While your retirement funds are certainty intended for the long-term, you might be able to take money out of your 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan while still working.

If you withdraw money out of a workplace retirement plan in your fifties, will you be penalized for it? In most cases, the answer is yes. Distributions taken from a qualified retirement plan before age 59½ usually trigger a 10% IRS early withdrawal penalty. The key word here is “usually”. Sometimes there are ways to make these withdrawals with no IRS penalty, even while you are still working for your employer.

You may have a solid reason to make such a early withdrawal. Perhaps you need the money now for an unexpected expense. Perhaps your retirement plan has limited investment choices and high fees and you want to invest those assets in a different way. In fact, some of these withdrawals are made just so the assets can be transferred to an IRA. An IRA allows you many, many more investment options than the typical employer-sponsored retirement plan.

You can typically avoid the 10% penalty through an in-service, non-hardship withdrawal. Some 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans permit such distributions for plan participants who are still working. But you must pay attention to the rules.

Different plans have different requirements for these distributions. Some only permit them if the employee has worked for the company for at least five years. Others shorten that obligation to two years. A plan may only let employees have this option starting in the calendar year in which they turn 59½. Employees are sometimes unable to withdraw their whole account balance. Spousal consent, in writing, may also be required.

You need to know the mechanics of the distribution. Can you withdraw your earnings as well as your contributions? Can you withdraw any matching contributions your company has provided? Is there a dollar ceiling on this type of distribution? Does the plan itself penalize such withdrawals (as opposed to the IRS)? Finally, you will want to ascertain the timeline of how long it will take to distribute the assets.

What are the potential drawbacks to doing this? When you take an early distribution from a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan, you do so with a strong conviction that you are putting that money to better use or directing it into a better investment vehicle. There is always the chance that time could prove you wrong. Taking the money out of the plan may also mean losing out on future company matches. Starting in the year you turn 50-years old, you can put up to $30,000 a year (2023) into a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan, whereas the annual contribution limit for a Roth or Traditional IRA is only $7,500 (2023).

If you need the money for an emergency, taking a loan from your plan might be a better option. If you take the funds out of the plan without arranging a direct rollover (trustee-to-trustee transfer) to an IRA, every dollar you pocket will be taxed because the IRS considers a lump-sum retirement plan withdrawal to be regular income.

Should your current workplace retirement plan prohibit in-service, non-hardship withdrawals, don’t worry. You can typically withdrawal rollover-sourced dollar you saved from previous employer’s retirement plans. Alternatively, you could reach back and withdraw funds from 401(k), 403(b), and 457 accounts held at past employers after you turn 59½ if you left there in your old plan.

Speak to a financial professional before you do this. A trustee-to-trustee transfer is one way to do it: you never touch the money, and the funds can go straight from your plan into an IRA with no tax ramifications resulting from the transfer. That move is ideally made with a financial professional’s help.

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