Exceptions to IRA and 401(k) Early Withdrawal Penalties

Find Out Who Qualifies to Take Penalty-Free 401k or IRA Withdrawals

Blocks spelling 401K stacked on the financial section of a newspaper.
••• YinYang / E+ / Getty Images

If you have an individual retirement account (IRA), 401(k) plan or another qualified retirement plan, you probably know about the penalties that occur if you withdraw your funds (also known as taking early distributions) before you reach age 59 1/2. Take the money out early and you will pay a 10% fee plus all applicable federal, state, and local income taxes. The IRS does this to discourage people from using retirement savings on anything but retirement, but there are some cases in which the 10% penalty is waived for individuals or couples who qualify.

IRA Early Withdrawal Penalty Exemptions and Qualifications

Death: If you pass away before retirement age, the distributions to your beneficiaries from your retirement account are not subject to the 10% penalty fee.

Permanent disability: If you become disabled and cannot work, you can access your IRA distributions early without paying a 10% penalty. You will need proof from a doctor confirming that you are physically or mentally unable to hold gainful employment.

Excessive medical expenses: If you are paying more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income for medical expenses, you may be able to access your IRA without penalty. Just remember to save your receipts. Similarly, if you lose your job and are on unemployment without health insurance for more than 12 consecutive weeks, you can use distributions to pay for health insurance without penalty.

Education funding: If you use your withdrawals to pay for the education costs (including room, board, books, etc.) for you, a spouse, children or grandchildren, the distributions are not subject to the 10% penalty.

Buying a first home: You can use up to $10,000 from an IRA per person without penalty to buy your first home. You must spend the money within the first 120 days of the plan distribution or else you have to put the money back into your plan to avoid penalty.

Annuity payments: You can opt to have an annuity to pay a series of distributions over time. It's complicated, and you have to get it just right to qualify for the exemption. So talk to a plan administrator or tax accountant before you choose this option.

IRS levies: Funnily enough, if you owe the IRS back taxes, you can access penalty-free IRA funds to pay them. Hey, at least it's an option.

Military reservist distributions: Individuals called to military duty for more than 120 days after September 11, 2001, get a special exemption from IRA early withdrawal penalties.

Rollover: Of course, if you roll over an IRA or 401(k) into another qualified retirement plan, it's not a taxable event and there is no additional penalty either. But you have to make a contribution to a rollover IRA within 60 days of receiving a distribution.

Some Additional Exemptions

Leaving a job at age 55 or older: Distributions from your employer if you leave a job if it occurs in or after the year you turn 55. If you are a public safety worker in state or local government, this occurs during or after the year you turn age 50.

Divorce: Distributions made with a QDRO or Qualified Domestic Relations Order, which is used to separate retirement assets in a divorce.

ESOPs: Distributions of dividends in Employee Stock Ownership Plans.

Action Steps 

Get professional advice. If you are considering an IRA withdrawal in any of the above circumstances, contact a plan administrator or seek professional advice from a financial planner or tax advisor before making any moves. You want to follow all applicable regulations to avoid the 10% penalty.

Evaluate other financial resources. If you do not qualify for any of the above-mentioned exceptions to withdrawal penalties you should look for other sources for your financial cases. You can also evaluate whether liquidating savings or using credit is a better decision that may end up being less costly than a retirement account distribution. 

Consider withholding taxes from the withdrawal. Avoid taking any chances of getting hit with an underpayment penalty or having to make extra tax payments when you file your taxes. 

The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current tax or legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.