Under the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA), a 401k or 403b plan may only permit participants to withdraw funds from the plan under specific rules. For current employee-participants, the distribution rules generally severely limit withdrawals. One common form of withdrawal for employees is a hardship distribution. A hardship distribution is what it sounds like; it is a distribution permitted to help the employee cover a financial hardship with retirement funds. There are generally two types of hardship distributions: (1) facts and circumstances hardship withdrawals and (2) safe harbor hardship withdrawals.
An employer can choose what, if any, hardship withdrawals to permit. An employer may choose to allow no hardship withdrawals at all, or only certain safe harbor reasons. Alternatively, an employer could choose to allow all of the safe harbor rules plus additional circumstances that led to an unforeseeable emergency to the employee.
Safe harbor hardship withdrawal rules
Most plans allow hardship withdrawals under the safe harbor rules which currently allow hardship withdrawals for six reasons. These include:
- The purchase of the employee’s primary residence;
- Medical expenses of the employee, the employee’s spouse or other dependent;
- Tuition and other educational expenses for the next twelve months of postsecondary education for the employee, the employee’s spouse or other dependent;
- Payments necessary to prevent the eviction of the employee or to prevent the foreclosure of the employee’s primary residence;
- Funeral expenses for the employee, the employee’s spouse or other dependent;
- Certain expenses to repair damage to the employee’s principal residence caused by catastrophic damage.
Under the safe harbor rules the employee may receive a hardship distribution under one or more rules of the employee’s deferrals. The employee may not receive earnings or employer contributions (except certain employer contributions prior to 1988). The employee may only receive as much as the employee can document is necessary for one or more of these reasons. The employee must allege to the employer that he or she is unable to satisfy these expenses from another source, such as insurance payments.
Current IRS regulations require employees to exhaust all other loan and withdrawals from the plan before a hardship withdrawal and the employee cannot make future deferrals to the plan for the following six months.
Why employers operate under safe harbor rules
These rules create a “safe harbor” under IRS regulations so that the employer or other plan sponsor may permit these distributions without a plan audit questioning the validity of the distribution so long as the employer diligently received evidence of the employee’s hardship and reviewed the evidence for conformity with IRS regulations.
The less a plan sponsor goes outside of safe harbor rules with an ERISA retirement plan the less liability it creates for itself. Along with operating outside of safe harbor rules also comes paying for more guidance from employment law attorneys who specialize in retirement plans and other compensation issues.
If the IRS audits the retirement plan and finds regulatory violations then the plan sponsor may face penalties and may further attorney’s fees to deal with defending against the IRS and fixing plan problems.
Facts and circumstances hardship withdrawal rules
A 401k or 403b plan sponsor may allow additional or alternative hardship withdrawals based upon circumstances beyond the safe harbor rules. These are often referred to as facts and circumstances hardship withdrawals or unforeseeable emergency hardship withdrawals. The rules for these distributions are similar; however, the plan sponsor determines its own reasons why it will approve a hardship withdrawal.
The 401k or 403b plan must provide clear explanation under the plan rules what constitutes these facts and circumstances that permit a hardship withdrawal. A plan sponsor cannot create new hardship distribution rules on the fly for employees even if the employee’s reason legitimately is an unforeseeable emergency that could justify a hardship withdrawal.
For the employee a facts and circumstances hardship withdrawal is similar to a safe harbor hardship distribution. The employee’s ability to request a hardship withdrawal is still limited to the employee’s need and the employee must exhaust other financial options before turning to the hardship withdrawal.
The facts and circumstances hardship withdrawal differs in not requiring a six months suspension of deferrals. The employee can receive employer matching contributions and nonelective contributions.
Why employers often do not provide facts and circumstances hardship withdrawals
However, the plan sponsor’s responsibilities under a facts and circumstances hardship withdrawal differs. The sponsor’s liability for mismanagement of the plan is greater because the sponsor must define the hardship and necessary evidence of the hardship for each fact and circumstance. If the sponsor fails to define facts and circumstances that satisfy IRS regulations or fails to objectively and consistently apply those rules then it may face severe penalties for permitting invalid distributions.
At a minimum, the cost of administering plan rules beyond safe harbor regulations increases as the plan pays for additional employment lawyer time to design, review and counsel the sponsor on plan administration. Most employers and other plan sponsors try to avoid expanding their attorney’s fees for plan administration.
Why ERISA and IRS regulations limit hardship withdrawals at all
As an employment lawyer who deals with ERISA retirement plan issues I have long heard questions around why ERISA regulates hardship withdrawals at all. These are understandable questions for several reasons. After all, the funds in your 401k or 403b plan are your deferred compensation and funds from your employer earned as part of your overall compensation. Most bank accounts and other savings vehicles allow you to pull your funds at any time, even if at a penalty.
Expecting the same from your employer-sponsored retirement plan is not an unusual expectation; however, there are several reasons why federal employment law and your employer’s plan rules limit hardship withdrawals and other distributions.
The primary reason why ERISA and its accompanying regulations limit pre-retirement distributions is to encourage retirement savings. Taking your funds out prior to retirement directly opposes that goal. Permitting a limited range of pre-retirement distributions strikes a balance between helping employees save for retirement and discouraging savings because employees may need access to the funds in the event of a financial emergency.
That is why the vast majority of ERISA-governed retirement plans permit at least some hardship withdrawals or loans.
Employers have legitimate reasons to limit active participants from depleting retirement savings. Compliance with other ERISA statutory and regulatory requirements is an important component of operating a retirement plan. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in financial penalties to the plan sponsor and worse, can even result in disqualification of the plan which causes direct financial harm to the participants.
