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When Markets Are Down, What Should You Do About RMDs?

When Markets Are Down, What Should You Do About RMDs?

  • 03.25.20
  • Retirement & Longevity
  • Article

Keep these strategies and considerations in mind.

To ensure that tax liabilities aren’t deferred indefinitely, investors are obligated by the IRS to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from most retirement accounts. For those born after June 30, 1949, RMDs begin at age 72; for those born earlier, RMDs begin at age 70½.

Volatile markets add a layer of complexity to taking these distributions, however. As the RMD amount is determined by the retirement account’s value at prior year-end as well as your life expectancy, a quick downturn in the stock market at the beginning of the year can cause a lot of stress for individuals who are then required to take a distribution – and who face a steep 50% penalty if they don’t.

It’s not a simple topic. However, there are a few considerations and strategies to bear in mind when thinking about your RMDs amid volatile market conditions.

Update: The CARES Act coronavirus response plan (passed March 27) includes a provision that there are no required minimum distributions in 2020. Please consult your tax professional and financial advisor for additional guidance.


If this is your first RMD, you have the option to delay

Normally, RMDs must be taken by December 31. However, your first RMD can be delayed until April 1 of the year after you reach the relevant RMD age (72 if you were born after June 30, 1949; 70½ if born earlier). Those extra months can provide a bit of flexibility in timing, allowing for market conditions to potentially stabilize or improve before you take a withdrawal from the account in question.

However, keep in mind that if you delay your first RMD into the year after reaching your age trigger, you’ll still need to satisfy that year’s RMD before December 31 – meaning you’ll be taking two distributions within the same calendar year. This means more taxable income, which may push you into a higher marginal tax bracket or increase certain costs such as Medicare premiums.

Bottom line: a bit of flexibility in timing can be a positive, but be sure you’ve thought through the tax implications.

If you’re still working, you may have the option to delay

If you’ve reached the age of taking RMDs but are still working, you may be able to defer taking the RMD from your current employer’s retirement account. The IRS generally allows your first RMD from an employer’s retirement plan – such as a 401(k), 403(b) or profit-sharing plan – to be taken by April 1 in the year after you retire, provided that your company allows you to delay past normal RMD age and you own less than 5% of the business.

Much like the first RMD-delay option noted above, you’ll want to think through how taking two RMDs in the next calendar year might affect your tax situation.

Different accounts have different rules

If you have multiple individual retirement accounts (IRAs), you have the option to withdraw the total RMD amount owed for all of your IRAs from one or more of them, rather than taking out each RMD from its specific account. A similar rule applies with 403(b) accounts. However, RMDs from other types of retirement plans like 401(k) and 457(b) plans have to be taken separately from each account. Talk to your financial professional to determine where you have location flexibility and where you don’t.

Use cash, if available

If you’re already holding cash in an account you have to withdraw from, take advantage of it. Instead of selling investments at reduced values, simply request the cash out of the account to satisfy the RMD. 

If there’s not enough cash, sell thoughtfully

Hopefully, you have an appropriate asset allocation that has a mix of asset types – including stocks and bonds – tailored to your individual risk tolerance. If that’s the case, you and your financial advisor can discuss which assets would be best to sell to satisfy the RMD amount, hopefully avoiding locking in losses on positions that have suffered the worst.

For the charitably minded, QCDs are an option

If you don’t need the income yourself and have a cause close to your heart, you can take a qualified charitable distribution (QCD), which allows you to donate up to $100,000 to charity from your IRA and have it count toward your RMD. This strategy won’t help if you need to sell investments to raise cash, but it will help on taxes, as the gift won’t be included in your taxable income (even though it fulfills your RMD).

If you don’t need the income, consider an in-kind distribution

Another option if you don’t need the cash flow – an “in-kind distribution.” This involves requesting that securities in your IRA be transferred to your after-tax brokerage account – which is particularly beneficial if you’re holding a position you don’t want to sell. This strategy doesn’t avoid taxes on the RMD, but it can help reduce transaction costs (since nothing is being sold or repurchased) while maintaining your position in the security at all times. Bear in mind that an in-kind IRA distribution will reset the cost basis of your holding.

Remember, you can reinvest

Regardless of which strategy you decide to use, keep in mind that you can choose to reinvest any money you withdrew to satisfy RMDs by moving it to an after-tax brokerage account. This can help provide an opportunity for that money to grow if markets recover. If you’re already happy with your specific holdings, however, consider the in-kind distribution strategy mentioned above.

Turn to a professional for tailored guidance

Everyone’s situation is unique, and there are nuanced strategies for satisfying RMDs that go beyond the approaches covered here. Your tax professional and financial advisor are the best sources for information that’s personalized to your specific situation and future goals.

Please note, changes in tax laws may occur at any time and could have a substantial impact upon each person’s situation.