Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke University with the text "Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses."Do you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.

Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.

10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses

Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.

1. Who can use the IRA money be used for?

 Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.

2. What schools qualify?

Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.

3. What expenses qualify?

There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.

4. How much is exempt?

The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.

Example

Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.

Her expenses for the year are as follows:

  • Tuition: $22,000
  • Room and Board: $13,000
  • Books: $1,000
  • Supplies: $500
  • Equipment: $500
  • Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000

Jane received the following aid:

  • Federal Grant: $2,400
  • Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
  • Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
  • Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
  • Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600

You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.

For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.

Avoiding the 20% Withholding Tax on 401(k) Distributions

Photo of someone cutting some one-hundred dollar bills with scissors and the text "Avoiding the 20% Withholding Tax on 401(k) Distributions."Distributions from a 401(k) to its owner are subject to a 20% withholding tax whereas distributions from an IRA are not subject to a withholding tax. As a result, any amounts distributed from a 401(k) to its owner will be reduced by 20% and that 20% will be sent to the IRS in expectation of the taxes that will be due from the account owner for the distribution. Any amounts distributed from an IRA, however, are not subject to the 20% withholding as the IRA owner can elect out of withholding. The discrepancy in the rules is one advantage of using an IRA in retirement as opposed to a 401(k) since the amounts distributed from the IRA can be received in their entirely. Keep in mind, the tax owed on a distribution from an IRA or 401(k) is the exact same. The difference is when you are required to pay it. In both instances you will receive a 1099-R from your custodian/administrator but in the 401(k) distribution you are required to set aside and effectively pre-pay the taxes owed.

The 401(k) Withholding Rule in Practice

Let’s walk though a common situation that outlines the issue. Sarah is 64 and has a 401(k). She would like to distribute $100,000 from the 401(k). She contacts her 401(k) administrator and is told that on a $100,000 distribution they will send her $80,000 and that $20,000 will be sent to the IRS for her to cover the 20% withholding requirement. Since this 20% withholding requirement does not apply to IRAs, Sarah decides to roll/transfer the $100,000 from her 401(k) directly to an IRA. Once the funds arrive at the IRA, Sarah takes the $100,000 distribution from the IRA and there is no mandatory 20% withholding so she actually receives $100,000 in total. Keep in mind, Sarah will still owe taxes on the $100,000 distribution from the IRA and she will receive a 1099-R to include on her tax return. That being said. Sarah has given herself the ability to access all of the amounts distributed for her retirement account without the need for sending withholding to the IRS at the time of distribution.

It’s that simple. Don’t take distributions from a 401(k) and subject yourself to the 20% withholding tax when you can roll/transfer those 401(k) funds to an IRA and receive the entire distribution desired without a 20% withholding.

Avoiding State Income Tax on Retirement Plan Distributions

Photo of man covering his ears with the text "Avoiding State Income Tax on Retirement Plan Distributions."When a retiree begins taking distributions from a traditional IRA, 401(k), or pension plan, those distributions are taxable to the retiree under federal income tax and any applicable state income tax rules. While federal taxation cannot be avoided, state taxation may be avoided depending on your state of residency. In general, there are some states that have zero income tax and therefore don’t tax retirement plan distributions, some states that have special exemptions for retirement plan distributions, and other states that do in fact tax retirement plan distributions. This article breaks down the basics and discusses some of the states where income taxes can be avoided.

The No State Income Tax States

First, the easiest way to avoid state income tax on retirement plan distributions is to establish residency in a state that has no state income tax. It isn’t just the fun and sun of Florida that helps attract all of those retirees. It’s the tax free state income treatment that you’ll get from all of that money stocked away in your retirement account. The other states with no income tax and therefore no tax on retirement plan distributions are Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.

States with Retirement Income Exclusions

Second, there are some states that have a state income tax but who exempt retirement plan distributions for retirees from state income taxes. There are 36 states in this category that have some sort of exemption for retirement plan distributions. As each of these states are very different, so too are their exemptions. The type of retirement account, however, does tend to govern the exemptions available. Here’s a quick summary of the common exemptions found in the states.

