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4 Ways to Avoid The 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty

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4 ways to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penaltyOne big issue with early retirement is being able to access your retirement accounts without paying the stiff 10% early withdrawal penalty.

It’s great to invest in the traditional 401k and IRA because you don’t have to pay tax on that portion of your earnings. This is an excellent way to defer tax especially if your income is high. Uncle Sam will get eventually get his cut from this pile of money, though. You will have to pay tax at the earned income rate when you take withdrawal from these retirement accounts. Deferring tax until after retirement is usually advantageous because you make less money in retirement and should be in a lower income tax bracket. However, there is a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you want to access the money before you’re 59 ½. This could be a problem if a significant portion of your net worth is in the tax-deferred accounts.

Our Retirement Accounts

We love our 401k and IRA because it is the easiest way for us to save and invest. I also put off paying tax on a significant portion of my blogging income every year. I love paying less tax in April, who doesn’t? We have been saving in our pre-tax accounts for 20 years and it has grown to be the biggest part of our net worth.

avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty

Our retirement accounts make up 44% of our net worth and they should continue to grow over time. Currently, most of our new investment is going into those retirement accounts because we want to defer tax.

What if we want to access our pre-tax accounts at some point? In 13 years, RB40Jr will graduate from high school and hopefully heading off to college. At that point, we’d probably want to retire full-time and mostly relax. We will have some income from our dividend stock portfolio, and I’d probably be out of the rental property business. If the income from our dividend portfolio isn’t enough to support our lifestyle, then I would consider taking early withdrawal from our IRA. As long as we spend less than 4% of the total value of our portfolio, we should be able to sustain a lengthy retirement. In 13 years, I won’t be 59 ½ yet, so I need to work around the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Actually, Mrs. RB40 plans to retire in 2020 so our income will drop quite a bit. We will be in the lower tax brackets and it will be a great time to withdraw some money from our IRA. The withdrawal is taxed at the earned income rate so it’s better to spread out the withdrawal over a longer period. You will pay less tax that way because you will be in the lower tax bracket.

Don’t forget to consider social security benefit. Once you start taking your social security benefit, it will increase your income and possibly push you to a higher tax bracket. The goal for early retirees is to stay in the 15% tax bracket as much as possible. That’s the sweet spot for minimizing tax. You don’t even have to pay tax on dividend income! There are several ways to avoid paying the 10% early withdrawal penalty when you withdraw before 59 1/2.

1. Roth IRA conversion

Personally, I think the best way to access your retirement fund early is to build a Roth IRA ladder. Here is how to do it.

  1. Convert 1 year of living expense to Roth IRA. (You will have to pay tax when you do this.)
  2. Wait 5 years
  3. Withdraw the 1 year of expense from the Roth IRA

Just repeat this every year until you’re 59 ½. The drawback here is you have to wait 5 years before you can access the first payment to avoid the 10% penalty*. This is doable for us because we could draw down our dividend portfolio and other taxable accounts during the first 5 years. Also, don’t forget to add inflation and tax to the amount you convert every year.

* With the Roth IRA, you can withdraw your regular contribution at anytime without having to pay the penalty. Conversions will have to wait 5 years to avoid the penalty.

Actually, it’s a good idea to move as much of your assets to the Roth IRA as possible. You won’t have to pay tax on that account ever again. When Mrs. RB40 retires, our income will be relatively low and we’ll probably convert a small portion to Roth IRA every year.

2. IRS Rule 72(t)

Another way to access your traditional IRA is to use the IRS rule 72(t). This will help you avoid that early withdrawal penalty, but you’ll have to follow some rules. First, you will have to take “substantially equal periodic payments” (SEPPs) every year. Once this starts, you must continue to do so for at least five full years, or if later, until age 59 ½.

The calculation for the rule 72(t) is pretty complicated and that alone would deter a lot of people. You probably need to hire a financial advisor or tax accountant to help with the process. I’ll use Bankrate’s 72(t) calculator to give us an idea of how much we could withdraw.

