Tax Guide

Get answers to all your questions about taxes, personal finance, insurance and more.

Hardship Distributions

In rare instances, it may be possible to take a hardship distribution from your retirement account. Hardship distributions can only be made if the distribution is because of an immediate and heavy financial need, and is limited only to the amount necessary to satisfy that need. Your retirement plan may – or may not – allow hardship distributions. Plans are not required to do so.

Hardship distributions also come with substantial financial strings attached. You can’t repay a hardship distribution to your retirement plan. In IRAs and similar plans, hardship withdrawals are subject to income taxes and a 10 percent penalty. Your retirement income will also take a hit, not only from the withdrawal, but from the earnings that you’ll forgo.

What Qualifies?

It’s up to the employer to determine what is covered by “an immediate and heavy financial need.” Consumer purchases – such as a boat or television – generally do not qualify. However a financial need may be immediate and heavy, even if it was reasonably foreseeable or even voluntarily incurred by the employee.

IRS “safe harbor” rules say an employee automatically has an immediate and heavy financial need if the distribution is for:

  • Medical care expenses for the employee, the employee’s spouse, dependents or beneficiary
  • Costs directly related to the purchase of an employee’s principal residence (excluding mortgage payments)
  • College tuition, fees, and room and board for the next 12 months for the employee, the employee’s spouse, children, dependents or beneficiary
  • Payments to prevent the eviction of the employee from his principal residence or a foreclosure on that residence
  • Funeral expenses for the employee, the employee’s spouse, children, dependents or beneficiary
  • Certain expenses to repair damage to the employee’s principal residence

The distribution must be limited to the amount necessary to satisfy the need, and the employee must not reasonably be able obtain the funds from another source. In determining the need, the employer may rely on the employee’s written statement that it cannot be satisfied from other available resources.

In a 401(k) plan, hardship distributions can only be made from the employee’s contributions and the employer’s portion, not from the plan earnings, however the plan’s rules may differ on employer contributions.