How to Handle Losses When Your IRA Loses Money

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Investments can sometimes lose value, and the losses can present a variety of challenges when those investments sit inside an individual retirement account (IRA). The main benefit of an IRA is that your savings can grow tax-deferred. But what happens when your investments are declining rather than growing? It used to be that you could get a tax break if your IRA loses money in the markets, but that tax provision has been on hold since 2018.

Tax Deferment Advantages of IRAs

Individual retirement accounts are structured so that any tax impact on investment growth is deferred until the money is withdrawn from the IRA, usually in retirement and referred to as a distribution. Tax treatment is determined when the distribution is made.

Any earnings, interest, dividends, or gains inside the IRA plan would not be taxed until that time—or taxed at all if the account is a Roth IRA. Roths grow tax-free, subject to certain rules. This allows your earnings to compound without annual tax payments.

The idea is to preserve the tax-deferral as long as possible to allow your earnings to accumulate faster than they might have in a taxable brokerage account.

Defer Distributions Until Age 59½  

It's generally better to do your asset reallocation inside a plan than to take a distribution and reinvest the money outside the plan. The entire amount of any withdrawal you make from a traditional deductible IRA is subject to a 10% penalty if you're under age 59½. The withdrawal or distribution would additionally be included in your taxable income, and this could push you into a higher tax bracket.

There's a 10% penalty for early distributions or withdrawals from traditional IRAs if you're under age 59½, although a few exceptions exist.

IRA Losses Used to Be Deductible

You could take a loss on your IRA plans if you cashed out all your IRAs of the same type—cashing out all your traditional IRAs or cashing out all your Roth IRAs—but this tax loophole ended with the 2018 tax year.

You might still be able to go back and amend a 2017 tax return before July 15, 2020 if you were unaware of this provision and didn't claim a deduction at that time. Check with a tax professional because timeline rules for amending a return can be complicated.

This loss provision worked for traditional IRAs only if you had a basis from nondeductible contributions. Basis means that you contributed post-tax dollars and did not claim a deduction for the contributions. There wouldn't be a loss that you could deduct on your tax return if there was no basis.

You couldn't cash out only your nondeductible IRAs. Your traditional IRA funds must be liquidated as well to qualify for the loss deduction. Remember, you had to cash out all accounts of the same kind, and nondeductible and traditional deductible IRAs are the same type of account. Their contributions are just treated differently tax-wise.

Nondeductible IRAs are traditional IRAs for which you haven't claimed a tax deduction for contributions you've made. It might have worked out this way because you earned too much to qualify for a deduction. The end result is that you made your contributions to a nondeductible IRA with income on which you'd already paid taxes, much as you would with a Roth IRA.

The loss provision worked better with Roth IRAs because there's automatically a basis for your original contributions. Contributions to a Roth aren't deductible in the first place.

Claiming the Deduction

Any loss would have been a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) threshold rule prior to enactment of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2018. The TCJA repealed miscellaneous deductions.

The TCJA is set to end at the end of 2025, so it's possible—although not guaranteed—that miscellaneous itemized deductions will return to the tax code at that time. Congress might potentially renew the legislation, but it might let it "sunset" or expire.

IRA losses were subject to the 2% of AGI limitation. They were reported on Schedule A. Your loss would have had to exceed 2% of your AGI for you to gain any benefit from this deduction, and you had to itemize to claim it, which means forgoing the standard deduction.

The entire value of a Roth or nondeductible IRA account could be cashed out and you could take a deduction for the loss if the value of the IRA dropped below your total contributions. The distribution would not have been subject to an early distribution penalty in this case.

There wouldn't be a loss for tax reporting purposes if the IRA lost value, but its value isn't below the total amount of contributions. It would be better to maintain the tax-deferral on the gains you already have in this case.

Other Implications

Assets are permanently removed when they're withdrawn from a retirement account. You would only be able to contribute new funds.

IRA investors will want to take a look at their long-term asset allocation goals, along with any earnings projections.

But some IRA owners might not want to re-invest. They would rather pull the money out for non-investment purposes, such as buying a house, paying for medical expenses, starting a business, or for living expenses. It might be necessary to consider a strategy for early distributions in this case.

An exception to the 10% tax penalty for an early withdrawal before age 59½ exists if you're buying a home for the first time or paying for medical expenses, but there are some limitations.

Tactics and Options

Consider first pulling money from IRAs with losses. Withdraw first from the Roths, then from nondeductible IRAs, then from deductible IRAs if there's no overall loss. These sequences provide the greatest opportunity to keep penalties minimized.

You might also want to consider taking a loan against your 401(k) before taking an IRA distribution if your cash needs are short-term. You're effectively lending to yourself, and the interest you'll pay goes back inside your 401(k) plan.

What works best for you depends largely on your specific investment and financial goals, coupled with a tax strategy that makes an IRA loss as least costly as possible.

NOTE: Tax laws change periodically. Always consult with a tax professional for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not intended as tax advice and it is not a substitute for tax advice.

Article Sources

  1. Fidelity Investments. "9 Compelling Reasons to Consider a Roth IRA." Accessed May 28, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions." Accessed May 28, 2020.

  3. FINRA. "Individual Retirement Accounts." Accessed May 28, 2020.

  4. IRS. "Tax Reform Affects If and How Taxpayers Itemize Their Deductions." Accessed May 28, 2020.