Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Partial withdrawal, Part II

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Q. I retired from an air traffic control job at age 53. I am receiving monthly payments based on my life expectancy. I will be age 55 in April. Can I take a partial withdrawal? If not, are there any options? I need to access more funds. Will there be a tax penalty on the amount I have received? Will my partial withdrawal be penalty-free now that I am 55? Are there other options, such as increased monthly payments?

A. You may not take a partial withdrawal once monthly payments have begun. You may increase your monthly payment amount using Form TSP-73 or you may request a final withdrawal, but making any change to the series of substantially equal periodic payments before you reach age 59½ will subject all of your early distributions to the early withdrawal penalty.

The rules for all of this are complicated. You should consult a CPA before proceeding.

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72(t) distributions

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Q. I’m about to retire at age 47 after 25 years as a federal law enforcement officer. I plan to roll my 401(k) (TSP) over to a traditional IRA and begin taking substantially equal periodic payments per 72(t) from the IRA, which, as I understand, once I start, I have to continue until age 59 ½. I plan to use the annuitization method to make equal monthly withdrawals, but I would like to take the first year’s withdrawal in a lump sum to help pay off some debt. Will the IRS allow that without the 10 percent penalty, or do I have to consistently stick to either monthly or annual payments?

A. The IRS only cares about the annual requirement being met. They don’t care about how the money is distributed. Monthly payments are not required, and as long as you meet the annual 72(t) requirements, there should be no penalty.

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VERA and TSP

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Q. I have an opportunity to retire under a Voluntary Early Retirement Authority. I have 30+ years of FERS service, non-law enforcement. My age will be 53 years and 11 months if I retire under this VERA offering.

At what age will I have full access to my Thrift Savings Plan without the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty by “taking substantially equal payments over my life expectancy.”

At what age will I have full access to my TSP without the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty by NOT “taking substantially equal payments over my life expectancy.”

If immediately upon retirement I begin collecting TSP funds “paid as substantially equal payments over my life expectancy”:

Do I avoid the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty?

Must I continue this withdrawal option for life, or only until I reach age 55?

Must I continue this withdrawal option for life, or only until I reach age 56, my minimum retirement age?

Must I continue this withdrawal option for life, or only until I reach age 59½?

A. If you retire prior to the calendar year in which you reach age 55, you will not have unrestricted access to your TSP account, without penalty, until you reach age 59½ unless you become totally disabled. This is true whether or not you initiate a Series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SOSEPP) as defined in IRC section 72(t) if you retire prior to the calendar year in which you reach age 55.

If you properly initiate and maintain a SOSEPP, you will avoid the early withdrawal penalty on the SOSEPP withdrawals. The SOSEPP must continue for five years, or until you reach age 59½, whichever is longer. If you disrupt the SOSEPP or otherwise violate the rules for this, the early withdrawal penalty will be assessed on all withdrawals that were protected under the SOSEPP.

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TSP withdrawal strategy

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Q. My wife and I are FERS employees. We are both considering retiring early if offered Voluntary Early Retirement Authority at ages 50+/- (both with more than 25 years of service). With children still in the picture for some time, access and flexibility with our Thrift Savings Plan accounts are crucial to any plan. I would like to accomplish two things:

1). 72(t) withdrawals until 59½ in one account.

2). Flexibility to roll over funds currently in TSP into a Roth IRA held at another institution (from an IRA as I see no method to do that while the funds are in TSP).

My plan would be to roll over just enough to “fill up” a certain tax bracket, say 15 percent, especially while we have many deductions related to children.

So, my thinking would be to have substantially equal payments out of one account soon after early retirement but not immediately. For the other TSP account, make a one-time partial withdrawal and transfer that to an IRA currently held at another institution. I’m assuming I can make that transfer/withdrawal at age 50 with no penalties, correct? This would allow me to each year assess our taxes and determine what amount of the IRA I would like to convert to my Roth IRA. I would only do a partial withdrawal as I appreciate the low expenses of the TSP, but the inflexibility to convert to a Roth is too limiting.

Does this make sense? And is everything I’ve laid out reasonable and doable?

