You hear quite a bit about saving and investing for retirement, but when do you actually get to use the money? When you have a traditional IRA, the questions around taxes, penalties, limits, and requirements can become complex. Here, we'll walk through the various considerations that might arise when you're thinking of tapping your IRA early or at all.

A person looking at documents.
Image source: Getty Images.

Rules for IRA withdrawal

You have the option, but not the obligation, to take from your IRA without penalty once you've turned 59 1/2, assuming you don't qualify for any listed exceptions. Again, you are not required to do this, but if you need the money in retirement, it's all yours without penalty. In all likelihood, you'll owe taxes on the withdrawals from a traditional IRA.

Mandatory withdrawals

You won't be responsible for taking money out of your IRA until you turn 72. As mentioned previously, required minimum distributions take effect only later in life. For your first RMD, you will need to withdraw a pre-specified amount by April 1 of the year after you turn 72. Thereafter, all RMDs will be due by December 31 of each year.

Note that your RMD, when it comes time to withdraw it, is a minimum amount. You do have the option to take more if you need it. But keep in mind when you plan your retirement withdrawal strategy that this will mean more taxable income in the year you take the distribution. The RMD is intended to create a smoothing effect in terms of the income your account generates, as well as the tax revenue the government receives. This is all based on your life expectancy.

The 60-day rule

One of the riskier ways to temporarily access IRA funds without taxes or penalties -- if you really need the money -- is to attempt a 60-day IRA rollover. This IRS rule allows you to take money out of your traditional IRA and use it for any reason as long as you return the full amount before the end of 60 days. You're allowed to do this once per 12-month period.

Unless it's a real emergency, or you're 100% sure you will have the funds available (pre-withholding) to redeposit to your IRA, it's best to avoid the 60-day rollover. Missing the 60-day window, or failing to repay the money at all, will result in taxes and penalties on the entire amount distributed. Given the opportunity cost of losing tax-deferred growth, plus the unnecessary expenses, it's usually not worth it to do this.

Other special circumstances

Both traditional IRA and Roth IRA owners are eligible to withdraw up to $10,000 to assist in the purchase of their first home. Note that if two spouses are buying a home together, each is eligible to withdraw up to $10,000, for a total of $20,000. However, while this amount would be distributed penalty-free, the account owners would still owe income tax on the amount withdrawn. 

There are a few circumstances apart from buying a home that qualify for hardship withdrawals. They generally are true emergencies or unusual circumstances. Included in these hardships are:

  • Unreimbursed medical expenses over 7.5% of adjusted gross income, or 10% if you're younger than 65
  • Qualified education expenses
  • Qualified expenses if you're a military reservist called to active duty

If you're thinking of taking from your IRA, think about whether your expenses fall into one of the big three expense categories: health, education, and housing. If they don't, and it's not a true emergency, you might consider alternative methods of covering the expenses.


Can I withdraw money from my IRA without penalty?

angle-down angle-up

Yes. You must either be older than 59 1/2 or fall into one of the hardship exception categories. There are also other rules, like IRS Section 72(t), that allow for early distributions when you are nearing retirement age. Note that while you can usually find a way to withdraw from an IRA early, you'll still have to pay tax on any distributions.

What are the major exceptions for early withdrawal from my IRA?

angle-down angle-up
  • First-time home ownership
  • Excessive and unreimbursed medical expenses
  • Qualified education expenses 
  • Change in military status from reservist to active

What is the penalty for early withdrawal from an IRA?

angle-down angle-up

The penalty for early withdrawal is 10% of the distributed amount. Note that this is levied in addition to any taxes due on the distribution.

How much tax should I withhold from my IRA withdrawal?

angle-down angle-up

Commonly, 10% is withheld for federal taxes, but you do have the option to elect out of this withholding. If you opt out of federal withholding, be sure you can come up with the tax due the following April.

How can I avoid paying taxes on my IRA withdrawal?

angle-down angle-up

This usually won't be an option with traditional IRAs, but there are some ways you may avoid tax. One is by successfully completing a 60-day rollover by taking money out but then returning it within 60 days. Another is by withdrawing nondeductible contributions (that is, money in your traditional IRA that has already been taxed).

Putting it all together

Your IRA is intended for one thing: retirement. There are ways to access IRA funds early if you read the fine print and adhere to restrictive rules. In general, though, it's best to use your IRA for long-term funds that you don't immediately need and certainly not as a vehicle for borrowing or short-term liquidity. This is all to say that, for best results, you should keep things simple and use these accounts for their intended purposes.

Related retirement topics

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.