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Health, Life Events

The Complete Guide to Disability Insurance

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Quick quiz: What’s the most valuable financial asset you own as a young professional and a provider for your family?Here are some hints: It’s not your home. It’s not your 401(k). And it’s definitely not your car.

The answer? It’s your future income. The money you earn in the years to come will allow you to pay your bills, save for the future, and create a secure financial foundation for you and your family.

Really, all the plans you’re making both for today and the future rely on the assumption that you’ll continue earning money. Which is exactly why it’s so important to protect that income and make sure you receive it no matter what.

That’s where disability insurance comes in.

Disability insurance ensures that you’re able to continue paying your bills and putting food on the table even if your health prevents you from working for an extended period of time. By sending you a monthly check that replaces some or all of your income, it protects your biggest financial asset from those worst-case scenarios.

It’s something that just about every working parent should have, but it’s a complicated product that can be difficult to understand and get right.

So in this post you’ll learn all about how disability insurance works and what kind of policy you should be looking for.

Why You Need Disability Insurance

Disability insurance is often ignored both because the prospect of becoming disabled seems remote and because the premiums can be hard to swallow, especially for young families who are already struggling to pay for child care and all the other expenses that come with having young kids.

But extended disability is a lot more common than most people think.

According to WebMD, your odds of becoming disabled before you retire are about 1 in 3.

The leading causes of disability include:

  • Arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Diabetes

For the most part it’s chronic illness that causes disability, not the kind of major accident that typically comes to mind. And the odds of it happening before you’re financially independent are fairly high, though there are some situations in which your personal odds may be lower.

So the big question is this: If you’re one of the 33% of people who faces an extended disability, where would the money come from to pay your bills and put food on the table? How long would your savings be able to support you, and what would you do if you needed help past that point?

Most people would struggle to make it more than a few months, which is exactly why disability insurance is so valuable. By replacing your income for potentially years at a time, it ensures that you’ll be able to continue taking care of your family no matter what.

Short-term disability insurance vs. long-term disability insurance

There are two main types of disability insurance: short-term and long-term.

Both can be helpful, but they play very different roles in your financial plan. Here’s an overview of each.

Short-Term Disability Insurance

Short-term disability insurance only offers benefits for a relatively limited amount of time. Most short-term disability insurance policies cover you for 3-6 months, though they can provide coverage for up to two years.

There is typically a waiting period of up to 14 days before the insurance kicks in to prevent it from covering minor illness and injury. After that waiting period, it will typically start to pay 50%-100% of your regular income until you either return to work or your coverage period ends.

One of the most common uses of short-term disability insurance is during maternity leave. Many, though not all, short-term disability policies cover the latter parts of pregnancy and the period after childbirth, which can help replace your income while staying home with your newborn.

Most short-term disability insurance policies are offered as an employer benefit, and in some cases that coverage may even be free. Private coverage is also an option if you aren’t able to get coverage through work, though those policies can be expensive. For example, a healthy 38-year-old male might pay a $2,300 annual premium for a $5,000 monthly benefit and 12 months of coverage.

One alternative to short-term disability insurance is building an emergency fund. A 3-6 month emergency fund would provide the same protection as a 3-6 month short-term disability insurance policy, with the added benefit of not having a monthly premium.

Long-Term Disability Insurance

Long-term disability insurance is where you typically find the most value. Because while a short-term disability could be covered by a healthy emergency fund, an extended disability is much more likely to deplete your family’s savings and put you in a difficult position unless you have some way of replacing your lost income.

Long-term disability insurance picks up where your emergency fund or short-term disability insurance leaves off. There’s typically a 3-6 month waiting period during which you would have to replace your income by other means.

But once you’re past that waiting period, your long-term disability insurance would start replacing your monthly income and would continue to do so for years at a time, as long as you remain disabled.

This is a big potential benefit. A long-term disability policy that replaces $5,000 per month in income will potentially pay you $60,000 per year for as long as you’re disable. That would go a long way toward keeping your family on the right track.

Given that potential value, it’s usually more important for families to secure long-term disability insurance than short-term disability insurance. For that reason, the rest of this guide will focus primarily on long-term disability insurance.

10 Questions To Ask When Shopping for a Long-Term Disability Insurance Policy

Long-term disability insurance is a complicated product with a lot of terms and conditions that vary policy to policy. Finding a good, independent disability insurance agent who isn’t beholden to any particular insurance company can help you secure the right policy at the right price for your specific situation.

But whether you’re looking on your own or with the help of an agent, there are 10 key features you’ll want to evaluate.

