Forget to do this before the end of the year and you could face a big tax penalty

  • If you're 70½ or older, you have one key task to complete before Dec. 31: Take your required minimum distribution from your retirement accounts.
  • If you neglect to take the money out on time, you could face a 50 percent tax penalty on the amount you should have had distributed.
  • The best time to get the distribution process started is now in order to give your request enough time to clear.
Close-Up Of Cropped Hand Putting Money In Jar
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As the calendar nears the last month of the year, be warned: If you're 70½ or older, do not forget to take your required minimum distribution.

Required minimum distributions, or RMDs, is the amount you must withdraw from your pre-tax retirement accounts every year. That money is then added to your taxable income for the year.

But just like filing tax returns, many individuals procrastinate when it comes to checking this item off their annual to-do list. And if you forget, you could be hit with a 50 percent tax penalty on the amount of the distribution you should have taken.

Just about 50 percent of Fidelity customers who have individual retirement accounts with the firm and who must take RMDs have taken them, according to data from late October.

That number does not factor in whether those customers have accounts at other firms through which they may have taken their distributions. The amount you need to take for your RMD is calculated based on all of your retirement accounts. The total distribution, however, may be taken out of one account if you have multiple individual retirement accounts. If you have a mix of accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, those RMDs need to be taken separately.

If you still need to take your RMD for this year, get started sooner rather than later to ensure you meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

"I'd recommend giving yourself at least five or six days ahead of time," said Keith Bernhardt, vice president of retirement income at Fidelity. "If you're calling up your firm, if the market's volatile at the time, it might be hard to get through on the phone. I would suggest giving yourself a week or more cushion."

Starting your RMD request early will allow enough time to sell out of the security, have the sale settle in that account and let the cash free up, Bernhardt said.

The time it takes for all of that to be completed varies from firm to firm.

There are some other tips to consider when it comes to those annual distributions.

Be careful with your calculations

Firms like Fidelity will provide you with a calculation for how much you need to take out of the retirement accounts you have invested with them.

But that typically only includes the funds you have invested at that firm. If you also have money invested elsewhere, be sure to calculate how much you need to take out of those accounts as well.

The RMD can ultimately be taken out of just one IRA if you have multiple IRAs, Bernhardt said. But the distribution you take out needs to consider all of your accounts.

Consider donating to charity

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was passed last year has put a different spin on charitable donations.

Now, because the standard deduction is larger, many individuals will not be able to itemize and take deductions for the money they give to charity.

But if you donate your RMD through a qualified charitable distribution, you do not need to itemize your deductions to take advantage of that tax move.

"The money has to go straight from your IRA to the charity, and it doesn't show up in your taxes," Bernhardt said.

That means it will not interfere with your Social Security taxes or Medicare premiums.

A word of caution: A qualified charitable distribution must be made directly to a qualifying charity, so donations to a donor-advised fund do not count. The funds also have to move directly from your investment account to the charity.

Keep the money invested

Just because you are required to take the money out of your retirement account does not mean you have to spend it.

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"It's perfectly fine to have the money move from an IRA to a brokerage account," Bernhardt said. "A lot of people think it has to be spent, but it doesn't have to be."

Set up automatic withdrawals

For future RMDs, you may want to consider setting it and forgetting it.

Fidelity allows its customers to tell them when they want those payments, whether it be a one-time annual payment or monthly. That way, you do not have to worry about the last-minute rush to get those funds before the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1.

"Automatic is something that we really suggest to folks," Bernhardt said. "They don't have to worry about calling in. They don't have to worry about forgetting. We do the math for them. We get it out."

If you have inherited a retirement account such as an IRA or 401(k), remember that you are also required to take an RMD each year on that money. Distributions for inherited accounts are calculated differently, so be sure to double check with your financial institution on how much you need to take out.

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