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IRA Withdrawals Must Be Right

Question: I just turned 70. Must I draw now from my IRA? I still work full time. I heard from one investment company representative that since I work, there is an exemption that I may not have to start withdrawals. Is this true?

Answer: Withdrawals from retirement plans typically must begin after age 701/2. You can postpone withdrawals from your company’s 401(k) plan past the typical required minimum distribution age if you’re still working, but not from traditional IRAs.

“An IRA owner must commence distributions from an IRA by April 1 of the calendar year following the year in which the IRA owner turns 701/2,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax and Accounting North America, “regardless of whether they are still working or not.” With 401(k) plans, required withdrawals can be delayed to April 1 of the year following the year you retire, unless you’re a 5 percent or more owner of the business, Luscombe said.

It’s important to get this right, since failing to make required minimum distributions triggers a tax penalty of 50 percent on the amount not withdrawn that should have been. The required minimum distribution rules apply to all employer-sponsored retirement plans, including profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and 457(b) plans, the IRS says, as well as to traditional IRAs and IRA-based plans such as SEPs, SARSEPs and Simple IRAs. Required minimum distribution rules also apply to Roth 401(k) accounts, but not to Roth IRAs while the owner is alive.

Question: I’m working as a contractor in Afghanistan. Since we are overseas in a combat zone, our pay is nontaxable. Can I contribute some of this untaxed money to a Roth IRA and still be able to withdraw it tax free in retirement? I’ve heard that’s true, but the way I read the law it seems that the money has to come from “taxable” wages or something along those lines. I need clarification.

Answer: If you were serving in the military, rather than as a contractor, you would be able to contribute some of your untaxed combat-zone pay to a Roth IRA and have tax-free withdrawals in retirement. That’s a unique perk of the military, however.

Service members’ tax-free combat zone pay qualifies as income for purposes of making an IRA or Roth IRA contribution because of the 2006 Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities Act, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA.

If your pay is tax free as a contractor, it’s probably because you qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, which protects some or all of your pay from U.S. taxes (up to $95,100 for 2012), Montanaro said. Your eligibility for this exclusion has nothing to do with working in a combat zone. It has to do with your residence or physical presence abroad.

Income that is excluded this way cannot be used as compensation for the purpose of making an IRA contribution, Montanaro said. It would, however, have to be included when determining your eligibility to make a Roth contribution.

Question: I have a roommate who has truly bad credit. He has been turned down from getting a checking account at banks because his mom bounced checks on his account when he was 18 (he is now 31). What is the best way to rehab his credit? He can’t get a secured credit card because he doesn’t have a checking account. Is there a way around this?

Answer: You may not be getting the full story from your roommate. If his mom misused his checking account when he was 18, it shouldn’t still be affecting his ability to establish a bank account. Reports to Chexsystems, the bureau that tells banks about people who have mishandled their bank accounts, typically remain on file for only five years.

Your roommate should first request a free annual report from Chexsystems at www.consumerdebit.com and dispute any errors or old information. Even if he’s still listed in Chexsystems, he could get a so-called “second chance” checking account from several major banks, including Wells Fargo, Chase and PNC Bank. Responsible use of those accounts should allow him to graduate to a regular checking account. Then he can start the process of rehabilitating his credit.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy. Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.