1. Your Monthly Benefit

Your monthly benefit is the amount of money your long-term disability insurance policy would pay you each month in the event of disability. And there are a few key factors that go into deciding how big a benefit you need:

  1. What are the monthly expenses you would have to cover if you lost your income? Consider the fact that you may be able to cut back on certain discretionary expenses, but also that you may have additional medical expenses in order to treat the disability.
  2. What other income sources do you have? You can factor in your spouse or partner’s income, your savings, and possibly even help from family.
  3. Would your benefit be taxable or tax-free? The benefit from an individual policy you purchase on your own would almost certainly be tax-free. The benefit you get from an employer policy would likely be taxable. The difference affects how much money you would actually have available to spend.

2. How They Define ‘Disability’

Believe it or not, there is no one way of defining disability. There are a lot of variations, but most policies fall into one of three main groups:

  • Any occupation – This is the most restrictive of the three definitions. It defines disability as the inability to perform any job, no matter what it is or how much it pays. It’s hard to qualify for benefits under this definition.
  • Own occupation – This is the broadest of the three definitions. It defines disability as the inability to perform the main duties of your current job. It’s easiest to qualify for benefits under this definition.
  • Modified own occupation – This is a middle ground that defines disability as the inability to perform a job for which you are reasonably suited based on education, training, and experience. In other words, not just any job will do. You have to be able to work in a job that fits your level of experience and expertise before benefits stop.

Understanding your policy’s definition of disability is key to understanding the protection you’re actually receiving. A big benefit with a strict definition of disability may be less valuable than a smaller benefit with a definition that’s easier to meet.

3. The Elimination Period

The elimination period is that amount of time you have to be disabled before you can start to collect your benefit.

Typical elimination periods range from 60 to 180 days, with longer elimination periods leading to a smaller premium. You should consider how long your savings and/or short-term disability insurance would cover you when deciding how long an elimination period to choose.

4. The Benefit Period

This is the maximum amount of time you would be able to collect benefits as long as you continue to meet the policy’s definition of disability.

Many long-term disability insurance policies pay out until age 65 or 67 to coincide with the standard Social Security retirement age. Other policies will only pay benefits for 5-10 years.

Longer benefit periods are more valuable, but also more expensive. You should consider the likelihood of being able to replace your income in other ways, such as transitioning to a different job, when deciding how long you’d like your benefit period to last.

5. What isn’t Covered

Most long-term disability insurance policies will exclude certain types of conditions from coverage. For example, mental health conditions are often not covered or are subject to a shorter benefit period.

Sometimes the exclusions will only last for a period of time, such as the first two years of the policy being in place. Sometimes they last for the life of the policy. You should evaluate these exclusions in relation to your personal and family health history to understand how likely you might be to run into them.

6. Premium Guarantee

Some long-term disability insurance policies are non-cancelable, which means that you are guaranteed a fixed premium until your coverage period ends. The insurance company cannot cancel your coverage and cannot raise your premium.

Other policies are guaranteed renewable, which means that the insurance company can’t cancel your policy, but they can increase the premium as long as they increase the premium for all policies across an entire class of policyholders (such as all policyholders in a given state or all policyholders in a given occupation category).

If you don’t have either of those guarantees, it means that your premium could increase each and every year and that those changes are at the discretion of the insurance company.

7. Residual Benefit

A residual benefit feature means that you could receive partial benefits if you return to work at a reduced salary.

This feature can help you build your workload over time, making for an easier and smoother transition.

8. Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA)

Policies that come with a cost-of-living adjustment will increase your benefit each year based on the rate of inflation. This is meant to ensure that you are able to pay for the same amount of goods and services each year, even as the cost of those things increase over time.

Some COLA riders have a maximum annual increase and/or a limited amount of time for which they are applied. For example, a policy might cap the annual increase at 3%, and it may only increase the benefit for a certain number of years before leveling off.

9. Future Purchase Option

Many long-term disability insurance policies guarantee you the right to increase your coverage in the future if your income increases, without any medical underwriting. This is a valuable benefit because it eliminates the risk that a decline in health could prevent you from getting more coverage when you need it.

10. Insurer’s Financial Rating

Finally, you should make sure that the insurer is in good financial condition. The last thing you want is to have the insurance company flake out on you when it’s time to collect.

You can look up an insurer’s rating through any of the following companies: A.M. Best, Fitch Ratings, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s.

