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Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke UniversityDo 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 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.

Correcting Your IRA’s RMD Failures and Avoiding the Penalty

Image of the IRS logo with the text "Correcting Your IRA’s RMD Failures and Avoiding the Penalty."If you failed to take required minimum distributions (RMD’s) from your IRA, then you are subject to a 50% penalty. The penalty is 50% on the amount you should have distributed from your IRA to yourself. It’s a steep penalty for simply failing to pay yourself from your own IRA and it’s something every IRA owner with RMD needs to understand. For my prior article explaining RMD rules for IRAs, please click here.

Waiver of 50% Penalty Tax

If you’ve failed to take RMD for your IRA, you have a chance at obtaining a waiver from the penalty but you must admit the mistake to the IRS by filing IRS form 5329. In the instructions to form 5329, the IRS outlines the waiver process to avoid the 50% penalty tax.

What You Need to Do

  1. Complete Section IX of Form 5329. You need to specify what you should have taken as RMD  and then you calculate the penalty tax due. You then write the letters “RC”next to the amount you want waived on line 52.
  2. Statement of Explanation. Attach a Statement of Explanation outlining two items.
    1. First, explain what was the “reasonable error” that caused a failure to take RMD. The IRS does not provide a definition or acceptable examples of “reasonable error”. See IRC 4974(d)(1). From my own experience and from examples I’ve heard from colleagues, the IRS does recognize reasonable errors and oversights in most situations where there is reason for the error. This would include situations such mental health, to turning 70 ½ and being new to RMD, to relying on bad advice from an advisor, custodian or accountant, to holding an ill-liquid asset for sale in a self directed IRA.
    2. Second, explain the reasonable steps taken to correct the error. Ideally, by the time you’re filing the exemption request you would’ve already contacted your IRA custodian and would’ve taken the late RMD so that by the time you submit the RMD penalty tax waiver, you would be caught up and would have already remedied the error.  This makes for an easy and clean explanation of what steps you’re going to take as your explanation will be that you already corrected the RMD failure once you realized the error.

Keep in mind that RMD failures won’t go away as your IRA custodian will be updating your account each year with the IRS. Eventually, you’ll start getting collection letters from the IRS requesting the penalty tax. Consequently, IRA owners are well advised to correct the RMD failure and request the wavier as soon as they become aware of the error or oversight.