Almost all Roth IRA investors have had it beaten into their heads that they cannot withdraw their investment earnings from a Roth until they reach the age of 59½ without paying a penalty. (You can always withdraw your contributions at any time.) But what if there were a way to get at your capital gains, dividends and interest earnings earlier than that?

If you’re one of those lucky few who want to retire early, what are you supposed to do? Are you just stuck watching the investments you could use to live on sit in an account until you get old enough? No! There’s a rule just for you. Rule 72(t) lets you get access to your Roth IRA money, all of it, without penalties.

But first let’s look at the easier ways to get early access to your Roth savings.

Your Contributions Are Always Yours to Withdraw

Most financial planners do not like advertising the fact that money that you invest in a Roth IRA is yours to do with as you like. If the need arises, you can withdraw the principal that you put into a Roth IRA penalty free. You are not allowed to touch any interest, dividends, or capital gains that have accrued without triggering an early withdrawal penalty from the IRS, but the amount that you contributed is free for you to withdraw.

The IRS considers the first amount of money you withdraw to be part of the principal that you invested. Let’s say you contributed $5,000 into a Roth IRA each year for five years and your account grew to be worth $30,000. If you then withdrew $10,000, the IRS would consider that entire $10,000 to be part of the principal that you invested. In this example, your account would end up with a balance of $15,000 that you contributed and your $5,000 in investment gains.

There Are Exceptions to the 10% Penalty

There are already several exceptions that can keep you from paying the 10% early withdrawal penalty. For example, the IRS allows you to withdraw both principal and interest from your Roth IRA for a first-time home purchase, qualified higher education expenses, if you are severely disabled, and several other specific scenarios that do not apply to most individuals. You can see the entire list of exemptions to the 10% penalty on the Internal Revenue Service’s website.

Rule 72(t) Can Help Early Retirees

What if you want to take out more than your principal and don’t fit into any of the exceptions? If you want to retire and have access to your Roth IRA investment—including the principal, capital gains and interest—before you reach 59½, you can do so penalty free thanks to a specific IRS clause called Rule 72(t).

First, you have to jump through a few hoops. If you are withdrawing funds early based on Rule 72(t), you are required take distributions from your Roth IRA in a series of equal payments, either monthly or annually, over what the IRS considers your future life expectancy. The IRS will determine your life expectancy based on a table that it provides.

But Don’t Use it Lightly

Just be aware: Once you start taking the withdrawals from your Roth IRA, you cannot stop them from occurring, even if you no longer need the money. Rule 72(t) withdrawals are not something to be started or taken lightly.

Withdrawing the principal from your Roth IRA, while an option, should be a last resort. You are sacrificing a lot of future tax-free gains by not letting your investments grow. The best way to use a Roth IRA is to accumulate retirement funds to be drawn on late in life. It was not created as a savings account to dip into when the going gets tough. Unless it’s really tough, of course.

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