Substantially Equal Periodic Payment, or SEPP, is a method of distributing funds from an IRA or other qualified retirement plans prior to the age of 59½ that avoids incurring IRS penalties for the withdrawals. Typically, an individual who removes assets from a plan prior to that age will pay an early withdrawal penalty of 10% of the distributed amount. With a SEPP plan, funds are withdrawn penalty-free through specified annual distributions for a period of five years or until the account-holder turns 59½, whichever comes later. Income tax must still be paid on the withdrawals.

Key Takeaways

  • A SEPP plan allows you to withdraw funds without penalty from a retirement account before you turn 59½.
  • The amount you withdraw every year is determined by formulas set out by the IRS.
  • If you quit the SEPP plan before it concludes, you'll have to pay all the penalties it allowed you to avoid, plus interest on those amounts.
  • A SEPP plan is best suited to those who need a steady stream of pre-retirement income, perhaps to compensate for a career than ended sooner than anticipated.

How a SEPP Plan Works

You can use any qualified retirement account with a SEPP plan, with the exception of a 401(k) you hold at your current employer. You set up the SEPP arrangement through a financial advisor or directly with an institution.

You must, at the outset, choose among three IRS-approved methods for calculating your distributions from a SEPP: amortization, annuitization, and required minimum distribution. Each will result in a different calculated annual distribution. The amount you withdraw will be pre-determined and unchanged every year, at least with two of the three options.

The IRS advises individuals to select the method that bests supports his or her financial situation. You're permitted to change the method you use once within the lifetime of the plan. Should you cancel the plan before the minimum holding period expires, you will have to pay the IRS all penalties it waived on the plan's distributions, plus interest.

The Amortization Method

Under the amortization method for calculating the SEPP plan's withdrawals, the annual payment is the same for each year of the program. It's determined by using the life expectancy of the taxpayer and his or her beneficiary, if applicable, and a chosen interest rate—of not more than 120% of the federal mid-term rate, according to the IRS.  

The Annuatization Method

As with the amortization method, the distribution you must take under the annuitization method is also the same each year. The amount is determined by using an annuity based on the taxpayer's age and the age of their beneficiary, if applicable, and a chosen interest rate, with the same IRS guidelines as with amortization. The annuity factor is derived using an IRS-provided mortality table.

Required Minimum Distribution and SEPP

Using the required minimum distribution method, the annual payment for each year is determined by dividing the account balance by the life expectancy factor of the taxpayer and their beneficiary, if applicable. Under this method, the annual amount must be recalculated annually and, as a result, will change from year to year. It also generally results in lower annual withdrawals than do the other methods.

Disadvantages to a SEPP

Using a SEPP plan can be a boon to those who wish or need to tap retirement funds early. The plan can allow you a steady stream of income, penalty-free, in your 40s or 50s to help tide you over between the end of a career—and a regular paycheck—and the arrival of other retirement income. At 59½, you can withdraw additional funds from your retirement accounts without penalty. By your late-60s, you'll qualify for full benefits from Social Security and perhaps a defined-benefit pension.

The plans also have distinct drawbacks, however. To start, they're relatively inflexible. Once you begin a SEPP plan, you must stay with it for the duration—which can potentially be decades if you begin the plan in your 30s or 40s. During that time, you have little to no leeway to alter the amount you can withdraw from the fund each year. And quitting the plan is hardly an option, given the fact it imposes on you all the penalties you saved from launching it, plus interest. (The same sanction may also apply should you miscalculate and fail to make the necessary withdrawals within any one year.)

Starting a SEPP also has implications for your financial security later in retirement. Once you start a SEPP, you'll have to stop contributing to the plan it is tapping, meaning its balance will not grow through further contributions. And by withdrawing funds early, you're also essentially foregoing the earnings they'll make later—along with the tax you'll save on those gains, which will compound tax-free within the account.