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Tough Talk On Hardship Withdrawals

For people struggling to make ends meet, these are tough times. If you find yourself in desperation mode as the next mortgage payment or tuition bill for your child’s upcoming college semester comes due—or perhaps you’re facing a medical emergency for someone in your family—you may have a few options at your disposal. For example, though it’s best viewed as a last resort, you might be able to tap your 401(k) plan or other retirement plan at work. Assuming the plan permits it, you could arrange to receive a “hardship withdrawal” to tide you over.

Here are the basics: Generally, you must prove to your employer that you’re facing a financial need, or give up the ability to contribute to the 401(k) for at least six months. So you can’t simply take money out of your account to go globe-trotting or buy a Lamborghini.

The list of approved reasons for hardship withdrawals includes:

Even if you qualify, you’ll have to deal with the tax bite. A hardship withdrawal, like any other 401(k) plan distribution, is subject to income tax at ordinary income rates as high as 39.6%. You also may have to pay state income tax.

In addition, if you take a withdrawal prior to age 59½, you’ll owe a 10% tax penalty on top of the regular income tax, unless a special exception applies. The exceptions include distributions paid because of death or disability; money that goes to pay tax-deductible medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income; court-ordered amounts going to your divorced spouse, child, or dependent; and money you receive in the form of substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs) spread over your life expectancy. Such payments have to continue for at least five years or until you reach age 59½, whichever is later. (You’ll also avoid the penalty if you’ve left your job and are age 55 or over.)

If you think a hardship withdrawal could meet your emergency needs, contact the administrator of your retirement plan to find out whether the plan allows such distributions and what the procedures are. You also might consider other options, such as taking a loan from your 401(k). Finally, remember that early withdrawals reduce your future nest egg.