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    Annuitizing an IRA

    Which set of distribution rules should you use?

    Natalie Choate, 02/11/2011

    Do you have your own solutions/suggestions? Leave a comment at the end of the article!

    Natalie Choate will be speaking at a location near you if you live in Kansas City, Mo. (Feb. 23); Boston suburbs (March 4 and June 3); Houston (March 22); San Francisco  (April 27); Chicago (May 3); Jacksonville, Fla. (May 10); Charlotte, N.C. (May 11); Wilmington, Del. (May 26); Indianapolis (June 10); South Bend, Ind. (Sept. 15); or Memphis (Dec. 1). See all of Natalie's upcoming speaking events at www.ataxplan.com.

    The IRS has one set of minimum distribution rules for "defined contribution plans" and another set for "annuitized plans." It's not always clear which rules apply.

    Question: A 70-year old client owns a variable annuity contract inside his IRA. The contract provides a guaranteed life income feature that begins whenever the client triggers it, and overrides the value of the underlying investments. To provide retirement income for himself, the client triggered the provision upon reaching age 70, at a time when the contract's cash value base was $1,000,000, so now he is guaranteed to receive six percent of that cash value ($60,000 per year) for the rest of his life. The cash value of the contract will continue to be adjusted upward and downward for changes in the value of the underlying investments and to reflect distributions, but as long as he does not make any withdrawals in excess of the $60,000 per year the payments to him will continue for life even if the cash value of the contract goes below zero. Furthermore, if there is still a cash value at his death, it will pass to his beneficiary. How is this contract treated for minimum distribution purposes?

    Natalie: The IRS has one set of minimum distribution regulations for "defined contribution plans" (also called "individual account plans") and another set for "defined benefit plans" (including defined contribution plans that have been "annuitized"). The two sets have completely different rules and are based on completely different concepts. In fact, if an IRA has been partly "annuitized," the IRA is treated as two separate plans for minimum distribution purposes-one set of rules applies to the annuitized portion, and the other set of rules applies to the rest of the account.

    The defined contribution rules are the most familiar: The annual minimum required distribution is computed by dividing the prior year-end account balance by a life expectancy factor obtained from an IRS table.

    The defined benefit/annuity minimum distribution rules take a different approach. There is no concept of computing an annual distribution, and no need to look at a prior year end account balance. Instead, these rules dictate what type of annuity can be purchased by an IRA or other retirement plan. Basically, only life annuities, or joint life annuities with the designated beneficiary, are allowed, but there can be annuities for fixed terms (or with minimum guaranteed terms) that do not exceed the applicable life expectancy. Payments under the annuity must be level, or increase by no more than a cost of living adjustment or specified fixed annual percentage. Once the annuity is in place, all distributions under the contract are considered "minimum required distributions."

    And the IRS rules specify that a variable annuity contract, until it is actually "annuitized," is treated as just another asset held inside an individual account plan, with special valuation rules that apply.

    Natalie Choate practices law in Boston, specializing in estate planning for retirement benefits. Her book, Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits, is fast becoming the leading resource for professionals in this field.

    The author is not an employee of Morningstar, Inc. The views expressed in this article are the author's. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.