How to Calculate Taxes on 401k Withdrawal? [2024]

A 401k plan is an employer-sponsored retirement savings account that allows employees to contribute a portion of their paycheck before taxes are taken out. The contributions and any investment earnings grow tax-deferred until withdrawal. Some key points about 401k plans:

When To Take 401k Withdrawals

There are a few circumstances when you can or must start taking money out of your 401k account:

  • At age 59 1/2 – penalty-free and taxable withdrawals are allowed when leaving an employer or at this age while still employed
  • At separation from service with the 401k sponsor (quit, laid off, retire)
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) at age 72 – must take out a percentage of account balance each year
  • Financial hardship (special rules and restrictions apply)

It’s important to understand the taxes and penalties involved when taking 401k withdrawals to avoid surprises. Leaving the account untouched until age 59 1/2 or when separated from service allows the funds to continue compounding tax-deferred over a long timeframe.

Ordinary Income Tax on 401k Withdrawals

The general rule is that all 401k withdrawals are treated as ordinary income and taxed at your current federal income tax rate for the year. That rate is 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32% or 35% (or 37% for high incomes) depending on your total taxable amount for the year.

So you don’t pay a special extra tax on 401k withdrawals, but you do pay standard income tax just as if you had earned that money working at your job. It essentially gets added on top of your other income sources.

State income tax also applies if your state collects income tax. Similar rules apply where 401k withdrawals raise your total taxable income. Some states like California and New Jersey have high top marginal rates over 10%.

10% Early Withdrawal Penalty If Under Age 59 1/2

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is cashing out your 401k too early. Not only will you pay current income taxes on the amount withdrawn, but also a 10% early withdrawal penalty if under age 59 1/2. So $10,000 withdrawn could result in losing $1,500 or more just in penalty, plus 25-35% standard income tax.

There are a few exceptions where the penalty is waived – financial hardship for certain uses like medical bills, separating from service at age 55+ through your employer, withdrawals paid out evenly over your lifetime, and a few other limited circumstances.

But in most cases you’ll pay the penalty along with income taxes if accessing 401k funds early before age 59 and a half. It takes a very large bite out of savings meant to compound in the account for retirement.

How To Calculate Taxes On Specific 401k Withdrawals

Let’s take a look at some examples to see how to calculate regular income tax and any penalties on different dollar amounts. This will provide numbers on just how much goes to the IRS and how much ends up available to actually use:

1) $5,000 withdrawal at age 53

  • Income tax due: Assuming 22% marginal tax rate, $5,000 x 22% = $1,100
  • 10% early withdrawal penalty: $5,000 x 10% = $500
  • Total tax and penalty = $1,600
  • Amount received = $5,000 – $1,600 = $3,400

2) $50,000 withdrawal at age 60 (retired)

  • Income tax due: Assuming 24% marginal tax rate, $50,000 x 24% = $12,000
  • No early withdrawal penalty after age 59 1/2
  • Total tax = $12,000
  • Amount received = $50,000 – $12,000 = $38,000

3) $15,000 hardship withdrawal at age 43

  • Income tax due: Assuming 12% marginal tax rate, $15,000 x 12% = $1,800
  • 10% early withdrawal penalty: $15,000 x 10% = $1,500
  • Total tax and penalty = $3,300
  • Amount received = $15,000 – $3,300 = $11,700

Avoiding the 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty

Now that you understand how the penalty and taxes apply, here are a few tips to avoid the early withdrawal hit if accessing your 401k prior to age 59 1/2:

  • Leave your 401k with your employer upon separation of service if under age 55. You can then take penalty-free withdrawals using 72t distributions or the Rule of 55 exception once reaching the eligible age thresholds.
  • Consider rolling over your 401k into an IRA upon separation if still years away from age 59 1/2. This opens up alternative access options like substantially equal periodic payments using IRS code 72t to sidestep the penalty.
  • For hardship withdrawals where the penalty applies, take only what you absolutely require to avoid further depletion of retirement savings. Have an emergency fund for other expected and unexpected costs.
  • Investigate if you qualify for any of the limited exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty – rather than assuming the 10% automatically applies.

