Esben Emborg—Getty Images
By Dan Kadlec
Updated: November 11, 2014 4:12 PM ET

Two-thirds of IRA owners required to take money out of their account by Dec. 31 have yet to fulfill the obligation, new research by Fidelity shows. Now, with the year-end in sight, and thoughts pivoting to holiday shopping and get-togethers, legions of senior savers risk getting distracted–and socked with a punishing tax penalty.

IRA owners often wait until late in the year to pull out their required minimum distributions. Especially at a time when interest rates are low and the stock market has been rising, leaving your money in an IRA as long as possible makes sense. Some retirees may also be reluctant to take distributions for fear of spending the money and running short over time.

But blowing the annual deadline can be costly. The IRS sets a schedule of required minimum distributions, or RMDs, to keep savers from deferring taxes indefinitely. After reaching age 70 1/2, IRA owners must begin to take money out of their account each year and pay income tax on the amount. Failure to pull money out triggers a hefty penalty equal to 50% of the amount you were supposed to take out of the account.

Among 750,000 IRA accounts where distributions are required, 68% have yet to take the full amount and 56% have yet to take anything at all, Fidelity found. These IRA owners should begin the process now to avoid end-of-year distractions and potential mistakes like using the wrong form or providing the wrong mailing address, which can take weeks to find and correct.

A report by the Treasury Inspector General estimated that as many as 250,000 IRA owners each year miss the deadline, failing to take required minimum distributions totaling about $350 million. That generates potential tax penalties totaling $175 million. The vast majority of those who fail to take their minimum distributions are thought to do so as part of an honest mistake, and previously the IRS hasn’t always been eager to sock seniors with a penalty. But the IRS began a crackdown on missed distributions a few years ago. Don’t look for leniency if you miss the deadline without a good reason, like protracted illness or a natural disaster.

Early each year, your financial institution should notify you of any required distributions you must take by year-end. If this is the first year you are taking a required distribution, you have until April 1 to do so, but then only until Dec. 31 every subsequent year. Once notified, you still need to initiate a distribution. A lot of people simply do not read their mail and fail to initiate action in time.

Among other reasons IRA owners miss the deadline:

  • Switching their account Institutions that open an account during the year are not required to notify new account holders of required minimum distributions until the following year.
  • Death Often there is confusion about inherited IRAs. The beneficiary must complete the deceased IRA owner’s distributions in the year of death. Non-spousal beneficiaries of any age must begin taking distributions in the year following the year that the IRA owner died—and no notice of this is required.

With the penalties so stiff and the IRS cracking down on missed mandatory distributions, this is a subject that seniors and their adult children should talk about. In general, financial talk between the generations makes seniors feel less anxious and more prepared anyway. Required distributions can be especially confusing, and the penalties may have the effect of taking away money that heirs stand to receive. So it’s in everyone’s interest to get it right. Consider putting mandatory distributions on autopilot with a firm that will make the calculation and send you the money on a schedule you choose.

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