Steps For Rolling Over Existing Accounts Into A Self-Directed IRA

As people work their way through one or more careers, and have several (if not dozens) of jobs, they can easily accumulate multiple retirement accounts. They generally come in the form of 401(k) accounts at past employers, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and perhaps even employer pension plans (although this last type of benefit is becoming increasingly rare).

Unfortunately, it can often become quite an administrative burden to manage so many different accounts. For some individuals it can be challenging enough trying to come up with the time to review the monthly or quarterly statements from a single retirement account. Trying to do so for a half-dozen or more accounts can quickly become nearly impossible.

The best way to clear up this administrative nightmare is to roll over all of your existing accounts, including accounts from prior employers, into a single self-directed IRA. Here are the steps for doing so.

1. Identify Your Target Account.
If you don’t currently have a self-directed IRA, then you’ll need to set one up before you go any further. Requesting a rollover from a prior 401(k) or a current IRA, but not having a target account in place, can result in the other plan administrator sending you a check for your account balance. If you don’t deposit this check quickly enough, the IRS may consider it a taxable distribution, and the cost to you could be significant.

The better path forward is to have your self-directed IRA already in place, and request that your current custodian or plan administrator send your rollover proceeds directly to the new account.

2. Contact Your Prior and Current Account Administrators. Once you have a self-directed IRA set up, it’s time to contact each of your current and prior account custodians and administrators. When attempting a rollover of a 401(k) from a prior employer, you may need to begin the process by contacting the employer first; and if you don’t know where to begin, start with the HR or benefits department.

Have all the information regarding your new account ready to give the prior administrators, and be prepared to follow-up if the rollover doesn’t occur within the timeframe they specify. Some plans will give you the choice of liquidating your account and doing a rollover of the proceeds, or rolling over the investment positions themselves, while other plans will automatically liquidate your investments and do a rollover of cash. If you have the choice, make sure to do your research on what’s best for you.

3. Consider Your Next Investment Steps. As you may already know, self-directed IRAs provide significantly more investment options than traditional IRAs or 401(k)s, so it might seem a little overwhelming. You can use a self-directed IRA to invest in real estate, certain types of precious metals, private companies, private mortgages, and many other investment classes that almost certainly weren’t available with your prior retirement plans.

Exploring investment possibilities while the rollovers are occurring will give you the confidence to proceed with your retirement investing plan once the rollover funds are in your new account.

How a Change of Career Can Impact Your Self-Directed IRA

The process of building up a retirement nest egg doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You can come up with a savings plan and investment plan, but if the other financial elements of your life undergo significant changes, you might have to adjust those plans. One thing that can impact your self-directed IRA in several important ways is changing your job or career.

New Income Levels

As you are likely already aware, your ability to contribute to a traditional self-directed IRA or a Roth self-directed will depend on your modified adjusted gross income, as well as whether you’re participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k).

For 2014, for example, if you’re a single taxpayer and you’re covered by a retirement plan at work, you can only deduct the full amount of any contributions you make to a traditional self-directed IRA if your modified gross income is $60,000 or less. If you’re not covered by a retirement plan at work then your contributions to a traditional self-directed IRA will be fully deductible regardless of your income. With respect to a Roth self-directed IRA it is irrelevant whether or not you participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you can only make the maximum contribution to your Roth account if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $181,000.

Clearly there are several moving parts here, but the bottom line is that whenever you switch to a new career or job, the optimal contribution strategy you used in past years may not be the best one in your new position. You may find that you’re much better off making contributions to a traditional account than a Roth account, or vice versa. (And some individuals maintain both Roth and traditional IRAs throughout their saving years for just this reason.)

Ability to Rollover Your 401(k) Account

Whenever you change jobs, you have the ability to roll over your account balance to your new 401(k) account at your new employer (assuming that your new employer offers such a plan). That has certainly been a common approach among many individuals who find themselves moving to a new job or new career.

