The following sequence may make sense for retirees to preserve the tax-saving benefits of tax-sheltered investments for as long as possible.
1) For retirees over age 70 1/2, the first stop for withdrawals are those accounts that carry required minimum distributions, or RMDs, such as Traditional IRAs and company retirement plans such as 401(k)s (to avoid paying penalties).
2) For retirees who are not required to take RMDs or have taken their RMDs and still need cash, turning to taxable assets may be an option. A good start may be selling assets with the highest cost basis first and then moving on to those assets where cost basis is lower (and the tax hit higher). Relative to tax-deferred or tax-free assets, these assets have the highest costs associated with them. However, taxable assets could also be valuable to tap in later retirement years because retirees will pay taxes on withdrawals at their capital gains rate, which is generally lower than the ordinary income tax rate.
3) Finally, after taking RMDs or tapping taxable assets, retirees still in need of cash may want to further tap company retirement-plan accounts and IRAs (Roth IRA assets last.)
401(k) and IRA plans are long-term retirement-savings vehicles. Withdrawal of pretax contributions and/or earnings will be subject to ordinary income tax and, if taken prior to age 59 1/2, may be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty. Direct contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible but may be withdrawn free of tax at any time. Earnings may be withdrawn tax and penalty free after a 5 year holding period if the age of 59 1/2 (or other qualifying condition) is met. Otherwise, a 10% federal tax penalty may apply. Please consult with a financial or tax professional for advice specific to your situation.