Avoiding the 10% Early IRA & Defined Contribution Plan Withdrawal Penalty

How to avoid paying the early withdrawal penalty
The Internal Revenue Code penalizes an owner who does not voluntarily leave the assets in his regular IRA or other retirement plan until age 59½ or later. A withdrawal before the date the owner turns age 59½ results in an additional tax (over and above any income tax due) of 10% of the taxable amount of the withdrawal, unless an exception applies.

Generally, there are no “hardship” exceptions to the 10% additional tax. But distributions made under the following circumstances are not subject to the 10% additional tax:

  • a distribution made on or after the date on which the employee turns age 59½;
  • a distribution to a beneficiary (or to the estate of the employee) on or after the death of the employee;
  • a distribution attributable to the IRA owner’s disability;
  • a distribution to pay for medical expenses in excess of 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) if the individual (including a self-employed individual) has received unemployment compensation under federal or state law for at least 12 weeks and the withdrawal is made in the year such unemployment compensation is received or the following year;
  • a distribution to pay for medical insurance (without regard to the 10% of AGI floor) if the individual (including a self-employed individual) has received unemployment compensation under federal or state law for at least 12 weeks and the withdrawal is made in the year such unemployment compensation is received or the following year; Applies only to IRA distributions.
  • a distribution made to an employee after separating from service after attaining age 55 (age 50, in the case of a distribution to a qualified public safety employee from a governmental plan);
  • a distribution of dividends paid on certain employer securities;
  • a distribution from an IRA on account of an IRS levy;
  • a distribution to pay for “qualified higher education expenses” of the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or any child or grandchild of the taxpayer or the taxpayer’s spouse at an eligible educational institution for the taxable year; Applies only to IRA distributions.


  • certain “qualified first-time homebuyer distributions;”  Applies only to IRA distributions made after 2 years with no present interest in a main home.
  • a distribution which is part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments(*1) made not less frequently than annually over the life (or life expectancy) of the IRA owner or the life (or life expectancies) of the IRA owner and his beneficiary; and
  • a “qualified reservist distribution” made during the period beginning on the date the participant was ordered or called to active duty for a period of at least 180 days (or for an indefinite period) as a member of a reserve component and ending at the close of the active duty period.
  • a “qualified hurricane distribution” of up to $100,000 from an eligible retirement plan (as defined in §402(c)(8)(B)) to an individual who sustained an economic loss by reason of Hurricane Katrina, Rita or Wilma made during the applicable period ending before Jan. 1, 2007;
  • a distribution of excess contributions, excess deferrals or excess aggregate contributions
  • a dividend paid with respect to stock owned by a tax credit ESOP or an ESOP if a deduction is allowed to the employer for such dividends;


  • Inherited IRA Assets – If you are the beneficiary of a deceased person’s IRA, amounts you distribute from the inherited IRA are not subjected to early-distribution penalties. This exception does not apply if you are the spouse-beneficiary of the decedent and decide to transfer or roll over the amount to your own non-inherited IRA. To ensure that the IRS knows that the amount is not subject to the early-distribution penalty, your IRA custodian/trustee should report the withdrawn amounts as death distributions by including “Code 4” in box 7 of the IRS Form 1099-R that is used to report the distribution. All inherited IRAs are subject to annual IRS minimum required distribution (MRD) rules, but these are generally based on the inheritor’s own life expectancy. This enables holding the investment in an Inherited IRA without the impact of immediate taxes upon death of the decedent, so that you can potentially maximize these inherited assets.


  • Distribution due to the disability of a participant – Participant must be disabled within the meaning of IRC section 72(m)(7).
  • Distribution as part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments(*1) – Payments must not occur less frequently than annually. Payments from plans other than IRAs or individual retirement annuities must not begin before employee separates from service.
  • Distribution due to separation from service. – Does not apply if the separation from service occurs before the year the participant turns 55. Does not apply to IRA distributions or to self-employed individuals.
  • Distribution less than or equal to deductible medical expenses. – Does not apply to pre-1997 IRA distributions.
  • Distribution to unemployed participant for health insurance premiums. – Applies only to IRA distributions. Participant must have received federal or state unemployment compensation for 12 consecutive weeks or have qualified under the self-employment provision. Limited to amount of health insurance premiums paid.
  • Distribution for qualified higher education expenses of the participant or spouse, or their children or grandchildren. – Applies only to IRA distributions. Does not apply if participant qualifies for another exemption.
  • Distribution for the first-time purchase of a principal residence by the participant or spouse, or their child or grandchild. – Applies only to IRA distributions. Distribution must be used within 120 days to pay qualified acquisition costs. Lifetime limit of $10,000. Does not apply if participant qualifies for another exemption.
  • Distribution subject to loan agreement. – Loan agreement must be legally enforceable. Term of loan cannot exceed five years unless distribution is used to acquire a principal residence. Participant must adhere to specified repayment schedule and the amount of the loan is limited.
  • Distribution made to a beneficiary or the estate of a participant on or after the participant’s death. – Only applies to spousal beneficiary if spouse elects to leave plan assets in participant’s name rather than rolling them over into IRA established in spouse’s own name.
  • Dividend distribution to ESOP participant. – Distribution must meet conditions for dividend deductibility established in IRC section 402(e)(1)(A).
  • Distribution pursuant to federal tax levy on plan under section 6631. – Does not apply to pre-2000 distributions or distributions used to pay federal income taxes in the absence of a levy under IRC section 6631.
  • Distribution to alternate payee under a qualified domestic relations order. – Does not apply to IRA distributions.
  • Distribution to federal retiree electing lump sum credit and reduced annuity. – Does not apply to lump-sum distribution if retiree makes the election and retires before the year he or she reaches age 55. Applies to reduced annuity payment regardless of age retiree makes election and retires.
  • Distribution rolled over into another qualified retirement plan within 60 days of the distribution. – IRS can waive the 60-day rollover period if it believes the participant missed the deadline because of a “hardship” beyond his or her control. For waiver of 60-day rule see: Rev. Proc. 2016-47
  • Distribution to correct excess contributions. – Applies to 402(g), 401(k) and 401(m) plans and IRAs.
  • Distribution upon conversion from traditional to Roth IRA. – Applies to entire distribution (including portion of distribution includable in income).



(*1) Uniform Issue List Code: 72.00-00; PLR 201323045 (including Rev. Rul. 2002-62) Penalty does not apply if you are taking a series of substantially equal distributions from the account for at least five years and until you have reached age 59½. But the IRS will treat any rollover into or out of the IRA during this time as a prohibited change in payouts which retroactively triggers the 10% penalty on all your previous withdrawals.

Journal of Accountancy – “Withdraw Without Penalty” by Lee G. Knight and Ray A. Knight