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What Are the Tax Implications for Withdrawing From Your IRA?


Managing your retirement savings effectively requires understanding the tax implications of withdrawing money from an individual retirement account (IRA). IRAs, whether traditional or Roth, offer unique tax advantages that can significantly impact long-term savings. However, understanding how withdrawals are taxed, the conditions under which penalties apply and the strategic maneuvers available to minimize financial strain is essential.

A financial advisor can help you structure your retirement account withdrawals and build an income plan for your golden years. Find a fiduciary advisor today

How Are IRA Withdrawals Taxed?

Withdrawals from IRAs are subject to specific taxation rules that vary depending on the age of the account holder and the type of IRA. Generally, if you withdraw funds from your IRA before reaching the age of 59 ½, you will not only be taxed at your ordinary income rate but also incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty. This stringent measure is implemented by the IRS to discourage the use of these funds for purposes other than retirement. 

However, once you surpass the age threshold of 59 ½, withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed as ordinary income without additional penalties. This system underscores the government’s intent to support retirement security by ensuring these funds are used primarily for their intended purpose.

To clarify, the “ordinary income rate” refers to the tax rate you pay on your regular earnings, which varies based on your total taxable income.

Here’s a look at the federal income tax brackets for 2024:

RateSingleMarried Filing JointlyMarried Filing SeparatelyHead of Household
10%$0 – $11,600$0 – $23,200$0 – $11,600$0 – $16,550
12%$11,600 – $47,150$23,200 – $94,300$11,600 – $47,150$16,550 – $63,100
22%$47,150 – $100,525$94,300 – $201,050$47,150 – $100,525$63,100 – $100,500
24%$100,525 – $191,950$201,050 – $383,900$100,525 – $191,950$100,500 – $191,950
32%$191,950 – $243,725$383,900 – $487,450$191,950 – $243,725$191,950 – $243,700
35%$243,725 – $609,350$487,450 – $731,200$231,251 – $365,600$243,700 – $609,350

Traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs

The taxation of withdrawals from traditional and Roth IRAs starkly differs, reflecting the unique tax treatment of each account type. For traditional IRAs, withdrawals are taxed at the account holder’s current income tax rate. This is because contributions to traditional IRAs are typically made with pre-tax dollars, and thus, tax is deferred until the time of withdrawal. 

Conversely, Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars. As a result, withdrawals made after age 59 ½ are tax-free, provided it’s been at least five years since the person’s first Roth contribution – a requirement known as the “five-year rule.” 

Early Withdrawal Penalty

A woman who's thinking about taking an early withdrawal from her IRA stresses about the 10% tax penalty she'll owe.

To discourage savers from tapping their retirement funds early, the IRS typically charges a 10% penalty on IRA withdrawals taken before age 59 ½. 

For example, if a teacher decides to retire early at age 49 and withdraws $50,000 from their traditional IRA, the withdrawal would not only be subject to their current income tax rate but also an additional $5,000 penalty. 

The early withdrawal penalty applies somewhat differently to Roth IRAs. Since Roth contributions are made with after-tax dollars, Roth account owners can make tax-free and penalty-free withdrawal of their contributions at any time. However, thanks to the five-year rule, the earnings on these contributions are subject to taxes and penalties if withdrawn early. 

Exceptions to the Early Withdrawal Penalty

The IRS recognizes that life’s unpredictable nature sometimes necessitates access to these funds sooner, and as such, has established several exceptions to this early withdrawal penalty. These exceptions are designed to provide financial relief under specific circumstances without the additional burden of penalties that can exacerbate financial strain:

