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Benefits, tax implications of rolling over 403(b) into IRA

My wife, a retired teacher, must start taking retirement account distributions. We’re getting conflicting advice about this. One financial adviser wants her to convert all her 403(b) accounts to IRAs under his control. Another says to leave the money in the 403(b) and take distributions from there. What are the different benefits and tax consequences of these options?

Consider their respective flexibility, investment choices and cost.

403(b) plans often limit frequency of transactions, and have limited investment menus. If the investments are good, that has the benefit of simplicity. IRAs offer unrestricted transactions and virtually unlimited investment options. That’s a big benefit if you know how to pick good investments.

Cost is a major consideration because expenses reduce your annual return. An IRA that’s invested in low-cost funds can cost less than a 403(b). But an IRA controlled by a financial adviser is likely to cost more, especially if he’s not a fiduciary — i.e. legally required to put your interest before his own. (That’s a topic for another column.)

The tax question depends on the 403(b) plan. After a participant is 59 1⁄2 years old, all her distributions from the New York City Teachers Retirement System — or from any 403(b) plan that received contributions from the federal or state government — are exempt from state income taxes. But if she transfers the 403(b) account to an IRA, part of each IRA distribution is taxable to the extent that it represents interest earned in the IRA. Even so, she might not owe any state tax, because all New Yorkers over 59 1⁄2 get a $20,000 annual tax exemption on retirement account distributions. Her IRA interest would qualify for that exemption.

THE BOTTOM LINE Before deciding to transfer money from a 403(b) plan to an IRA, compare their costs, investment choices and flexibility.



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