What Is Premature Distribution?

A premature distribution (also known as an early withdrawal) is any distribution taken from an individual retirement account (IRA), 401(k) investment account, tax-deferred annuity, or another qualified retirement-savings plan that is paid to a beneficiary who is younger than 59.5 years old. Premature distributions are subject to a 10% early-withdrawal penalty by the IRS as a means of discouraging savers from spending their retirement assets prematurely.

Key Takeaways

  • Premature distributions are early withdrawals from qualified retirement accounts such as IRAs or 401(k) plans.
  • IRS rules stipulate that withdrawals made from these accounts prior to age 59 1/2 are subject to a 10% penalty in addition to any deferred taxes due.
  • The IRS does allow certain exceptions for hardship or qualified uses such as buying a first home to withdraw retirement money early with no penalty.

Understanding Premature Distribution

There are several instances in which the premature-distribution penalty rules are waived, such as for first-time homebuyers, education expenses, medical expenses and Rule 72(t), which states that a taxpayer can take IRA withdrawals before they are 59.5, as long as they take at least five substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs).

Early withdrawal applies to tax-deferred investment accounts. Two major examples of this are the traditional IRA and 401(k). In a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) individuals direct pretax income toward investments that can grow tax-deferred; no capital gains or dividend income is taxed until it is withdrawn. While employers can sponsor IRAs, individuals can also set these up individually.

In an employer-sponsored 401(k), eligible employees may make salary-deferral contributions on a post-tax and/or pre-tax basis. Employers have the chance to make matching or non-elective contributions to the plan on behalf of eligible employees and may also add a profit-sharing feature. As with an IRA, earnings in a 401(k) accrue tax-deferred.

Exemptions from Premature Distribution Penalties

In 1997, Congress passed the Taxpayer Relief Act, which among other things, enabled taxpayers to withdraw up to $10,000 from tax-sheltered retirement accounts if that money is used to purchase a home for the first time.

American policymakers were eager in the 1990s to enact policies that promoted homeownership, as they saw homeownership as the best means for promoting wealth accumulation. The bursting of the real estate bubble—and the trillions of dollars in savings lost as a result—has called into question the wisdom of these policies, but many such tax incentives for homeownership remain in the tax code.

Students can also withdraw funds early from their qualified retirement accounts if they use the proceeds for qualified higher education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, supplies, or books needed to attend an accredited institution of higher learning. Taxpayers cannot use funds withdrawn early for living expenses. Taxpayers can use funds they’ve withdrawn early for medical expenses as well. You can see a list of medical expenses approved by the IRS in publication 502

Rule 72(t) is another popular strategy for avoiding IRS-levied, early withdrawal fees. Rule 72(t) refers to the section of the tax code that exempts taxpayers from such fees if they receive those payments in Substantially Equal Periodic Payment. This means that you must withdraw your funds in at least five installments over five years, making this strategy less than ideal for those who need all their savings right away.

Congress has written in these exceptions in the tax code to support taxpayer behavior which it sees as in the public interest. While U.S. policymakers see promoting retirement savings as one of their top priorities, they have made exceptions in the cases of new homeowners or those overburdened with expenses related to schooling and medical care.

To summarize, if the withdrawal meets one of the following stipulations it could be exempt from the penalty:

  • The funds are for the purchase or rebuilding of a first home for the account holder or qualified family member (limited to $10,000 per lifetime).
  • The account holder becomes disabled before the distribution occurs.
  • A beneficiary receives the assets after the account holder’s death.
  • Assets are used for medical expenses that were not reimbursed or medical insurance if the account holder loses his or her employer’s insurance.
  • The distribution is part of a SEPP (Substantial Equal Periodic Payment) program.
  • It is used for higher-education expenses.
  • The assets are distributed as a result of an IRS levy.
  • It is a return on non-deductible contributions.

Early Withdrawal and Required Minimum Distributions

In contrast, with early withdrawal penalties on premature distributions, a retirement saver can also be penalized later on if he or she does not start to withdraw funds by a certain point. For example, in a traditional, SEP or SIMPLE IRA qualified plan, participants must begin withdrawing by April 1 following the year they reach age 70 1/2. Each year the retiree must withdraw a specified amount, based on the current required minimum distribution (RMD) calculation. This is generally determined by dividing the retirement account's prior year-end fair market value by life expectancy.