  • Buying a home: The IRS allows qualified homebuyers who have not owned a home in the previous two years to withdraw up to $10,000 from their IRAs early and use money to purchase a home. 
  • Birth or adoption: The IRS permits an early withdrawal of up to $5,000 from an IRA to pay for qualified birth or adoption expenses. This exemption applies per parent, allowing a couple to withdraw a combined total of $10,000 if both are eligible IRA holders. 
  • Death: Beneficiaries are allowed to make withdrawals from the inherited IRA without facing early withdrawal penalties.
  • Disability: The IRS also provides an exemption from the early withdrawal penalty for IRA holders who are deemed to have a total and permanent disability. 
  • Domestic abuse: Victims of domestic abuse can withdraw up to $10,000 or 50% of their account balance (whichever is lesser) from their IRA without facing the early withdrawal penalty. This exception is applicable for distributions made after Dec. 31, 2023.
  • Education expenses: Early IRA withdrawals are allowed if they’re used to pay for qualified education expenses, which include tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution. 
  • Emergency personal expense: The IRS permits a withdrawal of up to $1,000 or the vested account balance over $1,000 (whichever is lesser) to cover emergency personal expenses. This includes immediate and heavy financial needs such as those arising from natural disasters or other unforeseen life events.
  • Substantially equal periodic payments: For those needing regular access to their IRA funds before age 59 ½, the IRS offers the option of substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs). This involves taking early withdrawals using an IRS-approved calculation for 5 years or until the account holder reaches age 59 ½, whichever is longer. 
  • Medical expenses: The IRS allows for penalty-free withdrawals from an IRA to cover unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of an individual’s adjusted gross income (AGI).
  • Unemployed health insurance: Penalty-free withdrawals are also allowed to cover the cost of health insurance premiums for individuals who have been unemployed for at least 12 weeks and have received unemployment compensation. 
  • Military service: Qualified reservists who are called to active duty can make penalty-free early withdrawals.

Impact on Social Security Benefits

A man adds up the income he's had from IRA withdrawals while filing his tax return.

Withdrawing from your IRA can also impact your Social Security benefits, especially in terms of taxes. If your “combined income” – including IRA withdrawals – exceeds certain thresholds, a portion of your Social Security benefits may be taxable.

In 2024, for example, if your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000 for an individual or between $32,000 and $44,000 for a married couple filing jointly, up to 50% of your Social Security benefits may be taxable. If your income exceeds these amounts, up to 85% of your benefits could be taxable.

Therefore, strategic planning of IRA withdrawals is essential to manage how much of your Social Security benefits will be subject to taxes. Timing and the amount of withdrawals need careful consideration to optimize your tax situation.

Avoiding Taxes on IRA Withdrawals

Several strategies can be employed to minimize taxes on IRA withdrawals, potentially enhancing financial outcomes for retirees. One effective strategy is contributing to a Roth IRA, which involves making after-tax contributions that allow for tax-free growth and withdrawals under certain conditions. This can be particularly beneficial for those expecting to be in a higher tax bracket during retirement. 

Another strategy is executing a Roth conversion early in life, which involves transferring funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Although this incurs taxes at the time of conversion, it allows for tax-free qualified withdrawals in the future. Just keep in mind that Roth conversions are subject to their version of the five-year rule: converted balances can’t be withdrawn until five years have passed since Jan. 1 of the year in which the conversion was done. 

Additionally, individuals who are 70 ½ or older can make qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) directly from their IRA to a charity. In 2024, QCDs of up to $105,00 are permitted. And for those who are 73 or older, QCDs can count toward their required minimum distributions (RMDs), which will reduce or eliminate the tax burden of these mandatory withdrawals.

Bottom Line

Understanding the taxation and penalty rules for IRA withdrawals is essential for effective retirement planning and financial stability. While withdrawals from a traditional IRA are typically subject to ordinary income tax rates, taking money out of your account before age 59 ½ can trigger an additional 10% penalty. Roth IRA withdrawals, meanwhile, aren’t taxed, provided certain conditions are met. By grasping these rules, you can make informed decisions that optimize their financial outcomes and avoid unnecessary penalties. 

Tax Planning Tips

  • If you have a pre-tax retirement account, it’s important to understand how required minimum distributions (RMDs) work and plan accordingly for them. These mandatory withdrawals, which start at age 73 (age 75 for people who turn 74 after Dec. 31, 2032), will add to your taxable income and can potentially push you into a higher tax bracket. Roth accounts, however, are not subject to RMDs so doing a series of Roth conversions can help you avoid the tax implications of these required distributions.
  • A financial advisor with tax planning expertise can be a valuable resource, whether you’re looking for tax savings in a given year or need a long-term plan for keeping your taxes as low as possible. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Photo credit: ©, © Bengoetxea Iguaran, ©