Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Partial TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am 60 and had to retire early due to disability. I am receiving Social Security disability and a small annuity. Can I take a small amount — say, $10,000 — from my account but then start monthly draws when/if it becomes necessary? Should I leave all of my money in this account or do a rollover into a regular or Roth IRA?

A. Yes, as long as you have not previously used your single partial withdrawal. I think you should retain your Thrift Savings Plan account for as long as possible.

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Starting TSP withdrawals now vs. at 70 1/2

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Q. I retired under FERS two years ago, and I haven’t needed to touch my Thrift Savings Plan account so far. I am receiving Office of Personnel Management, Social Security and military retirements. I am 68½ years old. I just received a 100 percent Veterans Affairs Department disability award, which will change my taxable military retirement to a nontaxable VA retirement. I don’t think this will have any effect on my long-term life expectancy. I have determined that I do not want to elect an annuity on withdrawing from my TSP. I am considering immediately starting a monthly TSP withdrawal based on life expectancy. What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting withdrawals immediately versus waiting until the 70½ mandatory withdrawals? I am a married man, and we declined a survivor benefit plan.

A. Starting withdrawals now will provide you with more income now but will produce a larger taxable income and begin to deplete your account. Waiting will reduce your current taxable income and preserve your account’s value (if you don’t lose it to the markets), but also reduce your current standard of living and increase your taxable income later in life.

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Drawing TSP annuity before 59 1/2 without penalty

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Q. I remember reading an article on ways to retire at eligibility of 56 years old and being able to draw my tsp before age 59½ without a penalty. Is there a way to do this? There is no disability involved in my retirement.

A. Yes. If you retire from federal employment at age 56, you will be exempt from the early withdrawal penalty.

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TSP loan

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Q. I have not worked since fall 2011. I’m on leave without pay with the Postal Service. Currently on disability retirement approved by Social Security and the Postal Service. The Office of Personnel Management has until November to finalize the disability retirement. On Sept. 23, I default on my Thrift Savings Plan personal loan ($5,300).

I am entitled to agency retirement pay of $1,645 per month but cannot be paid until OPM acts. Social Security is roughly ¼ pay, and I cannot realistically pay the catch-up amount and the two monthly loan payments for at least two months. At that time, I should be in a position to repay the entire loan (due to the situation explained below).

If I default on the outstanding balance BUT in November, OPM approves my lump-sum payment due for the time not worked and entitled to pay (which depending on what they say will either be September 2011, when I last worked, or March 2012, when I exhausted my annual time and sick days) and I then repay the outstanding balance in its entirety prior to year end, thereby negating the loan default, would the default status then be changed to paid and the taxable distribution then be nullified?

In my mind, if I repay the loan after default but before year end, I should prevent any Internal Revenue Service action regarding the early withdrawal penalty. I have no issues with extra interest or costs associated with my problem but don’t wish to throw away $500 if I can avoid it.

I have an appointment with a tax attorney to try to sort this out, but if you have had any experience in this, I would appreciate a response so I know what to prepare for.

A. I can’t advise you on your specific situation, and what an attorney may or may not be able to accomplish for you. But in general, once the loan is declared a taxable distribution, it cannot be repaid. You may be able to roll the declared distribution amount over to an IRA to defer the tax and avoid any early withdrawal penalty, however.

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Social Security reduction

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Q. My husband was forced to retire early when the Army depot closed here in Sacramento, Calif. Several years later, he was forced to stop working due to a stroke and applied for Social Security disability.

He was told that his Social Security allotment was greatly reduced because of his Thrift Savings Plan retirement account.

He never thought this was fair because he has worked and paid Social Security all his life, but instead of receiving about $1,500 a month on Social Security, he receives a reduced $450. By comparison, I retired on a state pension and am fully qualified for all of my Social Security benefits. But they are also slightly reduced because of his TSP.

Is this correct?

A. This doesn’t sound right. I know of no offset to Social Security benefits based on a TSP account balance. There are offsets for other sources of income, however, and you should visit www.ssa.gov to review the rules and see if you have a basis for appeal.

