Reg 72(t): Access Your IRA without the Penalty

***The below discussion on Reg 72(t) is not all encompassing and not intended to be advice.  Your particular situation plays a major role in whether doing a 72(t) distribution is appropriate for you.  It also takes a lot of strict financial discipline.  Not too many professionals are able to properly help with 72(t) distributions.  Feel free to look under my “Services” tab for info on my assistance with 72(t) distributions***

Oh 72(t), I do love you.  But why?

Well, if you are an early retiree or aspiring early retiree, you’re going to want to know about this Internal Revenue Code.

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First off, let me get this out of the way:  THERE ARE NOT A LOT OF CFPs AND CPAs THAT FULLY GRASP 72(t) distributions.  Even calling the IRS will not be too helpful.  If working with an advisor, you better make sure they really understand the INs and OUTs, otherwise YOU are stuck with the penalties and interest when something goes wrong.  Many advisors will say they know what 72(t) is, but that is just so they can sell you some product.  I know because I used to work with all of the above.  As I got closer to retirement, I actually stopped helping customers on 72(t) distributions, because the company I worked for did not allow me to charge a fee.  I was the only person in the building that knew this stuff.  The the laws of supply and demand said I should be charging because of this(I also mentally checked out).  So, yes, the people that do know 72(t) tend to charge a flat fee, as opposed to putting you in a product that has ongoing fees.  I am not affiliated with any broker dealer or RIA anymore.

So what’s the big freakin’ deal about Reg 72(t) distributions and why isn’t anyone ever talking about it?  For anyone doing a withdrawal from a Traditional IRA prior to age 59.5 years of age, you will be faced with ordinary income taxes on the amount withdrawn for the year, but also a 10% early distribution penalty (unless you qualify for an exception-most are tied to bad things happening to you though).  Pretty steep penalty to access your money early.  Reg 72(t) doesn’t get talked about much, because it honestly isn’t very well understood or even know about by many investors or professionals.

So the big deal? Reg 72(t) allows for someone to take distributions from their IRA (following certain rules)and avoid having to pay the 10% penalty (you still have to pay ordinary income taxes on the withdrawal-no work around there).   The distributions have to be “part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments” (you may see SEPP used-not to be confused with SEP IRA) made at least annually for the life expectancy of the individual (or joint life if applicable).  72(t) distributions must continue for the greater of either 5 years or attaining age 59.5.  Any misstep or wrong calculation can subject ALL years of distributions t0 be penalized at 10% plus interest owed to the IRS (now you see why it’s important to work with someone that actually knows this stuff).

There are 3 methods to determine SEPP:

Life Expectancy Method– basically using the minimum distribution rules, but before age 70.5, distribution amounts change annually

Amortization Method– Amortize account balance using a life expectancy and a reasonable interest rate (reasonable interest rate is defined by the IRS as not more than the 120% Federal Mid Term Rate for either of the 2 months prior to the first distribution), distributions stay the same

Annuitization Method– account balance divided by a life expectancy factor and interest rate, distribution amount stays the same

So basically, 72(t) allows for an early retiree to access their IRA prior to age 59.5 and avoid the 10% penalty tax.  For early retirees this is huge.  For most normal people, their biggest “asset” is their house, followed by their 401(k), then everything else.  For someone retiring at say age 36 (that age sounds familiar), you would be able to rollover your 401(k) to a traditional ira, establish your 72(t) distributions on that IRA, use your dividends from your brokerage account, and enjoy retirement.  If 72(t) didn’t exist, you would have to have a bunch of money built up in individual accounts to retire early and you would have to wait until age 59.5 to touch your IRA.  No beuno.

I’ve seen a lot of pf bloggers talk about doing conversions on some Traditional IRA money to a ROTH IRA every year to access money.  There is a rolling 5 year rule attached to these conversions and you can’t touch the growth before 59.5.  Also, if you are converting traditional to roth for 20+ something years, you better keep very good records.  Since you would have to wait initially 5 years before touching the roth conversion ladder, you better hope the markets cooperate.    You could be drawing your most liquid assets in a taxable account and forfeiting future flexibility.  People always assume the market only goes up and forget what a bear market can do to a portfolio.  I was going to write a post about paying practically no taxes in early retirement, but this guy beat me to it (show him some love and click a few ads).  Most extremely early retirees live modest lifestyles and pay low taxes already, so why complicate things with ongoing roth conversions (who’s to say the government won’t change their tax stance on ROTH IRA either.  They’re looking to add an RMD to them next year.  In 2015, President Obama opened up the thought of taxing 529 plans.  Though that idea was later tossed because of backlash, it still shows the government is looking at any ways to increase tax revenues).

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to 72(t) distributions:

PROS:

-Access to your IRA prior to age 59.5 so you can retire early without the 10% penalty

-The actual calculations are not that complicated

-You can divide your IRA into multiple IRA accounts, and do a 72(t) on just one of the balances (if you are looking to receive a particular dollar amount).  This gives some flexibility for longer term planning taking into consideration COLA

-You have a one time chance to change from Amortization/Annuitization Methods over to the Life expectancy method (good because as your IRA balance grows over time, you can basically recalculate your 72(t) payment going forward)

CONS:

-If you screw something up on your withdrawals, the penalty can be substantial (referred to as busting the plan)

-Takes solid financial dedication to execute (this plan is not for spend thrifts).  It’s kinda like poker “minutes to learn, a life time to master”

-Depending on your lifestyle, may not provide enough income to live off (you would want brokerage investments  or side hustle for added income and flexibility)

-No flexibility of distributions (hence Equal Periodic Payment)

A side note:  72(t) does not apply to a 401(k) plan.  In fact if you are 55 years or older and separated from service, you will want to check with your 401(k) plan provider about penalty free distributions without the hoops to jump through of a 72(t).  This demographic is probably the last group that should look at a rollover and 72(t) distribution.  However advisors do it for the commission.

Another note: There is also a funny provision.  If your SEPP IRA runs out of money, say an investment went south, this is not considered a modification to that plan and does not bust the plan, so no 10% penalty tax is assessed.

Last note: (mentioned above) You can do a one time change from Amortization or Annuitization method over to the Life Expectancy method.

So there goes a brief rundown on 72(t) distributions, a topic that is little known in the personal finance blogging world, but also the investment world.  With proper planning, Reg 72(t) can be your best friend in early retirement.  Again, this is not all encompassing.  If you need detailed help and numbers crunched, contact me.

I should have something posting soon about my withdrawal strategy in early retirement coming soon.  As a preview, it includes doing  a conservative 72(t) distribution strategy and living off my qualified dividends.  At the same time, I will be paying practically no taxes and still saving some of the excess withdrawals for a rainy day/inflation.

Sound off below:  Have you ever heard of Reg 72(t) before?  Have you given thought to your early retirement withdrawal strategy?

 

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Readers Comments (31)

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