The Pros and Cons of Group Disability Insurance

There are two ways you can get long-term disability insurance:

  1. Through your employer as an employee benefit (referred to as group disability insurance)
  2. On your own through an insurer of your choice

Both have their pros and cons. Here’s a breakdown.

The Pros of Group Coverage

1. Cost

Group disability insurance is often less expensive, and the premiums are typically tax-deductible. Many employers even offer a base level of long-term disability insurance coverage for free.

The lower premium can come with some negative trade-offs, as you’ll see below, but in the best cases it simply makes the insurance easier to afford.

2. No Medical Underwriting

Your ability to get group coverage is in no way affected by your current health. Eligibility is solely dependent on your employment status with the company.

This can be an especially big benefit if you have significant health issues that would make individual coverage either prohibitively expensive or impossible to get.

3. Simplicity

Group coverage is easy to get in place. All you have to do is sign up during open enrollment, choose the level of coverage you’d like, and you’re done.

The Cons of Group Coverage

1. Benefits Are Taxed

In most cases, your group disability insurance premiums are tax-deductible, and the benefits you receive are taxed. Which means that you won’t actually receive the full benefit.

So while group long-term disability insurance can be affordable on the front end, sometimes that comes at the cost of smaller benefits on the back end.

2. May Not Cover You Completely

In addition to the benefits being taxable, your employer may not offer enough coverage to meet your full need to begin with. You may need to get an additional policy if you want to be fully insured.

3. Lack of Control

Your group disability insurance policy is what it is, and you don’t have much, if any, say in the features it offers.

Sometimes this won’t matter, since the policy will have everything you want. But sometimes it will be lacking in certain areas, which could leave you with weaker coverage than you’d like.

4. Can’t Take It with You

You typically can’t take your group disability insurance coverage with you when you leave the company, and your employer could also choose to stop offering it at any time.

All of which means that you could find yourself without coverage somewhere down the line. And if your health status has declined or your next employer doesn’t offer group coverage, you may find it hard to get affordable disability insurance elsewhere.

The Pros and Cons of Individual Disability Insurance

The Pros of Individual Coverage

1. Portability

Individual long-term disability insurance policies are portable, meaning that they’re yours as long as you continue to pay the premiums, even if you change jobs. This is crucial to making sure that you always have coverage when you need it.

2. Definition of Disability

With an individual disability insurance policy, you have the opportunity to choose a broader definition of disability that increases your chances of receiving benefits. This can be particularly helpful if you work in a highly specialized field where having an own occupation definition would be beneficial.

3. Tax-Free Benefits

Individual disability insurance premiums are not tax-deductible, but the upside is that any benefits you receive are tax-free. This ensures that you get as much money as possible when you really need it.

4. Control over Other Features

You have a lot more control over all the policy features when you buy individual coverage. You can often pick and choose whether you want residual benefits, cost-of-living adjustments, and the like, allowing you to customize your coverage to your specific needs.

The Cons of Individual Coverage

1. Cost

Individual disability insurance is typically more expensive than group coverage, particularly if you have pre-existing medical conditions or you work in a high-risk occupation.

While it can vary greatly depending on the specifics of your circumstances, a reasonable rule of thumb is to expect $2-$2.50 in monthly benefits for every $1 in annual premium.

2. Complexity

Long-term disability insurance is a complicated product, and unfortunately, it’s hard to shop around and get a true apples-to-apples comparison of policies.

Your best bet is to look for a truly independent disability insurance agent who isn’t tied to any particular insurance company, and who can guide you through the process and help you understand the pros and cons of the various policies offered by different companies.

3. Medical Underwriting

Applying for individual long-term disability insurance includes a medical exam and a review of your medical history, after which the insurance company may ask more questions to get a better understanding of your current medical condition.

This can be time-consuming, can feel invasive, and in some cases can lead to a more expensive policy or even a denial of coverage altogether. It can also lead to an attractive offer if you’re in good health, but regardless, it’s a cumbersome process you have to go through.

A Quick Note on Social Security Disability Coverage

While Social Security does offer long-term disability coverage, it’s generally not a good idea to rely on it.

The main reason is that it has a strict definition of disability, requiring you to be unable to work in any job for at least one year. It only pays out under the most extreme of circumstances.

You also need to have worked long enough to qualify for any coverage at all, and even if you do qualify, it often won’t meet your full benefit need.

All of which is to say that if you truly want financial protection from disability, getting some combination of group and individual coverage is likely the way to go.

Are You Protected?

No one likes to think about the possibility of being sick or disabled, but protecting your income is a crucial part of building true financial security.