  • Account balance: $2,000,000
  • Reasonable interest rate: 2.1%
  • Your age: 55
  • Beneficiary age: 54
  • Choose life expectancy table: Single life expectancy

I could pick one of the following methods depending on how much money we want to withdraw.

  • RMD method: $67,568
  • Amortization method: $91,414
  • Annuitized method: $90,956

I’d probably go with the RMD method to keep tax low. It’s tough to look ahead 13 years because we don’t know how much inflation we’d see. The tax bracket will adjust for inflation, but this looks like a lot of income to me.

The main problem with using rule 72(t) is you’d have to keep withdrawing for at least 5 years. If you mess up somewhere, you’d have to pay 10% penalty on the total amount withdrawn. I like the Roth IRA ladder method better because you have more control over how much to convert.

3. Early 401(k) withdrawal

Here is an exception to the 59 ½ rule that’s now widely known. If you retire after 55, you can withdraw from your 401(k) with no penalty. This only applies to a company established 401(k). The age limit is further reduced to 50 for retiring police officers, firefighters, and medics. That’s a pretty nifty benefit for our public servants. Note that this provision does not apply to your IRA.

We won’t be able to use this exception because we’d both be long retired before we’re 55. I guess I could go back to work and do a reverse rollover. This would move my IRA into an employer sponsored 401(k) and enable me to take advantage of this exception. Of course, that would mean going to work for a company which would be my last choice.

4. Tap your IRA to pay various expenses

Lastly, there are a few exceptions to the IRA early withdrawal penalty. This could be a good way to take some money out of your retirement accounts if you have these expenses anyway.

  • Pay for higher education. We plan to help RB40Jr with his college education so this could work for us. If our 529 isn’t enough to pay for college, then we can make some withdrawals from our IRA.
  • Health insurance premium while unemployed. This one seems complicated. I don’t think we’d qualify as unemployed when we’re retired.
  • Unreimbursed medical expenses over 10% of AGI.
  • IRS levy back taxes. This one is very interesting. If you owe taxes to the IRS, they can levy your IRA and you won’t have to pay the 10% penalty. This seems like an incentive to not pay tax on time. Of course, you’d have to pay a penalty for late payment so I’m not sure if this makes sense financially. The late payment penalty is the federal short-term interest rate plus 3%.
  • First time home buyer. If you haven’t own a home for 2 years, then you could withdraw up to $10,000 to help with the down payment.

5. Reader’s comments

  • If you have a 457 plan, you can make a withdrawal without the 10% penalty. This plan is available to some state and local public employee. Some non profit organizations offer this plan.

Accessing your retirement account

Out of these options, I like the Roth IRA ladder option best. We have enough in our taxable account to pay the first 5 years of living expense. After that, we’ll be able to withdraw from our Roth IRA without paying the penalty. I like having more control over the accounts. Also, it’s always a good idea to move money into your Roth IRA because that account is tax free forever.

Taking money out of your retirement accounts early usually isn’t a good idea because most of them are woefully underfunded. The average retirement saving of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 is just $104,000. If you take early withdrawal from that account, you’d run out of money pretty quickly. On the other hand, what if you’re lucky enough to have $2 million in your traditional IRA at the age of 55? In that scenario, it would be better focus on minimizing tax and make some early withdrawal. When you turn 70½, you would have to withdraw the required minimum distribution (RMD) on your IRA. You don’t want to have a huge amount in your traditional IRA at that point because the RMD would kick you into a high tax bracket. It’s still a better problem to have than not having enough money.

Roth IRAs are not subject to the RMD rule in your lifetime. That’s another reason to move money into your Roth IRA.

Are you planning to retire early? Do you have a plan to access your retirement accounts?

Image  credit dbking

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{ 46 comments… add one }

  • Ernie Zelinski February 15, 2016, 1:40 am

    “The average retirement saving of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 is just $104,000.”

    Is that for households or individuals?

    I saw a chart recently from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy that showed these figures:

    Amount of money one half of Americans nearing retirement have saved: ZERO
    Average savings of the most prepared nearing retirement: $140,654

    It also did not say whether this was for individuals or for households.

