Ask a Fool: Can I Tap My Retirement Accounts Early?

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Q: Are all of my retirement funds tied up until I'm 59 1/2 years old, or are there ways to access my money early?

You can take a withdrawal from your retirement account whenever you want, but you can get hit with a 10% early withdrawal penalty from the IRS unless you qualify for an exception.

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There are different exceptions that apply to qualified plans (such as 401(k)s) and IRAs, so here's a quick rundown.

If your retirement savings are in a 401(k), 457, 403(b), or other employer-sponsored plan, you can withdraw from the plan after age 55 if you are no longer working for the employer who sponsored the plan.

With an IRA, there are a few more exceptions. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 toward a first-time home purchase without triggering the penalty, or any amount to pay for qualified higher education expenses. And with a Roth IRA, you're free to withdraw your original contributions (but not any investment profits) at any time, and for any reason.

With any retirement account, you can withdraw money to cover medical expenses in excess of 10% of your adjusted gross income, or in the event that you become disabled. Or, you can start withdrawing from your retirement savings early if you agree to take a series of "substantially equal" payments.

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