Balancing Priorities

Retirees: The penalty for missing this April 1 deadline is no joke

Forget April 18. Retirees have another more pressing deadline — April 1 — to avoid a hefty 50 percent tax penalty.

The culprit: Required minimum distributions from retirement accounts. Under IRS rules, RMDs generally kick in on IRAs once you reach age 70½. For 401(k) plans and other defined contribution plans, it's typically when you turn 70½ or you retire, whichever is later.

In the year you're first required to take an RMD, you have until April 1 of the following year to make that withdrawal. Thereafter, the deadline to take that year's RMD is Dec. 31.

Fail to withdraw enough, and there's a hefty 50 percent tax penalty on the shortfall.

(For more of the ins and outs on RMDs, including how to figure out how much to take, see our guide here.)

RMD newbies tend to procrastinate. As of Dec. 23, 2016, 40 percent of Fidelity investors eligible to take their first distribution that year, hadn't taken any, according to Fidelity data. Another 3 percent had withdrawn some, but not enough to meet the minimum.

"They may have missed reading letters that we've sent, or information other firms have sent," said Maura Cassidy, vice president of retirement at Fidelity.

If you're taking advantage of the grace period, keep in mind that April 1 falls on a Saturday this year, said Cassidy. Unless you have cash holdings to withdraw, you'll need to make your request a few business days ahead of the deadline to allow time for trades to settle, she said.

Procrastinators should start strategizing about ways to cut next year's tax bill, said certified public accountant Benjamin Tobias, president of Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Florida. Even if the grace period has you taking your first RMD this spring, you'll still need to take your RMD for 2017 by Dec. 31 — and two in one year could make a big impact, he said.

What if you're not a first-timer, and reading this is a reminder that you missed the deadline?

Take your RMD for 2016 as soon as possible, and file a Form 5329 with your tax return this year, Cassidy said.

"Attach a letter explaining why you missed taking it last year," she said. "Usually the IRS has waived the penalty."