Sunday, October 30, 2016

When Hardship Is Not Enough

Let’s talk a bit about hardship distributions from your retirement plan – perhaps your 401(k).

You may know that you are not supposed to touch this money before a certain age. If you do, not only will there be income taxes to pay, but also a 10% early withdrawal penalty. These are two moving pieces here: one is the income tax on the distribution and another for the 10% penalty.

Here is a question for you:

Let’s say you can withdraw money from your plan for hardship reasons. Does that mean that the penalty does not apply?

The answer is no. One would think that the two Code sections move in tandem, but they do not.

Candace Elaine ran into this in a recent Tax Court decision.

Candace lived in California, and in 2012 she withdrew $84,000 from her retirement plan. She had lost her job in 2009, and she was trying to support herself and family.

The tax Code applies two requirements to the income taxation of hardship withdrawals:

·        On account of an immediate and heavy financial need, and
·        Any amount withdrawn is limited to actual need

An “immediate and heavy financial need” would include monies needed for medical expenses or to avoid foreclosure. In addition, one is not allowed to withdraw $20,000 if the need is only $12,000, with the intention of using the excess for other purposes. 

The plan custodian is the watchman for these two requirements. The custodian is to obtain reasonable assurance of need and inquire whether other financial resources exist. This is a role above and beyond routine administration, and consequently many plans simply do not offer hardship withdrawals.

Candace met those requirements and her plan allowed withdrawals. She reported and paid income tax on the $84,000, but she did not pay the 10% penalty.

The IRS bounced her return. Off to Tax Court they went, where Candace represented herself.

Her argument was simple: I received a hardship distribution. There is an exemption for hardship.

The IRS said that there was not. And in the spirit of unemployed taxpayers trying to support their family, the IRS assessed a penalty on top of the 10% chop.

The Court pointed several exceptions to the 10% early withdrawal penalty, including:

·        Separation from service
·        Disability
·        Deductible medical expenses
·        Health insurance premiums while unemployed
·        Higher education
·        First time purchase of a principal residence

There isn’t one for hardship, though.

Meaning that Candace owed the 10% penalty.

The Court did note that the misunderstanding on the 10% is widespread and refused to assess the IRS’ second penalty.

Why did Candace not just borrow the money from her 401(k) and avoid the issue? Because she had been let go, and you have to be employed in order to take a plan loan.

What if she had rolled the money into an IRA?

IRAs are not allowed to make loans, even to you. The only way you can get money out of an IRA is to take a distribution. This is what sets up the ROBs (Roll-Over as Business Start-Up) as a tax issue, for example.

Candace was stuck with the penalty.

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