9 Penalty-Free IRA Withdrawals

The IRS has exceptions to its 10% early withdrawal penalty

The contributions that you make to your individual retirement account (IRA) are intended to supplement your income during your retirement years. However, as much as you would like to let your IRAs remain untouched until retirement, unforeseen expenses may force you to withdraw some of those assets early. Traditional and Roth IRA distributions can trigger a 10% penalty if you take them too soon, but there are early withdrawal exceptions that let you skip the fine.

Key Takeaways

  • You can withdraw Roth individual retirement account (IRA) contributions at any time.
  • If you withdraw Roth IRA earnings before age 59½, a 10% penalty usually applies.
  • Withdrawals before age 59½ from a traditional IRA trigger a 10% penalty tax whether you withdraw contributions or earnings.
  • In certain Internal Revenue Service (IRS)-approved situations, you may take early withdrawals from an IRA with no penalty.

IRA Withdrawals During Retirement

Traditional IRA

If you’re looking for a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement, a traditional IRA may fit the bill. Traditional IRAs provide an up-front tax break. You can deduct your contributions in the year when you make them, as long as you meet income guidelines. However, you’ll pay income taxes on withdrawals at your then-current tax rate during retirement.

Roth IRA

With a Roth IRAcontributions are made with after-tax dollars. That means you won’t get any tax savings when you add money to your account. But withdrawals after age 59½ are 100% tax free and penalty free, provided it has been at least five years since you first contributed to a Roth. As an added bonus, you can withdraw your contributions (but not the earnings on those contributions) whenever you like, without tax or penalty.

What Are Penalty-Free IRA Withdrawals?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) imposes a 10% penalty on early IRA withdrawals to encourage you to keep your retirement savings intact. However, you may be able to avoid the penalty in certain situations. Here are nine instances in which you can take an early withdrawal from a traditional or Roth IRA without being penalized. (Note that you can withdraw your contributions to a Roth IRA without penalty at any time, but not your contributions to a traditional IRA.)

1. Unreimbursed Medical Expenses

If you don’t have health insurance or you have out-of-pocket medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance, you may be able to take penalty-free distributions from your IRA to cover these expenses.

To qualify, you must pay the medical expenses during the same calendar year when you make the withdrawal. Also, your unreimbursed medical expenses must exceed 10% of your 2021 adjusted gross income (AGI).

For example, if your AGI is $100,000 and your unreimbursed medical expenses are $15,000, then the most that you can distribute penalty free is $5,000—the difference between $15,000 and 10% of your AGI ($10,000).

2. Health Insurance Premiums While Unemployed

If you’re unemployed, you may take penalty-free distributions from your IRA to pay for health insurance premiums. For the distribution to be eligible for the penalty-free treatment, you must meet certain conditions:

  • You lost your job.
  • You received unemployment compensation for 12 consecutive weeks.
  • You took the distributions during either the year when you received the unemployment compensation or the next year.
  • You received the distributions no later than 60 days after going back to work.

3. A Permanent Disability

If you become permanently disabled and can no longer work, the IRS lets you withdraw money from your IRA without paying the 10% penalty. You can use the distribution for any purpose. Just be aware that your plan administrator may require you to provide proof of the disability before signing off on a penalty-free withdrawal.

4. Higher Education Expenses

A college degree is pricey these days. If you’re footing the bill for education expenses, then your IRA may be a valuable source of funding. It’s possible to avoid the 10% penalty when you use IRA assets to pay for qualified higher education expenses for you, your spouse, or your child.

Qualified higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment. Room and board are also covered for students who are enrolled at least half-time. Moreover, the IRS has specific rules about tax benefits and calculating how much is not subject to the 10% penalty.

Be sure to consult with a trusted tax professional to determine whether your expenses qualify. Also, check with the school to make sure it satisfies the requirements to be part of the program.

5. You Inherit an IRA

If you’re the beneficiary of an IRA, your withdrawals aren’t subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

The exception doesn’t apply if you’re the spouse of the original account holder, you’re the sole beneficiary, and you elect a spousal transfer (by which you roll over the funds into your own non-inherited IRA). In this case, the IRA is treated as if it were yours to begin with. That means the 10% early withdrawal penalties still apply.

