It’s never too early to begin preparing for your retirement and one of the best ways to prepare is to set up an Individual Retirement Account (often referred to as an IRA).
The purpose of an IRA is to serve as a personal tax-qualified retirement savings plan. Anyone who works, whether as an employee or self-employed, can set aside a set amount in an IRA, with the earnings on these investments tax-deferred until the date of distribution. In addition, certain individuals are permitted to deduct all or part of their contributions to the IRA. Plus, as of 1998, certain individuals can also set up Roth IRAs, to which contributions are not deductible, but from which withdrawals at retirement won’t be taxed.
It doesn’t take much to set up an IRA. The trustee (or custodian) can be a bank, mutual fund, brokerage house or other financial institution. You cannot be your own trustee. An IRA can be established and a contribution made after year-end, no later than the due date for filing the income tax return for that year, not including extensions. This generally means that you have until April 15th of the following year to make the contribution and deduct it on your tax return.
The most you can contribute to an IRA in any single year (as of 2006) is the smaller of $4,000 or an amount equal to the compensation includible in income for the year. Those 50 years old and above will also be allowed to make additional $1,000 catch-up contributions to an IRA each year to help them save more for retirement.
The same limit applies even if you have more than one IRA, or more than one type of IRA. When both you and your spouse have compensation, you can each contribute the maximum, which means $8,000 total ($10,000 if you are both 50 or over). In 2008, IRA contribution limits will be raised to $5,000, while the catch up contribution for those 50 years old and above will remain at $1,000.
You do not have to contribute the full amount allowed every year. You may skip a year or even several years. You may resume making contributions in any subsequent year, but you cannot add additional funds to make up for those years when no contribution was made.
Contributions must be from compensation. This can be from wages, salaries, commissions and other sources of earned income. Contributions do not include such things as deferred compensations, retirement payments, or portfolio income from interest or dividends.
You can contribute more than the allowable amount, however, a 6 percent excise tax penalty will be assessed.
No contributions may be made to an inherited IRA, in a form other than cash, or during or after the year in which the individual reaches age 70.5.
You must begin taking distributions from an IRA no later than April 1st of the year following the year in which you reach age 70.5, or the year in which you retire, whichever is later.
This is a quick and general overview of IRAs. The rules are slightly different for Roth IRAs, which have their own contribution and distribution limitations. Before setting up an IRA, take the time to talk to your banker, accountant, or financial advisor to make sure you have a firm grasp on your options and set up the IRA which best serves your personal needs.
You can learn more about IRAs online from the Internal Revenue Service here: http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc451.html