Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Is TSP considered ‘traditional IRA’ for tax purposes?

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Q. I own both a Thrift Savings Plan account and several non-TSP IRAs with other institutions and am approaching the age at which I must begin to withdraw the required minimum distribution from both the TSP and the non-TSP IRAs.

I am withdrawing enough money from the TSP to cover the required distribution from all of my accounts combined. Must I withdraw any additional monies from my non-TSP IRAs to comply with the tax laws? The answer may depend upon whether the TSP is considered a “traditional IRA” for tax purposes. I can’t find any information on this point.

A. The TSP is not considered an IRA for any purpose. From the Internal Revenue Service website:

“An IRA owner must calculate the RMD separately for each IRA that he or she owns, but can withdraw the total amount from one or more of the IRAs. Similarly, a 403(b) contract owner must calculate the RMD separately for each 403(b) contract that he or she owns, but can take the total amount from one or more of the 403(b) contracts.
However, RMDs required from other types of retirement plans, such as 401(k) and 457(b) plans have to be taken separately from each of those plan accounts.”

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Initiating monthly withdrawals

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 Q. In your Dec. 16 column, you suggest leaving money in the Thrift Savings Plan as long as possible. I like the suggestion to withdraw only the required minimum distribution when the time comes. I am confused how this is done since, unlike the mutual fund companies, the TSP doesn’t seem to have an option of partial withdrawals.

A. You’ll have to initiate monthly withdrawals to meet the requirement. Since you can’t go from automatic withdrawals based on your life expectancy to fixed monthly withdrawals, you’ll retain more flexibility by sticking to fixed monthly withdrawals. If your monthly withdrawals fall short of the requirement for the year, the TSP will send a check to make up the difference at the end of the year.

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Rolling a TSP distribution over into a Roth IRA

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Q. Can I roll over a Thrift Savings Plan distribution that I received last week to a Roth IRA?

A. Yes, as long as it’s not a required minimum distribution. Your tax preparer is responsible for making sure that you obey the applicable rules, however. Self-preparation of all but the simplest tax return can be hazardous to your financial health.

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Holding on to capital

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Q. I’ve just been flying straight with the L2030 plan until I can get some reliable advice. I would like to keep my capital I have in the Thrift Savings Plan, receive a monthly or quarterly check, and reinvest the amount I don’t need back into my capital. When I turn 70½ (in four years) I’ll have to start receiving the required minimum distribution, which I can’t reinvest. I don’t want to get an annuity because I’d have to give up my capital. How can I hold on to my capital, reinvest in it and possibly leave that money to my children or even my grandkids?

A. I don’t see a problem. The money in your TSP carries a tax liability that must be paid, eventually. There is no requirement that you spend the RMD. You can just move it from the TSP to a similar investment in a taxable discount brokerage account.

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RMD

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Q. I am a FERS employee who turned 71 in September. I plan to retire in January 2015. When do I need to start taking my required minimum distribution?

A. Under the current rules, and these circumstances, your first RMD, for tax year 2015, will be due by April 1, 2016.

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RMD

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Q. I turn 70½ in April 2014. My required minimum distribution can be taken anytime during 2014. Is it calculated on the balance in my IRA for 2013 or 2014? If I take it in 2014, the year I turn 70½, will I also have an RMD taken out Dec. 31, 2014, on the balance in my IRA in 2014? Will I have two RMDs in 2014?

A. Your RMD amount for each tax year is calculated for each account that is subject to the RMD, and is based on the preceding year’s ending account value.

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Mandatory TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am reading TSP-775 (6-2013) concerning important tax information about TSP withdrawals.  First paragraph (Deadline for withdrawing your TSP Account) states that “By April 1 of the year following the year you become age 70.5 and are separated from Federal Service, the TSP requires that you withdraw your entire account balance in a single payment.” It goes on to give options about monthly payments, life annuities. This leaves me perplexed. I thought I only needed to withdraw the required minimum distribution after becoming age 70½. Also, I thought if I have other IRAs, I could take the RMD from those and leave my Thrift Savings Plan unscathed. If I withdraw the entire account balance from my TSP, I will have to pay federal tax on whole amount. Can you clarify?

A. Here’s what you read:

By April 1 of the year following the year you become age 70½ and are separated from Federal service, the TSP requires that you withdraw your entire account balance in a single payment, begin receiving monthly payments, purchase a life annuity, or use a combination of these withdrawal options.

The requirement is that you do one of the three basic options separated by commas (full lump-sum withdrawal, monthly payments, purchase a life annuity), or elect some combination of them by the required beginning date.

Unfortunately, the TSP does not allow you to waive the RMD for your TSP balance. It must be taken from your TSP account.

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Minimizing the tax burden of RMDs

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Q. I am 70 years old and have about $100,000 in my Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Can you guide me toward the best options to withdraw the amount? I would prefer to pay the least in taxes to Uncle Sam.

A. To minimize the tax burden from required minimum distributions, you should request distributions based on your life expectancy under IRS rules. For the first distribution — the one due for the year you reach age 70½ or retire, whichever comes last) — you should consult a tax adviser to determine whether it is better to take it in that year, or defer it into the following year. If you’re not sure, it’s probably best to take in the first year.

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Life annuity vs. TSP monthly payments

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Q. I am retired and turn 70 this month. Even though I do not want to begin distribution of my Thrift Savings Plan investment, I understand that by law I must select a required minimum distribution program. My dependent spouse is 76 and also retired.

I am healthy and, with my family genetics, could expect to live to age 100. I do not need the TSP to live on and want to maintain it in the TSP investment form for as long as possible.

Under these circumstances, what is the best RMD to select: a life annuity or a TSP monthly payment? Should it be a single, or joint with survivor benefits? What is the tax exposure for the recommended way to go?

A. You should request automatic monthly payments based on your life expectancy. This will minimize the size of the payments.

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RMD and taxes

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Q. I retired in 2011 and must start required minimum distributions soon. I understand taxation if the Thrift Savings Plan sends me fixed dollar payments or if TSP pays out based on life expectancy. But what if I have TSP buy an annuity with part of my TSP and I leave the balance in the TSP? How are taxes figured?

A. Your annuity income will be taxable as ordinary income and you will be required to take RMD from the remaining TSP balance, which will also be taxed as ordinary income.

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