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Solving the Hardship Withdrawal Program Administration Puzzle

May 6, 2022

Why Offer a Hardship Withdrawal Option?

Plans that do not offer a hardship withdrawal option are still subject to “plan leakage.” Plan leakage simply means that employees’ retirement dollars prematurely leave the plan due to hardship withdrawals, plan loans going into default upon employment termination, or other reasons. Whatever the cause of the leakage, withdrawals affect employees when they retire.

To discourage employees from tapping into retirement assets for instances outside of the most dire of circumstances, plan sponsors may decide to forego a hardship withdrawal option, particularly if their plans have a loan option. On the other hand, plan sponsors who believe employees (current and prospective) will see the lack of a hardship withdrawal provision as a drawback may want to consider offering that choice.

Deciphering “Immediate and Heavy” Needs

The rule governing hardship withdrawals requires that the employee make the withdrawal to satisfy only an “immediate and heavy” financial need as defined in the rule. The withdrawal may benefit the employee’s spouse, minor children, or non-dependent beneficiary. In addition, the sum is limited to the amount that cannot be met from other sources. Those could include savings, a plan loan or reasonable commercial loan, or increasing the participant’s paycheck by suspending 401(k) deferrals.

The plan sponsor must determine whether a requested hardship withdrawal is justified based on the following:

  • the IRS’s rules,
  • plan provisions, and
  • the plan sponsor’s assessment of the situation.

Plan sponsors can rely on a participant’s written statement that s/he has no alternative means of addressing the financial need – unless there is evidence to the contrary (note: the regulations provide examples of this knowledge). Plan sponsors may also outsource this process to their third-party administrators (while maintaining responsibility).

Decoding Eligible Expenses

Under the safe harbor definition of a hardship withdrawal, several expense categories are automatically eligible, including:

  • medical expenses for the employee, spouse, dependents or beneficiary;
  • costs directly related to the purchase of a principal residence (except mortgage payments);
  • funds needed to prevent eviction from a rented property or foreclosure on a primary residence;
  • the cost of repairing damage to a principal residence;
  • tuition and related postsecondary school educational expenses for the next year for the participant or a spouse, children, dependents or beneficiary; or
  • funeral expenses for the employee, spouse, children, dependents or beneficiary.

The participant can withdraw amounts consisting only of contributions to the employee’s 401(k) account, not earnings on those contributions. For funds derived from employee deferrals, plan sponsors can apply withdrawal standards that are different from those stemming from employer-matching or nonelective contributions (such as profit-sharing contributions).

Plan documents generally require that participants not resume elective deferrals for at least six months after the hardship withdrawal. Generally, hardship withdrawals – unless taken from a Roth 401(k) plan – are taxable. Employees who withdraw before age 59½ may also be subject to a 10% premature-withdrawal tax penalty.

Spotting the Difference in Program Administration Errors

What happens to plan sponsors who make a mistake in administering a hardship withdrawal program? The consequences depend on the error. For example, a plan sponsor who was allowing hardship withdrawals but discovered that the plan document does not provide for them should amend the plan, make the amendment retroactive, and then seek approval for that action through the IRS’s “voluntary correction program” (VCP). In a more typical scenario, a mistake would be made by granting a hardship withdrawal for a purpose not specifically provided for in the plan document. In that situation, plan sponsors would also need to retroactively amend their plans through the VCP.

Another common hardship withdrawal error is failing to suspend plan contributions for at least six months following the withdrawal. The IRS offers two possible solutions:

  1. Suspend employee deferrals for a six-month period “going forward,” or
  2. Have the employee return the hardship distribution.

The catch, according to the IRS, is that neither option guarantees that the employee will be in the same position as s/he would have been in had the contributions been suspended immediately following the hardship withdrawal. An employee would be in that position if, for instance, a plan sponsor changed the plan’s matching contribution in the interim or if the employee lacked the funds to return the distribution. One way or another, however, the plan sponsor must address the error.

Putting Together Your Hardship Withdrawal Program Administration

Read your plan document to refresh yourself on the nuances of your plan’s hardship withdrawal requirements. Ensure that anyone administering your plan — either in-house or a third-party administrator — does the same. A thorough review will go a long way in striving to avoid mistakes. Contact CRI if you need help connecting the dots with your hardship withdrawal program.

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