The Three Situations Where You Might Consider an Early Withdrawal From Your Self-Directed IRA

It’s important to understand that the default IRS regulations regarding early withdrawals from an IRA. In general, taking a distribution from your account before age 59½ will subject you to a 10% penalty on the amount of the distribution, plus whatever taxes may be due.

In each of the situations below, there are specific requirements that need to be met in order to avoid having to pay the 10% penalty, but in all cases you still may owe taxes on the amount of the distribution. Pay close attention to all the requirements. If you make a mistake in the distribution process it could prove to be quite costly.

  1. To Purchase a First Home. The IRS regulations allow you to take a distribution of up to $10,000 to pay for a down payment on your home if you are a first-time homebuyer (which is defined to mean that you haven’t owned your own home in the past two years). You can also use this penalty free provision to assist a child or grandchild with their down payment, if having access to these additional funds would make the difference between getting a home and not – but it may be worth forgoing future growth of those funds
  2. For Certain Uninsured Medical Expenses. There are actually two situations in which you can use your self-directed IRA in order to pay for some of your medical expenses. The first is in situations where you need to pay for certain unreimbursed medical expenses. The second situation is to pay for medical insurance premiums for you and your family when you are unemployed. one reason taking this type of early withdrawal can be so important is that it eliminates any temptation that might otherwise exist for you to underinsured or yourself or otherwise not seek necessary medical care.
  3. Higher Education Expenses. The third exception we’ll discuss is taking an early withdrawal in order to pay qualified educational expenses. Generally this means paying tuition or room and board for your child, but you can also make such a withdrawal for your own educational expenses, those of your spouse, or those of a grandchild.

There are no limits for how much you can take out of your account early for these purposes. However, given that an early distribution means that you’re losing out on the long-term growth potential of those funds, you may wish to explore other funding options first, including student loans (which in some cases can involve interest and that’s tax-deductible).

In fact, in each of these three situations, it’s always important to consider other alternatives prior to taking an early distribution from your self-directed IRA. Just because you’re authorized to do so doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.

In addition to losing out on future investment growth, there are other ways in which taking an early distribution can be a bad financial decision. For example if you need to liquidate certain investments early, then the effective loss you experience by taking the early distribution is effectively much greater than the amount of the distribution.

Broaden Your Investment Horizon With a Self-Directed IRA

What’s your current level of investment experience? If you’ve done any investing at all, then congratulations! Across the broader U.S. population, things don’t look particularly bright. Over the past few years, various surveys have concluded that approximately one-third of American adults don’t have any savings at all, and nearly half of American adults only have an emergency fund that would cover less than 90 days of their living expenses. The statistics for retirement savings are equally as dismal.

And even among those who have begun saving for retirement, many limit their savings activities to just a few types of assets, the most popular of which include broad market mutual funds and short term U.S. government bonds. And some, concerned with the preservation of capital beyond all other concerns, use their funds to invest in things like bank CDs.

Even amongst those who have actually invested for growth or income, many have limited their activities to mutual funds or whatever other options were available within or promoted by their discount broker or 401(k) plan administrator.

There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with those types of investments. Mutual funds can make the process easy for individuals who don’t have the time, inclination or confidence to do a lot of research or make more specific investment decisions. But the problem with simply investing in broad market investments like mutual funds is that you’re limiting your long term growth potential, particularly during down market times.

Fortunately, you can use a self-directed IRA to invest in a wide range of assets that can broaden your portfolio so that you can take advantage of various market conditions.

For example, you can use a self-directed IRA to invest in real estate and precious metals, two asset classes that have historically performed well when the stock market has underperformed. You can use your account to invest in a number of different types of real estate, including single-family and multi-family residential properties, commercial properties, farmland, industrial properties, and even undeveloped properties.

In order to gain exposure to precious metals, you can use your self-directed IRA to invest by purchasing metals in their physical form (pure bullion or government issued coins, but not collectible coins), or in precious metals mining and exploration companies. If you choose to invest in physical metals, it’s important to plan for the costs of hiring a professional custodian to hold those metals. If you were to hold that type of precious metals investment yourself, doing so would be considered taking a distribution from your account, which would potentially subject you to an early withdrawal penalty, as well as any taxes that would otherwise be due.

Furthermore, you can use a self-directed IRA to invest in private companies by taking either equity or debt positions. Depending on the nature of the investment, the performance of these types of investments can provide you with the opportunity to improve the return on your portfolio when your other investment types aren’t performing quite as well.