    In any event, I don’t have any plan to access my retirement accounts in the next two years or so. But when I am forced by the government to access them, it looks like I will be hit with a big tax bill. Here in Alberta, Canada our highest marginal tax rate will be 48 percent this year (versus 39 percent last year). Related to this, a British publisher just offered me $6,500 US to write a book called “300 Things to Do Now That You’ve Retired”. I could have put this together within two or three week working just two hours a day given that I could have taken most of the material from two unpublished books that I have already written on the topic. But I passed on the project because I would have lost almost half of the proceeds to tax.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 8:41 am

      I think that’s the amount for Americans with a retirement account. I assume it was for individual, but I’m not sure.
      Oh wow, that tax rate is very high. I guess that’s because you have income from your books. I didn’t know you have to withdraw so early in Canada. I will do a little research.

      • Ernie Zelinski February 15, 2016, 8:09 pm

        Joe:

        I will be 67 in June. I believe in Canada all RRSPs have to be changed to a RIFF at 70 or 71 and then a certain percentage has to be withdrawn on a yearly basis after that.

        There is no reason for you to do research. I can do that myself when the time comes.

        Thanks.

        • Tracy @ Financial Nirvana Mama February 16, 2016, 2:43 pm

          Hi Ernie

          I’m sure you must have looked into this already – have you considered hoarding all of your cash in a corporation (for small businesses) to save more than 30% in taxes and withdrawing only what you need. Small businesses are taxes at less than 17% and likely better in Alberta. But this is assuming you make less than 500K annually in revenue:)

  • Mr. Tako @ Mr. Tako Escapes February 15, 2016, 3:24 am

    A great summary Joe. Like you, I like the Roth IRA ladder. It will probably be a number of years before we’ll use it, so we’re trying to live off just dividend income right now. I wonder how long the Roth IRA ladder loophole will be around.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 8:43 am

      If you’re living off just dividend income, you might want to convert a little to Roth IRA. If your income is in the lower bracket, it’s a good time to do it. I hope the Roth IRA conversion rule will still be around for 20 years, but you’re right. It might be gone at some point.

  • Tyler February 15, 2016, 3:55 am

    Great Article Joe,

    I signed up for my employee 401k at 18 and don’t regret it but the part that is frustrating is the fact that I now plan on retiring way before I should have access to it, so I have been looking into ways to get to the money before I’m 60, more like when I’m 40 or younger.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 8:44 am

      There are ways around the withdrawal rules. That’s great for people like us. Good luck on your journey.

  • Michelle February 15, 2016, 7:40 am

    This is something we’ve been wondering about a lot lately. We have plans to retire early and I definitely don’t want to be penalized!

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:25 pm

      I don’t want to be penalized either. 10% is a huge deal for early retirees because we have a very long retirement to deal with.

  • Jim @ Route To Retire February 15, 2016, 9:16 am

    I plan to do the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder as part of my early retirement plan. I’m hoping to be able to supplement my passive income through other areas so I’m not just relying solely on that, but the Ladder seems to be the most straightforward method to move your funds over without penalty.

    — Jim

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:26 pm

      That’s what we plan to do as well. It’s good to have income from various sources.

  • freebird February 15, 2016, 9:18 am

    I expect retirement will start sometime in my early 50s and I’ll be drawing down taxable accounts to cover expenses. It’ll be the low return stuff like bank deposits plus whatever dividends come in. I have no qualms about reducing principal.

    As for retirement accounts, I’ll be withdrawing from these and taking social security as late as I can, which I guess means age 70. I’m planning to Rothify in chunks to reduce RMDs in 20 years. These conversions will have to be timed to avoid large capital gain years, but those I expect to be relatively few.

    I guess I have more flexibility because retirement accounts are less than a quarter of my investment portfolio.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:30 pm

      That’s a good plan. I’m still undecided about social security. I need to do more research to see if it makes sense to take it early or late. I know you get more later, but it might not make sense for our situation. I want to avoid RMD as well.

