Sometimes, a loophole is too tempting.
A few folks thought they could use their individual retirement accounts for short-term loans to themselves. The Internal Revenue Service was not amused. Starting in 2015, new rules apply for withdrawing money from an IRA with the aim of rolling it into another IRA investment, taking possession of the funds yourself in the process.
The short version of the new rule is that you can only roll over an account this way once every 365 days, investment advisors say. But the longer version is: Don't even try to skirt this rule.
"The rollover rules have been tightened -- a lot," says Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and chief executive officer of Ed Slott & Co., which runs professional training courses on IRAs. "Everybody with an IRA needs to know about this because at some point, everybody with an IRA wants to change investments."
[Read: 4 Essential IRA Planning Tips.]
"Any time you're tempted to move money, talk with a financial professional, because tax rules are different for IRAs and 401(k)s," says Doug Orton, vice president of MFS, a Boston-based asset management firm. "Don't get fooled into thinking that a rollover is a no-fault transaction. Sometimes people make horrific mistakes by assuming there's no penalty. "
Start thinking now about how this will affect the management of your retirement accounts, recommends David W. Smith, an advisor with Strategic Wealth Management in Bend, Oregon. If you were considering taking distributions from any IRA account this year, know the IRS has stated that existing rules apply through Dec. 31. After that, the new rules -- which are still being fine-tuned -- will apply.
The important distinction is that there are still no limits on rolling over IRAs and Roth IRAs from one institution to another. That's called a "trustee to trustee transfer," and you can do that as often as you want, Slott and other IRA experts say.
You can also shift money among different types of retirement accounts -- say, from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA -- without complications. Of course, before making any moves, have a one-on-one discussion with a financial advisor to make sure you are well within the guidelines. You should also talk through the potential tax implications of shifting funds among accounts.
However, the new rules do apply to rollovers in which "you say, 'I want to move the money, but give me the check,'" Slott says. "You can only do that once every 365 days."
It's important to note the rule specifies "every 365 days," not once a calendar year, he says. That means you can't take cluster withdrawals, or closely timed withdrawals and deposits, giving yourself access to those retirement funds for two penalty-free 60-day periods in a row.
Although it has been relatively rare for IRA account holders to play roulette with their financial futures, the option was too much for a few people to resist. Most often, advisors say, those who used the 60-day rollover period inappropriately did so to fund business cash flow, college tuition bills and other big-ticket cash shortages.
It was never a commonplace gamble, but the ploy was sufficiently flagrant to elicit a strongly worded IRS slapdown and stringent rules advisors expect will apply to all without exception or mercy. Translation: Take your money for a stroll and return it a day late, and you will face huge losses for the privilege.
Slott says the smartest way to sidestep rollover woes is simply to not take the money yourself. Always direct the money from one institution to another in a "trustee to trustee" transfer.
If you take a risk for, say, trying to use rolling IRA funds for a do-it-yourself bridge loan as you buy one house before selling the other, you could pay a very high price. If the money is not redeposited in another IRA within 60 days and you are younger than 59½, you will pay a 10 percent penalty, Slott says. And the funds will likely be subject to income taxes.
You might get away with it. But you might not. As Slott says, "Why invite disaster?"
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