Finances in Retirement - Investments

Early Retirement Withdrawals: Tax Penalties & Exceptions

by Retirement Tips

Mar 28, 2024

Although withdrawing money from retirement savings before retirement age can result in hefty tax implications, sometimes it’s necessary to take an early distribution. 

A survey released in January 2019 reported that people take early distributions from their retirement savings to reduce debt. Nearly 44% of the 2,000 surveyed said they tapped into their retirement accounts early to pay down (or pay off) debt. 

This isn’t surprising since Americans reached historic levels of revolving debt in 2017. Following a record paydown of $82.9 billion in 2020, Americans added $87.3 billion in new credit card debt in 2021, according to WalletHub. However, even if you have a significant amount of credit card debt, taking an early distribution may not make sense.

What are the Penalties for an Early Distribution from an IRA or 401(k)?

Not only will you be on the hook for taxes if you withdraw money from your 401(k) or traditional IRA before you retire, but you’ll also pay a 10% penalty for taking a premature distribution—that is, withdrawing money before attaining age 59 ½.  

Premature distributions from a Roth IRA incur the early withdrawal penalty only if earnings (not principal contributions) are withdrawn before age 59 ½. 

For SIMPLE IRAs, the early withdrawal penalty is 25% within the first two years of opening the account. After that, the penalty drops to the standard 10%. 

Are There Exceptions to These Early Distribution Penalties?

The IRS does recognize certain financial hardships – with proper documentation, of course.  

For IRAs, the early withdrawal penalty may be waived for the following reasons: 

  • First-home purchase, up to a $10,000 gross distribution 
  • Unreimbursed medical expenses (more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income) for you, your spouse, or your dependents 
  • College tuition expenses for you, your spouse, your children, or grandchildren 
  • Permanent disability 
  • Death—your beneficiaries will not have to pay the early withdrawal penalty upon cashing out, even if they are under age 59 ½  
  • Paying back taxes via a forced IRA withdrawal after a levy has been put on the IRA 
  • Medical insurance premium payments if you’ve been unemployed for longer than 12 weeks  

The plan document governs exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty for 401 (k) plans. If you need to take an early distribution, contact your employer or refer to your plan’s Summary Plan Description for more information. 

Should You Ever Take an Early Distribution With a Penalty?

The early withdrawal penalty discourages people from tapping into money intended for retirement. Your 401(k) or IRA is not a bank account, and taking a premature distribution should be viewed as an absolute last resort. (But sometimes, it’s unavoidable.) 

Additionally, if you’re under age 59 ½ and still working, your employer may require you to take a 401(k) loan before you can take a distribution. 

Because the penalty for an early distribution is so significant, you shouldn’t take one without professional advice. You may be able to avoid the penalty or find a better approach for solving the challenge you want the early distribution to solve. 

To get in touch, you can find an advisor in your area or fill out this form to request a no-cost, no-obligation advisor conversation. 

Request a no-cost, no-obligation advisor consultation today!

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Retirement Tips

Retirement Tips is an educational blog dedicated to helping workers and retirees become more knowledgeable about retirement and financial planning.

We want to help readers learn more about their retirement investing options, programs like Medicare and Social Security, and difficult-but-important topics like long-term care and estate planning.

Our goal is to help you make more informed decisions when it comes to your retirement and to make it easier for you to connect with an advisor in your area should you need professional financial advice.

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