Strategies To Minimize Taxes At Retirement

When preparing to retire, there are also a few good strategies to consider that can put you in lower tax brackets and reduce how much tax you pay on 401k withdrawals in any given year:

  • Stagger when you claim Social Security benefits to prevent forced higher RMDs
  • Withdraw more from taxable accounts first to fill lower brackets, preserving tax-deferred accounts for future years
  • Complete Roth IRA conversions in low-income years before required minimum distributions begin from pre-tax accounts
  • Plan partial Roth 401k rollovers to spread out taxes over time and take advantage of lower income years
  • Move from high-tax states to no/low-income tax states. 401k withdrawals increase state taxes also.
  • Take advantage of the standard deduction by bunching itemized deductions when they do occur
  • Have tax-free income sources from municipal bonds, life insurance cash value, etc. to balance out withdrawals that trigger taxes

Good planning, looking at the long view, and a basic focus on tax efficiency with withdrawals can help you get more out of your 401k when the time does come to access those savings.

Other 401k Withdrawal Situations

While the majority of people start taking distributions from a 401k plan after retiring or reaching age 59 1/2, there are some other situations that can prompt an earlier or unplanned withdrawal:

  • Job Loss or Separation Before Age 55: You can no longer contribute and may elect to roll over the account balance to an IRA. Up to 72t penalty-free payments are possible, though regular income tax still applies. Leaving the 401k as-is delays required minimum distributions for years depending on your age.
  • Rollovers to an IRA: Direct rollovers don’t create a taxable event but withdrawals taken during the 60-day period to deposit funds into the new IRA account are subject to ordinary income taxes. No penalty as long as you meet the deadline.
  • Hardship Withdrawals: Can only come from employee salary deferrals, not employer contributions or earnings. 6-month suspension of contributions required afterwards. Taxed as ordinary income and subject to 10% penalty if under age 59 1/2 unless a special exception applies.
  • Correct Excess Contributions: Overcontributing the IRS limit in a calendar year requires correcting – apply excess and related earnings to taxable account or withdraw. Taxes apply and a 10% penalty can hit excess not removed by the tax filing deadline.
  • Death Before Full Account Distribution: Generally 401k funds get transferred to the designated beneficiary of the account. If the original account owner passes before RMD age, newly inherited 401k withdrawal rules apply to the beneficiary (no penalty but taxed as ordinary income based on life expectancy).


Knowing how taxes and potential penalties apply is key to smart 401k withdrawal strategy during retirement. You can effectively plan when and how much to withdraw each year by understanding how your income tax rate will apply along with any other mandatory reductions. Getting advice from a tax professional also never hurts prior to initiating distributions from your 401k or other accounts earmarked for retirement.

FAQs Related to Calculating taxes on 401k Withdrawals:

Q: Are all 401k withdrawals taxed as regular income?

A: Yes, 401k withdrawals are subject to federal and applicable state income taxes at your ordinary tax rate in the year received. The money was originally contributed pre-tax, so taxes are owed when distributions are taken.

Q: Is there an additional early withdrawal penalty if I take money out before age 59 1⁄2?

A: Generally yes. If you withdraw funds from a 401k before reaching age 59 1/2, you will owe a 10% early withdrawal penalty along with the income taxes you owe on the distribution. There are some exceptions like separation from service at age 55+.

Q: How are taxes on 401k withdrawals calculated?

A: Take the total 401k withdrawal amount and multiple it by your federal marginal income tax rate for the year (could be 10%, 12%, 22% etc. based on total taxable income). State income taxes also apply. The 10% early withdrawal penalty if applicable is charged on the entire withdrawn amount.

Q: Can I avoid taxes completely by rolling over my 401k to an IRA?

A: No, rollovers don’t avoid taxes but simply delay them. Eventually at age 72 you must take required minimum distributions from IRAs which are taxed as ordinary income. Any withdrawals also get taxed. The advantage is continued tax-deferred growth in the meantime.

Q: What if I contribute too much to my 401k during the year?

A: Excess contributions are subject to standard taxes plus a 6% penalty each year until corrected. You can remove the excess amounts before tax day of the following year or apply them to a future year’s contribution.

Q: What if I withdraw my 401k but don’t have the funds on hand to pay taxes I may owe?

A: The taxes and penalties on 401k withdrawals are due by the filing deadline for the year received regardless if you already spent the distribution amount. You should always set aside a portion for what will be owed rather than spending it all.

Q: How can I reduce taxes owed on my 401k withdrawals?

A: Consider rolling over to a Roth IRA early to pay taxes now at a lower rate, harvest losses in your taxable portfolio to offset gains, withdraw more from taxable accounts first to fill lower brackets, move to a low or no income tax state, or employ other retirement distribution strategies.

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