401(k) withdrawal rules

15 MIN READEditorial Policy

Key Takeaways

  • If you withdraw money from your 401(k) or IRA account before retirement, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty

  • In general, there are four types of withdrawals: In-service withdrawals (including hardship withdrawals), required minimum distributions, special circumstance withdrawals, and termination distributions

  • We'll review what you need to know about withdrawing money from your 401(k) account, so you're aware of potential penalties and additional taxes

Contributing to a 401(k) consistently is generally considered a strategic way to save for retirement. 401(k)s are tax-deferred investment savings accounts designed to help employees maximize their retirement savings through several tax advantages. The money in your 401(k) is generally meant to stay untouched until you retire. 

However, if you choose to withdraw money from your 401(k) or IRA account before retirement, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. 

In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the general rules of 401(k) withdrawals and what can happen if you decide to take out money from your account. We’ll also expand on a few options for individuals considering a 401(k) withdrawal and detail exceptions to when you can withdraw money from your retirement account without tax penalty. 

What are the different types of 401(k) withdrawals? 

While there are several reasons you may need to withdraw money from your 401(k) account, there are generally four types of withdrawals:

  1. In-service withdrawals (including hardship withdrawals)

  2. Required minimum distributions

  3. Special circumstance withdrawals

  4. Termination distributions

Let's review these withdrawal types and their corresponding rules below. 

In-service withdrawals

An in-service distribution happens while an employee (which we’ll refer to as a participant) is still with the company and usually subject to an age or service requirement. Plans aren't required to allow in-service distributions. If a plan allows any in-service distributions, they'll be listed in the Adoption Agreement. To take an in-service distribution, you must meet the requirements listed in the plan document. Plans may limit in-service withdrawals to certain sources or restrict sources available for withdrawal to those that are 100% vested only.

Many plans permit participants to take a distribution at the age of 59 ½ for two reasons:

  1. At this age, you're permitted to withdraw funds from your 401(k) without incurring a 10% early withdrawal tax penalty on your withdrawal amount, and

  2. ERISA regulations require that a participant reach age 59 ½ withdraw deferrals from 401(k) plans. 

If you’re withdrawing pretax money, you must still pay taxes on your 401(k) withdrawal because it's considered taxable income. If you withdraw Roth funds, you won't have to pay taxes on your original contributions because the money you contributed to the account is post-tax. Earnings may be tax-free as well if you meet certain requirements.

Most plans will also allow you to take any rollover source as a distribution (that is, money previously rolled into the plan from another qualified plan or IRA) at any time. 

Hardship withdrawals

Hardship withdrawals are a specific type of in-service withdrawal that can be taken only if you've experienced a specified event and can provide the required documentation as evidence of your financial need. You'll only be eligible for a hardship distribution if you're experiencing an immediate and heavy financial need that cannot be relieved from other resources (including in-service and rollover distributions as stated above).  

Reasons that may qualify as a hardship withdrawal include:

  • Medical expenses

  • Prevent eviction or foreclosure on your principal residence

  • Funeral expenses

  • Purchase of a principal residence

  • Tuition costs for you or your dependents

  • Repairs needed to fix your home related to a casualty loss

  • Expenses related to a federal disaster declaration

Please note that every plan is different. What your 401(k) plan administrator determines as a hardship may not be the same as another plan. Your plan may also require you to submit documentation of hardship circumstances. 

Like most withdrawals, hardship withdrawals may be subject to income tax and an early withdrawal penalty if you are under 59 ½. You will also be limited to withdrawing only what you need to cover your immediate expenses, plus taxes.  

Required minimum distributions

Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are lump sum withdrawals that you must take out of your retirement account once you reach a certain age. The SECURE Act raised the minimum age for RMDs to 73 (up from 70 ½) to help some Americans gain more interest on their retirement savings and delay income taxes. You have the option to withdraw more than the required amount. When you make a withdrawal, keep in mind that you may have to pay taxable income, depending on whether you’ve made pre-tax or post-tax contributions. 

Your RMD is determined by the total account value of your retirement account on December 31 of the prior year divided by a value corresponding to your current age. This means that as you get older, your RMDs will increase.

If you are required to take an RMD, it is important to receive it timely. If an individual doesn't take an RMD by the required deadline, the IRS will assess a penalty of 25% on the amount of the RMD that was not withdrawn. This penalty can be reduced to 10% if corrected within a two-year window.

Termination Distributions (rollovers and cashouts) 

When a participant is no longer employed with the company, they're entitled to receive their fully vested account balance from the plan upon request. Some plans may state that a participant has to be separated from service for a time period, but most 401(k) plans provide for immediate distribution upon termination.

You can choose to rollover your funds to another qualified plan or IRA, or take your vested balance in cash.

A rollover is when you transfer the funds from your 401(k) account into another retirement account. This often happens when you change jobs. Because a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan, you cannot contribute to a 401(k) under your former employer. However, you can roll your 401(k) into another 401(k) account or into an individual retirement account (IRA) to combine your retirement funds into one custodian, which makes it easier to manage. 

