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You may have heard of friends or colleagues using their Roth IRA as an emergency fund, for a downpayment on a house, or as a savings vehicle for their child’s education. But is it possible to use a Roth IRA prior to retirement?While it may be possible to use the money in your IRA well before you retire, it’s important to know the rules and penalties regarding Roth IRA investment accounts.
First, unlike a 401(k), the money you put into your Roth IRA is yours to withdraw at any time, penalty-free. However, the fact that you can withdraw the money doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a wise idea. Withdrawing your money prior to retirement may limit how much your account can grow. Early withdrawals also can be penalized or taxed.
Clearly understanding the rules and exceptions of Roth IRA withdrawals will prepare you to make the best financial decision. If you’re still confused, consult with a financial planner or tax professional.
If you’ve owned your Roth IRA for less than 5 years
Roth IRA distribution rules are partially age-based. If you’re younger than 59 and a half, withdrawals that include gains may be subject to penalties and taxes. These taxes and penalties apply if you’re younger than 59 and a half at the time of the withdrawal and apply only to IRA earnings.
There are some exceptions, including for first-time homebuyers and for education or medical expenses. If you withdraw earnings for any reason that isn’t considered an exception, however, the funds are subject to a 10% penalty as well as income tax.
If you’re older than 59 and a half, you’ve reached the minimum age to take tax-free Roth IRA distributions. If it’s been less than five years since you opened and contributed to your IRA for the first time, any earnings withdrawn from the account might be subject to an early distribution penalty of 10%. Again, that applies only to earnings, not to contributions you made yourself.
Unlike other IRA accounts — where you must begin taking distributions by the time you’re 70 and a half — you never have to touch the money in a Roth IRA. That means you can bequeath a Roth IRA to your heirs. If the account has been open for more than five years, they won’t need to pay taxes on the money, regardless of how old they are when they withdraw it. A beneficiary Roth IRA (one willed to your heirs) may have minimum distribution requirements.
Still, the fact that a Roth IRA provides a tax-free avenue to distribute wealth to your heirs makes it a valuable estate planning tool. It’s important to note, however, that the benefits of a beneficiary Roth IRA account apply only if the account has been open for at least five years. If you were to open a Roth IRA today and die next year (bequeathing your Roth IRA to an heir), any earnings distributions would be subject to tax.
If you’ve owned your Roth IRA for 5 years or more
If you’ve owned your Roth IRA for at least five years and are younger than 59 and a half, your withdrawals on earnings are still subject to taxes and potential penalties. There may be exceptions for certain types of withdrawals (explained above).
If you’re older than 59 and a half and have owned your account for five years or more, then any withdrawals — whether they’re your own contributions or earnings — will be tax- and penalty-free. The same is true if you’re older than 70 and a half. If your Roth IRA is at least five years old and bequeathed to heirs, they can take tax-free withdrawals on contributions and earnings.
Of course, since the contributions to your Roth IRA are post-tax, you can withdraw that money at any time, regardless of the age of your account.
When are Roth IRA withdrawals penalty-free?
The Roth IRA distribution rules allow for some exceptions to the penalties for withdrawing earnings, regardless of age, although the money will be subject to taxes. As always, it may be a good idea to speak with a financial professional regarding your goals before you withdraw any funds. Even if you withdraw the money penalty-free, it’s important to remember that any withdrawals may impact the growth of your account.
Exceptions to the Roth IRA penalty rule:
- Qualified higher education expenses for yourself or family members, including tuition, fees, equipment, and room and board if enrolled more than half time
- Unreimbursed medical expenses that are over 7.5% of your gross income
- Health insurance premiums if unemployed
- Up to $10,000 for first-time homebuyers to use for home purchases
The Roth IRA has many benefits that make it a smart investment vehicle or estate planning tool, including the penalty-free exemption options and the fact that there’s no maximum age for minimum distributions. Knowing the tax rules and penalties regarding Roth IRA withdrawals can help you avoid a potentially costly financial mistake.