  • Justin February 15, 2016, 9:53 am

    We’re using the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. It has plenty of flexibility and just requires some paperwork and a spreadsheet to keep track of it.

    I also have a 457 plan that allows penalty free withdrawals any time (just owe tax on the withdrawals). That’s the back up plan.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:30 pm

      That’s great! I guess the Roth conversion is working out well for you. The 457 is a great back up plan.

  • Thuy February 15, 2016, 9:58 am

    We have thought about doing a Roth IRA ladder as well but I am not sure we’ll need it. The goal is to retire in approx. 10 years. I am not sure my husband will be ready to since he likes his job. I am already home full time with the toddler. In 10 years, I’ll be 53 so we would only need to cover expenses for 6-7 years through taxable accounts before I can tap into my retirement accounts. We are hoping to bank away enough in the next ten years that we won’t have to.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:35 pm

      You still have a lot of time to figure it out because 10 years is a quite a while. You probably should investing in dividend stock or other income earning investment to prepare. Good luck!

  • nicoleandmaggie February 15, 2016, 10:11 am

    For government employees there’s also the 457. If you’re planning to retire early, the ability to withdraw without penalty could make a 457 more attractive than a 403b if you can’t max out both.

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:35 pm

      I didn’t know about the 457. Thanks for the info. I will update the main article. It’s nice to not have to worry about the 10% penalty.

  • Stockbeard February 15, 2016, 11:02 am

    Thanks Joe.
    Sadly I don’t think either of those will work for me. I intend to leave the US and close my ties with financial institutions here wherever it makes sense. This means closing my 401k. I am not a US citizen and do not want to have to explain a complex financial situation to my next country (or worse, have to declare taxes in the US after leaving it), so reducing the pain will require closing the 401k.
    Seems like I’ll have to take the 10% penalty

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 12:36 pm

      Yes, I saw that on your site. It seems like there should be a better way of doing it. Maybe you can cash out on a year when you don’t have a lot of income? That situation seems tricky. Can you get permanent residence?

  • Lori Severance February 15, 2016, 2:52 pm

    I have a 403B account sponsored by my company, so there is no 10% penalty for withdrawals if you retire after 55. I plan to retire in November of this year at age 57. But I am looking to buy my retirement home sometime in the next 6-8 months, a few months before retiring. Therefore I will be withdrawing the money a few months before I actually retire. Will I owe the 10% penalty on the money withdrawn if I retire in the same calendar year as the withdrawal??

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 5:37 pm

      That’s similar to the 401k rule. Good luck with your retirement. Just a few months left.
      Wow, that’s a complicated question. You might need to consult a tax expert. Maybe you can find some info on the IRS site.

  • Linda February 15, 2016, 4:53 pm

    I plan on doing the Roth conversion ladder when I retire. Hopefully I’m still able to do that in 15 years! Right now most of my money is going into retirement accounts. I don’t make enough to fund a taxable account (yet). I do need to make sure I can fund the five years from when I start the ladder to when I can actually take the money out. Luckily, I have a long time to figure that out!

    • retirebyforty February 15, 2016, 5:38 pm

      Yes, you still have a lot of time. Hopefully, you’ll make more money and will be able to invest more in your taxable account soon. Good luck!

  • Bryan February 15, 2016, 5:06 pm

    Such an important article. It’s so arbitrary that the government tells us 59.5 is “the retirement age.” I’m constantly strategizing on ways to use my SEP IRA income now. There’s really no good way, except to realize that using it now is STILL better than just doing after tax investing. Still come out ahead even PAYING the penalty.

    • Mike H. February 16, 2016, 7:08 am

      Hi Bryan. 59.5 is definitely a bit arbitrary, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s just out of date; a holdover from another time. The original pension plans (starting in the mid 1800s!) usually revolved around age 60 as Normal Retirement Age, and that convention still holds pretty much true to this day, though there’s a bit more variance these days, and some plans are starting to push that age upward. If you take disabilities and early retirements into account, the average age that people started drawing from pension plans was a little before age 60.

