4 Ways RMDs Are Different for 401(k)s and for IRAs

For both types of retirement account, you need to take required minimum distributions after you turn age 70½. But there are differences in how and when you take the money.

Question: Are there any differences in the RMD rules for 401(k)s and for IRAs?

Answer: The basic rules are similar: You generally must take required minimum distributions from traditional IRAs and 401(k)s every year after you turn age 70½, and you use the same IRS life expectancy tables to calculate the amount (see our RMD calculator). But there are differences in how and when you take the money.

1. Calculating the RMD.

You can add up the balances in all of your traditional IRAs as of December 31 of the previous year, divide that by the IRS life expectancy factor, and take the money from any one or more of your traditional IRAs. With 401(k)s, you must calculate the required distributions separately for each 401(k) account and withdraw the required amount from each account. Your 401(k) administrator may automatically send you the required amount if you haven't taken it by a certain date (usually late December).

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

2. What happens if you're still working.

If you're still working past age 70½, you don't have to take RMDs from your current employer's 401(k) until after you leave your job (unless you own 5% or more of the company). But you do have to take RMDs from previous employers' 401(k)s and from your traditional IRAs after age 70½, even if you're still working. You may be able to delay taking those RMDs, however, if your current employer allows you to roll over money from other retirement accounts into its plan. See A Little-Known Way to Delay RMDs in Retirement.

3. Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

You don't need to take RMDs from Roth IRAs, but you do need to take them from Roth 401(k)s each year (the withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) aren't taxable). However, you can roll money over from a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA to avoid taking future RMDs. (If you're over age 70½, however, you'll have to take that year's required distribution from the Roth 401(k) before you can do the rollover.) See How to Sidestep Required Minimum Distributions from Roth 401(k)s for more information.

4. Tax-free transfers to charity.

If you're over 70½, you can transfer up to $100,000 each year from your IRA to charity tax-free (called a qualified charitable distribution). The amount you transfer to charity counts as your RMD but isn't included in your adjusted gross income. But you can't make a tax-free transfer from your 401(k) to charity. However, you can roll over money from your 401(k) to an IRA and make future QCDs. See Making Charitable Donations From Your Retirement Accounts and FAQs About Giving Your RMD to Charity for more information.

For more information about the RMD rules, see our RMD Special Report and 10 Things Boomers Must Know About RMDs From IRAs.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.