Understanding Retirement Account Distribution Rules

When it’s time to take a distribution from your employer-sponsored retirement plan, you have several options.

1. Leave the money in the plan. Depending on your employer’s retirement plan rules, you may be able to leave your savings in your employer’s plan until you reach age 70 1/2 or retire. Why choose this option? This makes sense if you have other sources of retirement income such as a taxable account or a working spouse, and you want to continue to obtain tax-deferred compounding interest on your investments.

2. Move your money to another tax-qualified retirement account. You can roll the money in your employer-sponsored retirement plan over to another retirement account, such as an IRA. This can be done as a direct rollover or by taking a cash distribution and depositing it in another tax-qualified retirement plan within 60 days. Why choose this option? This route works well if you have other sources of retirement income and want to continue to obtain tax-deferred compounding interest on your investments, but you are seeking more varied investment options.

3. Take a distribution. You can also receive a lump-sum payment or take distributions in installments. Why choose this option? You may simply want your money, or you may want to invest it in a taxable account. Remember, however, that you will have to pay income taxes on the money withdrawn, and if you are under age 59 1/2, you will have to pay an additional 10 percent penalty.

Whatever you choose, the tax regulations around distributions of retirement accounts are complex, so it is best to consult a financial professional.

Retirement Spending and the 4 Percent Rule

The 4 percent rule, which is used to determine how much you should withdraw from your retirement account each year so you don’t outlive your savings, is much loved by some and much hated by others. How effective is it, really?

How it works is simple but often misunderstood. You don’t withdraw 4 percent of your retirement savings each year in retirement; you withdraw 4 percent in the first year of retirement. In subsequent years, you increase the value of your annual withdrawal by the inflation rate.

So, as an example, if you have $2 million in retirement savings, you would withdraw $80,000 in the first year (4 percent of $2 million). Then, in the second year, when the inflation rate is 2 percent, you would withdraw $81,600 (the original $80,000 plus 2 percent).

But the 4 percent rule is more of a guideline than an absolute. The rule is intended to provide a schedule of withdrawals that will ensure that your retirement savings will last at least 30 years. When William Bengen developed it in the 1990s, that seemed to be the case. But some financial planners now argue that the 4 percent rule might not provide the same margin of safety as it did in the past, since stock returns and bond yields have declined since the 1990s.

The fact is, it has always been impossible to know with absolute certainty that the 4 percent rule will prevent you from outliving your retirement savings. Even the most careful planning cannot account for every scenario and surprise.

So how do you choose a withdrawal rate? It may be more art than science. Start with the 4 percent rule; but if you seem to be running through your savings too quickly, withdraw less. If you seem to have some wiggle room, withdraw more. Continue to monitor your investments and make adjustments as needed.

It’s certainly a conversation worth having with a financial professional who knows your individual financial circumstances and goals. This expert can help you fine-tune your retirement withdrawals to achieve a healthy balance between spending and saving.