Most IRA owners limit withdrawals to required minimum distributions, according to a new report from the Employee Research Benefit Institute. Nevertheless, a substantial number of higher-income retirees take withdrawals before age 70-1/2, when RMDs begin, and those non-required distributions may be relatively large, in relation to their IRA balances.

“Some advice regarding optimal withdrawal strategies will definitely help,” said Sudipto Banerjee, EBRI research associate and author of the report, when asked about the role financial advisors can play.

The data for this study came from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, using numbers reported in even-numbered years from 2002 through 2010. The EBRI report shows that 71.1% of households said they took only RMDs from their IRAs, at age 71, and that percentage gradually increased by age, to the point where 91.1% of households took only RMDs at age 86.

Drilling down, the report separated responding households into income quartiles. As might be expected, households with lower incomes were most likely to take voluntary IRA withdrawals from age 61 through age 70. In each of the three lower income quartiles, over 40% of households took IRA withdrawals then.

According to Banerjee, the highest-income quartile for those between ages 61 and 70 and for retirees included survey respondents with gross household income of at least $61,897, in 2010 dollars; for those between ages 71 and 80, income in the top quartile was at least $50,802. Thus, financial advisory clients most likely would be in that highest-income quartile.

The EBRI report found that 28.8% of retired households in the top-income quartile made an IRA withdrawal between ages 61 and 70. The average withdrawal for that quartile was 11.5% of their IRA balance. From ages 71 through 80, those households in the top income quartile that took out more than the RMD had a withdrawal rate of 12.9% of their IRA balance. These data indicate that even some relatively high-income seniors have been tapping their IRAs at an unsustainable rate.

On a somewhat brighter note, 10.9% of the households in the 61-70 age group reported that they put all or part of their withdrawal into savings. Among households between ages 71 and 80, 31.5% said they saved at least some of the withdrawn funds. Thus, it seems that many septuagenarians take as little as possible from their IRAs, via RMDs, and don’t even spend that much. Advisors who know about clients’ withdrawal and spending habits may be able to help them make the best use of money they don’t really need.