Q: I am 52 and recently lost my job. I have a fairly large IRA. I was thinking of taking a "rule 72(t)" distribution for income and shifting some of those IRA assets to my Roth IRA, paying the tax now while I'm unemployed and most likely at a lower tax rate. What do you think of this strategy? – Mark, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
A: It’s a workable strategy, but it's one that’s very complex and may cost you a big chunk of your retirement savings, says Ed Slott, a CPA and founder of IRAhelp.com.
Because your IRA is meant to provide income in retirement, the IRS strongly encourages you to save it for that by imposing a 10% withdrawal penalty (on top of income taxes) if you tap the money before you reach age 59 ½. There are several exceptions that allow you to avoid the penalty, such as incurring steep medical bills, paying for higher education or a down payment on a first home. (Unemployment is not included.)
The exception that you're considering is known as rule 72(t), after the IRS section code that spells it out, and anyone can use this strategy to avoid the 10% penalty if you follow the requirements precisely. You must take the money out on a specific schedule in regular increments and stick with that payment schedule for five years, or until you reach age 59 ½, whichever is longer. Deviate from this program, and you’ll have to pay the penalty on all money withdrawn from the IRA, plus interest. (The formal, less catchy name of this strategy is the Substantially Equal Periodic Payment, or SEPP, rule.)
The IRS gives you three different methods to calculate your payment amount: required minimum distribution, fixed amortization and fixed annuitization. Several sites, including 72t.net, Dinkytown and CalcXML, offer tools if you want to run scenarios. Generally, the amortization method will gives you the highest income, says Slott. But it’s a good idea to consult a tax professional to see which one is best for you.
If you do use the 72(t) method, and want to shift some of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth, consider first dividing your current account into two—that way, you can convert only a portion of the money. But you must do so before you set up the 72(t) plan. If you later decide that you no longer need the distributions, you can’t contribute 72(t) income into another IRA or put it into a Roth. Your best option would be to save it in a taxable fund. “Then the money will be there if you need it down the road,” says Slott.
Does it make sense to take 72(t) distributions? Only as a last resort. It is true that you’ll pay less in income tax while you’re unemployed. But at age 52, you'll be taking distributions for seven and a half years, which is a long time to commit to the payout plan. If you get a job during that period, the income from the 72(t) distribution could push you into a higher tax bracket. Slott suggests checking into a home equity loan—or even taking some money out of your IRA up front and paying the 10% penalty, rather than withdrawing the bulk of the account. "Your retirement money is the result of years of saving," says Slott. "If you take out big chunks now, you might not have enough lifetime to replace it."
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