To encourage workers to set aside money for retirement, Congress modified the tax law in the late 1970s. The new provisions offered certain tax advantages to companies that established "defined contribution" plans. Unlike traditional pensions, such plans do not provide for specific pension payouts during retirement. Instead, they establish how much an employee can contribute. The most common of these plans, as defined by its subsection in the Internal Revenue Code, is the 401(k).
In an effort to keep employees from raiding their retirement accounts too soon, the tax code also assesses stiff penalties for early withdrawals. In general, if you're still working and pull money out of your employer-sponsored 401(k) account before age 59½, you'll be socked with a 10% penalty on the withdrawal, in addition to regular income taxes.
Nevertheless, some provisions of the tax code allow for penalty-free withdrawals from a 401(k) account before age 59½.
Think long and hard, however, before taking an early withdrawal. Presumably, the longer you contribute to a 401(k) account, the more savings will be available to meet your retirement needs. Considering the meager retirement savings of many Americans — one recent study found that the median retirement savings of households nearing retirement is $12,000 — the decision to make an early withdrawal should not be taken lightly.
Following are two ways your traditional 401(k) account can be tapped without incurring the 10% penalty. Note that different rules apply to distributions from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and Roth 401(k) plans.
Age 50 withdrawals for public safety employees and reservists. If you're a police officer, firefighter, or medic working for a state or city government, you won't be subject to the 10% penalty on early withdrawals if you leave your job in or after the year you turn 50. This provision also applies to certain active-duty reservists.
Age 55 withdrawals after separation from service. If you leave your employer in or after the year you reach age 55, you can take penalty-free distributions from your company's qualified 401(k) plan. Note, however, if you retire before that year and wait until you're 55 to take the distribution, you'll be subject to the 10% penalty.