Hardship Withdrawals Give Access to Your 401k Savings, But at a Cost
If you're in a financial pinch, you might be able to tap your 401k for a bailout -- but it could really cost you.
You're not alone in wondering if you should tap your retirement savings. With an uncertain economy and average consumers debt building up, many people are thinking about the money in their 401k plans.
It is safe to say that hardship withdrawal information is one of the most sought after items on this website. And that has some financial and retirement industry experts worried. A withdrawal taken in haste today could have a big impact on your golden years.
A hardship withdrawal is not like a plan loan. The withdrawal may be difficult to get, and costly if you receive it. Remember, your 401k is meant to provide retirement income. It should be a last-resort source of cash for expenses before then.
Knowing that workers would resist putting aside money for decades with no chance to access it, Congress made provisions in the 401k rules to allow plan withdrawals in a limited number of hardship situations. These include:
- Un-reimbursed medical expenses for you, your spouse, or dependents.
- Purchase of an employee's principal residence.
- Payment of college tuition and related educational costs such as room and board for the next 12 months for you, your spouse, dependents, or children who are no longer dependents.
- Payments necessary to prevent eviction of you from your home, or foreclosure on the mortgage of your principal residence.
- For funeral expenses.
- Certain expenses for the repair of damage to the employee's principal residence.
But to discourage these early hardship withdrawals, in most all cases the IRS imposes a hefty financial penalty including a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you are younger than 59 1/2.
You may qualify to take a penalty-free withdrawal if you meet one of the following exceptions:
- You become totally disabled.
- You are in debt for medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income.
- You are required by court order to give the money to your divorced spouse, a child, or a dependent.
- You are separated from service (through permanent layoff, termination, quitting or taking early retirement) in the year you turn 55, or later.
- You are separated from service and you have set-up a payment schedule to withdraw money in substantially equal amounts over the course of your life expectancy. (Once you begin taking this kind of distribution you are required to continue for five years or until you reach age 59 1/2, whichever is longer.)
Employers are not required to offer any type of hardship withdrawal, so you should check with your employer to see if it is available to you.
If you need a new car or want to take a Caribbean Cruise and want to take a 401k hardship withdrawal for that purpose, think again. These withdrawals are meant for big emergencies. You really have to need the money and have no other source of funds.
In addition to tough federal rules, you may also have to contend with a strict set of withdrawal rules from your employer.
Employers use one of two methods to issue financial hardship withdrawals. One is a proof of need. In this case, you have to show your employer financial proof that you need to take money out of your 401k. With this method, you are allowed to start contributing to your 401k plan with the next paycheck following your hardship withdrawal.
Many employers don't use this method because they really aren't interested in knowing so much about their workers' private lives. Similarly, few workers are comfortable exposing their finances to their bosses and co-workers.
The other method, called self-certification, doesn't require you to disclose your finances, but plans using this method will not allow you to make fresh 401k contributions for six months after taking the withdrawal. This further limits your ability to build a retirement nest egg.
Contact the plan administrator in the personnel department of your employer to find how if your plan offers hardships and what method they use.
Remember, once you take the money out of your plan using a hardship withdrawal, you can't put it back in and you lose for life the tax advantage on those funds.
A hardship withdrawal is not a loan. You can't repay it. But, that raises a good point. You should see if your plan offers a 401k loan as an alternative to taking a financial hardship withdrawal. Plan loans are not subject to taxes or penalties, and you can continue to contribute to the plan while you repay the loan. (Some plans will even require you to exhaust your possibilities for a loan before taking a hardship withdrawal.)
However, if you leave your employer before the loan is repaid, you must pay back the remaining balance otherwise it will be considered a withdrawal and subject to applicable taxes and penalties.
When looking for hardship withdrawal alternatives, don't forget savings in your IRA, if you have one. IRS rules allow IRA holders to withdraw up to $10,000 penalty-free when the money is used for qualified first home expenses. (That is a lifetime limit.) Also, you may take penalty-free IRA withdrawals when the savings are used to pay for qualified higher education expenses for you or your spouse, children or grandchildren.
What many 401k participants, desperate for money, may forget is the cost of taking a financial hardship withdrawal. A $10,000 withdrawal does not equal $10,000 in your pocket.
If you are under 59 1/2, you will lose 35 percent to 45 percent of the withdrawal in taxes and penalties. You need to think about that.
For example: suppose you fall in the 28 percent tax bracket.
If you take a $10,000 hardship withdrawal to pay for your child's college tuition, you will owe $2,800 in federal income taxes and an additional $1,000 to cover the early withdrawal penalty. You'll be left with $6,300, or even less if you also owe state and local income tax.
Taking a hardship withdrawal can also result in longer-term pain -- a less generous retirement.
Take the example of a person who, starting at age 30, contributes $5,000 a year to her 401k plan. At age 40, she buys a house and takes a $10,000 hardship withdrawal for the down payment. Let's assume her portfolio generates an average annual return of 8 percent. By retirement at age 65, she will have $793,094. Had she not taken the hardship withdrawal she would have had $861,584, or $68,490 more.
A $10,000 withdrawal may seem insignificant today, but over time it can mean a lot.
See the following article titled, "401k Hardship Withdrawals - An Overview." Also IRS FAQs Regarding Hardship Distributions.
The information provided here is intended to help you understand the general issue and does not constitute any tax, investment or legal advice. Consult your financial, tax or legal advisor regarding your own unique situation and your company's benefits representative for rules specific to your plan.