But that change in job or career gives an opportunity to rollover the balance that’s in your 401(k) account into your self-directed IRA. Not only will this give you the opportunity to reduce your administrative burden by having fewer accounts to manage, but you’ll also have a larger pool of capital that you can use to make some of the less common retirement investments that you can only do with a self-directed IRA.

It’s true that you can generally leave your 401(k) account with your old employer, but if you choose that path you won’t be able to make new contributions to your account, and you’ll be stuck with whatever limited investment options that particular plan happens to offer.

Make sure that you structure this as a direct rollover, not as a distribution and contribution of funds. The negative tax implications of taking a distribution from your 401(k) could be significant.

What’s in a Name? – Why It’s Important to Name a Beneficiary for Your IRA

Many people probably don’t think too much about how important it is to name a beneficiary for their IRAs.  However, as my family recently found out, ignoring this important detail when setting up your IRA can be costly from a tax perspective.

I recently received a distribution check from an IRA of my father, who passed away last year.  My father was a very careful planner, so I was quite shocked at his lack of tax planning with his IRA.  When setting up his IRA he named his estate as the beneficiary of the IRA (this is equivalent to not naming a beneficiary at all).  This meant that when he passed away the estate had to be probated, even though the IRAs were the only assets requiring probate in his estate.  IRAs that have named beneficiaries are generally non-probate assets, meaning that they pass directly to the beneficiaries instead of passing through a will.  That was the first problem.

The larger problem came because of the lack of choices he left us by naming his estate as beneficiary.  In a Traditional IRA, required minimum distributions must begin no later than April 1 of the year after the IRA owner turns age 70 ½.  This is known as the required beginning date.  My father died before his required beginning date.  Since his estate is a non-individual beneficiary, the IRA had to be distributed within 5 years, or by December 31, 2011.  If my father had died after his required beginning date without having a named individual beneficiary, the yearly required minimum distributions would have been based on his remaining life expectancy in the year of his death reduced by one for each year following the year of his death.

In contrast, the choices available to our family had my father simply named beneficiaries would have been much more favorable.  Assuming my father wanted his wife and 3 sons to split the IRA in the same percentages he listed in the will, he could have named us specifically instead of requiring the distribution to be made through his estate.  If the IRA was not split into separate IRAs by September 30 of the year following the year of his death, then required minimum distributions would have been based on the remaining life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary, which was of course his wife.  As his wife is a few years younger than he was, this certainly would have been a large improvement over taking the entire IRA over the next 5 years.

Had my father named the 4 of us as beneficiaries specifically, an even better plan would have been to separate the IRAs into 4 beneficiary IRAs with each of us as the sole beneficiary prior to September 30 of 2007 (the year following his death).  In his wife’s case this would mean that she could choose to take all the money out within 5 tax years, leave the IRA as a beneficiary IRA, thereby allowing her to take distributions without penalty even if she was under age 59 1/2, or she could have elected to treat the IRA as her own.  In the case of his sons, we could have taken the IRA over 5 years or we could have stretched the distributions over our life expectancy.  For example, in my case I could have elected to take the distributions over the next 39 years instead of all at once!

Since I expected nothing from my father’s estate and have no critical need for the funds, I would have taken the longer distribution period.  Instead I must add the distribution check to my taxable income for this year, which in my tax bracket means a substantial bite out of the money for taxes.  Since I am reasonably good at investing in my self-directed IRAs, having the ability to stretch the distributions out over 39 years would have meant an inheritance of many times what I will end up with after taxes because I had to take it all within 5 years.

The problem is even worse for my father’s wife, who will have an extraordinarily large tax burden this year, since she chose to take her share of the IRA out all at once instead of over a 5 year period.  While I am certainly grateful that my father thought of me in his will, simply naming specific beneficiaries would have made his legacy worth so much more to his family.

Don’t let it happen to your family!  Review your IRA beneficiary designations, and if you haven’t already done so, name your beneficiaries.  Your family will be glad you did.