Many employers sponsor 401(k) plans to help employees save for retirement. But sometimes those employees need access to plan funds well before they retire. In such cases, if the plan allows it, participants can make a hardship withdrawal.
If your organization sponsors a 401(k) with this option, you should know that there are important changes on the way next year.
What will be different
Right now, 401(k) hardship withdrawals are limited to only funds an employee has contributed, and the employee must first take out a plan loan from the account. The employee also cannot participate in the plan for six months after a hardship withdrawal.
However, important changes take effect in 2019 under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA). First, employees’ withdrawal limits will include not only their own contributed amounts, but also accumulated employer matching contributions plus earnings on contributions. If an employee has been participating in your 401(k) for several years, this could add substantially to the amount of funds available for withdrawal in the event of a legitimate hardship.
In addition, the BBA eliminates the current six-month ban on employee participation in the 401(k) plan following a hardship withdrawal. This means employees can stay in the plan and keep contributing, which allows them to begin recouping withdrawn amounts right away. And, for you, the plan sponsor, it means no longer having to re-enroll employees in the 401(k) after the six-month hiatus.
What remains the same
Some things haven’t changed. Hardship withdrawals are still subject to a 10% tax penalty, along with regular income tax. This combination could take a substantial bite out of the amount withdrawn, effectively forcing account holders to take out more dollars than they otherwise would have to, so as to wind up with the same net amount.
The BBA also didn’t change the reasons for which hardship withdrawals can be made. According to the IRS, such a withdrawal “must be made because of an immediate and heavy financial need of the employee and the amount must be necessary to satisfy the financial need.” This can include the need of an employee’s spouse or dependent, as well as that of a nonspouse, nondependent beneficiary.
The agency has said that the meaning of “immediate and heavy” depends on the facts of the situation and assumes the employee doesn’t have any other way to meet the need. Examples offered by the IRS include:
- Qualified medical expenses,
- Tuition and related educational fees and expenses, and
- Burial or funeral expenses.
The agency has also cited costs related to a principal residence as usually qualifying. These include expenses related to the purchase of a principal residence, its repair after significant damage, and costs necessary to prevent eviction or foreclosure.
If your organization sponsors a 401(k) plan that permits hardship withdrawals, be sure to read up on all the details related to the BBA’s changes. Our firm can provide more information and further guidance.