All good things must come to an end, including the tax-sheltered growth offered by individual retirement accounts (IRAs). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not let you keep your money in an IRAs forever. With most IRAs, you have to start taking minimum required distributions when you turn 70 1/2. For a Roth IRA, you only have to take required distributions if you inherit the account. Unlike 401k plans, you must take minimum required distributions even if you are still working. The amount you have to withdraw depends on your life expectancy, as figured with the IRS life expectancy tables.
Compare your age to the age of your spouse if your spouse is your sole beneficiary. A difference of 10 years or more entitles you to use the Joint and Last Survivor Table, which gives a longer life expectancy. If you received the IRA as an inheritance, you must use the Single Life Expectancy Table. Otherwise, you use the Uniform Lifetime Table. All three tables are found in IRS Publication 590.
Use the age that you will be on December 31 of the year for which you are calculating your minimum required distribution as you age when figuring your life expectancy, no matter when you actually take the distribution. For example, if you turn 84 on December 26, 2012, your age for your 2012 distribution equals 84, even if you take the distribution early in the year. If you qualify to use the Joint and Last Survivor Table, do the same for your spouse.
Find your age along the left-hand side of your life expectancy table. If you use either the Single Life Expectancy Table or the Uniform Lifetime Table, your life expectancy will be in the cell just to the right of your age. If you use the Joint and Last Survivor Table, you have to also find your spouse's age across the top and then find where your age and your spouse's age interest.
Taking out too little for your minimum required distribution results in a 50 percent penalty on the unwithdrawn amount. For example, if take out $1,000 too little, you owe the IRS a $500 penalty.