Q&A: What to do if an employer messes up your 401(k) coronavirus hardship withdrawal

Dear Liz: I used the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to cash out my 401(k). My ex-employer waived the 10% penalty but withheld 20% for federal taxes. It seems unconscionable to keep $20,000 of my money for at least eight months instead of sending it to me. The law states I have three years to pay the taxes and I need that hard-earned money now. Is there anything I can do to make my former employer release my money?

Answer: Please contact your former employer immediately. It sounds like what you got was a regular distribution, which can be penalized as well as taxed and which can’t be paid back. Your employer can’t waive an IRS penalty — it either applies to the distribution by law or it doesn’t — and the 20% withholding indicates this was not a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

Coronavirus hardship withdrawals allow qualified people to withdraw as much as $100,000 of their balances from 401(k)s and IRAs, but these withdrawals aren’t available to everyone. You must have been affected physically or financially by the pandemic.

Plus, if you want to take the distribution from a 401(k), check if your employer is offering the option. A majority of employers now offer coronavirus hardship withdrawals, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey, but some are opting not to do so.

If you qualified for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from a 401(k) plan offering that option, the distribution should not have been subject to withholding.

You would owe income taxes but not the usual 10% federal early withdrawal penalty, and you would have three years to pay the income taxes on the withdrawal. You also would have the option to pay the money back within three years and then amend your tax returns to get the taxes you paid refunded.

If your former employer did not offer coronavirus hardship withdrawals but you otherwise qualified, you had the option of rolling your 401(k) money into an IRA and then taking a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from the IRA. (You can typically roll money out of only a former employer’s plan. If you’re still working for that employer, such rollovers usually aren’t allowed.)

If your employer won’t release the withheld money, you still have a way to limit the damage. You can put the rest of what you received into an IRA, as long as you do so within 60 days, and then take a coronavirus hardship withdrawal from the IRA.

Unless you can come up with the $20,000 that was withheld, however, you’ll have to pay taxes and penalties on that $20,000 and you won’t be able to pay that money back. That’s unfortunate, but it’s better than having the entire $100,000 penalized and not having the option to pay any of it back.

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