Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are tax-advantaged savings vehicles designed to help Americans save money for retirement. While there are tax benefits associated with IRAs, withdrawing money before age 59 ½ can trigger income taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty. However, the IRS makes several exceptions to this rule. If you need to withdraw money from your IRA and you haven’t yet reached age 59 ½, you’ll need to meet one of several conditions, like buying your first home, suffering a permanent disability or needing the money to pay for education expenses.

IRA Withdrawal Rules

Understanding the rules for withdrawing from an individual retirement account (IRA) is important for your retirement planning. But there are distinct rules that will apply depending on whether an IRA is a traditional account or Roth account.

Traditional IRA Withdrawal Rules

Traditional IRAs are accounts funded with pre-tax contributions. In return for a tax deduction in the year in which a contribution is made, you’ll pay income taxes on the money when you withdraw it later on. However, taking distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 ½ will mean paying income taxes on the money, as well as the 10% penalty.

Another critical age associated with traditional IRAs is 73 – when required minimum distributions (RMDs) take effect. RMDs are mandatory withdrawals that must be taken from pre-tax accounts like traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. Failing to take your correct RMD may trigger a 25% excise tax on the amount that isn’t withdrawn. This penalty will drop to 10% if the RMD is corrected within two years of the error.

Roth IRA Withdrawal Rules

While a traditional IRA is considered a pre-tax account, a Roth IRA is the opposite. These retirement accounts are funded with earned income that’s already been taxed. Since income taxes have already been paid, the money can then grow tax-free within the account for as long as you want because Roth IRAs aren’t subject to RMD rules.

Roth IRA withdrawals also follow different rules. You withdraw the money you contribute to a Roth IRA at any time without having to pay the 10% penalty. However, you’ll have to wait until age 59 ½ to take out any investment earnings that your contributions generate. Withdrawing earnings before age 59 ½ can trigger the early withdrawal penalty.

Meanwhile, Roth IRAs are subject to what’s called the five-year rule: You must wait five tax years from your first contribution before earnings can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free. This rule starts with the tax year of your initial Roth IRA contribution and affects the tax status of earnings withdrawals, emphasizing the need for strategic planning.

Exceptions to the IRA Early Withdrawal Penalty

Buying your first home is among the reasons you're allowed to make early withdrawals from your IRA.

Despite these stringent withdrawal rules, there is a broad array of exceptions to the IRA early withdrawal penalty. These exceptions encompass a diverse range of circumstances, including higher education expenses, unreimbursed medical expenses, disability and first-time home purchases, among others.

Permanent Disability

A person who has a “total and permanent disability” can make penalty-free early withdrawals from their IRA. The disability – which can be physical or mental – must be of a long-term or indefinite nature or expected to culminate in death. For someone to qualify as disabled, the IRS specifies that the individual must be unable to perform any substantial gainful activity. Conditions such as blindness or a debilitating chronic disease are examples that often meet the criteria.

Education

If you’re withdrawing funds from your IRA to pay for qualified higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, children, or grandchildren, you can avoid the early withdrawal penalty. Expenses that qualify for this exception include tuition, fees, books and necessary equipment for the enrollee, whether it’s the IRA holder, their spouse or dependents, at an eligible educational institution. An eligible educational institution is generally any college, university, vocational school or other post-secondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the Department of Education.

Emergency Personal Expense

The IRS allows you to take one penalty-free distribution from your IRA each calendar year to pay for a personal or family emergency. You may withdraw either up to $1,000 or the “vested account balance over $1,000,” provided the contributions were made after Dec. 31, 2023 – whichever is less.

Birth or Adoption

Individuals may withdraw up to $5,000 from their IRA to cover qualified expenses related to the birth or adoption of a child without facing the usual penalty. Qualified expenses may include medical costs, adoption agency fees, legal fees and other expenses directly related to the birth or adoption process.