Distributions can be a major source of liability for plan administration. They also bear expense on the plan. Distributions are among the more expensive transactions for the plan so the more distributions the plan processes the greater administration expense and the more likely the employer will raise plan fees to account for it. Frequent distributions also require the plan to structure investments to the participants and for management in ways that can be less valuable to participants.
Implications of taking a hardship withdrawal from your retirement plan
A hardship withdrawal may help deal with an imminent emergency but create other complications down the road. Participants considering a hardship withdrawal should carefully consider the drawbacks to taking a hardship withdrawal before submitting a request.
The most obvious potential issue with a hardship withdrawal is that the distribution is taxable to the extent the distributed funds are untaxed. Most retirement funds eligible for a hardship withdrawal will be pre-tax funds subject to ordinary income tax upon distribution. You may have some after-tax or Roth deferrals within the hardship withdrawal that are not subject to taxes. In addition to ordinary income tax, any taxable portion of the withdrawal may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
You should consider the tax liability of your request at the time of distribution. Plan rules may allow you to gross up your withdrawal request, meaning you can request an additional amount to cover some of the taxes due on the withdrawal request. The danger here is that if you do not adequately plan for the additional taxes due at tax time you may find yourself rolling one financial hardship into the next one when you pay taxes the following year.
Additionally, under the current ERISA rules, a plan may or must suspend your deferrals to the plan for six months following a hardship withdrawal. A hardship withdrawal will not only deplete your retirement plan of existing funds but may limit your ability to replenish those funds. In certain economic conditions this can severely harm your retirement savings beyond the amount of the distribution. Consider your options to handle your current financial emergency in other ways and how you will make up the retirement savings depleted by your hardship withdrawal.
Similarly, by taking funds out of your retirement plan you may negatively affect your investments or investment strategy for retirement. Some plans include complex investments or investments that require you to pay fees to liquidate them to fund your hardship withdrawal. Consider how your request may incur additional fees or lock in investment losses as a result of your request.
In an urgent financial emergency these may be worthwhile risks to accept but down the road you may have wished you dealt with them differently. Some retirement plans allow you to select investments to liquidate for these distributions to minimize these costs. Review your plan documents before submitting your hardship request to see what options are available.
Can an employment lawyer help me get a hardship withdrawal if the plan administrator says no?
Another common question directed to employee rights lawyers is what can be done when a plan administrator denies a hardship withdrawal request. Again, this is a completely normal question. If you need a hardship withdrawal then it is probable that you have a serious financial emergency and need whatever help you can get. The answer to this question depends upon the particular facts in your situation.
Do you qualify under the plan’s hardship withdrawal rules?
The first issue is whether you qualify for a hardship withdrawal under the plan’s rules. ERISA statutory and regulatory rules require plan administrators to administer the plan within plan rules uniformly and consistently.
The plan administrator cannot create new hardship withdrawal reasons even if your situation would qualify as an unforeseeable emergency under ERISA.
The plan administrator also cannot create different qualification rules for your withdrawal request.
For example, the plan administrator cannot allow you to submit less specific documentation than other employees or approve your request for slightly different reasons than what the plan rules specifically permit.
Instead your hardship withdrawal request must fall within one of the reasons specifically described by plan rules and you must provide the documentation of the hardship within the plan’s normal approval procedures. To determine whether you comply with the plan’s rules and procedures an employment lawyer will often need to review the plan documentation against your request documentation.
If your request does not fall within the plan rules then your employment lawyer may discuss other options to request a hardship withdrawal or other distribution under the plan rules.
Did my hardship withdrawal request comply with plan rules?
Sometimes plan administrators and their agents fail to process an appropriate request for a hardship withdrawal but often people fail to submit proper requests. Determining what will cure a failed application for hardship withdrawal application is usually not a difficult process if you understand how retirement plans process these requests.
Today many retirement plans process hardship distributions without requiring participants to submit written applications or documentation but problems can still arise in processing your request.
In some cases problems arise although the plan received a complete and compliant request. These may come from technical problems processing the application or a manual error by somebody in the midst of processing your request. Sometimes people involved in your employer’s retirement plan do not fully understand hardship withdrawal rules which can cause unnecessary delay.
These are situations where an experienced employment lawyer can help you navigate the process by working with your plan administrator to resolve errors in the process.
On the other hand, your request may be deficient because an application was incomplete or the supporting documentation does not adequately support the request. Plan administrators often require specific documents to approve a hardship request and you may not have access to the specific document at this time.
An employment lawyer can review your plan rules and work with the necessary parties to cure your application and get the hardship withdrawal approved as quick as possible.
When to contact an employment lawyer in Colorado about a hardship withdrawal?
If your employer refuses a hardship withdrawal request and you cannot resolve the denial with your employer then it is a good idea to talk to Colorado employment lawyers in your area about your situation. Do not delay talking to employment lawyers near you. Many hardship withdrawal situations are time sensitive and you and your employment lawyer may have many steps to take to resolve the withdrawal request. The longer you wait the more difficult it may be to prevent the hardship from becoming a larger problem.
In more troubling situations the plan administrator’s refusal to process a valid hardship withdrawal may signal more serious problems with the plan. The plan sponsor or somebody with access to plan funds may have depleted plan assets or other fiduciary problems may exist with plan administration. The plan administrator’s acts may also be part of a larger problem such as unlawful employment discrimination. These are issues an experienced employment lawyer can explore with you. Talk to a Denver employment lawyer about your retirement plan problems.