What You Need to Know About Substantially Equal Periodic Payments

You probably know that if you take a distribution from your IRA before you reach age 59½, then in most cases you’ll be subject to a 10% penalty on that amount of the distribution, in addition to any taxes that may be due. (Distributions from a traditional account are generally subject to income tax, while distributions from a Roth account are not.)

You may also know that there are a handful of circumstances in which you can make an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty, but not avoid any taxes that are due. These include certain distributions to assist a first-time home buyer in making a down payment, paying for medical expenses, and paying for certain types of higher education expenses.

In certain limited sets of circumstances, these exemptions from the 10% early withdrawal penalty can be useful for certain individuals. But what about IRA owners who find themselves in a extremely serious financial situation that justifies taking money out of their retirement account – is there another option for those individuals?

Fortunately, there’s another option for taking penalty-free distributions that’s far less known. The holder of an IRA can begin taking distributions from their account as part of a series of what is known as “substantially equal periodic payments.”

The “substantially equal periodic payments” exemption allows the account holder to calculate a yearly amount that they can withdraw from their account every year, for at least five years, or until they reach age 59½, whichever is later.

Given the scope of this exemption, it’s essential for an account holder to be completely sure the withdrawal schedule works for them, and that they’ll be able to maintain and build their overall retirement nest egg to adequate levels. Think about this for a moment, a 25 year old who chooses to take a series of substantially equal periodic payments from their account must do so for more than 32 years. Stopping the withdrawals before they reach that point will subject the account holder to significant IRS penalties.

There are three basic methods for calculating the amount of the periodic payments; the “fixed annuitization method” and the “fixed amortization method.” Under a fixed annuitization approach, the account holder uses a life expectancy table and a “reasonable” interest rate (which will be at least as great as 120% of the federal midterm rate). The fixed amortization method uses a simple amortization approach, and generally yields a lower annual payout amount than the fixed annuitization method. The third approach is to use the same method as that for calculating the required minimum distributions that apply to traditional IRAs for account holders age 70½.

The biggest difference between the third method and the first and second methods is that the amount of the annual payment amount can vary greatly from year to year, depending on the investment activities that occur within the account.

Why It’s Important To Coordinate Your Taxable Investments With Your Self-Directed IRA Investments

Your self-directed IRA can save you a lot of money in taxes, both in the short term as well as in the long run. If your IRA is set up as a traditional account, then (depending on certain aspects of your financial position) you may be able to take a tax deduction for those contributions. And contributions in traditional IRAs will grow on a tax-deferred basis, while the investment gains within a Roth IRA will never be subject to taxation. Many individuals are well-versed with the various tax implications on this level.

But there’s another perspective from which you may want to consider your self-directed IRA tax analysis, and this is the way that your taxable investment accounts, and investment decisions, can impact your self-directed IRA investments.

Let’s first examine just how valuable your self-directed IRA can be. Consider two hypothetical portfolios of $100,000, one a taxable account and the other a self-directed IRA. Let’s further assume that each portfolio is comprised of stock that pays dividends at a 3% rate annually (with those dividends being reinvested), and that the stock price appreciates 5% annually.

At the end of 25 years, the value of the taxable account would be approximately $525,000, while the self-directed IRA is worth over $630,000. This difference in value is attributable solely to the fact that the owner of the taxable account has to pay taxes on the dividends they receive, even if they choose to reinvest those dividends.

If the self-directed IRA is a traditional account, then you will have to pay taxes on those gains, but they’re likely to be at a lower tax rate (because you’re in retirement and perhaps no longer working full time), and they’ll only be taxed when you take the distribution. If your account is a Roth IRA, then you’ll realize the full value of the investment gains.

So one common tax optimization strategy is for an individual to place income-generating investments that would otherwise incur a tax liability into an IRA in order to avoid that liability.

On the other side of the equation, it’s important to note that there are certain tax advantages that are actually disallowed within an IRA. For example, investment interest (such as borrowing funds to purchase a stock investment, or taking out a mortgage to buy a piece of real estate) can be used to offset gains in a traditional account. But borrowing funds is considered to be outside the scope of permissible activities for self-directed IRAs, and the tax benefit of those expenses will be lost inside the retirement account.

It’s the same situation for investments that have tax advantages built in, such as municipal bonds. Because these investments would already be tax-advantaged outside of an IRA, there’s no reason (and it’s actually a missed financial opportunity) to keep these types of assets inside a retirement account.

Understanding the interplay between your taxable investment accounts and your self-directed IRA will put you in the best position to make the optimal investment decisions.