The way we work and save for retirement has changed and the old rules no longer apply to every individual's situation. There are many professionals with the resources to retire early, but continue working until retirement age just to avoid paying penalties to the IRS. However, there are ways to retire early that you might want to consider.
You Can Pay the Penalty
The most obvious solution is to bite the bullet and pay the 10% penalty for early withdrawal. Most people are motivated to avoid paying the early withdrawal penalty and will wait until the legal retirement age of 59 ½, before accessing funds in their retirement accounts. This can be an attractive option, simply because the tax-deferred investments in your 401k may have outperformed other taxable investments. If this is the case, your tax benefits may actually pay for the penalty by the time you're ready to retire. Of course, this all depends on how well your tax-deferred investments have performed.
The Substantially Equal Periodic Payments Option
The IRS allows early retirees to access their retirement funds without paying the penalty through their Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP) program. An early retiree will have to consent to making substantial annual withdrawals each year until they reach traditional retirement age, as outlined by a calculation chart published by the IRS. However, failing to withdraw the correct amount each year can cause the IRS to charge you with the 10% penalty for each withdrawal you have already made. For this reason, it's best to work with a tax professional to ensure you meet all of the requirements set out through the SEPP program.
Additionally, the program requires that you fulfill a minimum of five withdrawals, before your obligation is complete. If you retire at 40, you must adhere to the withdrawal requirements until you turn 59 ½ years old. However, if you retire at 57, you must continue the SEPP withdrawals until you reach 62 years of age. As long as you can adhere to the timetable, this may be a good option for accessing your retirement funds early and without paying the penalty.
Convert to a Roth IRA
Another option that will help you avoid the 10% penalty is to convert your 401k to a Roth IRA. Once you open the account, you will have to wait five years, before you can begin withdrawing your contributions. For that reason, it will be important to anticipate your early retirement and plan ahead. However, once you have met that requirement, you can begin withdrawing without facing a penalty.
An additional restriction is that the IRS requires that withdrawals be made in a particular order. You must withdraw direct contributions first, before withdrawing funds that were converted into the account. Lastly, you can withdraw earnings on those contributions. Depending on your situation, this may be a worthwhile alternative.
While these options do exist, waiting for retirement age may still be worthwhile. Where a 401k account is concerned, remaining on the job will keep those employer contributions coming. That "free money" will pad your retirement account, while your savings continue to earn on investments. Additionally, you'll continue to benefit from tax breaks for a few more years. Ultimately, it will be your decision, which you can only base on your specific circumstances. If you do choose to retire early, you should consult a Financial Advisor and/or tax professional, before you act.