A. What you’ve proposed is doable, but I’m not sure I see the value in the Roth IRA conversions.

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401(k) rollover into TSP

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Q. When does a nonfederal retirement fund (401(k), IRA, Substantially Equal Periodic Payment, etc.) qualify to be rolled over to the Thrift Savings Plan? Is there a time limit that such funds need to remain before transferring to a TSP account?

A. Basically, the funds need to come from a tax-deferred retirement account and consist of only yet-to-be-taxed money.

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SEPP

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Q. I am retiring from the Army after 22 years of service and I am 45 yrs. old. Can I start withdrawing from the Thrift Savings Plan and avoid the early withdrawal penalty by taking a series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments? How does that work? My life expectancy is 37.7 more years, according to the Internal Revenue Service, so is that the number of years my funds can be distributed? If so, do I then divide what I saved by 37.7 and again divide by 12 to see what my monthly payments would be?

A. You may avoid the penalty by taking a series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments, but the rules are complicated and strict, with the penalty for violating them potentially large. I suggest that you consult with a CPA or other qualified tax preparer, who will prepare and stand behind your returns during the distributions, to run the calculations for you. There are actually three options for calculating the distribution amounts, and they typically produce a wide range of values. If you insist on doing it yourself, you can start the learning process by conducting an Internet search on “72t distributions,” but the IRS won’t care if you relied on bad information or methods that led to mistakes.

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Avoiding the early withdrawal penalty

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Q. I am a firefighter with a county fire department in Florida. As such, I am part of the Florida Retirement System in the special risk class. I started my career early and will be eligible for retirement with full benefits and no FRS penalties by age 48. (This is 25 years of service.) However, because of the Internal Revenue Service penalty for retiring before age 50, I would receive a 10 percent tax penalty in addition to the normal taxes I will pay on my retirement income. I understand that I will receive the penalty of 10 percent. However, I want to know whether that penalty goes away after I have reached age 50, or if it continues until I am 59?

A. The early withdrawal penalty rules will continue to apply until you reach age 59½. You can avoid the penalty by withdrawing from your Thrift Savings Plan account in a series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments under section 72(t) of the tax code.

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SEPP

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Q. I am a federal employee with the Department of Justice, non-law enforcement, and will have 30 years of service at age 54, approximately two years before my minimum retirement age. Can I leave the government before MRA with 30 years and still be eligible to receive my special retirement supplement and my FERS retirement without a penalty at my MRA? Would I still be able to collect my Thrift Savings Plan, without penalty at my MRA, or would I be required to wait until age 59½?

A. Mike: If you separate from service before the calendar year in which you reach age 55, the early withdrawal penalty rules will apply to your TSP account. You may avoid the penalty by taking a series of Substantially Equal Periodic Payments, however.

Reg: If you left government before reaching your minimum retirement age, you could apply for a deferred retirement. Because you have at least 20 years of service, you could apply for that benefit at age 60. However, as a deferred retiree, you wouldn’t be eligible for the special retirement supplement.

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SEPP

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Q. If I agree to make Substantially Equal Periodic Payments available under Internal Revenue Service code section 72(t) from my TSP, may I do so before I retire and avoid the 10 percent penalty? If it matters, I am a federal law enforcement officer who will have 25 years of service before age 50.

A. No, since you’re not allowed to initiate monthly payments before you retire. The 72(t)-compliant distributions will avoid the early withdrawal penalty whenever they are initiated, however.

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Withdraw from Roth or TSP?

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Q. I’m 52 and a recently retired FERS law enforcement officer. I plan to leave my Thrift Savings Plan alone for at least two more years ($500k+ balance) and then do a 72T Substantially Equal Periodic Payment withdrawal. However, I may need approximately $30K to $40K, probably in 2014, before I do the 72T SEPP withdrawal. Would it be better to do the one-time partial TSP withdrawal, or withdraw from my Roth IRA contributions (tax-free)? I have approximately $140K in the Roth.

A. This is really a question for your tax preparer after a look at some pro forma returns for the relevant years. In general, however, I recommend that you leave your TSP account in tact for as long as possible, unless there is a clear advantage to doing otherwise.

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