Understanding Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) in Retirement Plans

Retirement planning involves many complex rules and regulations, one of which is the required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. Enacted by Congress in 1986, the RMD rule ensures that individuals participating in company-sponsored retirement plans, such as IRAs, begin taking distributions from their accounts and paying taxes on those funds by a specified date. This blog aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of RMDs, including their purpose, key requirements, distribution periods, rollovers, penalties for noncompliance, and more.

Why were RMDs introduced? Before 1986, individuals had the freedom to leave their money in company-sponsored retirement plans indefinitely, allowing for tax-sheltering. Recognizing the opportunity to expedite tax revenues, Congress implemented the RMD rule to prevent perpetual tax-sheltering. By enforcing distributions, the RMD rules aim to ensure that retirement funds are put into use rather than being indefinitely deferred.


Key components of RMDs

The RMD rules consist of three main elements:

  1. Required Beginning Date (RBD): Under the RMD requirements, individuals must start taking distributions from their qualified employer plans either when they turn 73 or when they retire from the company sponsoring the plan, whichever comes later. If an individual owns more than 5 percent of a company, they must begin taking distributions at age 73, without the option to delay. For IRAs, distributions must begin at age 73, regardless of retirement status. The first distribution can be delayed until April 1 of the year following the year in which the plan participant turns 73 or retires, whichever is later.
  2. Required Distribution Period: The RMD rules are designed to distribute the entire amount in an individual’s plan over a specified period. This period is based on actuarial calculations and is approximately equal to the joint life expectancy of the participant and a beneficiary who is no more than ten years younger than the participant. The IRS provides a table  that outlines the distribution periods based on age.
  3. Rolling Over and Transferring Funds: Individuals aged 73 or older can still transfer or roll over funds from one retirement plan to another. However, the required distribution amounts cannot be exempted from distribution through a rollover; they must still be taken.

Penalties for noncompliance:

Noncompliance with the RMD requirements incurs penalties. If an individual fails to take the required distribution, the penalty is 25 percent of the difference between the amount that should have been taken and the amount that was taken. However, there is a correction window where the penalty is reduced to 10 percent if the correction is made within that timeframe. It is essential to ensure the minimum due is taken every year to avoid penalties.

Example: Let’s consider an example to illustrate the application of RMDs. Alex turned 73 on March 1 of this year and had until April 1 of the following year to take his first RMD. On June 1, he received a $250,000 distribution from his 401(k) plan, which he intends to roll over into an IRA. However, before rolling over the balance, Alex must first take the RMD from the $250,000.

Smilling senior couple with their accountant


Understanding the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules is crucial for individuals participating in company-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs. These rules ensure that retirement funds are distributed and taxed appropriately, preventing perpetual tax-sheltering. By familiarizing yourself with RMD requirements, such as the required beginning date, distribution periods, rollovers, and penalties for noncompliance, you can effectively plan your retirement and avoid unnecessary penalties.

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