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Money Culture

People Tap IRAs After the Penalty Ends

Workers are apparently very eager to get their hands on the money in their retirement savings plans.

The evidence is the spike in withdrawals from IRA accounts that occurs soon after people turn 59½, the age at which the IRS’ 10 percent penalty on early withdrawals vanishes and is no longer a deterrent, according to a research study.

Average annual withdrawals from IRA accounts surge by about $1,965 to $3,540 – an 80 percent increase – after people cross the age 59½ threshold, according to the study, which was conducted for NBER’s Retirement Research Center by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Early withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement accounts – IRAs and 401(k)s – usually are not for frivolous reasons. This money tends to be tapped to ease financial hardships, such as unemployment, a disability, or a large, unexpected medical expense. But when older workers withdraw retirement funds – even for important matters – they may be chipping away at their financial security in old age. Withdrawals by high-income workers, on the other hand, will likely have little impact on their security.

The researchers analyzed taxpayer data from the IRS, which requires withdrawals to be reported at tax time. They compared withdrawals by people in the dataset for the two years before they turned 59½ with their withdrawals between 59½ and 60½.

While the penalty was in place, daily withdrawals were largely flat. But soon after people crossed the age 59½ threshold, withdrawals spiked before declining “to a new higher level than that of prior ages,” the researchers found.

To read the study, authored by Gopi Shah Goda, Damon Jones, and Shanthi Ramnath, see “How Do Distributions from Retirement Accounts Respond to Early Withdrawal Penalties? Evidence from Administrative Tax Returns.”

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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