Q&A: Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

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