If you want to receive your retirement funds in cash after leaving a job, you may do so. However, your former employer must withhold 20% of the distribution for Federal tax purposes, and you may have to pay an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty to the IRS if you are under age 59 ½.).

It's also possible for individuals between 55 and 59 ½ to withdraw money without incurring a penalty if they are fired, laid off, or quit from their place of employment. Additionally, your withdrawal is still subject to an income tax withholding rate of 20%.

It’s important to review your options when you terminate employment with a plan sponsor, as vested balances under a certain threshold as stated in the document (generally $5,000) can be forced out of the plan if you do not make a choice to rollover or cashout your funds.

How transaction-free rollovers can benefit savers

When considering rolling funds to a new 401(k) plan provider, it’s crucial to consider a few factors about your plan provider, including customer service, account and transfer fees, transparent pricing, and accessible access to your 401(k) account.

At Human Interest, we never charge transfer fees when an individual is interested in rolling over their 401(k) into a Human Interest 401(k) account. We also don't charge any transaction fees, which can often eat into retirement savings. 

What happens if I make an early withdrawal? 

If you make an early withdrawal from your 401(k) that doesn’t qualify for an exception under the IRS, you may be subject to a 10% early distribution penalty assessed on your annual income tax return. You will also need to pay taxes on the amount that you withdraw, as the money you take out is technically considered taxable income.

Example: If you withdraw $20,000 and don't qualify for a hardship withdrawal, you'll incur a 10% tax penalty of $2,000. Your $20,000 withdrawal would also be taxed as part of your income. 

When can you withdraw from a 401(k) without penalties? 

The IRS lists several exceptions for those who can make penalty-free withdrawals without having to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty tax. Here are a few exceptions where you can withdraw from your 401(k) early if you are under 59 ½.

  • You're disabled

  • You gave birth to or adopted a child

  • You're a disaster victim

  • You're a military reservist called to active duty

  • You're going through a divorce, and you are court-ordered to split your 401(k) to your ex-partner (known as a QDRO, more on this below)

  • You quit your job, and you are at least 55 years old

  • You roll over your 401(k) money during a job change

QDRO (Qualified Domestic Relations Order)

A qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) is a document drafted by an attorney requiring someone to share the funds in their retirement account with their former spouse. Keep in mind that it is considered a special circumstance distribution. A QDRO is typically filed for child support, alimony, or marital property rights to a former spouse or other dependent. 

Though a QDRO can set your retirement savings back, you can still contribute to your 401(k) even after going through a divorce. Typically, processing a QDRO can cost the average individual between $200 to $500. However, Human Interest does not charge any fees if an individual receives a QDRO. 

Consider your options before withdrawing from your 401(k)

When considering withdrawing from your 401(k) before 59 ½, it's essential to consider several factors first. Not only will you have to pay taxes on your withdrawal, you'll have less time to invest future contributions and less compound interest will accrue. This means that this is a permanent reduction in the amount of money that can increase tax deferred. 

Here are a few other options to consider before withdrawing from your 401(k). 

401(k) loans

If you need a lump sum of cash for an emergency, consider a 401(k) loan, if offered by your plan. A 401(k) loan allows you to borrow up to $50,000, or half of your vested balance. The primary benefit of a 401(k) loan is that you do not have to pay any taxes or penalties on the amount as long as you repay the amount in full within 5 years on a regular repayment schedule. However, your employer can limit the amount and terms of your 401(k) loan, and if you were to leave your place of employment, you would need to repay your loan in full.

It’s important to note that a 401(k) loan is still not an ideal option, but it can be a much better choice than a withdrawal.

Temporarily reduce 401(k) contributions

At Human Interest, we believe it is beneficial to contribute between 10% to 15% to your account. Depending on your situation, however, that may mean starting at a lower rate, like 7%, and gradually increasing each year through automatic increases.

If you have serious financial constraints like credit card debt or student loans and are considering withdrawing funds from your retirement account, you may want to consider lowering your 401(k) contributions for a period of time and then increasing your contributions once you're in a better financial position. (If you receive an employer match, you may want to consider reducing your contributions so you're contributing up to your employer match)

How to request an early withdrawal

If you’re thinking about making an early withdrawal from your retirement account you simply need to contact your plan administrator and request a withdrawal. Once you’ve successfully made a withdrawal request, you should receive funds in your bank account within a few days.

Consider Human Interest

Whether you are considering taking a withdrawal from your 401(k) due to unforeseen circumstances or you’re just starting to plan your retirement savings journey, knowing the basics of what happens if you decide to withdraw money from your 401(k) account is critical to avoid paying any potential penalties and additional taxes that can affect your retirement. It can also help to work with a financial professional, who may be able to help you consider your options. 

At Human Interest, we offer 401(k) plans with transparent pricing and dedicated support and resources to help small businesses and their employees prepare for their financial futures. Contact us today to learn more about what we can do for you, or click here to learn more about (k)ickstart, our special cash-back program for eligible participants.

We believe that everyone deserves access to a secure financial future, which is why we make it easy to provide a 401(k) to your employees. Human Interest offers a low-cost 401(k) with automated administration, built-in investment education, and integration with leading payroll providers.

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