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How to cut your tax bill when dipping into your 401(k)

Andrew Rosen, financial advisor and partner at Diversified Financial Consultants
  • Net unrealized appreciation is a way to extract money invested in company stock held in a company 401(k).
  • It's best to work with a professional before attempting the NUA process on your own, because there are a lot of moving parts and potential pitfalls.
  • There are sevencritical things to keep in mind before employing an NUA strategy.

When advising executives on managing their finances, more complex strategies are often employed because executive planning typically has more intricacies involved. One such executive strategy we often run into is net unrealized appreciation.

Many executives are heavily concentrated in their company's publicly traded stock: stock options, restricted units and even large portions of their 401(k). Many of them essentially have company stock falling out of their pockets.

There are several sophisticated tax strategies that are viable when it comes to stock positions in your work retirement plan, including net unrealized appreciation (NUA).

What is net unrealized appreciation?

NUA is a way to extract money invested in your company's stock held in your company 401(k). It allows you to pull the entire company stock out of the plan, while receiving special tax treatment. You'll pay ordinary income tax on the basis and have more favorable long-term capital gains on the growth through the years.

For example, if you purchased company stock for $50,000 and now it's worth $150,000, you would pay the ordinary income-tax rate on the $50,000 of basis, as well as long-term capital gains on the $100,000 of growth. Yet if you pulled the stock out of the 401(k), you would pay ordinary income tax on the entire $150,000.

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It's best to work with a professional before attempting the NUA process on your own, because there are a lot of moving parts and potential pitfalls. Here are some critical things to know before you even begin using this type of strategy.

1. A 'qualifying event' is required to be eligible.

A qualifying event is classified as separation from service, attaining age 59½, death or disability.

2. Withdrawals from your 401(k) in between qualifying events makes you ineligible.

For example, if you are 62 years old and took some funds out of your 401(k) two years ago, you cannot use this strategy. The only caveat here is if you attain a new qualifying event. Then you have the option of resetting. Therefore, if you separated service and took money out at 58 years old, you can still do the NUA once you reach age 59½ (another qualifying event).

3. You must withdraw the full amount of your 401(k) in the same calendar year.

This doesn't mean you can't take a portion of these funds and roll it into an IRA while utilizing NUA for the company stock. This just needs to occur in the same calendar year. For example, if you have $1,000,000 in your 401(k) and $250,000 is company stock and $750,000 is in mutual funds, you could take the $250,000 and move it to a brokerage account. Then you can perform the NUA and roll the $750,000 into an IRA.

4. You must transfer this stock in-kind to a brokerage account.

Work with your financial planner and plan administrator to set this up. It's very important to not sell the stock. Make sure you have a brokerage account set up to transfer those stocks directly without selling them first. You can also utilize the NUA strategy on privately held companies through an employee stock ownership plan. It may be harder to transfer the funds in-kind, but conceptually it can be done.

5. You will be responsible for ordinary income tax on the basis.

Upon transferring, you will be responsible for ordinary income tax on the basis immediately. If you are under age 59½, you'll be hit with an additional 10 percent penalty, as well, on that basis. If you simply sell the entire amount right away after transferring, you'll be responsible for ordinary income tax on the basis and long-term capital gains on the gain.

It is important to note that no matter when you acquired the stock, once transferred in-kind, the entire growth at that time is treated as long-term capital gains.

6. Decide if you will sell immediately or hold it.

If you sell immediately, you'll clearly have the cash on hand to pay the tax bill on basis and long-term capital gains. This is the simplest way to handle it. If you hold the stock, you'll have two things to consider. First, you will have to find a way to pay the tax on what could be a sizable bill. Second, any further gain or loss from that point will be treated like normal brokerage-account gains.

For instance, if the stock you bought for $50,000 is now worth $150,000 and you move ahead with NUA, you'll owe the taxes on $50,000. If you hold the $150,000 for six or more months and it grows to $175,000, you'll now owe long-term capital gains on the $100,000 of initial gain and short-term capital gains on the $25,000 additional gains, since you held it for less than one year.

It's also worth noting there is no Medicare surtax on the NUA capital gains. Therefore, you are only subject to potentially three long-term capital gain rates on just the NUA growth portion (0 percent, 15 percent or 20 percent).

7. Keep copious records.

It is important to keep records of everything you do when using the NUA strategy, especially if you are not immediately selling. You are likely moving funds between multiple institutions, and a lot of this data can get lost in the shuffle. When the day comes to meet the tax professional, you want to have well-documented records.

NUA is not for everyone

Although NUA can be a very beneficial strategy, it is certainly not right for everyone. There are a lot of things to consider, such as what it does to your taxes and how these funds will no longer be growing tax-deferred, but it can be a great savings strategy. Like anything related to tax or financial strategies, it is important to understand the benefits and drawbacks based on your specific financial situation.

(Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on Investopedia.com .)

— By Andrew Rosen, financial advisor and partner at Diversified Financial Consultants



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