Disability insurance can be an effective way to get that protection. When it’s done right, it ensures that you’ll have money coming in no matter what, allowing you to continue providing for your family even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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Life Events, Mortgage

What is Mortgage Amortization?

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The difference between your home’s value and how much you owe on your mortgage is your home equity. With each mortgage payment you make, mortgage amortization — or paying down the loan in installments — is at play, and each monthly payment brings you closer to owning your home outright.

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What is mortgage amortization?

Mortgage amortization is the process of paying off your loan balance in equal installments of principal and interest for a set time period. The interest you pay is tied to the balance of your loan (your principal) and the mortgage rate. When you first start making payments, most of the payment is applied to the interest rather than the principal.

Your principal payments catch up with interest over time until your loan is paid off. Once it reaches a zero balance, it becomes a “fully amortized loan.”

How mortgage amortization works

The easiest way to understand mortgage amortization is to look at how monthly mortgage payments are applied to the principal and interest on an amortization table. There are two calculations that occur every month.

  1. The first calculation measures how much interest is paid based on the rate you agreed to. The interest charge is recalculated each month as you pay down the balance, and you pay less interest over time.
  2. The second calculation reflects how much of the principal you pay. As the loan balance shrinks, more of your monthly payment is applied to your principal.

If you’re a math whiz, here’s the formula:

A mortgage amortization calculator does the heavy lifting for you. You can see the effects of amortization on a 30-year fixed loan amount of $200,000 at a rate of 4.375% below.

In the first year, you pay more than twice as much toward interest as you do toward the principal. However, the balance slowly drops with each additional payment. By the 15th year, principal payments outpace interest and equity starts building at a much faster pace.

How mortgage amortization can help with financial planning

A mortgage amortization table helps you assess the short- and long-term benefits of adjusting your mortgage payments. Making extra payments over the life of the loan or refinancing to a lower interest rate or term could save you thousands in interest charges over the life loan. Even better: you’ll end up with a mortgage free home sooner.

Using a mortgage calculator to configure a few scenarios, here are some financial goals you might be able to accomplish using mortgage amortization.

Calculate how much money you can save by refinancing

If mortgage rates have dropped since you bought your home, consider refinancing. If you’re in your forever home and don’t plan to move for a while, a half-percentage point drop in rates could make room in your budget to boost retirement savings, your emergency fund or put money toward other long-term financial goals.

The example below shows the monthly payment and lifetime interest savings if you replaced a 30-year, fixed-rate loan for $200,000 at 4% with a new loan with a 3.5% interest rate with the same terms.

While saving $56.74 per month on payments doesn’t seem like much, it adds up to $20,426.83 in interest savings over the loan’s lifetime.

See the effect of making extra payments

The amount of interest you pay every month is directly connected to your loan balance. Even a small amount added to the principal each month reduces interest over time. The graphic below shows how much you’d save adding an extra $50 every month to your payment on a $200,000, 30-year fixed loan with an interest rate of 4.375%.

Figure out when you can get rid of PMI

Borrowers who don’t make a 20% down payment on a conventional mortgage typically pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI). The coverage protects a lender against financial losses if you don’t repay the loan.

Once your loan-to-value ratio, or the loan balance in relation to the home’s value, reaches 78%, PMI automatically drops off. Multiply the price you paid for your home by 0.78 to determine where your loan balance would need to be for PMI to be canceled. Locate that balance on your loan payment schedule for a rough idea of the month and year PMI will end.

Decide if it’s time to refinance an adjustable-rate mortgage

Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) are a helpful tool to save money on monthly mortgage payments. However, ARMs make more sense if you plan to refinance the loan or sell your home before the initial fixed-rate period ends and the loan resets to a variable interest rate.

An adjustable-rate mortgage amortization schedule helps you pinpoint when the loan will reset and gives you an idea of the worst-case scenario on payments. If the adjustments are outside of your comfort zone, consider refinancing your ARM into a fixed-rate mortgage.

The difference between a 15-year fixed and 30-year fixed payment schedule

Refinancing to a shorter term, such as a 15-year fixed mortgage, may save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of a loan — but the trade-off is a higher monthly payment.

The graphs below show the difference between a 30-year amortization schedule for a $200,000, fixed-rate loan at 4.375% and a 15-year amortization schedule for the same loan amount at 3.875%.

The lifetime interest savings for a shorter loan payment schedule is $95,447.16. As long as the $468.31 increase in your mortgage payment doesn’t prevent you from meeting other savings or investment goals, the long-term savings are worth it.

