Like other distributions from traditional IRAs and retirement plans, RMDs are generally subject to federal (and possibly state) income tax for the year in which you receive the distribution. However, a portion of the funds distributed to you may not be subject to tax if you have ever made after-tax contributions to your IRA or plan.
For example, if some of your traditional IRA contributions were not tax deductible, those contribution amounts will be income tax free when you withdraw them from the IRA. This is simply because those dollars were already taxed once. You should consult a tax professional if your IRA or plan contains any after-tax contributions.
Your distribution may also be income-tax-free if it is a qualified distribution from a Roth 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) account. Generally, an RMD is qualified if your Roth account satisfies a 5-year holding period requirement. If your RMD is not qualified, then generally only the portion of the RMD paid from your Roth account that represents earnings will be taxable to you--your own contributions to the Roth account are returned tax free.
Because RMDs are paid after you turn age 70½, or after your death, they are not subject to early distribution penalties. Income taxes on RMDs paid to your beneficiary after your death are generally calculated in the same manner as if the payments were made to you.
Caution: Taxable income from an IRA or retirement plan is taxed at ordinary income tax rates even if the funds represent long-term capital gain or qualifying dividends from stock held within the plan. Note that there are special rules for capital gain treatment in some cases on distributions from employer-sponsored retirement plans.
You first need to determine whether or not the federal estate tax will apply to you. If you do not expect the value of your taxable estate to exceed the federal applicable exclusion amount then federal estate tax may not be a concern for you. However, state death (or inheritance) tax may be a concern. In some cases, your assets may be subject to more than one type of death tax--for example, the generation-skipping transfer tax may also apply. Consider getting professional advice to establish appropriate strategies to help reduce and possibly eliminate your future estate tax liability.
For example, you might reduce the value of your taxable estate by gifting all or part of your required distribution to your spouse or others. Making gifts to your spouse can sometimes work well if your taxable estate is larger than your spouse's, and one or both of you will leave an estate larger than the applicable exclusion amount. This strategy can provide your spouse with additional assets to better utilize his or her applicable exclusion amount, thereby minimizing the combined estate tax liability of you and your spouse. Be sure to consult an estate planning attorney, however, about this and other possible strategies.