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.

Q&A: Getting your stimulus check

Dear Liz: Do you have suggestions on what we should do about not receiving our stimulus check? We have our Supplemental Security Income checks direct deposited, making our bank information correct and known to the IRS. I have checked the IRS “Get My Payment” site daily and continue receiving the message, “payment status not available.” I’ve contacted the IRS, our governor, both state senators, our congresswoman, the mayor and several in the media without a response. Whom can I contact to receive an answer and information?

Answer: The U.S. Treasury Department says people who receive SSI should receive their relief payments in early May. The huge volume of payments means the money is being doled out in stages, but the IRS portal that’s supposed to help you track your payment has experienced a number of glitches.

One possible workaround is to enter your address on the IRS website in capitalized letters. Older computer systems and buggy programs sometimes respond to capital letters when they can’t process lowercase ones. The IRS insists the tool is not case sensitive, but it does suggest not using punctuation when entering your address.

The $1,200 payments are being sent automatically, but if you’re on SSI and have children 16 or younger, you only have until May 5 to request an additional $500-per-child payment through the IRS portal.

Q&A: A shutdown reality check

Dear Liz: Recently a reader asked about withdrawing money from an IRA to pay credit card debt. You mentioned the many ways that was a bad idea, including the fact that retirement money is protected in bankruptcy court. Liz, the writer had only $10,000 in credit card debt. Bankruptcy should be a last resort. A lifestyle change or picking up a second job would be a better route to knocking out the debt.

Answer: “Picking up a second job” — really? Most people will be lucky to hang on to the ones they have in the coming months.

No one suggested that this reader should file bankruptcy, but anyone considering taking money from a retirement plan to pay debt should understand this major drawback — especially now. Bankruptcy experts expect business and personal bankruptcy filings to soar because of the pandemic.

You might want to check your other assumptions, as well. People typically don’t wind up in bankruptcy court because they refused to cut out their lattes or didn’t work hard enough. They get sick or disabled, lose their health insurance, get divorced, have a breadwinner die — or get stuck in a pandemic. Those with higher incomes and more savings may be better able to weather financial setbacks, but few of us are truly immune from their effects.

Q&A: How to make ends meet if the coronavirus shutdown has reduced your income

Dear Liz: My husband’s salary was cut by more than 50%. While we are thrilled he is still employed, this deep cut will make it very challenging to pay all bills for our family of four. We don’t qualify for the $1,200 relief checks based on our 2019 taxes, which have already been filed. He is ineligible for unemployment because he’s salaried and his hours haven’t been cut. Are there other options for financial support or am I misinterpreting the government options?

Answer: You may have a few options for making ends meet during this trying time.

The first is mortgage forbearance. If you have a federally backed mortgage and have been affected by the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act gives you the right to forbearance for nearly a year if you request it. You can ask for 180 days initially as well as an additional 180-day extension.

Most mortgages are federally backed, including those lent or guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Veterans Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you have one of these mortgages, you won’t have to pay back the skipped payments all at once. You could spread out the payments or tack them on to the end of your loan.

To find out if you have a federally backed mortgage, and to request forbearance, contact your mortgage servicer — the company that accepts your payments. Be prepared to wait because lenders are overwhelmed with requests right now.

Even if you don’t have a federally backed loan, your mortgage lender is likely to have some forbearance options — as does your credit card issuer, your car loan company and any other lender you owe. Make sure you understand how each program works and how you would repay the skipped payments. In most cases, your balances will continue to accrue interest, but the programs could give you some breathing room while you wait for better times.

Q&A: Taxes when inheriting a home

Dear Liz: My sister recently passed, and I acquired her home, which I’m selling (it’s now in escrow). I was looking at state tax forms for real estate transactions, and there is nowhere to check for a person who was given a home through death. Does this mean it is taxable? I was told since it was an inheritance that it was not taxable.

Answer: Technically, you weren’t given a home. You inherited it, and you’re correct that inheritances are typically not taxable. (Only six states impose inheritance taxes, and your state, California, is not one of them.) When you inherited the home, the property received what’s known as a step-up in tax basis, so that the appreciation that occurred during your sister’s lifetime is not taxed. You would owe tax only on any appreciation that occurred since you owned the property. A tax pro can help you figure out what you might owe.

Q&A: Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

Q&A: Coronavirus aid law lets you more easily tap retirement savings. That doesn’t mean you should

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that a person can withdraw money from their 401(k) and spread the taxes over three years. If 401(k) is paid back, they can amend their tax returns to get those taxes refunded. Because of some major home repairs, I asked our accountant about this before we proceeded. He said that he hasn’t read anything official about the above. Would you please provide where you obtained your information, so we can decide if that’s an avenue we can use?

