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Individual Retirement Accounts

Traditional Ira

The traditional IRA allows an individual to place up to $2,000 per year in an account on a tax-deferred basis. This means that the contribution is not counted as taxable income the year it is contributed and will not be taxed until it is withdrawn. This also applies to any earnings on the contributions. Each member of a married couple may have his or her own IRA and may contribute as much as $2,000 per person. The 2001 TRA has provided for increases in this amount. The contribution allowed per person increases to $3,000 between 2002 and 2004, increases again to $4,000 from 2005 to 2007, and finally reaches $5,000 for 2008 and beyond. The contribution amount will be indexed for inflation after 2008 and will increase in increments of $500. A special catch-up provision is instituted for taxpayers age fifty and over. Taxpayers who are fifty or over during 2002 may make an additional $500 contribution between 2002 and 2005 and an additional $1,000 beginning in 2006.

A qualified contribution reduces the amount of income that will be used in computing the total income tax owed because the contribution is not taxable income. The investment gains and the principal will be taxed as the distributions are taken. The actual reduction in tax liability is equal to the amount of the contribution multiplied by the marginal tax rate, the tax rate on the last dollar earned. For example, if Matt can contribute $2,000 to an IRA and he is in the 28 percent marginal tax bracket, he would save about $560 (2000 × 0.28) on his tax bill by contributing to a traditional IRA.

Households can contribute some amount to a traditional IRA as long as the taxpayer will not be seventy and one-half by the end of the year and has earned income for the year. The exception to the earned income rule is a nonworking spouse, who may contribute to an IRA provided that the couple's combined income less IRA contributions is greater than $2,000. This spousal IRA allows for a contribution to be made by one spouse on behalf of the other, who has little or no monetary compensation. The amount of the allowable contribution can be reduced or phased out as the household's modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) increases. The MAGI is the adjusted gross income plus exempt qualified interest, such as interest from a municipal bond. The rules for the phaseout are determined by whether or not the individual is participating in an employer-provided retirement plan. In the case of a married couple where one spouse is covered by such a plan and the other is not, the allowable contribution is based on each spouse's own situation. Employer-provided retirement plans include 401(k), SEP, SIMPLE, tax-sheltered annuities, and defined benefit plans.

In addition to annual contributions, three types of transfers can fund traditional IRAs. The first is a transfer from one IRA provider to another. This does not involve any direct payment or distribution to the investor, and hence there are no tax implications. A transfer from a traditional IRA or defined contribution plan to another IRA, also known as a rollover, must be declared, but if it is contributed within sixty days of the distribution, the rollover is tax-free; otherwise there will be a penalty on any distribution that was not frozen during that time. Frozen assets are those that cannot be withdrawn from the financial institution because the institution is insolvent or the state where the institution is located restricts withdrawals because of insolvency. Further, if the distribution is not a direct rollover, or is paid to the owner, 20 percent must be withheld and is taxable. Only the amount in the account that could be taxed can be rolled over. Last, the amount of an IRA transferred into another IRA because of a divorce settlement is tax-free.

Distributions from the traditional IRA can begin without penalty after the account holder reaches age fifty-nine and one-half. Withdrawals prior to that age incur a 10 percent federal tax penalty unless they meet one of the criteria determined by the IRS. One is payment of medical costs. These medical expenses must not be reimbursed and must exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI). Second, withdrawals are allowed before fifty-nine and one-half when funds are needed because of recent disability. A third situation that avoids the 10 percent penalty is if a person is the beneficiary of an inherited IRA. Fourth, withdrawal of a sum not in excess of qualified higher education expenses, such as tuition and books, is permitted. An additional provision allows up to $10,000 to be withdrawn and applied toward purchasing or building a first home. Distributions from an IRA must begin by April 1 in the year after the account holder reaches seventy and one-half. If the entire amount is not withdrawn, then a schedule based on the owner's life expectancy must be followed for the distributions. Under this provision, annuity payments taken prior to fifty-nine and one-half are not penalized.

IRAs can be passed to heirs (more than one) and are included in the estate of the deceased. However, only the spouse of the decedent can take over the IRA; others cannot contribute to, roll over, or roll over assets into the IRA. Inherited IRAs must be withdrawn entirely within the first five years after the owner's death or over the life expectancy of the beneficiary. If this person is not the spouse, the serial withdrawals begin after the first year following the death of the IRA owner; a spouse can wait until the time at which the deceased would have been seventy and one-half.

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