Make the Most of Your Required Minimum Distributions

Distributions from your retirement plan will be a cornerstone of your later years. New regulations around Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) can help you get even more out of your assets.

For many retirees, a key source of income is the distributions they receive from retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs. Given that these are fairly heavily regulated and that the rules around them have changed recently, it’s worth building a strategy around taking them so you can help ensure your financial needs will be met throughout your retirement. If you’re nearing retirement and starting to set up plans for what to do with your retirement accounts, here are some key questions to keep in mind:

When do I have to start taking my RMDs?

The SECURE Act 2.0, passed in 2022, updated some of the rules around RMDs. Most notably, for those who haven’t retired yet, the law raised the beginning date for taking RMDs from age 72 to 73 – specifically, by April 1 of the year after you turn 73. This change gives you the chance to let your assets keep on growing a little bit longer before you have to start drawing them down, a small but potentially significant difference.

There’s a way you may be able to wait till even later to take your RMDs: Keep working past the age of 73. As long as you don’t own more than 5% of the company you work for, you can wait to take your RMDs from that employer’s plan until after you’ve retired. It's also important to note that this rule does not apply to IRAs.

What difference does it make when I take my first RMD?

The strategy around taking your RMDs is based to a great extent on what your other income is. You’ll want to try to lower or increase your RMDs in specific years so that they will leave you with the best possible tax situation.  

For example, you can delay your first withdrawal until the calendar year after you turn 73. But this may cause you to take two withdrawals in a single year, and the increased income could be taxed at a higher rate. In addition to raising your tax bill for the year, this could also subject you to increased Medicare premiums or disqualify you from other benefits. Your Baird Financial Advisor team can help you sort out the tactics and timing that work best for you.

How does the IRS determine what my RMDs will be?

The IRS uses life expectancy tables to determine RMDs, projecting how your retirement savings are expected to last over the remaining course of your life. The agency issued new tables at the end of 2020, which took effect in 2022.  The changes to the life expectancy tables reflect increasing life spans, and allow retirees to take smaller RMDs, thereby allowing more of your assets to continue to grow. 

If I pass away before I retire, when do my beneficiaries have to start taking their RMDs?

Beneficiaries generally must begin taking distributions by December 31 of the year following the year of the account owner’s death.  The amount they have to take is based on the beneficiary’s age at that point in time. Eligible designated  beneficiaries (EDBs) should use the IRS’s Single Life Table to determine their RMDs, which will be based on the beneficiary’s own life expectancy.  EDBs include spouses (who choose not to roll over or take as their own), disabled or chronically ill individuals, minor children and any beneficiary that is not more than 10 years younger than the owner. If your beneficiaries are not EDBs, they are required to liquidate the account within 10 years of the owner's death, in addition to possibly having to take annual RMDs.

If I use my RMD to make a charitable contribution, can I avoid taxes on it?

A distribution from an IRA that is donated directly to a charity, called a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD), will not be taxed as income. Through a QCD, you can transfer up to $105,000 each year directly from an IRA (although not from a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan) to an eligible charity. While this avoids income tax on the RMD, note that QCDs are not eligible to be claimed as a tax deduction. Please note that unlike with RMDs, the eligibility age for QCDs remains 70 1/2.

Is there any way I can keep the assets but avoid the RMDs altogether?

You may be able to convert your retirement vehicle into a Roth IRA, which are not subject to RMDs during your lifetime. You will have to pay taxes on the amount that is converted, though, and if you’re already 73, you must take the RMD before converting. This is only an option if you’re converting from a traditional IRA.

Each of these tactics can be complicated to implement. To make sure your retirement plan is still on the right track, check with your Baird Financial Advisor team. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published September 2021 and was updated January 2024 with more current information.

The information reflected on this page are Baird expert opinions today and are subject to change. The information provided here has not taken into consideration the investment goals or needs of any specific investor and investors should not make any investment decisions based solely on this information. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. All investments have some level of risk, and investors have different time horizons, goals and risk tolerances, so speak to your Baird Financial Advisor before taking action.