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Posted by Jim McClaflin, EA, NTPI Fellow, CTRC

The 5 Biggest Money Mistakes Retirees Make: A Comprehensive Guide to Avoiding IRS Tax Pitfalls

The 5 Biggest Money Mistakes Retirees Make: A Comprehensive Guide to Avoiding IRS Tax Pitfalls

Retirement is often viewed as a time of financial security and relaxation, but it can also be a period filled with potential tax-related pitfalls. Many retirees find themselves facing unexpected tax burdens due to common money mistakes that can be easily avoided with proper planning and knowledge. In this comprehensive guide, we will discuss the five biggest money mistakes retirees make when it comes to IRS taxes and provide valuable insights on how to steer clear of these pitfalls.

1. Neglecting Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

One of the most significant tax-related mistakes retirees make is neglecting to take their Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts, such as Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. RMDs are mandatory withdrawals that retirees must start taking from these accounts once they reach age 72 (formerly age 70½) to ensure that the IRS collects the taxes on the tax-deferred contributions.

Failure to take RMDs on time can result in a hefty penalty. The penalty for not taking the full RMD amount is a staggering 50% of the required distribution. For example, if your RMD is $10,000 for the year and you fail to withdraw it, you'll face a $5,000 penalty on top of the regular income tax due on the distribution.

To avoid this costly mistake, retirees should:

  • Calculate RMDs accurately: Use the IRS Uniform Lifetime Table or consult a financial advisor to determine the required distribution amount each year.

  • Set up automatic withdrawals: Many financial institutions offer the option to set up automatic RMD withdrawals, ensuring compliance.

  • Plan early: Start thinking about RMDs well before age 72, as proactive planning can help minimize tax implications.

2. Not Leveraging Tax-Efficient Withdrawal Strategies

Retirees often make the mistake of withdrawing funds from their retirement accounts without considering the tax implications. A lack of tax-efficient withdrawal strategies can lead to unnecessarily high tax bills and erosion of your retirement savings.

To optimize your withdrawals and minimize taxes:

  • Diversify your accounts: Consider having a mix of taxable, tax-deferred, and tax-free accounts to give you flexibility in choosing where to withdraw funds from each year.

  • Prioritize tax-efficient accounts: Withdraw from taxable accounts first to allow your tax-advantaged accounts to continue growing tax-free for as long as possible.

  • Plan for Social Security timing: Delaying Social Security benefits can result in higher monthly payments, which can reduce your reliance on taxable withdrawals in the early years of retirement.

  • Utilize tax-efficient investments: Invest in assets that generate capital gains or qualified dividends, which are typically taxed at lower rates than ordinary income.

3. Underestimating Taxation of Social Security Benefits

Many retirees are surprised to discover that a portion of their Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income taxes. The taxation of Social Security benefits is based on your combined income, which includes not only your Social Security benefits but also other sources of income, such as pensions, retirement account withdrawals, and investment income.

To avoid underestimating the taxation of Social Security benefits:

  • Understand the taxation thresholds: For individual filers with a combined income between $25,000 and $34,000 (or $32,000 to $44,000 for joint filers), up to 50% of Social Security benefits may be subject to taxation. Above these thresholds, up to 85% of benefits can be taxed.

  • Plan for tax-efficient withdrawals: Consider timing your retirement account withdrawals to minimize the impact on the taxation of your Social Security benefits.

  • Seek professional advice: Consult a tax professional or financial advisor who can help you create a retirement income plan that optimizes your tax situation.

4. Ignoring Estate Planning and Inheritance Taxes

Estate planning is a critical aspect of retirement, yet many retirees neglect to plan for the transfer of their assets upon their passing. Failing to have an effective estate plan can result in unnecessary taxes and complications for your heirs.

To avoid this mistake:

  • Create a comprehensive estate plan: This includes drafting a will, establishing trusts, designating beneficiaries, and considering strategies to minimize estate taxes.

  • Stay informed about estate tax laws: Estate tax laws can change, so it's essential to stay updated and adjust your estate plan accordingly.

  • Communicate with your heirs: Open communication with your beneficiaries about your financial plans and intentions can prevent misunderstandings and disputes in the future.

5. Disregarding Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Other Tax-Advantaged Accounts

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and other tax-advantaged accounts are valuable tools that retirees often overlook. HSAs, in particular, offer triple tax advantages—contributions are tax-deductible, growth is tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified medical expenses.

To maximize the benefits of tax-advantaged accounts:

  • Contribute to HSAs if eligible: If you have a high-deductible health insurance plan, contribute to an HSA to take advantage of the tax benefits and use it to cover medical expenses in retirement.

  • Explore other tax-advantaged accounts: Consider options like Roth IRAs, which provide tax-free withdrawals in retirement, and 529 plans for educational expenses.

  • Understand the rules and limitations: Be aware of contribution limits, withdrawal rules, and qualified expenses for each type of tax-advantaged account to make the most of them.


Retirement should be a time of financial security and peace of mind. By avoiding the five biggest money mistakes retirees make with respect to IRS taxes, you can ensure that your retirement years are spent enjoying the fruits of your labor rather than dealing with unexpected tax burdens. Proper planning, informed decision-making, and consultation with financial professionals can help you navigate the complexities of retirement taxation and secure your financial future. Remember that tax laws may change, so it's essential to stay updated and adjust your strategies accordingly to make the most of your retirement savings while minimizing your tax liabilities.



Jim McClaflin, EA, NTPI Fellow, CTRC
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