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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Early Withdrawals and Required Minimum Distributions in Retirement Accounts: Issues for Congress

John J. Topoleski
Analyst in Income Security

In response to the economic downturn, Congress considered providing relief to Americans by suspending two tax penalties on defined contribution retirement plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). First, Congress considered allowing individuals to make withdrawals from their retirement accounts without paying a 10% penalty for withdrawals from retirement accounts by individuals under the age of 59½. Second, Congress considered suspending a requirement that most individuals aged 70½ and older withdraw a certain percentage of their retirement account balance each year (known as a Required Minimum Distribution [RMD]). In December 2008, the House and Senate passed H.R. 7327, which suspends the RMD requirement for calendar year 2009. On December 23, 2008, President George W. Bush signed this bill into law (P.L. 110-458). For calendar year 2010, RMDs have resumed.

The reasons for these proposals are that (1) the increased economic insecurity among American households means that households might consider using retirement account funds for current emergency expenses; and (2) since many individuals have at least a portion of their retirement accounts invested in the stock market, the decline in the stock market means that many retirement account balances have seen significant declines. Because the required minimum distribution taken in any year is a percentage of the account balance at the end of the previous year, many RMDs taken in 2008 were a larger percentage of the account balance on the date of the withdrawal than on December 31, 2007.

This report discusses the reasons offered in support of suspending these provisions, as well as the drawbacks. This report also presents data that estimates the number of households that these proposals would impact. Borrowing from retirement plans as an alternative to withdrawals is also discussed. Finally, the report discusses the kinds of proposals offered to either suspend or eliminate the early withdrawal penalty or the required minimum distribution provision.

Date of Report: January 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: R40192
Price: $29.95

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