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If you’re like about 50 million other people in the United States, your retirement financial planning includes a 401(k) account. Though these company-sponsored retirement savings plans are ubiquitous, they’re also quite frequently the sources of many questions regarding regulations, rollovers, benefits and other queries that consumers need to make to ensure their finances are as sound as possible in retirement. Put most simply, a 401(k) is a tax-deferred savings plan, and at its most basic, the more money you put into it, the more money you will get out.
Benefits for Employees
A 401(k) is sponsored by an employer as a retirement investment vehicle for employees. Employees contribute to the plan, if offered by their employer, and deductions are automatically taken from each paycheck. Employers use employees’ contributions to buy investments in the account, and often match employees’ contributions.
The money you invest in the plan is called a pre-tax contribution, because it is not taxed until you withdraw the money, at retirement. So, for example, if you make $100,000 a year and put $40,000 into your (401)k, you pay annual income tax on $60,000.
Keeping the money in the 401(k) is the key to maxing out its benefits. You’ll be penalized a 10% early-withdrawal penalty fee, plus any applicable taxes, if you take funds from it before you retire or before age 59 1/2.
One benefit of using a 401(k) as a kind of savings account is that you can contribute to it for as long as you are actively working.
Mandatory 401(k) Distributions
However, even if you work until you reach age 90, you’ll be subject to mandatory, required distribution guidelines. This is because 401(k) plans have strict rules about required minimum distributions, also known as RMDs. In general, you are required to take your first RMD when you are age 70 1/2;. You will be penalized if you do not do so.
Like traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans come with strict rules regarding required minimum distributions, or RMDs. Generally, you must take your first 401(k) withdrawal once you reach age 70 1/2, and if you don’t take your mandatory distributions, you could face some pretty stiff penalties.
How Distributions Work
Your actual RMD is calculated based on your 401(k) balance and your life expectancy. If you do not take the RMD that is required, you are required to pay a 50 percent penalty on the amount you do not withdraw.
That is a significant amount, and if you are getting close to age 70 1/2, familiarize yourself with the rules associated with your 401(k) so that you don’t lose potentially thousands of dollars that you worked very hard to earn.
To avoid this scenario, you may be able to move your 401(k) to a Roth IRA, which does not impose required minimum distributions. If you have any questions, speak with someone at your job or with your financial advisor to plot the right route for you. The Internal Revenue Service also provides a table that maps out mandatory distributions at set ages.
Learn About Rollovers
Since 401(k) plans are tied to your job and your employer, you may have some decisions to make when you leave a particular job, since you will be able to make some changes to your 401(k) if you wish. You can leave it as it is with your employer, particularly if you are satisfied with your employer’s investment strategy. Or, you can opt to transfer it to your new employer. And, you can also move your funds, particularly if you want more input into investment approaches. In such circumstances, many consumers opt to move it to what is called a rollover IRA.
If you move your funds directly to a traditional IRA, you will incur no taxes. You simply move your saved money from one kind of account into another. In the case of an IRA, you may opt to set it up at a bank or with a financial advisor. The best thing you can do when you have the opportunity to make a change to your 401(k) is to ask questions about transfer fees, rules regarding your old and new 401(k) and investment strategies and outlooks.
About Hardship Withdrawals
In some circumstances, hardship withdrawals are permitted before the mandated age and other qualifications. Hardships may include unexpected medical expenses, expenses to avoid home foreclosure or eviction, and funeral or burial expenses.
If you have hardship circumstances that may qualify you for such a withdrawal, speak to your fund administrator, who may have other ideas for you, such as taking out a 401(k) loan or borrowing money.
Whatever your situation is relative to a 401(k), ask questions to be sure you get the most out of this popular savings tool to set yourself on a steady financial course.
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