How to fix a required minimum distribution mistake

The rules around required minimum distributions from retirement accounts are confusing, and it’s easy to slip up. Fortunately, if you do make a mistake, there are steps you can take to fix the error and possibly avoid a stiff penalty.

If you have a tax-deferred retirement plan such as a traditional IRA or 401(k), you are required to begin taking distributions once you reach a certain age, with the withdrawn money taxed at your then-current tax rate. If you were age 70 1/2 before the end of 2019, you had to begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) in April of the year after you turned 70. But if you were not yet 70 1/2 by the end of 2019, you can wait to take RMDs until age 72. If you miss a withdrawal or take less than you were required to, you must pay a 50 percent excise tax on the amount that should have been distributed but was not.

It can be easy to miss a distribution or not withdraw the correct amount. If you make a mistake, the first step is to quickly correct it and take the proper distribution. If you missed more than one distribution, either from multiple years or because you withdrew from several different accounts in the same year, it is better to take each distribution separately and for exactly the amount of the shortfall.

The next step is to file IRS form 5329. If you have more than one missed distribution, you can include them on one form as long as they all occurred in the same year. If you missed distributions in multiple years, you need to file a separate form for each year. Married couples who both missed distributions each need to file their own forms. The form can be tricky, so follow the instructions closely to make sure you correctly fill it out.

In addition to completing form 5329, you should submit a letter explaining why you missed the distribution and informing the IRS that you have now corrected your mistake. There is no clear definition of what the IRS will consider to be a reasonable explanation for missing a distribution, but if the agency does not waive the penalty it will send you a notice.

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Gilbert Vara, Jr.
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