Leaving an employer (and an associated employer-sponsored 401(k) plan) often leaves clients with any number of questions—not the least of which is what the client should do with the funds that he or she has accumulated in the employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. The reflexive reaction may be to transfer those assets into an IRA maintained by the client in order to preserve tax-deferred treatment in the years before the client retires. Despite this, for some clients, the tax benefits that can be realized by an underutilized strategy involving the net unrealized appreciation (NUA) of employer securities held in tax-deferred accounts can lead to a tax surprise that’s actually pleasant—if the circumstances are optimal.

The NUA Tax Break

Clients whose employer-sponsored 401(k) plan assets consist partially of appreciated employer securities may be eligible to take advantage of the net unrealized appreciation tax break. Net unrealized appreciation (NUA) is the gain on employer stock that has accrued from the time it was acquired within the qualified retirement plan up until the time that the stock is distributed to the client.

The NUA tax strategy allows certain clients whose qualified retirement plans contain these appreciated employer securities to eventually pay taxes on the appreciated value of those securities at the lower long-term capital gains tax rate. The remaining qualified retirement plan assets are taxed at the taxpayer’s ordinary income tax rate under the traditional rule for taxation of plan distributions.

In order for a client to take advantage of the NUA strategy, he or she must be eligible to take a lump sum distribution from the qualified retirement plan in question. This means that the entire value of the account (and all accounts sponsored by the same employer) must be distributed (whether to a taxable account or IRA) within one single tax year, though all distributions need not occur at the same time. The employer securities are taken as shares in the company, and cannot be converted into cash prior to distribution.

In order to be eligible for a lump-sum distribution, the client must have reached age 59½, become disabled or retired (for certain employees), or died. The eligible client transfers the employer securities held in his or her 401(k) into a taxable account, realizing the gain on the sale of the employer securities when those securities are sold, while the remaining assets can be transferred into an IRA.

This strategy has proven effective for some clients. For example, if employer securities within a client’s 401(k) are worth $100,000, but originally cost $20,000, only that $20,000 would be taxed at the client’s ordinary income tax rate. The remaining $80,000 would be taxed at the applicable (lower) long-term capital gains rate.

Potential Complications

It is important to note that if the client chooses to roll his or her 401(k) plan assets into an IRA, the NUA tax break will no longer be available even if the assets consist of highly appreciated employer securities that are later sold. Further, if the client is under age 55 when he or she leaves the employer, a 10% penalty tax will apply in addition to the otherwise applicable tax rates.

The NUA strategy only becomes valuable if the employer stock has appreciated substantially since it was placed into the retirement account. Further, if the basis of the stock is high compared to the amount by which the stock has appreciated, the strategy may be less valuable (though the client is permitted to apply the NUA strategy to only a portion of the securities received in the lump sum distribution).

Further, the length of time that the client plans to allow the assets to grow in the IRA is important—for longer time periods, the tax-deferred growth potential offered by the IRA may be more valuable than the NUA tax break.

Conclusion

Depending on an individual client’s circumstances, the NUA strategy can generate substantial tax savings—but it’s important to ensure that the client qualifies to avoid unpleasant surprises, as the IRS strictly enforces the NUA rules.

See also: 5 Essential Tax Questions About IRAs, Rollovers and Retirement Plans part of ThinkAdvisor’s 23 Days of Tax Planning Advice: 2016 annual report.

Originally published on Tax Facts Onlinethe premier resource providing practical, actionable and affordable coverage of the taxation of insurance, employee benefits, small business and individuals.    

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