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Life Events

When Do You Need to Start Taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)?

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When you reach age 72, the government requires you to begin withdrawing money from your retirement savings accounts each year. This sum, known as a required minimum distribution (RMD), allows the IRS to begin collecting income tax on the dollars you’ve stashed away in tax-deferred accounts such as a 401(k) or traditional individual retirement account (IRA).

What is a required minimum distribution (RMD)?

Regulations governing most retirement accounts state that you cannot leave funds in the account indefinitely. Even if you don’t need the money, the government requires you to begin reducing the overall balance in most accounts by a set sum each year — the required minimum distribution — once you’ve turned 72.

The precise amount of each person’s required minimum distribution is determined by the IRS based on life expectancy and total savings. The RMD rule only applies to tax-deferred accounts or accounts that allow people to reduce their taxable gross income each year by the amount they set aside in the plan.

Because tax-deferred accounts provide upfront tax savings, the IRS waits to collect taxes on contributions to the accounts and any subsequent investment gains until the money is withdrawn. Here’s a full list of retirement accounts subject to the RMD rule:

  • 403(b)
  • 457(b)
  • Profit-sharing plans
  • Other defined contribution plans

RMDs are not required for Roth IRAs or Roth 401(k)s, since contributions to Roth accounts are made using money on which you’ve already paid income tax. Note, however, that beneficiaries who inherit Roth IRAs must take RMDs.

When do I have to start taking RMDs?

You need to start taking required minimum distributions by April 1 of the year after you turn 72. In subsequent years, you need to take RMDs by December 31st.

If you are still working at age 72 and have a traditional 401(k) or 403(b) account with your current employer, you may not have to take an RMD from that account unless you own 5% or more of the company. Review your plan’s exact terms to see if it allows you to wait until you actually retire to begin taking RMDs or if it follows the same 72 rule regardless of retirement status.

Employment, however, won’t help you delay taking RMDs from any individual retirement accounts outside of your employer retirement account, such as a traditional IRA.

You do not have to take your RMD as one lump-sum payment. The IRS allows you to take out the funds in chunks throughout the year too. As long as the total meets the RMD for the year, you’re in the clear.

You’re also not limited to taking only the RMD amount from your account each year — you can withdraw more than that threshold, if you want.

How do I calculate my required minimum distribution?

Just like filing your taxes, it falls on your shoulders to remember to take the RMD once you reach 72. You can do the math yourself (we’ll explain below) to figure out what your required minimum distribution will be, or you can ask for help from a tax professional or financial adviser.

To calculate your RMD, you need to know exactly how much you have saved in your retirement account as of Dec. 31 of the previous year. Next, use the table below (the IRS’s Uniform Lifetime Table) to find your “distribution period” score, which is based on your life expectancy.

To calculate the RMD, divide your retirement account balance by the distribution period that corresponds with your age. Repeat this step for each of your accounts to come up with the total amount you must withdrawal for the year. Remember, your account balances change over time and the IRS can update its distribution period figures, so redoing this math each year is crucial to ensure you take out the correct sum.

Let’s say you turned 72 in December 2020 and had a balance of $1 million in your retirement account as of Dec. 31. You would then find the distribution period that corresponds to your age in the Uniform Lifetime Table.

According to the table, your distribution period number is 27.4. When you divide $1 million by 27.4, you get an RMD of $36,496.35. That is the minimum withdrawal you must make from that account by April 1, 2021.

However, if you’re married and your spouse is 10 years or more younger than you and is the sole beneficiary of the retirement account, you will need to find your “distribution period” score on this alternate table by locating the spot where your age and your spouse’s age intersects.

For instance, if you turned 72 in 2020 and had that same $1 million balance in your retirement account on Dec. 31, but were married to a spouse who’d just celebrated their 59 birthday, your distribution period number wouldn’t be 27.4, but rather 28.1 to accommodate the longer expected lifeline of your spouse.

And this would mean you’d need to take an RMD of $35,587.19 from your account in 2021, or about $909.16 less than you would if you were single or married to a spouse closer to your own age.

What is the required minimum distribution penalty?

If you don’t take your first RMD by April 1 of the year after you turn 72 or your subsequent annual RMDs by Dec. 31 each year, you’ll be slapped with a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed when you file taxes.

That’s a steep fine when you consider that the top tax rate is 37%, which is why it is so important to accurately calculate your RMDs each year, as the tax applies whether you fail to take any money from the account or simply don’t take enough.

For example, if your RMD was $10,000, but you only took out $5,000, you will be assessed that 50% tax on the $5,000 that you did not withdraw.

