401(k) Hardship Withdrawal

Individuals faithfully building their 401(k) plans at work can suddenly find themselves facing a financial hardship.  This leaves them wondering:  Is it possible to make a 401(k) withdrawal without incurring a penalty?  Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not that simple.

Retirement Plans

The purpose of 401(k) plans is to encourage individuals to save for retirement.  Tax laws allow individuals to fund their plan with pre-tax dollars, and allow the money to grow on a tax-deferred basis until withdrawal.  In exchange for the tax shelter that a 401(k) plan provides to employees, tax laws restrict the withdrawal of that money before age 59 1/2.

401(k) Withdrawals

Additional Resources

Some 401(k) plans allow employees to withdraw funds for any reason.  Typically, these 401(k) withdrawals are limited to the elective portion of the deferral, and not any income or interest on the deferred amounts.  However, these types of plans are more the exception than the rule.  Generally, money can be withdrawn from an account if a financial hardship exists, and only in a very limited number of situations.

Financial Hardships

The exact rules followed by each 401(k) plan will vary.  But generally, a financial hardship is deemed to exist if a participant in the plan experiences an immediate and heavy financial burden.  In addition, the participant must have no other financial means of meeting this hardship.  Examples of financial hardships include:

  • Potential eviction or foreclosure on the participant's principal residence.
  • The participant needs substantially all of their current and anticipated income and assets to meet their current and anticipated ordinary and necessary living expenses.

Demonstrating true financial hardship usually requires more proof than just the repayment of money owed lenders.  That is, the burden of proof must be greater than merely the inconvenience of repaying a debt.

To discourage the use of 401(k) plan funds for any reason other than retirement purposes, early withdrawals are subject to a 10% penalty.  This means any money withdrawn from the account before age 59 1/2 may not only be subject to federal income taxes based on an individual's incremental tax bracket, but also a 10% penalty.  The tax code, however, does allow penalty-free withdrawals if the hardship meets certain criteria.

Criteria for Withdrawals

There are three ways money can be taken from a 401(k) account without penalty:

  • The distribution or withdrawal must be made after termination of employment, if the accountholder is age 55 or older in that calendar year.
  • Distributions or withdrawals are made to an alternate payee under a qualified domestic relations order.  This often happens as part of a divorce settlement.
  • Withdrawals or distributions of dividends from employee stock ownership plans or ESOP.

Safe Harbor Provisions

The IRS also has a provision for employers to provide for a safe harbor withdrawal from a 401(k) plan if an immediate and heavy financial need or burden exists.  The only money exempt under the safe harbor rule is that which is used to satisfy that immediate and heavy financial need.  According to the IRS, the safe harbor hardship withdrawals from a 401(k) plan are limited to:

  • Money used to pay certain medical expenses for the accountholder, their spouse, or any of their dependents.
  • Payments of specific post-secondary education expense for the next year for the accountholder, their spouse, or any of their dependents.
  • The purchase of a primary residence.
  • Money needed to prevent eviction or foreclosure on a primary residence.

Hardship withdrawals or distributions are includible in gross income for federal income tax purposes, unless they consist of Roth contributions. They may also be subjected to a 10% additional tax on early distributions of elective contributions.

Prior to any kind of hardship withdrawal, a 401(k) plan participant is usually required to take all other possible forms of non-hardship distributions from their account.  This can include loans as well as the withdrawal of after tax money in their account.  As with any decision that can affect someone's financial future, it's important to consult with a 401(k) plan administrator and / or a tax advisor before withdrawing money from an account.


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