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My experience with TIAA-CREF has actually been good. The people on the other end of the phone were friendly and helpful.

Yes, I think it does vary by institution. I used to work for the State University of New York. CREF, but not TIAA, has an option where you can withdraw a lump sum. I needed some cash last year and figured I'd do that. But they checked SUNY's rules, and that was forbidden by SUNY until 55 (I'm 52). However, if I wished to start collecting my money as an annuity, I could do that immediately. However, since payouts are reduced actuarially by age, I was going to take a big hit starting the monthly pension at 52 and not 55, say.

If you phone up TIAA-CREF again and ask for an illustration of your wife's income at age 55 and (for comparison purposes) say 60, they should send you something in the mail in a week or two.

I asked explicitly about penalties for starting an annuity before age 59 1/2, and they said there weren't any. I think it falls under the "substantially equal withdrawals" escape clause.
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