      Considering that the 401(k) was designed as a tax shelter, not a retirement vehicle, it made sense to push the withdrawal date to coincide with the “drawdown” phase of people’s pensions, so that the taxable distributions would be analogous to other tax-qualified trusts.

      Now, even though 59.5 is outdated, and people are living longer, I do NOT endorse higher Normal Retirement Ages in pensions or higher distribution ages for tax-advantaged individual accounts. There is little evidence that prolonged life expectancy leads to prolonged career-usefulness (unless we’re talking about disability cases, which is a whole different animal). I don’t want 60 year old cops on streets running down criminals, or 70 year old teachers in classrooms with kids, or 75 year old doctors in hospitals treating patients.

  • PhysicianOnFIRE February 15, 2016, 8:37 pm

    I turned 40 a few months ago, so I don’t think I’ll retire by 40. I could though, if I really wanted to.

    I’ve got nearly 50% of my portfolio in taxable, over 30% in Roth, and over 5% in a 457(b). Early retirement is much more feasible when the portfolio is constructed in an easy access kind of way.

    SEPP / 72(t) seems like it should be used as a last resort, and there are so many other ways. But it does give penalty-free access before the magic 59.5; I can see why it would be useful for someone who has nearly all her retirement savings in a 401(k) or SEP IRA.

    • retirebyforty February 16, 2016, 10:15 am

      That’s great! I like how you structured your portfolio. How did you get over 30% in Roth? Our Roth is just a small portion of our net worth. We couldn’t contribute much and I took too much risk in that account.

      • PhysicianOnFIRE February 16, 2016, 3:44 pm

        Thanks, Joe! It looks like you found my PoF Portfolio post, so the Roth question may have been answered for you, but for others, I can explain. Around 2010, the income limits for Roth conversions were lifted and the prevailing thought was that the limits would be reinstated within a year or 2. I converted a large SEP-IRA and paid six figures in taxes spread over 2011 and 2012 to cover the conversion. In hindsight, it was probably a bad move. The Roth conversion remains an option and I might have been better off converting after retiring. Of course, unlike you, the thought of an early retirement hadn’t crossed my mind at that point.

        • Simple Saving February 17, 2016, 8:34 am

          Joe, as you and your wife continue to wind down your employment income, just convert traditional IRA money up to the threshold of the 15% tax bracket each year into your Roth. Before you know it, a majority of your retirement nest egg will be in Roth Accounts. My wife and I have been employing this strategy since Roth IRAs came into existence. At first we only converted in down income years, but now that we have reached FI and only work part time we do it every year. Our Roth percentage stands at 55% of our retirement savings and our goal is to get it to at least 80%. Still only 45 years old, so we have plenty of time. The nice thing is that we are now very low income earners so we can convert larger chunks each year. If we didn’t do this now, we’d clearly be paying more in taxes when we begin to withdraw our funds since we will make way more money when we are “retired” than we did in our working years. Good luck.

  • Mike Drak February 16, 2016, 5:54 am

    In Canada the use of RRSP’s can be a problem . The general idea is that you will withdraw money at a lower tax rate in retirement, but people that are good savers might find themselves paying a higher rate of tax in retirement due to the mandatory withdrawal limits which could also impact their OAS. Something to consider as you build your passive income stream.

  • Sam @ Financial Samurai February 16, 2016, 10:45 am

    Rule 72(t) really is an interesting one that’s good to know if the need for money is present.

    The best way to avoid an early withdrawal penalty is to just live off passive income. Treat pre-tax retirement income like an invisible asset that will be a bonus once we turn 60!

    S

    • PhysicianOnFIRE February 16, 2016, 8:34 pm

      Agreed. I’ve structured the portfolio in a way that I shouldn’t need to touch the 401(k) early, but for many, the majority of their retirement savings lives inside one.

