(If this is way more than you want to know about IRA's, please skip ahead to the last two paragraphs. If you don't even have a retirement account other than a Roth IRA and don't expect to, maybe just check out 10 Supplies You Always Need at the Gym over at Buzzfeed.)
According to the IRS website,
"The RMD rules apply to all employer sponsored retirement plans, including profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and 457(b) plans. The RMD rules also apply to traditional IRAs and IRA-based plans such as SEPs, SARSEPs, and SIMPLE IRAs. The RMD rules also apply to Roth 401(k) accounts. However, the RMD rules do not apply to Roth IRAs while the owner is alive."(So, you get a break from the IRS if you're dead. Good to know.)
A 50% penalty. Surely that got your attention.
There are basically two individual retirement account deals offered by the IRS: a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA.
The IRS offers a tax deduction when you contribute funds to a traditional IRA. You contribute "pre-tax" dollars. Because Congress didn't want wealthy people to be able to avoid taxation on those funds forever, they mandated required minimum distributions (RMDs). The effect of RMDs is that after age 70½, retirees must withdraw at least a certain percentage of their current traditional IRA balances and pay taxes on those withdrawals.
That's the bad news — you'll have to pay taxes on your traditional IRA's when you withdraw and you will eventually have to make withdrawals. The worse news is that it will all be taxed as ordinary income, even if you earned the money with long-held stock investments. Preferred capital gains rates don't apply to holdings in an IRA.
Roth IRA's are the other, different deal. You don't get a tax deduction for contributions up front. You contribute after-tax dollars. The good news is that there are no taxable required distributions from individual Roth accounts (there are from Roth 401(k) accounts, though) and the contributions and any earnings on those contributions are never taxed.
Which is the better deal? That depends on whether your taxes are higher when you contribute or when you withdraw. And, that's fairly unpredictable.
The IRS enforces the RMD penalty if you don't withdraw the required minimum amount each year after age 70½. (The penalty may be waived if the account owner establishes that the shortfall in distributions was due to reasonable error and that reasonable steps are being taken to remedy the shortfall.) You will not only have to pay taxes on the correct amount of the withdrawal you didn't make on time, you will have to pay a 50% penalty on the shortfall and you will still have to withdraw the funds from your IRA.
This is a costly mistake you don't want to make.
The calculations look complicated (see Form 5329), but there are calculators on the web to help, and your investment company may even offer a service for free to remind you and calculate your RMD for you. Vanguard offers such a service, for example, though you have to be 69½ to enroll.
The minimum amount to withdraw is based on your life expectancy as calculated by one of three tables provided by the IRS. (Here's an easier-to-read version from Forbes magazine than IRS Publication 590 provides.)
If you are 72, for instance, the uniform table calculates your life expectancy as 25.6 years and that year you must withdraw the total of your IRA Account balances divided by 25.6. That's about 3.9%. At age 82, that will grow to 5.85% of whatever you have left in those accounts.
Recently, I received a couple of questions regarding RMD's and sustainable withdrawal rates. The common thread of the queries was, "What do I do when the IRS requires that I make withdrawals that are larger than my 4% safe withdrawal rate? Won't I deplete my portfolio too fast?"
(RMDs exceed 4%, for example, after age 73.)
The first thing to realize is that they're two very different things. SWR withdrawals are spent while RMDs are only taxed. The assumption is that if you didn't need the entire 4% SWR withdrawal in a given year, you would leave what you didn't spend in your portfolio.
IRA RMD's are withdrawn so that you a) must pay taxes on them and b) you stop any future tax deferrals on the withdrawal amount. The IRS doesn't say you have to spend the withdrawal. Just reinvest the balance after taxes into a taxable account. Heck, put it into the same mutual fund you took it out of, if you like, just do it in a taxable account.
The second thing to be aware of is that safe withdrawal rates also increase with time. According to William Bengen's original work, "SAFEMAX" is about 4.4% when you have 30 years left in retirement, 5.2% with 20 years remaining and 8.9% with 10 years remaining. Other studies show similar results (with the caveat that I don't trust any of them.)
Lastly, we can't assume that all of a retiree's portfolio resides in traditional IRA accounts. If half the portfolio is in taxable accounts, for instance, and half is in IRA's, a 3.9% RMD from the IRA's would only equate to a 1.95% portfolio withdrawal.
So, required minimum distributions shouldn't destroy your retirement spending plan unless it was developed with the incorrect assumption that you would never have to pay taxes on any of your retirement accounts.
To sum it all up, it is very important that you understand that there are certain amounts of your traditional IRA's and similar retirement accounts that must be withdrawn and taxed after age 70½. The rules are complex and violating them can cost you a bundle in penalties.
If tax gibberish is just beyond your attention span (in other words, you are normal), then I suggest the following. Make a note to call your tax professional or your mutual fund customer service department on your 70th birthday and ask what you need to do about required minimum distributions or "RMDs". Or call that customer service department today and ask if they offer a reminder service.
A potential 50% penalty should be plenty of incentive.