What Is a Withdrawal Penalty?

A withdrawal penalty refers to any penalty incurred by an individual for early withdrawal from an account that is either locked in for a stated period, as in a time deposit at a financial institution, or where such withdrawals are subject to penalties by law, such as from an IRA.

How a Withdrawal Penalty Works

A withdrawal penalty can vary depending on the type of funds or financial instrument involved, along with other factors. The penalty can be either in the form of forfeiture of interest or an actual dollar amount. When you open an account or become a participant in a retirement plan, you will generally receive in-depth documentation that spells out all of the terms of the arrangement or contract. This typically includes details about what constitutes an early withdrawal, and what penalties, if any, you would incur should you decide to make an early withdrawal from that account.

For example, an early withdrawal from a certificate of deposit at most financial institutions would result in the customer forfeiting interest for a period ranging from one month to several months. Generally speaking, the longer the term of the initial certificate of deposit, the longer the interest forfeiture period.

Withdrawal Penalties for IRA Accounts

In the case of IRAs, withdrawals before the age of 59½ are subject to a penalty of 10%. Of course, you'll also have to pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn–from a traditional IRA or 401 (k)–since it'll be considered taxable income. The amount you'd pay would be dependent on your total annual income and the subsequent income tax bracket.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does allow for some exceptions to the tax penalties for early withdrawal of IRA funds, under certain circumstances. For example, the penalties may be waived if the funds were withdrawn because the person lost their job and needs funds to make the premium payments on their medical insurance policy. Also, an early withdrawal might be exempt from tax penalties if the funds are being used for tuition expenses for the account holder, their spouse, or a dependent. Certain restrictions and conditions apply, so it’s important to review the rules set by the IRS prior to taking any actions involving withdrawing funds early from an IRA account.

It's important to note that a qualified plan, such as a 401(k), can have different rules and penalties for early distributions versus a traditional IRA. For example, the early-withdrawal exception for IRAs doesn't apply to qualified plans for those who are unemployed and wish to use IRA funds for health insurance premiums.

The withdrawal penalty for taking funds from an IRA or other accounts can be steep, so it is wise to consider other strategies for obtaining necessary funds that would not involve the possibility of a significant penalty.

An alternative option might be to take a qualified retirement plan loan. The proceeds of that type of loan are not taxable if the loan abides by certain rules, and repayment follows the required schedule and terms.