Remember, if you delay taking your first RMD until April of the year following your 72nd birthday, you’ll be required to take two withdrawals in the same year, one for your 71st year and one for your 72nd year, which could raise your gross income and move you into a higher tax bracket. To avoid this, you can opt to make your first withdrawal by Dec. 31 of the year you turn 71, instead of waiting till the following April.

Alternatively, you could reduce your taxable income by making a qualified charitable distribution paid directly from the IRA to a qualified public charity, not a private foundation or donor-advised fund. The charitable distribution can satisfy all or part of the amount you are required to take from you IRA and won’t count as part of your income.

If you withdrawal the RMD first, then donate it, this trick won’t work as the money will count toward your gross income.

What if I have multiple retirement accounts?

If you have more than one retirement account, things can get a little more complicated. You still need to take an RMD, but you don’t have to take one out of each IRA account. Instead, you can total the RMD amounts for all your IRAs and withdraw the whole amount from a single IRA or a portion from two or more.

However, you can’t do the same with most defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s. With these accounts, you must take an RMD from each plan separately. One exception to this rule, though, is 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity accounts. If you have multiple of these accounts, you can total the RMDs and withdrawal from a single account.

If you own several different kinds of retirement accounts with RMDs, it’s probably a good idea to seek advice from a tax or financial adviser professional who can help you make the wisest decision for your finances.

I inherited a traditional IRA — what should I do?

While it’s great to be left the generous gift of a retirement account by a loved one, inheriting an IRA comes with its own set of tricky RMD rules that can vary greatly depending on your relationship with the original owner and how you chose to use the account.

I inherited a traditional IRA from my spouse

If you’re a spouse and sole beneficiary, you have the most flexibility in how to handle your new IRA. You can choose to treat the IRA as your own by designating yourself the account owner and making contributions or by rolling it over into an existing IRA account that you own. If you choose this option, you can follow the standard RMD rules — meaning you can wait until you turn 70½ to begin taking money from the account.

Alternatively, you can roll the assets into what’s known as an inherited IRA. With this kind of account you can start taking distributions immediately and not face the typical 10% early-withdrawal penalty the IRS applies if you’re under age 59½.

To calculate the RMD you’ll need to take with this kind of IRA, use the IRS’s Single Life Expectancy Table, which has different distribution period figures than the standard table you would use if you were the original account owner. You can opt to use your own age for these calculations or your partner’s age as of their birthday in the year they died, reducing life expectancy by 1 each subsequent year.

But you may not need to take RMDs right away depending on how old your spouse was when they died. If they were older than 70½ then you’ll need to start withdrawing funds by Dec. 31 of the year following their death. But if they were younger, the IRS lets you leave the money in the account until your spouse would have reached 70½.

I inherited a traditional IRA — but I’m not a spouse

Beneficiaries who are not a spouse are required to move the assets into an inherited IRA and begin taking RMDs regardless of the original owner’s age. If the person passed before age 70½ you can opt to withdraw the full balance within the five years following the year of their death. Or you can prolong the payouts by taking RMDs annually based on your age, reducing beginning life expectancy by 1 for each subsequent year, using the Single Life Expectancy Table.

If the original owner was 70½ or older, how you calculate your RMDs depends on whether you or the deceased was younger. The lowest age is what you’ll base your life expectancy figure found in the Single Life Expectancy Table on, though you will need to reduce beginning life expectancy by 1 every subsequent year.

I inherited a Roth IRA — what should I do?

The original owner of a Roth IRA never has to take RMDs but that can change when the account passes to a beneficiary. A surviving spouse who inherits a Roth IRA can opt to treat the account as their own, meaning they won’t ever need to take an RMD, if they contribute to the account or roll into an existing Roth IRA.

Non-spouse beneficiaries, however, do have to take RMDs from an inherited Roth IRA, following the same rules as those who inherit traditional IRAs where the owner passed before reaching age 70½.

That means these beneficiaries can either withdraw the entire balance from the Roth IRA within the five years following the year of the original owner’s death or begin taking RMDs based on your life expectancy, as outlined in the Single Life Expectancy Table, by the end of the year following the owner’s death.

The final word on required minimum distributions

Whether the retirement account was yours to begin with or you’ve inherited it, calculating the correct RMD amount to withdraw from it every year can be tricky, but spending the extra time to make sure you understand the rules and check your math can pay off big time when you’re not losing 50% of your savings to Uncle Sam in the form of a tax penalty.

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