401(k) Withdrawal: Options and Considerations

401k Withdrawal Definition401k Withdrawal Definition

Key Takeaways

  • Penalty-free 401(k) withdrawals start at age 59½ but are taxed as ordinary income.
  • Early withdrawals carry a 10% penalty, with exceptions for certain situations.
  • Hardship withdrawals are an option under strict criteria but consider the long-term impact.
  • 401(k) loans vs. distributions: each has unique implications for retirement savings.
  • IRA rollovers offer flexibility and a wider array of investment choices.

How To Withdraw From a 401(k)

Withdrawing from a 401(k) is a significant financial decision that requires careful consideration and understanding of the rules and implications. Whether you're reaching retirement age or considering an early withdrawal, here's a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:

Step1: Understanding the Basics

  • Know Your Age and Withdrawal Type: Starting at age 59½, you can start making penalty-free standard withdrawals from your 401(k). Early withdrawals before age 59½ generally incur a 10% penalty, plus income taxes, though there are exceptions.
  • Tax Implications: Withdrawals are typically taxed as ordinary income. Consider how the withdrawal might impact your current tax bracket.

Step 2: Planning the Withdrawal

  • Determine the Amount Needed: Assess your financial needs. Consider whether a partial withdrawal or a full distribution is necessary.
  • Consult with a Financial Advisor: Get professional advice to understand the long-term impacts on your retirement savings and tax situation.

Step 3: Executing the Withdrawal

  • Contact Your 401(k) Plan Administrator: They will provide the necessary forms and instructions. Inquire about any specific rules or restrictions your plan may have.
  • Complete Required Paperwork: This might include specifying the withdrawal amount and choosing the method of receipt (e.g., direct deposit, check).
  • Review and Submit the Request: Double-check all information before submission to avoid errors.

Step 4: Considering Alternatives and Consequences

  • Explore Other Options: If you're under 59½, consider a 401(k) loan or hardship withdrawal if applicable. Review options for Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPPs) to avoid penalties.
  • Understand the Impact: Early withdrawals can affect your retirement savings and future contributions. Consider the long-term financial implications and any immediate tax liabilities.

Step 5: Post-Withdrawal Considerations

  • Reassess Your Retirement Plan: After a withdrawal, reevaluate your retirement strategy and adjust your savings plan accordingly.
  • Stay Informed on Regulations: Keep up with changes in tax laws and retirement account regulations that could affect future withdrawals.

By following these steps, you can make informed decisions about withdrawing from your 401(k), ensuring that it aligns with your overall financial planning and retirement goals. Remember, each situation is unique, so it's crucial to consider your individual circumstances and seek professional advice when necessary.

401(k) Calculator

401(k) Calculator

Determine how your 401k balance can grow by using our 401k calculator today!

Withdrawal Options

Standard Withdrawal

When you reach age 59½, you're eligible to make penalty-free withdrawals from your 401(k), marking the standard beginning of retirement distributions. This milestone in your retirement plan signifies a shift from accumulation to distribution, allowing access to your savings without the 10% early withdrawal tax penalty.

While the penalty falls away, the distributions aren't tax-free. Withdrawals from a traditional IRA or 401(k) are taxed as ordinary income tax at your current rate.

The IRS sets specific withdrawal rules, including when you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).5 You must take your first required minimum distribution for the year in which you reach age 73 although it can be delayed up until April 1 of the following year. These are calculated annually based on your life expectancy and account balance, ensuring that the government can eventually tax the deferred earnings.

Before deciding on early withdrawals or lump-sum distributions, it's wise to consider alternatives. Taking a loan from your 401(k), if permitted, or pausing contributions could alleviate short-term financial needs without impacting your long-term retirement strategy.

Live More & Worry Less

Live More & Worry Less

We have financial professionals ready to assist you on your retirement journey.

Early Withdrawal

While you can access your 401(k) funds penalty-free after reaching age 59½, withdrawing earlier is subject to the 10% penalty on top of regular income taxes.1 This early distribution penalty is an effort by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to discourage you from tapping into your retirement account prematurely. If you withdraw money early, the penalty significantly reduces your pre-tax income, effectively lowering the amount you receive.

There are exceptions that allow you to bypass early withdrawal penalties.3 If you retire after age 55, you may qualify to access your funds without the extra charges. Also, if you face severe financial hardship, such as certain medical expenses, the IRS may waive the penalty on the amount you withdraw to cover those costs.

Another option to consider, which can circumvent penalties, is arranging Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPPs) based on your life expectancy. This strategy requires careful planning and adherence to IRS regulations.

Before deciding on taking an early withdrawal of funds from your 401(k), consider the consequences. Cashing out can lock in losses and reduce your nest egg, potentially jeopardizing your financial security in retirement. Always consult a financial advisor to explore all options and understand the long-term impact of an early withdrawal.

