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Unplanned early retirement?

How to bridge the gap between when your paycheck stops and Social Security starts.

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Key takeaways

  • Review your essential and discretionary expenses.
  • Make smart use of unemployment and savings, severance, or disability money.
  • Formulate a withdrawal strategy that is sensitive to tax considerations.

For some, retiring early is a dream. But for those faced with an unplanned early retirement—they are laid off late in their career or have a medical disability—it may be a different story, especially if you are not yet eligible to claim Social Security beginning at age 62.

Although you don't always have control over when you retire, there are ways to help bridge the gap between when your paycheck stops and when you start taking Social Security—or go back to work.

While you may be eligible to begin taking Social Security at age 62, that might not be the best decision, even if you aren't working. That's because after you reach age 62, every year that you delay taking Social Security (up to age 70), you could receive up to 8% more in future monthly payments. (Once you reach age 70, increases stop, so there is no benefit to waiting past age 70.) Also, delaying your own Social Security may increase your spouse's survivor benefit.

If you find yourself unintentionally retired due to a medical disability or layoff, use the 3 key steps outlined below to assess your situation and income options. Then, take a look at a "bridge" strategy that may be able to help you keep your retirement on track. Important note: If you're in this situation, you'll be making significant financial decisions, and should consult with a financial advisor before doing anything.

Assess your financial situation

Step 1: Start with your budget

Review your essential and discretionary expenses and then compare them to your income. Start by zeroing in on your monthly expenses. Review this information dispassionately and look for places to cut. For example, it may be easier to reduce costs for dining out now that you have more time to cook and you could cut back on transportation, clothing, and other items that were necessary for your job.

Step 2: Make smart use of your assets

Look at potential income sources. You might consider generating income from your home, for example, with a home equity line of credit (that you would later pay off from the sale of other assets). Perhaps you can downsize your residence. If you sell and receive a substantial amount of money, consider using it to purchase a bond ladder or a period-certain annuity (which has a defined beginning and ending date) that can provide regular income until you start taking Social Security.

Step 3: Formulate a tax-smart withdrawal strategy

You may need to draw from your retirement or personal savings as well. Consider developing a strategic withdrawal strategy based on your tax bracket, that aims to help reduce the effects of taxes while helping to potentially stretch your savings.

  • Traditional workplace savings plans and IRAs. Withdrawals from these accounts are generally taxed as ordinary income. Also, a 10% early withdrawal penalty generally applies on distributions before age 59½ for IRAs and 401(k)s, unless you meet one of the IRS exceptions. If you no longer work for the company that provided the 401(k) plan and you left that employer at age 55 or later—but still maintain a 401(k) account—you can take early withdrawals beginning at age 55 without a penalty. You should contact your plan administrator for rules governing your plan. For IRAs, you can avoid the early withdrawal penalty by arranging to take "substantially equal periodic payments" from the account. The amounts of your withdrawals are based on your age and account balance, and you must take them for 5 years or until you reach age 59½, whichever is longer. Consult with a tax advisor if you are interested in taking substantially equal periodic payments.
  • Roth IRAs. A distribution of earnings from a Roth IRA1 or Roth 401(k) is tax-free and penalty-free provided that you have owned your Roth for 5 years (known as the 5-year aging requirement) and at least one of the following conditions is met: You reach age 59½, make a qualified first-time home purchase, become disabled, or die. You can always withdraw your after-tax contributions penalty-free and tax-free.
  • Health savings accounts. You may have accumulated tax-advantaged money2 in an HSA from a previous employer that can be used to pay for a doctor's visit or other qualified medical expenses now or in the future. Although HSAs generally cannot be used to pay for health insurance premiums, there are 2 important exceptions: paying for COBRA continuation health care coverage and paying health plan premiums while receiving unemployment compensation.
  • Taxable accounts, including mutual fund and brokerage accounts. If you have to sell appreciated assets in these accounts to generate cash, it may result in capital gains taxes.

Read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: Tax-savvy withdrawals in retirement

If you retire early due to a medical disability

If you have to end your career for medical reasons, you may be eligible to receive income from disability insurance from one of more of these 3 options:

  1. Employer-funded disability. Payouts from these policies generally replace about 60% of your income, which can leave a significant gap. Any income you receive from an employer-provided policy is taxable, and some disability insurance contracts provide funds only until you can train for work in a different career. You may be eligible for workers' compensation, but it typically lasts only until you are physically capable of returning to work.
  2. Privately funded disability. You may have signed up for a policy on your own if your employer didn't provide coverage, or if you wanted to supplement the coverage your company offered. Either way, payments from a self-funded disability policy are tax-free. If you have this type of plan, review your documents or consult your insurance agent for information about the duration and amount of your benefit.
  3. Social Security disability. Qualifying for Social Security disability benefits can be difficult and time-consuming. You may want to consult a financial advisor or attorney to help guide you through the process. If you are approved to receive these benefits, be aware that your disability payments automatically convert to retirement benefits when you reach Social Security's full retirement age (which is either 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth), and this benefit will remain the same.

Example: How the Bartons manage a medical disability

Let's look at a hypothetical couple, Jane and Michael Barton. Michael suffers from a significant medical condition at age 62, while Jane, age 60, continues working. They decide to try to wait until Michael turns 66 to take his Social Security retirement benefits, in order to receive the full monthly payment.

The Bartons had a total pretax household yearly income of $120,000 ($70,000 plus $50,000) before Michael left the workforce, meaning a $70,000 decrease in income. Yearly household expenses total $90,000 ($60,000 essential and $30,000 discretionary). In addition, the couple has $800,000 in retirement assets in a combination of taxable ($100,000), tax-deferred ($500,000), and tax-free ($200,000) accounts.

The couple cuts essential expenses by 10% ($6,000) and discretionary expenses by 30% ($9,000), bringing net household expenses to $75,000 for the upcoming year. On an after-tax basis, Jane makes $40,000, which leaves a gap of $35,000 in the first year. Michael receives short-term disability for 3 months, at the end of which long-term disability coverage kicks in. Altogether the insurance provides $30,000 after taxes for the year, so the couple needs to withdraw $5,000 per year for the next 4 years from their retirement assets (actual withdrawal will be higher as taxes are owed upon withdrawal).

This withdrawal, combined with disability insurance and reductions in expenses, fills their income gap. People who face such a situation at a younger age may not be able to forego Social Security until age 66. In this case, they can build a bridge strategy that takes them to age 62, the earliest point at which they can receive Social Security benefits.

Tip: Health status, longevity, and retirement lifestyle are 3 key variables that can play a role in your decision on when to claim your Social Security benefits. If you claim early versus later, you will likely have lower benefits from Social Security to help fund your retirement.

In conclusion

If you've recently suffered a medical disability, the future may be challenging. But you do have options, even if you don't reenter the workforce full-time. Working with an advisor, you can create a well-thought-out bridge strategy to help you transition between your career, retirement, and your Social Security benefits.

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