To Tap or Not to Tap Your IRA


If you are at least 70½ years old, you normally must take a taxable distribution from your traditional IRA or employer-provided retirement plan by the end of the year—whether you need the money or not—or face a stiff penalty equal to half of the amount you failed to withdraw. But this year is different. Uncle Sam says you can skip your required minimum distribution for 2009. (Employees who continue working past age 70½ are not subject to mandatory distributions from their company plans until they retire, but they still must take distributions from their IRAs.)

IRA owners who turned 70½ between July 1 and December 31 would normally have to take their first distribution by April 1, 2010. But thanks to the waiver, they can skip that, too, delaying their first mandatory-distribution deadline until December 31, 2010.

And if you tapped your IRA earlier in the year and now regret it, the usual 60-day rollover period, which allows you to redeposit the money tax- and penalty-free, has been extended to November 30. But there’s a catch: You are allowed to put one IRA withdrawal back into the account within 365 days. So if you received regular distributions every month, for example, then you can put only one of the withdrawals back in. If you received the money in a lump sum, however, then you can put it all back (including any taxes withheld from the distribution; otherwise it will be considered a distribution and will be taxed as ordinary income).

The one-year moratorium on mandatory distributions also applies to owners of inherited IRAs and other retirement accounts. For example, if you inherited your mother’s IRA and planned to take annual distributions based on your own life expectancy, you can forgo this year's withdrawal. Or if you follow another set of distribution rules that require you to empty an inherited IRA by the end of the fifth year after the owner’s death, you now have an additional year to do so.

Although there are no required minimum distributions for Roth IRA owners—regardless of age—nonspouse beneficiaries who inherit a Roth are subject to the mandatory distributions. They can skip this year's withdrawal, too.

Of course, you can tap your traditional IRA this year if you wish and pay taxes at your ordinary rate on the entire amount you withdraw. But if you don’t need the money, there are several advantages to skipping a distribution for 2009. Keeping your money invested in a tax-deferred IRA will give your account even more to time to recover from the worst market collapse since the Great Depression. Plus, not taking an IRA distribution this year could reduce the tax bill on your other income. You might be able to trim the amount of your Social Security benefits that are taxed, and with a lower income, you may be eligible for other tax breaks that you normally can’t use, such as deducting medical expenses in excess of 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

You can still opt to send up to $100,000 of your IRA distribution directly to a charity. While you can’t double-dip and deduct the donation as a charitable contribution, the amount will not be added to your taxable income.

Another option: Because you aren’t required to withdraw the money this year, you may want to roll some of it into a Roth IRA. (See more on Roth IRA choices here.) You’ll have to pay taxes when you make the switch, but you can take tax-free withdrawals after five years, you never have to take required minimum distributions, and you can create a tax-free inheritance for your heirs. You don’t need earned income to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth, but to qualify, your income—not counting converted amounts—can’t top $100,000 in 2009.