Answer: It’s possible you had this conversation before March 27, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law.

Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to imagine an accountant anywhere in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the emergency relief package that created the stimulus checks being sent to most Americans, as well as the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans for businesses and the new coronavirus hardship withdrawal rules for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Those rules allow people who have been affected financially or physically by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to get emergency access to their retirement funds if their employers allow it.

Even if you do have access to such a withdrawal, you should consider other avenues first.

The income taxes on retirement plan withdrawals can be substantial, even when spread over three years. Perhaps more importantly, you probably would lose out on future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned because few people who make such withdrawals will be able to pay the money back.

A home equity loan or line of credit is typically a much better option for home repairs, if you can arrange it.

Q&A: Where’s my stimulus check?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are retired and don’t have enough income to file tax returns. How can we get our stimulus checks?

Answer: If you get Social Security checks, your stimulus checks will be sent to you automatically, either via direct deposit if that’s how you get your benefits or paper check.

If you don’t collect Social Security yet and didn’t file a tax return for 2018 or 2019 because your income was below the limit to require filing, the IRS.gov website has more information.

The IRS has started sending out stimulus checks via direct deposit for people who filed 2018 or 2019 returns and provided their bank information. Those who filed returns but did not provide their bank information can follow an IRS “Get My Payment” link for assistance.

Q&A: Here’s why taking money from retirement accounts to pay bills is dumb

Dear Liz: I do not qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, but I have debt on several credit cards with interest rates above 23%. In 2019, I paid nearly $2,500 in interest charges. I would like to remove $10,000 from my IRA and use it to pay off the debt. I would then put the money that would normally go toward the credit card debt ($500 a month) to pay back the IRA. Would this repayment mitigate some of my tax charges from the withdrawal, and how long do I have to replace the funds, if any?

Answer: Coronavirus hardship withdrawals are available to a large group of people, including those who have lost their jobs or suffered other financial setbacks because of the pandemic, as well as people actually diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Coronavirus hardship withdrawals allow people to take out up to $100,000 from individual retirement accounts or 401(k)s without paying early withdrawal penalties or facing mandatory withholding. Income taxes must be paid on the withdrawal, but that bill can be spread over three years.

People who take such withdrawals would have the option of putting the money back within three years. If they can repay the money, they could amend their previous tax returns to get a refund of the taxes they paid on them.

If you don’t qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, then the rules on taking money from your IRA haven’t changed. You cannot take a loan from an IRA, and any money you withdrew would have to be returned to a qualifying retirement account within 60 days or it’s considered a withdrawal.

You would have to pay income taxes on the withdrawal, plus the 10% federal penalty if you’re under 59½. Most states also tax and penalize such withdrawals.

Even if you could qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, though, it would be a bad idea to raid your retirement account to pay credit card bills.

Not only is the tax cost high, but you’re also losing the future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned. A $10,000 withdrawal now could mean $100,000 less in retirement funds 30 years from now.

Also, you shouldn’t use an asset that would be protected from creditors to pay debts that could otherwise be erased in case you have to file for bankruptcy.

Too many people drain their 401(k)s and IRAs trying to pay their bills, only to find out too late that their retirement accounts are protected in bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the bills — including credit card balances, medical bills and most other unsecured debts — could have been wiped out.

If you can make your credit card payments but want to reduce your interest costs, you could consider a personal loan to consolidate your debt if your credit is good. If your credit is not good or you are struggling financially, you could contact a credit counselor about a debt management plan that would allow you to pay off your cards over time at lower rates.

You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Another option for people struggling to pay off their credit card debt is to ask the issuers about hardship programs. Many are willing to offer forbearance, which allows cardholders to skip payments, or to temporarily reduce required payments.

If you’re struggling, though, you also should make an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney about your options. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Q&A: Push lenders for student loan help

Dear Liz: I saw your previous column about the federal student loan payments being suspended by the CARES Act until Sept. 30, with interest being waived. I reached out to my loan servicer about my loans and was told that while they are federal loans, they were made before 2010 and are not covered by the relief bill.

Answer: Your experience is an excellent example of why loan servicers have attracted so much criticism in recent years for misleading borrowers about their options.

You should have been told that although your Family Federal Education Loan (FFEL) program loans don’t qualify, you can consolidate your loans through the U.S. Department of Education’s direct loan program and the consolidation would qualify for relief. You can get more information at StudentAid.gov.