Early Retirement Income: 5 Ways to Make Penalty-Free Withdrawals from Your Retirement Accounts BEFORE You Turn 59.5

118 total views

Early retirement is a dream for many. However, a really early retirement is fairly rare. According to research published on LIMRA, only about 20% of all Americans retire in their 50s or before — with most of those happening after age 55.

For those that do retire early, figuring out how to fund expenses can be challenging. One problem is that most of the retirement savings vehicles — namely traditional 401(k)s and IRAs — enforce a 10% penalty for any withdrawals made before 59.5.

However, there are a few ways around the rules. Below are ways to avoid penalties on withdrawals made before you get to age 59.5.

NOTE: It is important to remember that just because you can withdraw early, doesn’t mean you should. Your retirement savings are designed to last your lifetime.

1. 72(t), Also Known as Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP) Plans

72(t) refers to the IRS code section 72(t) where this rule for penalty-free withdrawals is written. The more descriptive term for this method of withdrawals from an IRA is Substantially Equal Period Payments (SEPP) plans.

To do a 72(t) or SEPP, you may withdraw an equal amount of money for either five years or until you reach age 59.5 — whichever is longer. So, if you do a 72(t) at age 50, you would take payments for 9.5 years until age 59.5. If you were to start your 72(t) at age 58, then your payments would need to extend five years, until age 63.

The real trick with a 72t is figuring out your withdrawal amount. If you get it wrong at any point, you are subject to the 10% penalty. There are methods for figuring out your 72(t) withdrawal amounts. They are all based on your life expectancy.

Here are your options:

a) The Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) method:

This is perhaps the easiest method for determining your withdrawal amount, but it usually produces the lowest payment. The RMD method takes the balance of your IRA and divides it by your single, joint (if married), or uniform life expectancy. Your payment is recalculated each year with this method.

This is the only 72(t) method where your payments will vary (since they are being determined by variations in your account balance and life expectancy).

b) Amortization:

This methodology for figuring out payments is similar to how mortgage payments are determined. Amortization is a calculation for spreading out payments to be regular overtime (for a mortgage, amortization uses the loan amount, interest rate, and term of a loan to determine equal payments. 72(t) uses account balance, interest rate or rate of return, and your longevity).

Start with the most recently reported account balance and assume a “reasonable” interest rate (IRS rules specify that the rate can not exceed 120% of the mid-term Applicable Federal Rate). A payment schedule is then based on a single, joint or uniform life expectancy table.

Note: The mid-term Federal rates has been very low for a number of years. In February 2022, 120% of the Federal mid-term rate was only 1.69%.  

However the rules were updated recently and on January 18, the IRS released Notice 2022-6, which said that 72(t) payment schedules started after Jan 1, 2022 can use interest rate up to 5%. (or 120% of the Federal mid-term rate if that is higher.) The higher the interest rate, the higher the payments will be, so this change allows you to take higher payments from your IRA.

This method results in the largest payment. The amount is fixed annually.

c) Annuitization:

This methodology is similar to how pensions or annuities are calculated. The payments are usually an amount somewhere in between the RMD method and the Amortization method. They are fixed as determined at the outset of the 72(t).

This calculation is the most complex and is done with your account balance, an annuity factor, a mortality table, and an interest rate (not more than 120% of the federal mid-term rate or 5% per the change above).

2. Rule of 55

This penalty-free way of withdrawing savings only applies to current 401(k) and 403(b) accounts.

You can withdraw funds from your current job’s retirement savings plan without penalty if you leave that job in the calendar year when you turn 55 and anytime after. (Some qualified public safety workers — police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and Air Traffic Controllers — can start even earlier, at age 50).

A few notes:

  • You can only make penalty-free withdrawals from the employer you are leaving. This is not available for 401(k)s you have from previous employers (though it may be possible to roll over your funds from previous employers to the employer you are leaving).
  • The employer must allow the early withdrawal.
  • You are eligible for the rule of 55 withdrawals no matter if you were fired or voluntarily left the company.
  • Sometimes employers only allow one lump-sum withdrawal which may be costly due to taxes due on the distribution.
  • Be careful of your tax brackets. Be aware if your withdrawal will move you into higher tax brackets and rethink the distribution if that will be the case.
  • You can withdraw from the account even if you later get another job.

