Friday, June 29, 2012

Reality Not Rhetoric

Congress has the power to levy a tax.  Congress has the right to defer a tax.  Congress has done the latter in regular IRAs, 401(k), and 403(b) retirement plans.  Financial advisors refer to these as “qualified retirement plans” or just qualified plans.

A plan is “qualified” by meeting certain Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirements.  Qualified plans are eligible to receive certain tax benefits.  There are two types of qualified plans:  Defined benefit plans, and Defined contribution plans.

Qualified pension plans are defined benefit plans.  IRAs, 401(k), and 403(b) plans are defined contribution plans.  Pensions are retirement entitlements.  Defined contribution plans are retirement savings/investments.

A part of the IRS requirements for being eligible, is that IRS requirements for Minimum Required Distributions (MRD) be met.  The literature/law also refers to Required Minimum Distribution (RMD).

As an owner of an IRA (or other qualified plan) you may be required to make a withdrawal from your account before the end of 2012.  This withdrawal, called your RMD is generally required by the IRS once an IRA account holder has reached 70.5 years old.  You can withdraw more than the minimum from your IRA in any year.  However, if you withdraw less than the required minimum, you may be subject to a 50% tax penalty.  Some sources/plans say it is 50% of the amount not taken (IRA) and others say it is 50% of the entire account (for me, my 403(b) ).

The Federal Income Tax liability incurred by a withdrawal depends on a number of factors.  The main one for my purposes is whether it includes any return of the owner's after tax contributions.  The IRS intent is to not tax “after tax” contributions when they are returned/withdrawn.  The tax-deferred benefit of the plans is that Federal Income Tax is deferred on the “pre-tax” contributions until funds are withdrawn which is at a later time and likely at a lower rate than appropriate at the time the funds were deposited/earned.

The reality is clear.  An RMD is predominately a withdrawal of savings although the tax code requires the withdrawal to be taxed in the year of the withdrawal and not in the year the deposited funds were earned.  Defined contribution plan required withdrawals should be treated as “return of capital” or withdrawal of savings in all applications except determining tax liability incurred by the withdrawal.  Although the rhetoric may differ, that is the reality.

Floridians please note that this means that MRDs or RMD should not be considered in the determination of a party’s ability to pay alimony even though the IRS taxes them as income.  In short, distributions may not be “income” even though they are received, taxed as income by the IRS, and spent.  Being taxed as income at the later date is the benefit for which the qualified defined contribution plan owner is eligible.