Earlier this month the IRS released its final draft of proposed regulation changes that will incorporate statutory provisions of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 and Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that will have the effect of relaxing the rules on 401k hardship distributions. These proposed regulations extend existing permitted safe habor hardship distributions for 401k and 403b retirement plans. The proposed regulations will become final, subject to potential changes, after a sixty day comment period. It is highly likely that these regulations will become final regulations with little change.
Much of what has been written on these proposed changes by employment lawyers focuses on the effect to employers and plan design moving forward. While employers should consider how these regulations will affect their operations and plans, there is also an effect on employees and other plan participants to consider. Today’s post will look at how these proposed hardship distributions changes will affect employees and their 401k plan benefits.
Background on hardship withdrawal changes
401ks and other employer-sponsored retirement plans in the private sector are primarily governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) which is further defined by a series of Department of Labor and Department of Treasury regulations. When Congress amends ERISA through statute it often requires regulatory changes to reflect the new statutory framework. Here regulatory changes are required due to statutory changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. (Specifically, the latter statute cures some of the unintended 401k effects of the earlier statute.)
Initially some plan administrators viewed the statutory changes as voluntary changes they could elect to adopt for their plans; however, regulatory changes in the proposed regulations make it obvious these changes are mandatory and plan administrators must amend plans to conform to the new rules for 401k plans and 403b plans.
Changes to 401k hardship withdrawals
The new regulations deal with safe harbor provisions of hardship withdrawals and rules around procedural aspects of hardship withdrawal eligibility. Today many hardship withdrawals are available under IRS regulations for safe harbor reasons which are strictly defined. Participants may only receive hardship distributions for the amount of the loss under one or more safe harbor reasons but before taking the distribution the participant must exhaust all other loan and withdrawal options from the plan. The participant can only receive a hardship withdrawal under safe harbor rules from his or her elective deferrals and must cease deferring wages to the plan for six months. The proposed regulations change many of these restrictions.
The new regulations change safe harbor hardship distribution procedures to:
- Eliminate the six month suspension on employee deferrals. Employees will not stop contributing to their 401k despite alleging a financial hardship.
- Eliminate the requirement to exhaust plan loans prior to a hardship withdrawal. Often today participants do not want to take a loan and will take the smallest loans possible to satisfy the regulatory requirement. The new regulations remove this often low value procedural requirement. Plans may elect to retain this requirement.
- Expand sources of hardship withdrawals to include qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs), qualifed matching contributions (QMACs) and earnings on QNECs, QMACs and elective deferrals. This change is optional for plans.
Additionally, the proposed regulations change the safe harbor rules to:
- Expand tuition, funeral and medical expense safe harbor reasons to include a primary beneficiary of the plan participant. This will greatly expand hardship distributions to include a larger circle of people around the participant.
- Return the definition of a casualty loss to the participant’s primary residence to its pre-2017 definition. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the tax deduction for a casualty loss for a primary resident to those involving a federally defined disaster. This had the effect of substantially reducing the available hardship distributions for primary home casualties. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 returned the broader, pre-TCJA definition for hardship withdrawal purposes.
- Add a seventh safe harbor provision for expenses incurred following a federally declared disaster in an area designated by FEMA. In the past special IRS regulations or a statute would be necessary to expand hardship withdrawals in the face of disasters like hurricanes. The new regulations will automatically make these hardship withdrawals permissive upon federal declaration of a disaster.
- Clarifies the standard for plan administrators to approve hardship distributions. Under the new rules plan administrators have clear guidance when a distribution is necessary to satisfy a financial need. The plan administrator would:
- limit the distribution to the participant’s financial need (including taxes and penalties for the distribution);
- verify the participant has exhausted all other available withdrawals from the plan (not including nontaxable plan loans);
- receive a representation from the participant that he or she lacks liquid assets to otherwise satisfy the financial need; and
- the plan administrator does not have contrary information about the participants available assets.
Changes for 403b plans
403b plans receive all the same changes as 401k plans with two exceptions. Hardship withdrawals for 403b plans cannot include earnings on QNECs, QMACs, or elective deferrals. Additionally, if QNECs and QMACs are held in a custodial account within the plan they are not eligible for hardship withdrawal.
Timeframes to make changes and retirement plan amendments
Assuming the highly probable result that the proposed regulations become final regulations, plan administrators will need to begin making changes to plans right away. Most of the changes must take effect on January 1, 2019 which means plan administrators should already be in the process of amending their plans. Although the regulations may not be final at this time, these changes reflect statutory changes that plan administrators must follow. Therefore, plans should be changed to reflect the regulations even before they become final.
Elimination of the six month suspension on deferrals and the requirement for participants to confirm a lack of other resources to cure a financial emergency may wait until January 1, 2020 for implementation. Plans adopting amendments for January 1, 2019 may consider a single plan amendment for simplicity and cost but may choose to wait.
Additionally, the changes to casualty losses and the seventh safe harbor reason are statutory provisions that are already in effect so plans may extend these hardship distributions for distributions after January 1, 2018.
To summarize the required plan admendments: plans must adopt amendments eliminating the six month suspension; must change the safe harbor rule definitions; and must adopt the minimum requirements to prove a participant’s financial need. All other changes are optional changes.