3. Roth Withdrawals of Contributions (Including Roth Conversions)

There are two main kinds of retirement accounts: traditional and Roth. 

  • With a traditional 401(k) or IRA, your contributions are PRE-tax, taking a deduction on the amount contributed. Earnings grow tax-deferred. However, you are subject to taxation on withdrawal, regardless if it was contributed or appreciated dollars.
  • When you contribute to a Roth account, you put in AFTER-tax dollars. This means you must pay taxes on the money you’d like to contribute (i.e. you cannot deduct contributions). The good news? Earnings are tax-free and all qualified withdrawals are tax-free. You may be subject to taxation on earnings if you withdraw before age 59.5 and don’t meet certain criteria.
  • Many people convert funds from a regular to a Roth account in order to minimize taxes on future gains. Learn more about Roth conversions.

In addition to tax-free gains, another advantage of Roth accounts is that you are free to make penalty-free withdrawals on the amount of funds you contributed to a Roth IRA at any time (including monies converted from a traditional account to a Roth account) — so long as the money has been held in the account for five years. This is because you’ve already paid Uncle Sam his cut before the money entered the account.

If you are planning an early retirement, it may behoove you to plan early (at least five years early) and convert funds that can be withdrawn.

You can model these conversions in the NewRetirement Planner.

4. Fund Medical or Disability Expenses

There are a couple of instances when you can take penalty-free withdrawals from your retirement accounts before age 59.5 for medical costs.

Medical Expenses: There will not be an early withdrawal penalty if you use your money to pay unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

Health Insurance: If you are unemployed for at least 12 weeks, you may make penalty-free withdrawals to fund health insurance premiums for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents.

Disability: If you are disabled, you can withdraw IRA funds without penalty. 

5. Fund Higher Education

A 2020 Sallie Mae and Ipsos survey found that 14% of parents withdrew from their retirement savings, including a 401(k), Roth IRA, or other IRA, to pay for college — up from just 6% in 2015.

You can make penalty-free withdrawals to fund qualified college expenses (tuition, fees, books, supplies, and other equipment required for enrollment or attendance) for yourself, your spouse, and your child or grandchild.

The student must be enrolled in a qualifying institution.

Learn more about the tradeoffs of funding education vs. retirement.

Downsides to Penalty-Free Early Withdrawals

Just because you can avoid the early withdrawal 10% penalty, doesn’t mean that you should tap your retirement savings.

There are four major — very major — potential downsides:

1. No Penalty, but You Do Need to Pay Taxes When Applicable

When you make a penalty-free withdrawal, you are avoiding the 10% penalty, but you still must pay any applicable taxes. Accounting for the tax burden is an important aspect of making a decision to take an early withdrawal.

2. The Money Is Spent, It Is Not Growing

If you take money from your retirement account, it is no longer growing and you are not benefiting from compounding returns.

You want to think about the money you are spending, but also the potential growth on the money that you are losing.

3. You Increase Your Risk of Running Out of Money in Retirement

If you retire in your 60s, retirement will likely last a long time — 20–30 years. If you retire in your 50s or before, it obviously lasts a lot longer.

Before tapping your retirement savings early, you will want to make sure that your assets will last as long as you do. The best way to do that is to create a highly detailed retirement plan. How long your money lasts can involve hundreds of different inputs involving your future income, expenses, rate of return on savings, and much more. Use the NewRetirement Planner to find out if you will run out of money with or without penalty-free early withdrawals.

4. The Withdrawals Are Complicated and You Don’t Want to Get Them Wrong

For the withdrawals to be penalty-free, you need to follow all of the rules set forth by the IRS. And, as we all know, those rules can be complicated.

You may want to involve a fiduciary financial planner when making penalty-free withdrawals.

NewRetirement offers fiduciary advice from an independent fee-only Certified Financial Planner. Consultations are by phone or video call and, by using the NewRetirement Planner, the process is collaborative, cost-effective, and efficient.

Share this Post


About Us

Our mission is to bring retirement news, financial information, and advice to seniors enjoying their golden years.