Early Withdrawl

Dip into your 401(k) funds penalty-free

Richard Peace recalls the time one of his clients was just fed up with her job. “It happened last year,” says Peace, a certified financial planner in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “She was unhappy at work, she was having some health problems and she wanted to spend some time with her young grandchildren. So, she quit her job.”

At this point, the grand-mother, age 51, needed money for living expenses. “The only asset she could use was her IRA, in which she had accumulated about $75,000. I worked with her and determined she could get by if she pulled out $600 per month, more than $7,000 per year,” recalls Peace. “This would leave the rest of her IRA to keep growing.”

One of the great temptations that can wreck your retirement is pulling money prematurely from your individual retirement account, 401(k) or 403(b) plan. You know the money is being set aside tax-free to finance your retirement, but the desire to withdraw the funds can be substantial, especially if you’re strapped for cash. But the price for pulling money out before you reach age 591/2 is pretty high: a 10% penalty and income taxes levied on that money to boot. Peace’s client, who withdrew $7,000, might have had to pay a $700 penalty.

“Fortunately, there are several exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty, and my client was able to use one of them,” says Peace. Normally, he doesn’t recommend clients take money out of their retirement plan before 591/2, “but, if you absolutely have to, try to qualify for one of these exceptions and avoid
the penalty.”
Whether you are in an IRA, 401(k) plan or the nonprofit equivalent, a 403(b) plan, you can pull money out of your retirement coffers under certain dire circumstances: high medical expenses or disability (see table for additional information). These exceptions are explained in Section 72(t) of the Internal Revenue Code. In addition, if someone dies and names you as the beneficiary of a retirement plan, you can withdraw the funds and avoid the 10% penalty, no matter what your age.

PAYMENTS WITHOUT PENALTY
Peace’s client bypassed the penalty by taking what are called “substantially equal periodic payments” from her IRA under section 72(t) of the Internal Revenue Code, and it may be the one method most people can benefit from.

In general, 72(t) payments are based on your life expectancy. Once you start receiving funds using this method, they must continue for at least five years, or until you reach 591/2, whichever comes later. All IRA owners can use the 72(t) election at any time, while participants in other plans can use the calculation after retirement or changing jobs. The application of 72(t) rules can vary, depending on your circumstances, producing different distribution amounts.

“There are three methods permitted by the IRS,” says Peter Brennan, divisional vice president with Oppenheimer- Funds in New York City. “You can choose among life expectancy, amortization or annuitization.”By basing your periodic payments on life expectancy, you withdraw money based on tables established by the IRS.

If your

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