  1. For Public Pensions and Retirement Plans. Distributions from federal or state employer plans are exempt from taxation in many states. This is the most common exemption amongst states that have an income tax but who exempt some types of retirement plan distributions from income. Most of the 36 states that have an exemption for retirement plan income provide an exemption for public employee pensions and retirement plans.
  2. For Private Pensions and Retirement Plans. About 10 states offer a full exclusion for private pensions and retirement plans. Some of them differ between pension and contributory plans (e.g. 401(k)) and some of them make no distinction. Pennsylvania, for example, excludes all income distributions. Hawaii excludes certain distributions from state income tax for private retirement plans and for portions from company plans rolled over to a rollover IRA and then distributed from the rollover IRA.
  3. For IRAs. There are some states that do no tax any retirement pan distributions, including IRA distributions to retirees. Illinois for example does not tax distributions from retirement plans at all (pensions, IRAs, 401(k) s). Tennessee and New Hampshire are states that do not tax wage income and therefore they do not tax retirement plan distributions of any kind (IRA, 401(k), etc.). There are also numerous states that exclude a certain limit of retirement plan income from taxation. For example, Main exempts the first $10,000 of income from any retirement plan, including IRAs.

In sum, the state tax rules for retirement plan distributions are complicated and vary significantly. Each state can be understood rather quickly though and everyone planning for retirement should understand how state income taxes may eat into their planned retirement plan distributions. I, for example, looked into Arizona and found that there is no exemption for 401(k) or IRA income in the state of Arizona. While we do have a low state income tax rate, Arizona state income tax includes income from private retirement plans (pensions and 401(k) s) and IRAs and has a modest deduction for distributions from public retirement plans. Each state is unique to the type of plan, and the amounts being distributed but don’t just think you need to be in a state with zero income tax to avoid taxes on retirement plan distributions. For example, you could be in Illinois, Tennessee, or New Hampshire and could realize state income tax-free distributions of your IRA or 401(k).  The National Conference of State Legislators has an updated 2015 chart that is very useful and can be used to look up your state’s tax treatment of retirement plan distributions for retirees.

Tax Court Rules Against Self-Directed IRA Owner Who Failed to Properly Make a Real Estate Investment

Image of US Tax Court logo with text "D:\Content\Graphics\Art\Thomas\MNS Blog\140729_Tax Court Rules Against Self-Directed IRA Owner Who Failed to Properly Make a Real Estate Investment"In a recent U.S. Tax Court case, the Court ruled against an IRA owner and deemed his IRA distributed and taxable as the IRA owner failed to properly execute his intended self-directed IRA real estate investment. Dabney v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-108.

The IRA owner had an IRA at Charles Schwab and intended to use the IRA to acquire real estate in Brian Head, UT. Upon conducting research Mr. Dabney learned that an IRA could own real estate. However, instead of rolling or transferring his IRA funds to a self directed IRA custodian who would allow his IRA to own real estate, Mr. Dabney took a distribution of the IRA and directed Schwab to wire the funds to closing for the purchase of the property. Additionally, he instructed title and eventually received a deed in the name of his Schwab IRA.

The problem was that rather than invest his IRA into real estate he instead distributed his IRA and use the distributed fund to buy real estate outside of his IRA. Charles Schwab issued Mr. Dabney a 1099-R for that distribution and Mr. Dabney contested the 1099-R and the taxes owed as a result arguing that the funds were used to buy a property owned by his Schwab IRA. Mr. Dabney argued that Charles Schwab made a mistake. However, the Court ruled against him because his funds were distributed out of his Charles Schwab IRA and because his IRA funds and the real estate were not held by a self-directed IRA custodian that allowed for IRAs to own real estate. The Court stated that an IRA can certainly hold real estate but that Charles Schwab’s policies did not allow for Mr. Dabney’s IRA to own real estate and since his custodian would not hold the real estate as an asset of his IRA that it was deemed distributed.

The lesson to be learned from the Dabney case is that in order to properly execute a self-directed IRA investment into an asset such as real estate, the IRA owner needs to roll over or transfer their IRA funds first to a self-directed IRA custodian who allows the IRA to own real estate and then that self-directed IRA will actually take title and ownership to the IRA asset directly. While these rules seem simple, I’d estimate that I speak to at least one or two IRA owners a year who took a distribution from an IRA and used those funds to buy real estate (or some other alternative asset) thinking that the real estate would still be owned by their IRA and that the funds would not be distributed and subject to tax. The confusion usually arises with the non-self directed custodian who misunderstands what the the account owner is trying to do (invest the IRA, not distribute it). Keep in mind, that in order to own real estate with a self-directed IRA, you must have a self-directed IRA custodian.