      I spend too much time thinking about how to reduce RMD’s even though they’re 30 years away. What are the odds that the rules of the game will be the same by the time it matters? About the same as tonight’s overnight low, 0. The happiest and most likely outcome is that RMD’s will go to the Donor Advised Fund. I can’t imagine having a need, but again, a lot can happen between now and my days as a septuagenarian.

    • retirebyforty February 16, 2016, 10:36 pm

      I didn’t like rule 72(t) at first because I wanted to put off withdrawal. Now I realize that in some cases, using it to move money out of the pre-tax account is a good idea.
      Your pre-tax account will be huge and you’ll have to pay a lot of tax when you withdraw.

  • supernova72 February 16, 2016, 11:01 am

    Thanks for mentioning #3 above regarding being retired at 55 and drawing from your 401K penalty free. It’s not widely known and is different (and simpler) than the 72t rule.

    Some folks call this the “rule of 55” or age 55 rule. But yea if it’s in an IRA it’s 59.5. Cheers.

  • Abigail @ipickuppennies February 16, 2016, 2:43 pm

    Unfortunately, I’ll be lucky to retire at all. Health problems — and at least one of us on disability at any point — has kept our retirement contributions incredibly minimal. But the Roth IRA ladder is pretty brilliant. If something does happen that allows me to retire, I’ll keep that in mind for my SEP.

    In the end, I’d probably prefer to just go down to part-time anyway. Having been on disability, a paycheck (with an amount you can actually live on) is pretty soothing.

    • retirebyforty February 16, 2016, 10:38 pm

      Sorry to hear that. Going to part time is a good idea. It really lighten the work load and life improves quite a bit.

  • Alan February 22, 2016, 11:09 pm

    A few odds and ends. The 72(t) doesn’t have to be done on your full retirement account. If you want less money that that you can split the account in two before doing the 72(t) but once you start it you have to stick to it for 5 years or until your 59.5 whichever is later.

    On the removing money from a 401k after 55, this is not guaranteed. An employer can prevent this is they like, but most do allow it.

  • Mauij February 24, 2016, 9:55 am

    I would like to use my IRA to buy a duplex in the next year. The money would be saved up and my current employer is adding to the account.

    • retirebyforty February 24, 2016, 11:52 am

      I think that’s a good way to do it. Good luck.

  • Waid March 2, 2016, 3:22 pm

    I was a police officer here in California for 18 years. I had to take a medical retirement 3 years ago. I was lucky to have access to a 457 plan during my career and was able to put quite a bit away. I am planning to leave the money there as long as possible, but I was told I can take out money any time I want with no penalty, as I was now “separated from service”. Pretty nice deal! I also have a medical pension which I am so grateful for!

  • Carmelita April 2, 2016, 9:09 pm

    I plan on retiring next year when I turn 57 but will most likely use my 403b (400K) and just leave it with my employer which is administered by TIAA Cref. Not sure if this is a good idea and for how long do I leave it with them. I have about 70k in IRA and 15K in HSA. I’m still not clear how to best prepare my funds for early retirement to make it last.

    • retirebyforty April 4, 2016, 8:07 am

      Leaving your 403b with your employer is probably a good idea for now. I believe you can withdraw it without having to pay the 10% penalty since you already are over 55. You probably should leave your IRA alone for now. Have you tried using the retirement calculator at Personal Capital?
      It can give you an idea how long your fund would last.
      http://retireby40.org/the-best-free-retirement-calculator/
      I would try to withdraw 4% at the most from your retirement fund. Good luck!

  • Ms Susty Themes May 11, 2016, 5:35 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I agree that the Roth IRA ladder is the most flexible option, and I’m starting to do that this year for the first time. It’s a low earnings year and my main reason for converting to a Roth is to minimize taxes on future RMDs. But I like the option to use some of it to fund the “gap years” between now and whatever age I decide to begin withdrawals from retirement accounts. In hindsight, it may have been smart to start conversions right when I left work (4 years ago), but our side-hustles were bringing in enough that we didn’t want to risk increasing our AGI, possibly exceeding the 15% tax bracket or the thresholds for health care subsidies.

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