You state in your question that you never made contributions to your 401(k) account. Employers only match based on contributions of the employees. Therefore, if you did not contribute then it is likely that neither did your employer. Either your employer did not create an 401(k) for you and instead enrolled you in a private pension plan, or if you had a 401(k) account and was not aware of it, the administrator miscalculated the penalty and taxes for your distribution.
We will discuss 401(k) distributions in a moment. Generally, however, unless you qualify for hardship distributions from a 401k plan, it is very expensive to liquidate 401k funds, and therefore, if you are looking to solve a debt problem you may want to look elsewhere.
Now onto 401(k) distributions, penalties and solutions for you.
In general, if you withdraw money from a traditional individual retirement account such as a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan before you turn age 59½, you are subject to penalty of 10%. The taxable amount is also included in your taxable income. This 10% tax is in addition to regular income taxes. You can avoid this additional tax penalty if you meet certain criteria, but you cannot avoid including your retirement withdrawal from your taxable income.
What this means is that if you withdraw $10,000, you may only end up with $6,000 (or less) in your pocket. Some withdrawals can be made without penalty, but these usually require a true financial hardship.
See the IRS document "401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - General Distribution Rules" for more information on distributions.
Cashing-out a 401(k) Tax-Free
Let us say you leave an employer, and your former employer’s 401(k) administrator wants to close your account and give you a distribution. If you accept the distribution and deposit the check into your usual checking or savings account, you are liable for significant taxes and penalties.
To avoid the taxes and penalties, roll the funds from the 401(k) into an IRA, or your new employer’s 401(k). Your new employer’s plan administrator will be able to assist you if you want to go this route. If you want to set up an IRA account, your financial institution will be more than happy to set up an IRA for you. See the IRS document "Publication 590 (2008), Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)" for more information on IRAs, and for more information on rollovers, see the IRS document "Topic 413 - Rollovers from Retirement Plans."
Regarding the cashing-out penalties, rules vary from company to company, it becomes difficult to calculate the penalties. Contact the plan administrator at your previous employer to find out the actual modalities of your cash out (early withdrawal), and an accounting of the taxes and the penalties they charged you.
I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.