Some observers have commented that few private sector workers can look forward to pensions after retirement. The traditional pension, a lifelong stream of income to a retiree and perhaps a surviving spouse, is becoming a rarity for those who are not long-term government employees. Nevertheless, millions of people do have a form of pension these days, one that kicks in after age 70½. At that age, required minimum distributions (RMDs) typically begin from retirement plans, such as traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. With proper planning, RMDs can serve as a long-term pension and also provide benefits to a surviving spouse.
How RMDs work
Beyond age 70½, you generally must withdraw at least a certain amount from your retirement plan each year. The number is based on your age and the account balance at the end of the previous year. Any shortfall triggers a 50% penalty. Example 1: Craig Jackson will reach age 70 this July, so he’ll be 70½ in January 2017. His fist RMD will be for 2017, based on his December 31, 2016, IRA balance. Assume Craig’s IRA balance will be $600,000 then. He can go to the IRS “Uniform Lifetime Table” and find age 71: the age he’ll turn in 2017. The IRS table shows a “distribution period” of 26.5 years at 71, so Craig will divide his $600,000 IRA balance by 26.5, to get $22,642, his RMD for the year. (IRA owners whose spouse is their sole beneficiary and is more than 10 years younger use a different table, resulting in a smaller RMD.) Craig can withdraw a larger amount in 2017, but a smaller distribution will be penalized. If his 2017 IRA distributions total $10,000, he’ll lag the RMD by $12,642 and owe a 50% penalty: $6,321. Each year, Craig will repeat the process, using the relevant distribution period and IRA balance. In the year he turns 76, for instance, the distribution period will be 22 years, reflecting a reduced life expectancy. If Craig has a $440,000 IRA balance on the previous December 31, his RMD would be $440,000/22, or $20,000 that year.
By following the RMD guidelines, Craig can construct a do-it-himself pension. He can contact his IRA custodian early in 2017, determine his RMD for the year, and request the annual amount to be paid in monthly installments. Example 2: In our previous example, Craig’s 2017 RMD will be $22,642. That’s $1,887 per month, for 12 months. Craig can have the IRA custodian transfer that amount into his checking account each month, which effectively would provide him a pension for the year. The monthly RMD payouts would vary in future years, as explained. RMDs from traditional IRAs generally are fully or mostly taxable, so Craig can choose to have taxes withheld, reducing the monthly deposit. Alternatively, Craig can receive the full RMD each month and make quarterly estimated tax payments. Using the IRS table in this manner, year after year, Craig will never deplete his IRA, so he’ll always have monthly cash flow. If he reaches age 90, for example, the distribution period on the uniform table will be 11.4 years, meaning that Craig’s RMD will be about 8.8% of his IRA. The balance can stay in the IRA, growing tax-deferred. If Craig’s wife, Dana, survives him, and Dana is the sole IRA beneficiary, she can roll Craig’s IRA into her own name. Then Dana can have her own RMD schedule—her own lifelong pension—in addition to RMDs from any IRAs Dana already has established herself. Note that Dana and Craig can take more than the RMD obligation each year. As long as they are older than 59½, there will be no early withdrawal penalties. However, taking more than the RMD likely will increase the tax bill and reduce the amount of future cash flow from IRAs.
If you don’t need money from your IRA in retirement, following the RMD table is the best way to minimize unwanted taxes. But what if you are relying on those funds for a comfortable lifestyle after you stop working? Then the IRS table can deliver a practical guideline for tapping your retirement fund. By following the table, you will withdraw more from your IRA after a period of successful investing, and less after a market pullback has devalued the account. You won’t have to worry about how much or how little to take out, with every hiccup of the financial markets. RMD based IRA withdrawals, along with Social Security checks, can provide a lifetime stream of cash flow.