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Sometimes an emergency expense comes up and you need access to your IRA account before retirement. But when you take money out of your IRA before age 59½, you usually have to pay income tax and a 10 per cent early withdrawal penalty on the amount withdrawn.
While you generally can’t evade income tax on traditional IRA withdrawals, you can avoid the early withdrawal penalty if the money taken out of your IRA is for an Uncle Sam-sanctioned reason.
Here are 10 ways to avoid the 10 per cent penalty on early IRA withdrawals.
Large medical bills. You won’t have to pay the early withdrawal penalty if you use the distribution to pay for unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5 per cent of your adjusted gross income. “You have to keep track of receipts for all your medical expenses to make sure that you qualify for the exemption,” says Bruce Hosler, a certified financial planner and founder of Hosler Wealth Management in Prescott, Ariz.
Health insurance. If you lose your job and collect federal or state unemployment compensation for at least 12 consecutive weeks, you can use IRA withdrawals to pay for medical insurance for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents without penalty. To qualify for the exemption, the distribution must be taken during the year you received the unemployment compensation or the following year, and no later than 60 days after you have been reemployed.
College costs. Withdrawals used to pay for higher education expenses for you, your spouse, and the children or grandchildren of you or your spouse are not subject to the 10 per cent tax. Qualifying higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for college attendance. Room and board costs also qualify if the individual is at least a half-time student. However, IRA withdrawals still count as income and could impact your child’s eligibility for financial aid.
A first home. You do not have to pay the 10 per cent tax on IRA withdrawals of up to $10,000 that are used to buy, build, or rebuild a first home. And if both you and your spouse are first-time homebuyers, the limit doubles to $20,000. To qualify, the distribution must be spent on acquisition costs for a house for you, your spouse, or either of your children, grandchildren, parents, or other ancestor within 120 days of the distribution. But you can’t use your IRA to help each of these people buy a first home. “There’s a lifetime cap of $10,000 for each IRA owner,” says Linda Gardner, a certified public accountant and co-owner of Blue Heron Capital in Englewood, Colo. You are considered a first-time homebuyer if you had no interest in a main home during the two-year period before the new home was acquired. If your new home purchase falls through or becomes delayed, you must put the money back in your IRA within 120 days of the distribution to avoid the tax.
Annuity payments. You can receive early distributions from your traditional IRA without incurring the 10 per cent tax if they are part of a series of substantially equal payments over your life expectancy or the joint life expectancies of you and a beneficiary. You must use an IRS-approved distribution method and take at least one distribution annually for this exception to apply. “You have to make sure that somebody calculates the right amount and that you take that exact amount every year,” says Hosler. “If someone takes more or less, then all those previous withdrawals all become subject to the 10 per cent penalty.” However, you don’t need to set up annuity payments based on your entire account balance. “You may want to consider splitting the account and only taking payments out of one of them,” says Gardner.
Disability. Retirement savers who become disabled before age 59½ may take penalty-free distributions from a traditional IRA. However, you may be required to furnish proof from a physician that your permanent physical or mental condition prohibits you from doing any substantial gainful activity.
Military service. Members of the military ‘s reserves can take distributions if they were ordered or called to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, for a period of more than 179 days or for an indefinite period. The distribution must be made during the active duty period to avoid the penalty. Qualifying reservists include the army, naval, marine corps, air force, and coast guard reserves.
An inherited IRA. If you are the beneficiary of a deceased IRA owner, you don’t need to pay a penalty on withdrawals before age 59½. “If you lose a spouse and you are under 59½, you definitely do not want to roll that IRA into your own name,” says Hosler. “If you take over an inherited IRA, then you can pull any amount out and it is not subject to the penalty.”
Natural disasters. Legislation is occasionally passed that allows for special retirement account distributions when a hurricane or other natural disaster is especially devastating. For example, the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005 allowed individuals who suffered an economic loss as a result of that hurricane in four states to avoid the 10 per cent tax on early distributions and pay the income tax due on the withdrawal over a three-year period.
Convert to a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs make it easier to access your money before you reach retirement. Roth IRA withdrawals before age 59½ result in a 10 per cent early withdrawal penalty only on the portion of the withdrawal that comes from earnings. And since your contributions were made with after-tax dollars, no additional income tax will be due. But you need to deposit or convert your retirement savings to a Roth IRA well in advance of when you will need it in order to avoid the penalty. “Before you take money out of your Roth IRA, you have to wait five years in order to be exempt from the penalty,” says Ross Hunt, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Ross and Mary Hunt, Inc. in Murrieta, Calif. A separate five-year waiting period applies to each Roth IRA conversion and rollover.
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