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How to avoid an IRS penalty on

IRA contributions and 529 Plan Withdrawals


The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) levies penalties – even for honest mistakes, such as excess IRA contribution or 529 withdrawals exceeding qualified educational expenses. 

"More Taxes Please," said no one ever. So, let's make sure you don't pay a penalty.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) levies penalties – even for honest mistakes, such as excess IRA contribution or 529 withdrawals exceeding qualified educational expenses.

“But I didn’t intend to…” will not result in the IRS waiving the 6% or 10% penalty for not adhering to often-confusing rules on contributions and withdrawals.


To avoid a penalty, understand the rules.

If you make an honest mistake, consult with a tax professional immediately to take the right corrective steps.

What is an excess IRA contribution? 

Anything which is not an allowable contribution as defined by the IRS.

Traditional IRA

Allowable contributions

$6,000 if under age 50 in 2020

$7,000 if age 50 or over in 2020

Excess contributions (besides the obvious greater than permitted dollar amount)

You (or your spouse) did not have taxable compensation from an employer or self- employment income

For 2020 and later, there is no age limit on making regular contributions to traditional or Roth IRAs. (The previous age limit was age 70 ½)

Roth IRA

Permitted contributions phase-out based on income and tax filing status

        Single Filer: $124,00-$139,000

        Married filing jointly: $186,000-$206,000

6% Penalty each year until removed 

An excess contribution will be assessed a 6% penalty – not once, but each year the excess contribution remains in the IRA.

When to Correct  

It is best to correct your excess contribution as soon as possible to minimize the assessed penalty.   

The deadline for correcting 2019 excess contributions is October 15, 2020, if tax return is filed by July 15, 2020.

Although the deadline is not until October, if you correct before filing your 2019 tax return you may avoid having to file an amended return, and may even be able to roll the excess contribution forward.

How to Correct  

1. Withdraw the contribution and any attributable earnings or loss. Any earnings will be subject to the 10% early distribution penalty if you are under age 59 ½; 

 2. Re-characterize the contribution. Simply put, transfer the contribution amount (plus earnings or loss) from a Roth to a Traditional IRA or vice versa.  Re-characterizations are not taxable or subject to penalty.

Which Method to Use

This is where having a relationship with a trusted advisor becomes critical, as the answer depends on the facts of your individual situation.

If you have no taxable compensation, for example, and made a traditional IRA contribution, re-characterization is not an option and you will need to correct by withdrawal.

If you are self-employed your contributions must be the lesser of the ceiling or your net income. Correct calculation of your net income and self-employment tax is essential.


If your excess contribution to a traditional IRA is due to age (for years prior to 2020), you may be able to re-characterize to a Roth where there are no age limits.


If you contributed to a Roth and traditional IRA in the same tax year and your total contribution went over the allowable IRA amount, you would successfully correct only if you knew to remove the excess from the Roth IRA first.


TIP: Excess IRA contribution rules are complicated. The advice of a knowledgeable tax and financial advisor will save your time and money.

Excess 529 Withdrawals & Education Credits: A Tricky Coordination

Non-qualified 529 withdrawals are subject to a 10% penalty.

529 withdrawals are only tax-free if used to pay for IRS-defined qualified educational expenses (QEE). The earnings portion of all non-qualified withdrawals will be subject to income tax plus a 10 percent penalty.  

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) reduces your federal tax bill dollar-for-dollar by up to $2,500 per year for each eligible college student for qualified tuition expenses if you are within income limits, BUT claiming both the AOTC and a qualified 529 withdrawal takes coordination. 

You cannnot claim any of the AOTC for expenses that were used to calculate the tax-free portion of a distribution from a 529 plan (or prepaid plan, or Coverdell) in that year.

For example, if you take $10,000 out of 529, your qualified educational expenses would have to be greater than $10,000 for you to claim any of the AOTC. Calculating how much to withdraw, when from a 529 plan to maximize the education tax benefits available requires advance planning.

TIP: Maximizing education tax benefits requires coordination in compliance with IRS provisions. There are stiff penalties for error. Having a financial and tax professional who understands education funding will save you time, money, and sleepless nights.


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