Sunday, April 16, 2017

IRA or 401(k): Which Is Better If You Get Fired?

Name me a major difference between an IRA and a 401(k).

I will give you the setup.

After 17 years in the construction industry, Mr C lost his job in 2010. He was unemployed for the next year and a half.

Mrs C was also going through a difficult stretch and lost her job. She was eventually reemployed, but at approximately half of her former salary.

Both Mr and Mrs C were age 56.

He depleted his savings. They then turned to the retirement accounts. You know why: they were trying to survive.

Mrs C took out approximately $4,000 from her retirement.

Mr C told his insurance agent to withhold taxes when he took distributions, as he did not want any surprises come tax time. He took monies out at different times, in different amounts and from different accounts. To add to the confusion, he was also sending money back to the insurance agent, presumably to settle-up on the income taxes withheld on the distributions.

All in all, he took out approximately $28,000.

Mr and Mrs C later received 1099s for approximately $17 thousand, which they reported on their tax return.
Question: what happened to the other $11,000 ($28 - $17)?
Who knows.

Unfortunately, the actual distributions taken from the retirement accounts were closer to $32,000.

Real … bad … accounting … happening … here.

But let’s be chivalrous: Mr and Mrs C did not receive all the 1099s. It happens.

The IRS – of course – did receive all the 1099s. They probably also have all the socks that go missing in clothes dryers, too.

And the IRS wanted tax on the $15,000 that Mr and Mrs C did not report.

No surprise.

And 10% penalties.

Must be that “early” distribution thing.

And more penalties on top of that, because that is the way the IRS rolls these days.

Not OK.

Mr and Mrs C represented themselves (“pro se”) at the Tax Court.

And I love their argument:

They had dutifully paid their taxes for more than 30 years without fault or complaint. Could the Court find it in its heart … you know, this one time?

The Court could not grant their argument, as you probably guessed. Thirty years of safe driving doesn’t mean you can go on a society-threatening tear one sodden Saturday night. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Court decided they owed the tax. They also owed the 10% penalty for early distribution.

What they didn’t owe was another IRS penalty on top of that. The Court found that they did the best they could and genuinely believed that the broker was using the monies Mr C forwarded to cover withholding taxes. They were as surprised as anyone when that wasn’t the case. It created a tax hole they could not climb out of, at least not easily.

Here is my question to you:
Did they take monies from their 401(k)s or from their IRAs?
Whatchu think?

I am thinking their IRAs.


An early distribution from an IRA is defined as age 59 ½. Unless there is an exception (you know, like, you died), you are going to get tagged with that 10% penalty.

On the other hand, the age test for a 401(k) is 55.

The Cs got tagged, thus I am thinking IRA.

To be fair, there is more to this exception. Here are some technicals:
  •    It applies only to company sponsored plans, like 401(k)s.
  •    It applies only to a plan sponsored by the company that let you go. That 401(k) at a former employer doesn’t qualify.
And here is the biggie:
·       You have to withdraw the money in the same year you are let go. You cannot stagger this over a period of years.
Why that last one?

Seems harsh to me. Isn’t it bad enough to be fired? Why not make it the year of discharge and the year following? Is Congress concerned that getting fired will become the next great tax shelter? How about lifetime pensions for 30+year tax CPAs?

Thought I would slip-in that last one.

Mr and Mrs C were age 56. Old enough for 401(k) relief, but too young for IRA relief.

BTW, if you need money over several years, there may be a way around the “you have to withdraw the money in the year you were let go” requirement.


Roll your 401(k) money into an IRA.

Then start “substantially equal periodic payments” from the IRA. This has its own shortcomings, but it is an option.

And you can withdraw over more than one year without triggering a penalty.

Problem is: you have to withdraw over a minimum number of years and the annual payouts can vary only so much. It is of little help if you need money, lots of it and right now.

I do not believe we have spoken of “substantially equal” payments on this blog before. There is a reason: that is dry country and likely to send both of us into a coma. Let me see if I can find a case that is even remotely interesting. 

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