Buying Your First Home

Purchasing a first home is a life-altering event that may warrant the use of IRA funds. The IRS offers a boon to first-time homebuyers through a penalty-free withdrawal from an IRA of up to $10,000 for qualified acquisition costs, which include buying, building or rebuilding a home, as well as any usual or reasonable settlement, financing or other closing costs. Remember, this is a lifetime limit, and the funds must be used within 120 days of withdrawal.

Medical Expenses

Unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year can lead to a penalty-free withdrawal from an IRA. For example, if your AGI is $100,000, only medical expenses exceeding $7,500 could be considered.

IRS Levy

An early withdrawal due to an IRS levy is exempt from the 10% penalty, as these funds are used to satisfy the tax debt. The process involves the IRS providing written notice of the impending levy and then, if the debt is not resolved, seizing assets including IRA funds.

Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP)

The establishment of substantially equal periodic payments (SEPP) allows individuals to withdraw funds from their IRA without penalty by setting up a series of substantially equal payments based on their life expectancy or the joint life expectancies of themselves and their designated beneficiary.

Unemployed Health Insurance

Individuals who are receiving unemployment benefits and use IRA funds to pay for health insurance premiums also may be exempt from the early withdrawal penalty. However, the person must be unemployed for 12 weeks and receive their benefits in the same year the early withdrawal is taken.

Disaster Recovery

Victims of federally declared disasters may access up to $22,000 in IRA funds without penalties to aid in disaster recovery efforts. This exception aims to provide financial relief to those affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, or floods.

Death

Beneficiaries of an IRA are exempt from the 10% early withdrawal penalty, with spouses having the option to transfer the funds into their own IRA, while non-spouse beneficiaries must follow specific IRS distribution rules based on the decedent’s age and the beneficiary’s relationship to the decedent.

Returned IRA Contributions

If you’ve contributed more to your IRA than allowed, the excess contributions can be withdrawn without penalty by the tax filing deadline (including extensions) of the following year, as long as the tax return has not been filed. However, this exception does not apply to the earnings of excess contirbutions.

Military Reservists

Members of the military reserve who are called to active duty for at least 180 days may be eligible to withdraw funds from their IRA penalty-free. This provision honors the service and sacrifices of military personnel and their families, providing access to funds when needed most. However, reservists who take advantage of this exception may not make new contributions to their plan for at least six months following the early withdrawal.

Can I Make an Early Withdrawal After Losing My Job?

An employee leaves her office after being laid off from her company.

If you’re transitioning between jobs, you may be wondering whether you can withdraw from your IRA without penalty. The IRS does not classify job separation as an exception to the early withdrawal penalty rules for IRAs. Therefore, if you choose to make a withdrawal, you should weigh the potential costs against your immediate financial needs before proceeding with an early withdrawal from your IRA.

Making this financial move requires a clear understanding of both the immediate and long-term consequences that could arise from tapping into your retirement savings prematurely. In the long term, early withdrawals can significantly impact the growth of your retirement savings due to the loss of compounding interest.

Bottom Line

While IRAs are designed to secure financial stability in retirement, understanding the various exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty is critical for managing unforeseen financial needs without undermining your long-term savings. Whether it’s due to disability, education expenses, a first home purchase, or any of the other specific exceptions outlined by the IRS, knowing these regulations can help you make informed decisions that can protect your nest egg.

Retirement Planning Tips

  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are mandatory withdrawals you must take from tax-deferred accounts, starting at age 73. These distributions will raise your taxable income for the year, increase your tax liability and potentially propel you into a higher tax bracket. That’s why it’s important to plan for them. Luckily, SmartAsset has a tool designed to help you calculate how much your RMDs could be.
  • Don’t forget to account for Social Security benefits as you plan for retirement. SmartAsset’s Social Security calculator can help you estimate how much you may be eligible to receive based on your earnings and age at which you plan to claim your benefit.
  • A financial advisor can help you invest your retirement savings and even manage your IRA for you. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Moyo Studio, ©iStock.com/Jacob Wackerhausen, ©iStock.com/andresr

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