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retirement distributions

When it comes to receiving the fruits of your employer-sponsored retirement plan, you have a few broad options. Should you take the payout as systematic payments, a lifetime annuity, or a lump sum?

1. Systematic withdrawals

Some retirement plans may allow you to take systematic withdrawals: either a fixed dollar amount on a regular schedule, a specific percentage of the retirement money value on a regular schedule, or the total value of the retirement monies in equal distributions over a specified period of time.

2. The lifetime annuity option

Your retirement plan may allow you to take payouts as a lifetime annuity, which converts your balance into guaranteed monthly payments based on your life expectancy. If you live longer than expected, the payments continue anyway.*

There are several advantages with this payout method. It helps you avoid the temptation to spend a significant amount of your assets at one time and the pressure use a large sum of money that might not last for the rest of your life. Also, there is no large initial tax bill on your entire nest egg; each monthly payment is subject to income tax at your current rate.

If you are married, you may have the option to elect a joint and survivor annuity. This would result in a lower monthly retirement payment than the single annuity option. However, your spouse would continue to receive a portion of your retirement income after your death. If you do not elect an annuity with a survivor option, your monthly payments end with your death.

The main disadvantage of the annuity option lies in the potential reduction of spending power over time. Annuity payments are not indexed for inflation. If we experience a 4% annual inflation rate, the purchasing power of the fixed monthly payment would be half in 18 years.

3. Lump-sum distribution

If you elect to take the money from your employer-sponsored retirement plan as a single lump sum, you would receive the entire balance in one payment. You can invest and use it as you see fit. You would retain control of the principal and could use it whenever and however you wish.

Of course, if you choose a lump sum, you will have to pay ordinary income taxes on the total amount of the distribution (except for any after-tax contributions you’ve made) in one year. A large distribution could easily move you into a higher tax bracket. Another consideration is the 20% withholding rule. If an employer issues a check for a lump-sum distribution, they must withhold 20% toward federal income taxes. Thus, you would receive only 80% of your nest egg balance, not 100%. Distributions taken prior to age 59½ (or in some cases age 55 or 50) may also be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty.

To avoid some of these problems, you might choose to take a partial lump-sum distribution. Then, roll the balance of the funds directly to an IRA or other qualified retirement plan in order to maintain the tax-deferred status of the funds. An IRA rollover might provide you with more options, not only in how you choose to invest the funds but also in how you access the funds over time.

After you reach age 70½, you generally must begin taking required minimum distributions from traditional IRAs and most employer-sponsored retirement plans. The tax on these distributions will be as ordinary income.

Note: Special rules apply to Roth accounts.

Before you take any action on retirement plan distributions, it would be wise to consult with a tax professional. Choose carefully, because your decision and the consequences will remain with you for life.

*Annuity guarantees are subject to the financial strength and claims-paying ability of the insurer.

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