Avoiding Penalties on Early Withdrawals from IRAs

More than half of Millennials and Gen Xers have already or are planning to, withdraw money from their retirement plans to cover unexpected expenses such as medical bills, educational expenses, or buying a house, according to a recent PwC Employee Financial Wellness Survey (April 2017). Most notably, the survey also found that this trend is on the rise for both Millennials and Gen Xers, increasing 14 and 6 percent, respectively, from 2016 to 2017.


When retirement plans such as the 401(k) were introduced, company pensions were still the norm and this “new” retirement savings vehicle was meant to be a supplement to the pension. Fast forward to today, however, and the retirement landscape has changed dramatically. Very few companies offer pensions anymore and most people rely entirely on whatever savings they’ve accumulated in their retirement account, along with social security) to get them through their golden years. In fact, for many people, retirement accounts are their most significant source of savings.

Because retirement plans such as the 401(k), tax-sheltered annuity plans under section 403(b) for employees of public schools or tax-exempt organizations, and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) were created to help you save money for your retirement years, withdrawals before retirement age (59 1/2) are discouraged. As such, the IRS imposes a penalty of 10 percent for early withdrawals taken from qualified retirement plans before age 59 1/2.

Minimizing Early Withdrawal Penalties

While you should always think carefully about taking money out of your retirement plan before you’ve reached retirement age, there may be times when you need access to those funds. The downside is that you’ll be faced with an IRS penalty on the withdrawal unless you meet one of the exceptions listed below.

For instance, if you withdraw cash from your IRA to pay off credit card debt you will be liable for the 10 percent penalty when you file your tax return. Furthermore, that money is also considered taxable income by the IRS. In other words, you don’t want to get into the habit of treating your retirement fund like a cash cow but instead, should focus on building cash reserves in an emergency fund.

That being said, if an early withdrawal is unavoidable because you are suddenly unemployed, disabled, or have outstanding medical expenses, IRS provisions allow a number of exceptions that may be used to minimize or avoid the tax penalty.

  1. Beneficiary of a deceased IRA owner. If you are the beneficiary of a deceased IRA owner, you do not have to pay the 10 percent penalty on distributions taken before age 59 1/2 unless you inherit a traditional IRA from your deceased spouse and elect to treat it as your own. In this case, any distribution you later receive before you reach age 59 1/2 may be subject to the 10 percent additional tax.
  2. Totally and permanently disabled. Distributions made because you are totally and permanently disabled are exempt from the early withdrawal penalty. You are considered disabled if you can furnish proof that you cannot do any substantial gainful activity because of your physical or mental condition. A physician must determine that your condition can be expected to result in death or to be of long, continued, and indefinite duration.
  3. Distributions for qualified higher education expenses. Distributions for qualified higher education expenses are also exempt, provided they are not paid through tax-free distributions from a Coverdell education savings account, scholarships and fellowships, Pell grants, employer-provided educational assistance, and Veterans’ educational assistance. Qualified higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for the enrollment or attendance of a student at an eligible educational institution, as well as expenses incurred by special needs students in connection with their enrollment or attendance. If the individual is at least a half-time student, room and board are qualified higher education expenses. This exception applies to expenses incurred by you, your spouse, children and grandchildren.
  4. Distributions due to an IRS levy of the qualified plan. This exception applies if the IRS takes money directly out of your 401(k) plan to satisfy an IRS levy (tax debt).
  5. Distributions that are not more than the cost of your medical insurance. Even if you are under age 59 1/2, you may not have to pay the 10 percent additional tax on distributions during the year that is not more than the amount you paid during the year for medical insurance for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. You will not have to pay the tax on these amounts if all of the following conditions apply: you lost your job, you received unemployment compensation paid under any federal or state law for 12 consecutive weeks because you lost your job, you receive the distributions during either the year you received the unemployment compensation or the following year, you receive the distributions no later than 60 days after you have been reemployed.
  6. Distributions to qualified reservists. Generally, these are distributions made to individuals called to active duty after September 11, 2001, for a period greater than 179 days or for an indefinite period because you are a member of a reserve component such as the Army National Guard. Distributions taken during the active duty period are not subject to the 10 percent penalty.
  7. Distributions in the form of an annuity. You can take the money as part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments over your estimated lifespan or the joint lives of you and your designated beneficiary. These payments must be made at least annually and payments are based on IRS life expectancy tables. If payments are from a qualified employee plan, they must begin after you have left the job. The payments must be made at least once each year until age 59 1/2, or for five years, whichever period is longer.
  8. Medical expenses. If you have out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, you can withdraw funds from a retirement account to pay those expenses without paying a penalty.

    Example: If you had an adjusted gross income of $100,000 for tax year 2017 and medical expenses of $12,500, you could withdraw as much as $2,500 from your pension or IRA without incurring the 10 percent penalty tax. You do not have to itemize your deductions to take advantage of this exception.

  9. Buy, build, or rebuild a first home. An IRA distribution used to buy, build, or rebuild a first home also escapes the penalty; however, you need to understand the government’s definition of a “first time” home buyer. In this case, it’s defined as someone who hasn’t owned a home for the last two years prior to the date of the new acquisition. You could have owned five prior houses, but if you haven’t owned one in at least two years, you qualify.

    The first-time homeowner can be yourself, your spouse, your or your spouse’s child or grandchild, parent or another relative. The “date of acquisition” is the day you sign the contract for the purchase of an existing house or the day construction of your new principal residence begins. The amount withdrawn for the purchase of a home must be used within 120 days of withdrawal and the maximum lifetime withdrawal exemption is $10,000. If both you and your spouse are first-time home buyers, each of you can receive distributions up to $10,000 for a first home without having to pay the 10 percent penalty.

Questions about Early Withdrawals?

Before withdrawing funds from a retirement account please call the office and speak to a tax professional. While you may be able to minimize or avoid the 10 percent penalty tax using one of the exceptions listed above, remember that you are still liable for any regular income tax that’s owed on the funds that you’ve withdrawn–and you may be liable for more tax than you realize when you file your tax return next spring.

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