One of three methods by which early retirees of any age can access their retirement funds without penalty before turning 59 ½. Normally, funds withdrawn before age 59 ½ are assessed a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Funds must be withdrawn as substantially equal periodic payments as outlined by Internal Revenue Code Section 72(t) and must continue for five years or until the retiree reaches 59 ½, whichever is longer. If withdrawals are stopped, all funds that have already been withdrawn become subject to early withdrawal penalties.
The annual distribution amount is calculated by dividing the retirement account balance on December 31 of the prior year by the retiree's remaining life expectancy as determined by the IRS's life expectancy table. This means that an increase in the retiree's account balance will lead to larger distributions and a decrease in the retiree's account balance will lead to smaller distributions.
The two other methods for early, penalty-free retirement withdrawals are the fixed annuitization method and the fixed amortization method. The required minimum distribution method is considered to be the simplest. Each method can result in quite different distribution amounts.