition, the IRS generally imposes a 10% penalty tax on withdrawals taken before age 59½.
If you have after-tax contributions in your employer plan, you may opt to withdraw them without penalty when you roll over your assets. However, if you wish to leave those funds in your retirement account in order to continue tax deferral, you can include them in your rollover. When you begin regular distributions from your IRA, a prorated portion will be deemed nontaxable to reimburse you for the after-tax contributions.
Potential Downsides of IRA Rollovers
While there are many advantages to consolidated IRA rollovers, there are some potential drawbacks to keep in mind. Assets greater than $1 million in an IRA may be taken to satisfy your debts in certain personal bankruptcy scenarios. Assets in an employer-sponsored plan cannot be readily taken in many circumstances. Also, you must begin taking distributions from an IRA by April 1 of the year after you reach 70½ whether or not you continue working, but employer-sponsored plans do not require distributions if you continue working past that age.