It’s not always a good idea to rollover company stock from a 401(k) plan to an IRA. In fact, doing so might mean you pay more in taxes to Uncle Sam than necessary.
If company stock held in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan has appreciated, the difference between the amount paid for shares (the cost basis) and the current value of those shares is known as net unrealized appreciation (NUA). For instance, if an investor paid $10 a share for 1000 shares ($10,000) for stock that is now worth $15 a share, then the investment is worth $15,000, and the NUA is $5,000.
If the shareholder completes a rollover from a 401(k) plan to an IRA, those shares of company stock will be liquidated, along with the other assets in the account, and moved to an IRA where the assets will have an opportunity to continue growing tax-deferred. When the assets are distributed from the IRA, they may be taxed as ordinary income. If the investor is in the 28 percent tax bracket, the taxes owed would be about $4,200.
There is an alternative that could be a better choice tax-wise. An investor can request company stock be distributed in-kind and sent to a taxable account. The stock is not liquidated. The shares are moved to the new account. The investor may owe ordinary income taxes (and penalties if he or she is not yet age 59½) on the cost basis ($10,000). However, the net unrealized appreciation ($5,000) will not be taxed until the shares are sold. Taxes on the cost basis would be about $2,800.
If the investor takes a distribution right away, and the shares have been held for more than one year, the proceeds may be taxed at the long-term capital gains tax rate, which is currently lower than the ordinary income tax rate. If the investor is in the 15 percent capital gains tax bracket, another $750 would be owed in taxes. In this example, the investor could save about $650 in taxes overall.
Please keep in mind this is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific situation. Each investor is unique and your results may vary. Executing an NUA strategy seems pretty straightforward, but it can be tricky and not everyone is eligible. If you would like to learn more, please give your tax professional a call.