Avoid These Common Retirement Account Rollover Mistakes

If you are one of the people who are uncertain of the basic financial steps to take when you retire, you are not alone. Author and public speaker Ed Slott recently recounted how little most people really know about what to do with their 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement assets when it comes time to leave work.

Most people do not know what to do with their retirement plans (commonly referred to with obscure names like 401(k), 403(b), 457, and TSP) once they retire. Many people simply leave the plan with their former employer because they don’t know what else to do. But that could end up being a mistake. Others know they can roll their plan into a Rollover IRA, but are not aware that if they don’t do it exactly right, they could be faced with a big tax bill.

Handling IRAs is often fraught with danger. There is a big difference between a rollover and a direct transfer. Rollovers are distributions from a retirement plan. Sometimes they are paid directly to you via check. You then have 60 days to move the assets into a new IRA or you will be taxed. If the rollover is paid directly to you, it is customary to have 20% automatically withheld for taxes. Counter-intuitively, you have to replace the 20% withholding when you fund the new IRA or that amount will be considered a taxable distribution and you will owe tax on the amount withheld. You can only make one rollover per 12 month period. If you make more than one rollover per year, you will be taxed.

A direct transfer is one where your IRA assets are moved from one custodian to another without passing through your hands. Under current law you can make as many direct transfers per year without triggering a tax penalty and there is no withholding.

When you are retired and reach the age of 70 ½, you will encounter Required Minimum Distributions. If these are not handled correctly, they can trigger huge tax consequences. If an individual fails to take out the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from a retirement plan, there is a 50 percent penalty tax on the shortfall.

Even many people in the investment industry do not understand the rules well. Slott notes that many financial companies do not provide advice on these topics because they are so focused on accumulating assets that they do not train their advisors on “decumulation.” Decumulation is a term that applies to retirees once they begin to take money from their retirement plans to supplement their other income sources.

“Every time the IRA or 401(k) money is touched, it’s like an eggshell; you break it and it’s over…. You mess up with a rollover and you can lose an IRA.”

Retirement is a time when people want to relax and pursue their leisure activities. Unfortunately, the rules actually get even more complicated. Make sure that you take time to learn the rules, or find a professional that does, before you move money from a retirement account.

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