Retirement is just one of many events that can trigger a retirement plan distribution — changing jobs, getting laid off, or losing a job due to a merger or acquisition are just a few other examples.
Today, it is not unusual for a person who is years away from retirement to suddenly find himself or herself with a lump-sum retirement plan payout of $50,000, $100,000, or more.
If you receive an early distribution of your retirement plan funds, you have to make some important decisions about what to do with your money. Income tax considerations may play a large role in this process.
Immediate and Full Taxation
The first alternative requires you to include the entire taxable amount in your income in the year you receive it. That amount is taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.
Note that where the distribution takes place before age 59½, the distribution may also be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to income taxes. There are a number of exceptions to the penalty, however.*
Another alternative is to “roll over” the taxable portion of the lump-sum distribution to an individual retirement account (or a new employer’s eligible plan). You won’t owe any tax or penalty on the amount distributed until it is withdrawn from the rollover IRA or plan. Earnings on the rolled-over distribution continue to be tax deferred. But you must make the rollover within 60 days after your payout or you forfeit your ability to do so. Therefore, you must decide fast what tax route you want to follow.
All eligible rollover distributions are subject to a 20% withholding tax unless the distribution is directly transferred from the paying plan to the rollover IRA or plan. Thus, if you want to roll over your distribution, you should arrange with the paying plan for a direct transfer. If you receive the money, even if you intend to roll it over, withholding is mandatory. While the withheld amount may be refundable to you on filing your tax return, you could be left in a situation where you need to make up the withheld 20% from other funds in order to make a full rollover within the 60-day period.
Determining the most favorable tax treatment is just the first step. Often — especially where a distribution has been rolled over to an IRA — the investment of the fund is left in the hands of the recipient. Investment decisions should be carefully thought out. You may not need the money for retirement for 10, 20, or more years. How you invest the money and the annual investment return you earn can have a dramatic effect on the sum eventually available at retirement time.