Customarily, retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s are tough to withdraw from before age 59.5 without accruing penalties and tax withholdings, but the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress in response to the economic hit caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, temporarily eliminated such penalties. Now that you can more easily access assets that have been set aside for future use, should you?

Amended Penalties for Early Withdrawal

Recognizing that many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck would need access to funds in the face of lost income as a result of government shutdowns, Congress passed the CARES Act, which temporarily eliminates the 10% early-withdrawal penalty and the 20% federal tax withholding on early 401(k) withdrawals. Taxes on any withdrawn funds will still be applicable because the original contributions were pre-tax, but whereas those taxes are typically due within the same year as the withdrawal, the CARES Act permits the amount due to be stretched over a period of three years.

Be Aware of Potential Penalties

It may seem as though the vault has been unlocked, but before you decide to take advantage of the easily accessible funds, you should consider the potential ramifications of such a move. If the amount withdrawn isn’t returned within the three-year window (either in one lump sum or in multiple payments over three years), you will be responsible for paying income tax on the withdrawal. This could be a significant amount depending on the size of the withdrawal. It’s also worth remembering that for the amount of time the funds are out of your retirement savings, they discontinue making returns on your investment, which could result in potentially long-term consequences, including compound tax deferred growth benefits.

Remember the End Goal

If you are struggling in today’s economic downturn, the laxed rules and penalties to access retirement funds is tempting, but it’s important to keep the end goal in sight, which is retirement. The long-term impact to your savings, even when it’s paid back over time, may not be worth it. Unless you’re really struggling to make ends meet, the best move is to leave the money in your 401(k). Cashing out now, when the market reflects depressed values, means that you’d be selling low, which isn’t a recommended strategy.

Stephen Reed - Accountant Indianapolis