Should I Borrow from my 401(k) during the Pandemic?

The major advantage of saving in a 401(k), is that you can have tax-deferred growth on your investments. When you’re saving money for the long term, you typically want to leave it alone. However, there are some situations, in which withdrawing money from your 401(k) is acceptable.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Hardship Withdrawal vs. 401(k) Loan: What’s the Difference?” says that prior to making a move, you need to understand the financial implications of using your retirement plan early. There are two basic ways to take money out before reaching retirement age.

One option is to take a hardship withdrawal. The IRS says that hardship withdrawals are okay, only when there’s an immediate and great financial need. These withdrawals are usually limited to the amount required to satisfy that need. These withdrawals are subject to ordinary income tax and, if you’re not yet 59½, there’s a 10% early withdrawal penalty, except if you’re impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act lets you make a penalty-free COVID-19 related withdrawal or take out a loan from your 401(k) in 2020, with special repayment provisions and tax treatment.

The IRS has a safe harbor exception that lets you automatically meet the heavy-need standard in certain situations, such as for those who must take a hardship withdrawal to pay for medical expenses for themselves, a spouse, or dependents. A hardship withdrawal could also be helpful, if you are in a long period of unemployment and don’t have an emergency fund. The IRS waives the penalty if you’re unemployed and need to buy health insurance, but you’d still owe taxes on the withdrawal. Other situations that are covered by the safe harbor exception include:

  • Tuition, education fees, and room-and-board expenses for the next 12 months of post-secondary school for the employee or the employee’s spouse, children, dependents, or beneficiary.
  • Payments that are required to prevent the eviction of the employee from his or her principal residence or foreclosure on the mortgage on that residence.
  • Funeral expenses for the employee, the employee’s spouse, children, dependents, or beneficiary.
  • Certain expenses to repair damage to the employee’s principal residence.

If you qualify for a Coronavirus-Related Distribution (CRD) from your 401(k) plan during 2020, that distribution will be treated as a safe-harbor distribution that isn’t subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you’re under 59½ but subject to regular income taxes. Some other unique stipulations to this special distribution say that:

  • You can withdraw up to $100,000 or your account balance, whichever is less.
  • You can spread out any taxes over three years.
  • If you pay the funds back into your account within three years, it’ll be considered a rollover and not taxed.

The IRS has expanded the eligibility for a hardship withdrawal to include having a job start date delayed or a job offer rescinded because of COVID-19 and allow a spouse of an impacted person to make a hardship withdrawal—even if the spouse is still working.

If you’re not in such a financial state but still want to take cash from your plan, a 401(k) loan is the other way to go. The IRS says that you can borrow 50% of your vested account balance or $50,000, whichever is less. However, a loan has both pros and cons. You’re in effect paying back the money to yourself. That means you’re returning it to your retirement account, and that’s good. However, if you leave your job and don’t repay the loan within a specified period (which was recently extended to the due date of your federal income tax return, instead of the previous 60-to-90 day window, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act), it is treated as a regular distribution. Therefore, income tax and the early withdrawal penalty would apply.

However, there may be situations in which you might consider a loan. New rules also let you withdraw a loan of up to $100,000 or the amount in your employer-sponsored retirement plan (whichever is less) anytime until September 23, 2020, and delay payments on the loan for up to a year (but the interest will accrue.) If you already have an outstanding loan, the payments can also be deferred for a year.

Consolidating debt. You could use the loan to consolidate high-interest debt, if your credit doesn’t qualify you for a low rate on a personal loan or a debt consolidation loan.

Purchasing a home. It could help when you’re planning to buy a home. You could use the money to cover closing costs or hold it in your down-payment savings account for a few months before buying. A 401(k) loan typically must be repaid within five years with at least quarterly payments, but the IRS allows provisions for plan administrators to extend the repayment period longer for those buying a home.

Making an Investment. You could make an investment, like a home as an investment property when you plan to renovate the home and flip it for a profit but need capital to make the purchase.

When You Have A Comfortable Retirement Cushion. If you’ve been saving regularly for many years with solid investments, you may be ahead of schedule when it comes to hitting your retirement goal. If so, and your job is stable, taking a loan from your 401(k) may not be too bad for your retirement.

There’s also an option for 2020 only for taking a 401(k) loan. If you qualify for a CRD, the CARES Act lets you to take a loan of up to $100,000 or the amount in your employer-sponsored retirement plan (whichever is less) until September 23, 2020. You can postpone the payments for up to a year, but interest will accrue. If you already have an outstanding loan, those payments can also be deferred for a year.

If you decide to take a loan or a hardship withdrawal, be certain that you understand the potential tax consequences of doing so.

Reference: Investopedia (June 23, 2020) “Hardship Withdrawal vs. 401(k) Loan: What’s the Difference?”

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