Follow the Rules When Rolling Over Your Pension to an IRA

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Follow the Rules When Rolling Over Your Pension to an IRA

Many companies are closing out their pension plans, giving workers the opportunity to roll them over to an IRA or another plan. This situation was created by the high cost of maintaining these pensions due mainly to our longer life expectancy. Done correctly, rollovers are tax neutral; done incorrectly, rollovers can create significant tax liabilities.

Rolling over a company pension plan to an IRA is a simple procedure with fairly basic rules. First, you must be separated from service to qualify for a rollover or the company must be offering to close out the plan. Second, if the funds are withdrawn from the company plan, they must be re-deposited into a qualifying IRA or another pension plan within 60 days of withdrawal or be subject to tax. You will need to first check with your new employer to determine if they allow rollovers from other plans. Not all of them will permit rollovers. The human resource director at your new employer can help you with the information you will need to complete the paperwork for the rollover.

To rollover to an IRA you will need to first establish an IRA with a custodian if you don’t already have one. Your former employer will provide you with the forms needed to request a distribution. Then complete the forms requesting a direct distribution to your IRA custodian. Many more employers are allowing this to be done online or over the telephone. Your financial adviser can help you with this transaction to make sure everything is done properly.

If you elect to touch the money in the process, you may “borrow” the funds for 60 days one time each year. This rule applies to money invested in existing IRAs as well: 60 days one time each year. However, pension plans are required to withhold 20% of the proceeds if the check is made payable to you. This means in order to roll 100% of your pension distribution into an IRA, you will need to come up with the tax withholding out of your own pocket. Otherwise you will owe taxes on the money you didn’t rollover and possibly a tax penalty if you are under age 55.

The easiest way to roll over a pension plan is to execute a trustee to custodian transfer. If you are married, company pension plans generally require a notarized signature of your spouse, who will be giving up his/her right to an annuity interest, in order for you to move the money into your IRA.

When planning for a rollover, there are several other rules to keep in mind. For example, if you are age 55 or older when the separation from service occurs, you may take your company pension as a lump sum distribution without paying the 10% early withdrawal excise tax. You will be taxed on the distribution as ordinary income. If you elect to roll the money into an IRA, this option is not available to you until you hit age 59 ½. Check with your company to see if they allow the rollover to be split allowing you to take some of the money in cash now and rollover the rest. Keep in mind the plan will be required to withhold 20% of the amount paid to you for taxes.

If you have company stock in your plan you should consider an often-overlooked tax strategy known as net unrealized appreciation (NUA). How does an NUA work? Here’s an example. An employee is about to retire and qualifies for a lump sum distribution from a qualified retirement plan. He elects to use the NUA strategy, receives the stock, and pays ordinary income tax on the average cost basis, which represents the original cost of the shares. This strategy allows the tax to be deferred on any appreciation that accrues from the time the stock is distributed until it’s finally sold; and that tax is capital appreciation tax, generally less than tax on ordinary income. The NUA distribution must be taken as a lump sum distribution, not a partial lump sum distribution, and in order to qualify for a lump sum distribution, the employee must take the distribution all within the same calendar year.

A few words of caution before you jump on the NUA bandwagon: first, an NUA distribution may not be a good idea if the company’s outlook is bleak. The tax benefits are wasted if the company stock declines significantly after the distribution. An investor with 98% of his retirement account tied up in one stock may want to consider liquidating a portion of his stock position and distributing a smaller portion of the stock in-kind. Finally, the NUA transaction is complicated with strict rules to follow. You may want to consult a knowledgeable financial adviser to assist you with this transaction.

With a little planning, a rollover can provide you and your heirs or beneficiaries a number of advantages over leaving money on deposit in a company pension plan. By following the rules, you can enjoy the benefits and sidestep the tax pitfalls.

Rick’s Insights

  • Company retirement plans are required to withhold 20% of distributions made directly to a person for income taxes.
  • Distributions from a company plan are not subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are age 55 and separated from service.
  • Net unrealized appreciation (NUA) is a complicated strategy that may offer significant tax savings if you hold company stock in your employer’s plan.

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