How Taxes on Traditional IRA Distributions Work

Taxes on IRA withdrawals vary, depending on your deductions and income

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You can start taking distributions from your IRA without paying a tax penalty when you reach age 59½, but the amount you withdraw may be subject to income taxes, depending on the type of IRA. Your annual distributions are included in the calculation of your total taxable income for that year.

Taxes on Roth IRAs vs. Traditional IRAs

The same rules do not apply to Roth IRAs, which are a quite different type of retirement account. Contributions made to a traditional IRA use pre-tax dollars. Roth contributions are made with post-tax dollars—an important distinction. You've already paid income tax on that income in the year you earned it. You can, therefore, take distributions from your Roth IRA tax-free.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) won't tax you twice on the money you contribute to a Roth IRA, although you do have to maintain the account for at least five years, and, as with traditional IRAs, you must be at least age 59½ before you take distributions, to avoid a penalty. You can take back your principal contributions even before age 59½ as long as you don't touch any investment gains.

How to Report Your Traditional IRA Distributions

The total amount of tax you pay on your annual traditional IRA distributions depends on your overall income and the deductions you can claim that year.

The IRS, in cooperation with the Department of Treasury, has completely revised the old 1040 to accommodate the many tax law changes resulting from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2018. You must still include all the same information on your tax return as you did in years past, but you'll input a great deal of it on additional forms and schedules.

You must still report your IRA distributions for 2020. The good news is that you won't have to worry about this if you use tax preparation software or hire a tax professional to prepare your return. Both know where to enter the appropriate information.

The Tax Treatment of Traditional IRA Distributions

Add your traditional IRA distributions to your other sources of income to determine your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year. Your AGI is then reduced by allowable deductions, and the result is your taxable income.

If you have high income and very few deductions, you can expect to pay more tax on your IRA distribution than someone who has less income and more deductions.

Early Withdrawal Penalties

The penalty tax is 10% as of 2021 if you take a distribution before you reach age 59½. You'll have to pay this in addition to income tax unless you qualify for an exception.

Allowable exceptions include using the money toward qualified education expenses. You can also use the money without penalty to purchase your first home. Other exemptions include disability, the death of the owner, unreimbursed medical expenses, and a call to duty if you're a military reservist.

You can also avoid the penalty if you "undo" your contribution and take it back before that year's extended due date for your tax return. This move, however, would mean more taxable income to you in that year. You can't claim a tax deduction for the reclaimed contribution.

Required Minimum Distributions

You can't take distributions too early, nor can you sit on your IRA and leave it untouched, growing and gaining forever. If you reached age 70½ in 2019 or earlier, then you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you reach age 70½ in 2020 or later, you must begin taking RMDs by April 1 after the year you turn 72.

IRS rules pinpoint exactly how much of a distribution you must take each year, depending on factors unique to your circumstances. The penalty is even heftier than the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you fail to do so: 50% of the amount you were supposed to take.

You can begin taking RMDs early to spread the tax hit out over more years. Nothing says you have to wait to age 70½. You just don't want to do it before you reach age 59½.

What Happens if You Move Funds from a 401(k)?

You can move funds into an IRA through a process called a rollover if you have money in a 401(k). The funds for an IRA rollover aren't taxed when they're moved from the 401(k) plan, because they go from one qualified tax-deferred retirement account to another.

Rollover transactions have specific rollover rules, but you won't trigger any tax liability if the funds go directly from your 401(k) to the new IRA financial custodian and if you never take possession of the money.

Funds can also be rolled over from one IRA to another if the money goes directly from the first plan's trustee to the second plan's trustee. You can't ever have possession of the funds. If you do, you have 60 days to reinvest the money in a new IRA to avoid taxation of the amount, and you can only do this once a year.

Traditional IRA Distribution Taxation Example

Mona, a single individual who is 65 years old, needs IRA withdrawals to cover her living expenses. She must take $2,500 a month, or $30,000 a year.

In addition to this $30,000, Mona will have additional income of $12,000 from her pension, giving her an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $42,000 for the year. This assumes that she cannot take any adjustments to income to reduce that amount.

Mona doesn't itemize but elects to claim the standard deduction instead—$13,700 ($12,400for a single taxpayer in 2020, plus an additional $1,300 deduction because she's at least 65 years old). Subtracting this amount from her AGI leaves her with $28,300 in taxable income.

The first $9,875 of a single taxpayer's income is taxed at 10% in 2020. Mona's taxable income from $9,876 to $28,300 ($18,425) is taxed at a 12% rate. Consequently, Mona will pay $3,198.5 in taxes: $987.50 on the first $9,875, plus $2,211 on the other $18,425.

If Mona had any taxes withheld from her IRA distributions and pension distributions, she might have paid enough in taxes throughout the year to cover this amount. Otherwise, she'll be writing a check by April 15.