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IRA Problem: Too Much Of A Good Thing

July 26, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ Among all the financial problems you can encounter in life, here’s one to aspire to: Having too much money in your tax-sheltered retirement account.

What with inflation, increased life expectancies and pressures on the Social Security system, most advice you hear about retirement savings these days makes the point that many people don’t have nearly enough put away.

That’s the reason the law provides for a 10 percent penalty tax if you take money from a tax-favored setup such as an individual retirement account before age 59 1/2, unless you set up a regular payout schedule.

But what gets a lot less attention is the penalties that are also provided for ``excess″ distributions, or ``excess″ accumulations in an IRA when you die.

Once you reach age 70 1/2, the law requires you to withdraw each year from your IRA a minimum amount that is based on your statistical life expectancy and the total value of your IRA savings. If you don’t take these withdrawals, you get hit with a 50 percent penalty tax.

But if your annual distributions exceed $150,000 in any year, you may also be assessed a 15 percent excise tax on excess distributions. Similarly, if you die with a sum big enough to generate that kind of annual takeout from an IRA, your estate may face a 15 percent surtax.

No problem, most people will quickly reply _ they’re in no danger of building up that kind of money in an IRA in the foreseeable future.

Actually, though, ``the number of investors whose required withdrawals will exceed $150,000 by the time they reach 70 1/2 is increasing rapidly,″ says the Northern Trust Co. in Chicago.

Adds the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche, ``Many people who do not consider themselves wealthy will find that, as time progresses, tax-deferred appreciation and compounding of income are creating substantial plan balances _ possibly subjecting them to the risk of extra taxes.″

Among the most likely candidates to face such a situation: People who have regular IRAs to which they have contributed over many years, plus rollover IRAs in which they have put lump sums distributed from other retirement plans.

Strong stock and bond markets also increase the chance this might happen. In the first half of 1995 alone, an IRA invested in a stock mutual fund may have increased more than 20 percent in value.

The important point for retirement savers in general, financial advisers say, is that withdrawals from vehicles such as IRAs need to be planned for, just as contributions do. Planning and anticipation can help avert ``excess″ IRA tax surcharges by strategies no more complicated than starting distributions sooner than you might otherwise have done.

Some people develop a ``sacred cow mentality″ toward their IRAs and similar retirement savings vehicles, Deloitte & Touche observes. ``Recognizing the advantage of tax-deferred growth, they contemplate liquidating their tax-deferred plans only after exhausting all their other assets.″

The urge to think that way is enhanced by the fact that IRA withdrawls are subject to full income taxation, except to the extent that they represent after-tax contributions. Living in retirement, a person may naturally be tempted to tap after-tax savings first.

``The prevailing thought process is to save all you can in an IRA and not withdraw any money until the last possible moment to shelter it from taxes,″ says John Beatty, manager of Northern Trust’s Private Resources Division. ``But some investors can actually be too successful.″

At least for some people with large retirement nest eggs, the best outcome may be achieved by not putting off IRA distributions too long.

End adv weekend editions July 29-30

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