If you’re not sure about when to retire, you’re not alone. Uncle Sam seems to be just as confused. Consider the fact that normal retirement age according to Social Security Administration ranges from age 65 to 67. The younger you are, the longer it’ll take to get there.
But you don’t have to wait until the “normal” retirement age to stop fighting rush-hour traffic. You can quit work and start to collect Social Security retirement benefits at age 62. But if you start then, or any time before the normal age, your monthly checks will be smaller.
Many people want to retire before age 62—even as early as age 55. If you’re among them, more than likely you’ll need to tap a retirement account such as your IRA or 401(k) to cover your living expenses.
The catch? “If you draw down your retirement account before age 59-1/2, you may owe a 10% penalty,” says Mark Cortazzo, senior partner at MACRO Consulting Group, a financial planning firm in Parsippany, New Jersey. Say you pull $20,000 from your IRA when you’re 57. Not only will you owe income tax on that $20,000, you’ll owe a $2,000 surtax (10% of $20,000) as well.
There isn’t anything you can do about paying income tax if the money in your IRA or 401(k) has never been taxed. But there are a couple of ways to dodge the 10% penalty.
1. Stay on the job until age 55. “The tax code provides penalty-free access to the money in your company’s retirement plan as early as the year you reach age 55 in case of ‘separation from service’ that year or later,” says Natalie Choate, an attorney with Nutter McClennen & Fish in Boston. Therefore, if you
retire at age 55 or later and leave your money in your former employer’s 401(k) plan, you can take withdrawals and escape the 10% surtax.
2. Take “substantially equal periodic payments.” The age-55 exception won’t help everybody. Your company may not allow former employees to stay in its 401(k) and take withdrawals. Even if it does, you may not want to keep your money there, limited as it would be to the plan’s investment choices.
What’s more, this exception applies only to money at the company you left at or after age 55. “Money you might have in IRAs or other company plans won’t qualify,” says Choate, author of Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits (Ataxplan Publications; $89.95). Perhaps most important, this exception won’t help if you want to retire before age 55.
At any age, as long as you’re retired, you can avoid the 10% surtax on any or all of your retirement accounts with a “series of substantially equal periodic payments,” according to Choate, or what she calls SOSEPP. In essence, you take an annuity based on your life expectancy. If you start the withdrawals at age 48, for example, you would use your official 36-year life expectancy to calculate how much you