Your IRA provider should report the amount that you withdraw as a death distribution by including code “4” in box seven of IRS Form 1099-R, the form used to report the distribution. Check with your IRA custodian/trustee regarding what documentation you’ll need to process your transaction.

6. To Buy, Build, or Rebuild a Home

You can withdraw up to $10,000 (that’s a lifetime limit) from your IRA, without penalty, to buy, build, or rebuild a home. To qualify, you must be a “first-time” homebuyer—in this case, meaning you haven’t owned a home in the previous two years. However, you could have been a homeowner in the past and still qualify as a first-time homebuyer today.

If you’re married, your spouse can kick in an extra $10,000 from their IRA. Also, you can use the money to help out a child, grandchild, or parent, provided that they meet the first-time homebuyer definition.

7. Substantially Equal Periodic Payments

If you need to make regular withdrawals from your IRA for a few years, the IRS allows you to do so penalty free if you meet certain requirements.

Basically, you withdraw the same amount—determined under one of three IRS pre-approved methods—each year for five years or until you turn age 59½, whichever comes later. This is referred to as taking substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs) from your IRA.

8. To Fulfill an IRS Levy

If you have unpaid federal taxes, the IRS can draw on your IRA to pay the bill. The 10% penalty won’t apply if the IRS levies the money directly. However, you can’t withdraw the money to pay the taxes to avoid the levy. In this case, the exception wouldn’t apply, and you would be on the hook for the 10% penalty.

9. Called to Active Duty

Qualified reservist distributions are not subject to the 10% penalty. In general, these distributions are made to a military reservist or National Guard member who is called to active duty for at least 179 days after Sept. 11, 2001.

In some cases, you may be able to repay the distributions, even if the repayment contributions exceed annual contribution limits. However, you must do so within two years of the end of active duty.

Can I Use Individual Retirement Account (IRA) Money to Adopt a Child?

Yes. A legal adoption or the birth of a child is considered an exemption, too. You can use funds from your individual retirement account (IRA) penalty free for an adoption. If you adopt (or give birth to) a child, you can withdraw funds from your IRA if it’s within the first year after the date when the adoption was finalized (or the baby’s birth date). The maximum amount that you can withdraw is $5,000 per adoption or birth.

Will I Pay a Penalty if I’m Over Age 59½ and I Take Money Out of a Roth IRA?

You won’t have to pay a penalty on withdrawals of either contributions or earnings from a Roth IRA provided that the account has been open for at least five tax years. A tax year begins on Jan. 1 of the tax year when the first contribution was made. For example, a Roth IRA contribution for 2021 can be made up to April 15, 2022, but it counts as if it were made on Jan. 1, 2021. In this case, you could begin withdrawing funds without penalty on Jan. 1, 2026—not April 15, 2027.

How Much Can I Contribute to an IRA at Age 55?

In 2022, the contribution limit for someone over age 50 is $7,000: a regular contribution of $6,000 plus a catch-up contribution of $1,000. To contribute the full amount to a Roth IRA, your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must be under $129,000 if you are a single filer or less than $204,000 if you are married filing jointly. As your income rises, the amount that you can contribute is reduced and eventually phased out.

If I Got COVID-19 and Had to Take Money Out of My IRA, How Much Time Do I Have to Pay It Back?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act made it easier for those hit hard by coronavirus to take distributions from qualified retirement accounts. In 2020, Americans who experienced “adverse financial consequences” due to the pandemic were allowed to withdraw up to $100,000 without having to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Anyone who took a coronavirus-related distribution can repay all or part of it to an eligible retirement plan, provided that they complete the repayment within three years after the date when they received the distribution. Also, the distribution will be treated in such a way that no federal income tax will be owed on it.

The Bottom Line

Even though the cases cited above are exempt from the early distribution penalty, they still may be subject to federal and state tax. A trusted tax professional can determine what taxes you might owe and help you to fill out the appropriate forms.

You may find that there are other ways to access funds besides taking money from an IRA, such as taking out a personal loan.

Finally, to claim the early distribution penalty exception, you may be required to file IRS Form 5329 along with your income tax return, unless your IRA custodian reports the amount as exempt on IRS Form 1099-R.

Article Sources
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