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Disability and tax deduction from TSP funds

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Q. I recently retired from the federal government due to becoming permanently disabled at age 61. I received my disability approval from the Social Security Administration. I withdrew a portion of Thrift Savings Plan funds to cover expenses as a result of not being able to work. Why was 20 percent tax deducted from the distribution of funds at age 61 and with the legal purpose of being disabled?

A. Because that is the default federal income tax withholding rate for the distribution. The money has been applied toward your tax liability for the year.

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Penalty on TSP withdrawal?

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Q. My age is 52. I worked 22 years in the Postal Service. I have a Thrift Savings Plan account and am now retired due to a disability. If I make a full withdrawal, will I be penalized?

A. Yes, unless you qualify for one of the exceptions listed on Page 7 of the notice at https://www.tsp.gov/PDF/formspubs/tsp-536.pdf.

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Disability retirement

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Q. I am being considered for disability retirement in the coming months. My application is pending consideration from the Office of Personnel Management. I am a GS-14 FERS employee, 54 years old, with about 32 years of service. I have approximately $250,000 in the Thrift Savings Plan, and my allocations are as follows: 15 percent C, 15 percent S and 70 percent I. I realize that is somewhat aggressive, but it has been like that for about seven years or so, and I have been hopeful of the international home run. Regrettably, this hasn’t necessarily come to fruition. I will likely shelter some of my remaining funds in G or F when I find out if my retirement is approved.

If I should retire, I plan to withdraw approximately $150,000 to pay off my mortgage. Therefore, should something happen to me or if the market fails, at least my home is paid for. I will have a reasonable annuity, and my wife draws $1,800 monthly as a service-connected disabled veteran. Combined, I feel we will have adequate income, especially when our mortgage of $1,000 per month is satisfied. Not rich, but with no real debt ($15,000 vehicle loan) consistent income and no mortgage. Sounds OK to me. Or am I off-base?

A. I think that what’s off-base is that, like too many investors, you are willing to gamble — without knowing the odds — with your life savings. If you’re not willing or able to prudently manage the money, then it’s probably your safest bet to use it to pay off your mortgage. At least you won’t lose it overnight. This might mean that later on, however, if you need the money to pay your bills, it won’t be available. There is no easy answer. That’s why I’m in business. If you’d like to discuss your options, you can contact me through www.variplan.com.

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Workers’ comp and TSP withdrawal

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Q. I am below the age for Thrift Savings Plan withdrawal without penalty (soon to be 50), but it looks like I will be out on workers’ compensation under permanent disability shortly. Due to the impact on my income and an ongoing issue, I need to make a withdrawal or close my TSP to continue meeting my obligations. I have thoroughly researched the issue of using a TSP but have little choice. A loan is not an option (I’m paying one off and, if I’m on disability, I can’t take one out). And I’ve looked into other avenues, to include financial planners, with no success. Without focusing on the 10 percent penalty, how can I submit for my account funds? Although I am vested with more than 22 years, do the age criteria prohibit access to any funds that are not your own contributions? Due to the previous loan, is it impossible to access these funds to avoid a more onerous financial situation? I have an amount that would make us able to live on the disability funds. Is this a simple matter of age and letter of the law?

A. As soon as you are separated from federal service, you may request a distribution of some or all of your TSP funds. Before you separate, you may request a hardship withdrawal if you can qualify, or you could take a loan and then fail to pay it back, which will result in a distribution.

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Exemption from TSP early withdrawal penalty

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Q. I am working, waiting for approval of disability retirement under FERS. Will I be penalized 20 percent if I withdraw my Thrift Savings Plan in lump sum when I am approved for disability? I was diagnosed with Stage II multiple myeloma in May.

A. The exemption from the early withdrawal penalty to which you are referring is for a distribution taken as a result of a total and permanent disability. The TSP cannot certify that you qualify for this exemption and it is up you, or your tax preparer, to demonstrate that you meet this exemption.

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