taxes

When it's OK to tap your IRA

If, however, you opened your Roth IRA less than five years ago, the withdrawal is an early distribution. As with a traditional IRA early withdrawal, a Roth holder can use the first-home exception to avoid the 10 percent penalty but might owe tax on earnings that are withdrawn.

You can reduce the tax bite by first withdrawing the already-taxed contributions you made to your Roth. In fact, the IRS has specific rules about the order in which you can take unqualified Roth distributions: contributions, conversions from traditional IRAs and earnings. Check Chapter 2 of IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements for details.

Military exceptions

Members of the military reserves also can receive early IRA distributions without penalty. To qualify, the following conditions must be met.

Conditions
  • You were ordered or called to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001.
  • You were ordered or called to active duty for a period of more than 179 days or for an indefinite period because you are a member of a reserve unit.
  • The distribution is from an IRA or from an elective-deferral plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan or a similar arrangement.

In addition, the early distribution cannot be taken before you received your orders or call to active duty or after your active duty period ends.

Personnel eligible for this early withdrawal exception include members of the Army or Air National Guards; the Army, Naval, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard Reserves; and the Reserve Corps of the Public Health Service.

Allowable, but not preferable, distributions

Early IRA withdrawals also are penalty-free in a few other instances. Unfortunately, most of these are hardship situations that no taxpayer wants to face.

Hardship circumstances for penalty-free withdrawals
  • Payment of excessive unreimbursed medical expenses.
  • Payment of medical insurance premiums while unemployed.
  • Total and permanent disability.
  • Distribution of account assets to a beneficiary after you die.

You also can get IRS-approved early access to your nest egg if you take IRA money on a specific schedule. Known as substantially equal periodic payments, this method allows you to begin withdrawing from your IRA early as long as the amounts are determined by an IRS-calculated life expectancy table.

Finally, keep in mind that the early withdrawal exceptions do not eliminate your tax bill if you take the money out of a traditional IRA. Unlike Roth accounts where you eventually can withdraw your money tax-free, taxes are merely deferred on traditional IRAs. So when you take the money out of such an account, regardless of your age or the purpose of the withdrawal, you'll owe your regular tax rate on the amount.

But the early withdrawal exceptions do protect you from paying the IRS more in penalty charges. To let the IRS know that you used the retirement money early for a tax-acceptable purpose, file Form 5329. When you report your withdrawal here, you'll also enter a code, found in the form's instructions, that lets the IRS know the distribution is penalty-free.

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