If you have multiple retirement accounts, when can you start withdrawals without penalty? This is very important if you want to retire before age 59 ½ and be able to access your money. The rules vary by the type of account, so advance preparation can make it easier to plan your withdrawals.
In our retirement income planning, we carefully choose the order of withdrawals. This can make a big difference in your tax bills. It’s also helpful to have multiple types of accounts so you can select from capital gains, tax-deferred accounts, and tax-free accounts. Let’s start with the early retirement penalties, by account type.
Five Retirement Plans with Different Rules
- 401(k) and 403(b): 10% penalty on distributions prior to age 59 ½.
- A 457 Plan can be accessed after you retire without penalty, regardless of your age. This is the easiest plan for accessing your money.
- Traditional IRA: 10% penalty for distributions prior to age 59 ½. This also applies to a SEP-IRA.
- SIMPLE IRA: 10% penalty prior to age 59 ½. Additionally, any distributions within the first two year of participation are subject to a 25% Penalty. Ouch. Don’t do that.
- Roth IRA. 10% penalty on earnings before age 59 ½, AND the five-year rule. You must have had a Roth open for five years before taking penalty-free withdrawals. So, if you open your first Roth at age 57, you’d have to wait until age 62 to get the tax-free benefit. However, you can access your principal at any time without tax or penalty. It is only when you start drawing down your earnings that the tax and penalty might apply. To withdraw tax-free and penalty-free, you must be over 59 ½ and have had a Roth for at least five years.
Read more: The Secret Way to Contribute $35,000 to a Roth IRA
Exceptions to the Penalty
- For 401(k) and 403(b) Plans: if you are at least age 55 and have separated from service, the penalty is waived. This means that if you retire between 55 and 59 ½, you can access your account without penalty. You would lose this exception if you roll your money into an IRA.
- 72(t) / Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP). If you are before age 55 and want to access your 401(k), 403(b), or Traditional IRA, you can take Substantially Equal Periodic Payments and waive the penalty. This means that you commit to taking the same amount from your account, annually, for at least five years or until age 59 ½, whichever is longer. Even if you later don’t want or need the distribution, you must continue to withdraw the same amount.
- You may be able to avoid the 10% Penalty on an IRA or 401(k)/403(b) distribution if you qualify for these exceptions:
- Total and Permanent Disability
- An IRS Levy
- Unreimbursed Medical Expenses in excess of 10% of AGI
- Qualified Military Reservists called to Active Duty
- There are some exceptions which are available to IRAs (including SEP and SIMPLE), but not allowed from a 401(k) or 403(b). For these exceptions, you may want to roll your 401(k) into an IRA to qualify.
- Qualified higher educational expenses
- Qualified first-time homebuyers, up to $10,000
- Health insurance premiums paid while unemployed
Full List from IRS: Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions
Using Exceptions and Planning Your Income
I’m happy to let people know about these exceptions for retirement withdrawals without penalty before age 59 1/2. However, you should be very careful about tapping into your retirement accounts in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s. This money needs to last a lifetime. I sometimes hear of people who take from their 401(k) accounts to buy a car or build a pool. And they have no idea that taking $50,000 now is stealing $400,000 from their future. Here’s the math: At 8%, your money will double every 9 years. That’s the Rule of 72. $50k will become $100k in 9 years, then $200k in 18 years, and $400k in 27 years. (Yes, this is a hypothetical rate of return, not a guarantee.)
The order of withdrawals does matter when planning your retirement income. While we can work to avoid the 10% penalty before age 59 ½, distributions from “Traditional” retirement accounts are still taxable as ordinary income. It’s often better to access your taxable accounts first. When eligible for long-term capital gains rate, that will be lower than IRA distributions which are taxed as ordinary income. And you have a cost basis on a taxable position, so only a portion of your sale ends up as a taxable gain.
Many retirees avoid touching their retirement accounts until they have to take Required Minimum Distributions. RMDs used to be at age 70 ½, but now are age 72. If there are years when you are in a low tax bracket (sabbatical, retired, year off, etc.), it may make sense to do a partial Roth Conversion. Start shifting money from a tax-deferred account into a tax-free account and save yourself on future taxes.
Once you reach age 72, you could be subject to a lot of taxes from RMDs. That’s the problem with being too good at waiting to start distributions from your retirement accounts. You’re creating a bigger tax bill for yourself later. While you are accumulating assets, it pays to plan ahead and know when and how you will be able to actually access your accounts. Have a question about retirement withdrawals without penalty? Let me know how I can help.