1. Start from taxable accounts first.
Money in taxable accounts is the least tax efficient of the three types. That’s why it usually makes sense to draw down the money in those accounts first, allowing qualified retirement accounts to potentially continue generating tax-deferred or tax-exempt earnings.
Investments may need to be sold when taking a withdrawal. Any growth, or appreciation, of the investment may be subject to capital gains tax. If you’ve held the investment for longer than a year, you’ll generally be taxed at long-term capital gains rates, which currently range from 0% to 20%, depending on your tax bracket (a 3.8% Medicare tax may also apply for high-income earners). Long-term capital gains rates are significantly lower than ordinary income tax rates, which in 2017 range from 10.0% to 39.6%. These are federal taxes; be aware that states may also impose taxes on your investments. If you have a loss, you can use it to reduce up to $3,000 of your taxable income, or to offset any realized capital gains.
2. Followed by tax-deferred accounts.
You’ll have to pay ordinary income taxes when you withdraw pretax contributions and earnings from a tax-deferred retirement account, but at least these investments have had extra time to grow by taking withdrawals from a taxable account first. You may find yourself in a lower income tax bracket as you get older, so the total tax on your withdrawals could be less. On the other hand, if your withdrawals bump you into a higher tax bracket, you might want to consider taking withdrawals from tax-exempt accounts first. This can be complex, and it may be a good idea to consult a tax professional.
And remember, the IRS generally requires you to begin taking RMDs the year you turn 70½. For employer-sponsored accounts, like a traditional 401(k), you may be eligible to delay taking RMDs if you’re still working at the company and do not own 5% or more of the company or business. You cannot, however, delay starting RMDs for retirement accounts for employers you no longer work for.
3. Save tax-exempt accounts for the last.
Last in line for withdrawals is money in tax-exempt accounts. The longer these savings are untouched, the longer the potential for them to generate tax-free earnings. And withdrawals from these accounts generally won’t be subject to ordinary income tax. They’re totally tax free, as long as certain conditions are met.
And leaving any Roth accounts untouched for as long as possible may have other significant benefits. For example, money for a large unexpected bill can be withdrawn from a Roth account to pay for a bill without triggering a tax liability (as long as certain conditions are met). Qualified Roth withdrawals are not factored into adjusted gross income (AGI) because they are not taxable income. This may help reduce taxes on Social Security and other income because they don't bump up taxable income.
For Roth IRAs, it is important to note that RMDs are not required during the lifetime of the original owner, but for Roth 401(k)s and Roth 403(b)s, the original owners do have to take RMDs. That can be a good reason to consider rolling Roth 401(k)s and 403(b) accounts into Roth IRAs. Roth accounts can be effective estate-planning vehicles for those who wish to leave assets to their heirs. Any heirs who inherit them generally won’t owe federal income taxes on their distributions. On the other hand, Roth accounts are generally not an advantageous vehicle for charitable giving, so those involved in legacy planning may want to avoid the use of Roth accounts to the extent that this money is intended for charity. Be sure to consult an estate planner in either case.
In our next blog post, we will discuss some complications when follow the strategy discussed here.