Hardship Withdrawal

Understanding the IRS criteria for hardship withdrawals from your 401(k) is crucial before considering this option, as it involves strict requirements and potential financial consequences.2 Hardship withdrawals are intended for situations of immediate and heavy financial need that can't be satisfied through other means, such as selling assets. Typical conditions that may qualify include unreimbursed medical expenses, prevention of eviction or foreclosure, and costs associated with education or burial.

When considering taking a hardship withdrawal from your employer-sponsored retirement savings account, it's important to remember that it's not just about accessing funds during a financial bind. It's also about balancing your present needs with your future financial security. Although you can withdraw money without incurring early withdrawal penalties, keep in mind that the amount is taxable, and you will have to pay taxes on the distribution. The SECURE Act 2.0 has broadened criteria to encompass emergency savings and special provisions for certain hardships.

Before you decide to use your retirement funds, consider alternatives like a 401(k) loan, which might provide a more beneficial option. A hardship withdrawal should be a last resort, as it will permanently reduce your retirement account balance and could affect your ability to contribute for a certain period. Carefully assess your situation to ensure that a hardship withdrawal is indeed the best course of action for your pressing and severe financial needs.

Loan Vs. Distribution

Considering the implications of a hardship withdrawal, you may wonder whether borrowing from your 401(k) or choosing a distribution is more suitable for your financial situation. Taking out a loan from your retirement plan could be a smart decision, as some plans allow you to repay the borrowed funds within five years—or even longer if the money is used for buying a home.4 This option lets you access funds without penalty, as long as you repay the loan.

On the other hand, opting for a distribution means you're permanently taking money out of your 401(k). Distributions can come in the form of regular payments or a lump sum, but they're subject to normal income taxes. Also, if you're under 59½, you'll likely face a 10% early distribution penalty, unless an exception applies. Keep in mind that not all plans provide loans or allow for hardship withdrawals; you'll need to check with your plan administrator to understand your options.

Before choosing either path, think about how it will affect your retirement savings in the long run. For instance, hardship withdrawals may prohibit you from contributing to your plan for a certain period, which could impact your financial future.

Consider other options, like debt consolidation or seeking advice from a non-profit credit counseling service, before tapping into your retirement fund. Make sure your decision takes into account your immediate financial needs as well as your long-term financial well-being.

Rollovers to IRAs

If you're considering moving funds from your 401(k) to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), rollovers are a versatile way to keep the tax-deferred status of your retirement savings. By transferring to an IRA, you not only keep the tax advantages but also gain access to a wider array of investment options.

Here are some important points to keep in mind about rollovers to IRAs:

  • Direct vs. Indirect Rollovers: You have the option to initiate a direct rollover via your plan administrator or choose an indirect rollover by depositing the funds within 60 days.
  • Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA: It's crucial to recognize the distinctions, especially that funds from a traditional 401(k) will be taxed at the time of withdrawal, while Roth IRA distributions can be tax-free after age 59½.
  • Continued Contributions: With the introduction of the SECURE Act, you're allowed to make contributions to a traditional IRA at any age, provided you have earned income.
  • Eligibility for Contributions: Keep in mind that IRA contributions are based on earned income, not gross income, so check your eligibility.
  • Withdrawal Considerations: Be aware of the early withdrawal penalty if distributions are taken before age 59½; Roth IRAs permit penalty-free withdrawals for certain qualified reasons.

Being aware of these aspects will assist you in managing your retirement plans effectively.


Understanding the rules and strategies for retirement withdrawals is essential in protecting and maximizing your retirement funds. Whether you're considering standard withdrawals, early distributions, or an IRA rollover, each decision should be made with a clear understanding of the long-term impact on your financial health.

You should consult with an experienced financial advisor to tailor a strategy that best suits your retirement goals and helps avoid taxes and penalties. Stay informed and proactive in managing your retirement savings to ensure a comfortable and secure future.

Live More & Worry Less

Live More & Worry Less

We have financial professionals ready to assist you on your retirement journey.


  1. Hardships, Early Withdrawals, and Loans. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/hardships-early-withdrawals-and-loans.
  2. Retirement Topics - Hardship Distributions. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-hardship-distributions.
  3. Retirement topics: Exceptions to tax on early distributions. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-exceptions-to-tax-on-early-distributions.
  4. Retirement Topics - Plan Loans. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-loans.
  5. Retirement Topics — Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-required-minimum-distributions-rmds.

Related 401(k) Articles


Information provided is general and educational in nature, and all products or services discussed may not be provided by Western & Southern Financial Group or its member companies (“the Company”). The information is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. The Company does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

Withdrawals may be subject to charges, withdrawals of taxable amounts are subject to ordinary income tax, and, if taken before age 59½, may be subject to a 10% IRS penalty.

Interest is charged on loans, they may generate an income tax liability, reduce the Account Value and the Death Benefit, and may cause the policy to lapse.