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Making Sense of 401(k) Hardship Withdrawal

Making Sense of 401(k) Hardship Withdrawal
Daniel Cohen
UpdatedFeb 19, 2015
Key Takeaways:
  • Congress permits two types of 401(k) hardship distributions.
  • File a Form 5329 to report the tax on early distributions.
  • Your plan administrator will send you a Form 1099-R.

How Can I Take a 401(k) Withdrawal Without a Penalty?

I read that at age 55 I can withdraw my 401(k) without penalty as long as I am leaving my job. Is this true for all 401(k) plans? Are there any specific reasons one has to have for withdrawal without penalty?  I need to use the funds to pay off bills and debts.

A 401(k) plan is a type of tax-qualified deferred compensation plan in which an employee can elect to have the employer contribute a portion of his or her cash wages to the plan on a pre-tax basis. These deferred wages (commonly referred to as elective deferrals) are not subject to income tax withholding at the time of deferral, and they are not reflected on your Form 1040 since they were not included in the taxable wages on your Form W-2.

However, they are included as wages subject to Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment taxes.

Some plans allow employees to make a 401(k) hardship withdrawal because of immediate and heavy financial needs. Generally, 401(k) hardship distributions are limited to the amount of the employee’s elective deferrals only, and do not include any income earned on the deferred amounts. Hardship distributions are not treated as eligible rollover distributions.

Get a Financial Consultation before a 401(k) withdrawal

If debt problems are the reason you are looking to take out money from your 401(k), get a no-cost, no obligation analysis of your debt options from a pre-screened specialist. It makes sense to evaluate your debt options in parallel with exploring 401(k) hardship qualifications.

401(k) Hardship Withdrawal Basics

A 401(k) hardship withdrawal is not like taking a loan from your 401(k) account. The withdrawal may be difficult to get, and costly to receive. Your 401(k) is intended to provide retirement income and should be a last-resort source of cash for expenses. IRS rules allow plan withdrawals (called distributions) in a limited number of hardship situations. To further discourage early withdrawals, Congress wrote harsh rules to impose a penalty tax in many situations.

Congress allowed two types of hardship withdrawals in 401(k) and other deferred-tax retirement savings plans. One subject to applicable income taxes plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty tax if you are younger than 59½. The other is a penalty-free withdrawal made under Section 72(t) of the Internal Revenue Code. With this, you pay applicable income taxes but not an early withdrawal penalty tax.

You may receive a 401(k) hardship distribution because of an "immediate and heavy financial need" and the distribution "is necessary to satisfy that financial need." Let's look at the rules for penalty and no-penalty distributions, as found in IRS document Topic 558 and the IRS 401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - General Distribution Rules. Refer to both of these documents for clarifications on the rule below.

Distributions Subject to a 10% Penalty Tax if You Are Less Than Age 59½

According to the IRS, the following reasons may be allowed by your plan's administrator for a 401(k) distribution:

  • Expenses for medical care previously incurred by the employee, the employee’s spouse, or any dependents of the employee or necessary for these persons to obtain medical care;
  • Costs directly related to the purchase of a principal residence for the employee (excluding mortgage payments);
  • Payment of tuition, related educational fees, and room and board expenses, for the next 12 months of postsecondary education for the employee, or the employee’s spouse, children, or dependents;
  • Payments necessary to prevent the eviction of the employee from the employee’s principal residence or foreclosure on the mortgage on that residence;
  • Funeral expenses; or
  • Certain expenses relating to the repair of damage to the employee’s principal residence.

Distributions Exempt From a 10% Penalty Tax

According to the IRS, the following reasons may be used for a penalty-free 401(k) distribution:

  • Distributions made to your beneficiary or estate on or after your death.
  • Distributions made because you are totally and permanently disabled.
  • Distributions made as part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments over your life expectancy or the life expectancies of you and your designated beneficiary. If these distributions are from a qualified plan other than an IRA, you must separate from service with this employer before the payments begin for this exception to apply.
  • Distributions to the extent you have deductible medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (7.5% if you or your spouse is 65 or over) whether or not you itemize your deductions for the year. The 7.5% limitation is a temporary exemption from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2016 for individuals age 65 and older and their spouses. For additional information, see IRS Topic 502.
  • Distributions made due to an IRS levy of the plan under section 6331.
  • Distributions that are qualified reservist distributions. Generally, these are distributions made to individuals that are called to active duty for at least 180 days after September 11, 2001.
  • For 401(k)s and similar plans (but not IRAs), these three exceptions also apply:
    • Distributions made to you after you separated from service with your employer if the separation occurred in or after the year you reached age 55, or distributions made from a qualified governmental defined benefit plan if you were a qualified public safety employee (State or local government) who separated from service on or after you reached age 50.
    • Distributions made to an alternate payee under a qualified domestic relations order, and
    • Distributions of dividends from employee stock ownership plans.

Plan administrators and employers are not required to offer either type of 401(k) hardship withdrawal, so check with your administrator to learn which type of distribution, if any, is available to you.

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For more information, see the IRS’s 401(k) Resource Guide.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.




LLaura DeDi, Apr, 2017
We have $300,000 in student loan debt as a result of both my husband and I going to graduate school. While combined we make a better than average wage, we are feeling the effects of paying a combined 15 loans. We have saved $200,000 in our 401(k) plan and have negotiated a lower payment of all of our student loans if we can pay them off. We thought we would be able to take a hardship withdrawal to be able to do this, however, our company is not allowing us to do so. Are they allowed to do this? Is there something you can suggest?
DDaniel Cohen, Apr, 2017

From what you described, the withdrawal you are considering doesn't meet the IRS definition of hardship withdrawal. You would pay 10% penalty plus taxes for the amount withdrawn, if the administrator let you access the funds. Administrators are given wide leeway in allowing or disallowing withdrawals. 

KKeith DeLong, Jul, 2015

I am still employed by the company that holds my 401k. Im 50 years old, and have some medical bills to pay. Im willing to pay taxes and penelties and fees and whatever it takes...can I get a distribution to pay those bills without having a hardship?

DDaniel Cohen, Jul, 2015

You should have access to the funds, given how most 401k plans work, but check with you plan administrator, as rules differ from plan to plan


Don't neglect to ask the plan administrator about whether you meet the rules for penalty-free withdrawal due to high non-reimbursed medical expenses. This kind of expense, whether for you, your spouse, or a qualified dependent, may permit you to withdraw without the 10% penalty.

kkevin deal, Jul, 2015

I live in New Mexico, I am 34 years old and was recently fired from my job. I have been with the company for 8 years and am currently in the middle of getting a degree at the local college. I have over $35,000 in my 401k and due to the cost of tuition, books and raising a family my bills are piling up. I talked to my employer about withdrawing my 401k and they said that they don't do hardship withdraws. They also said that since I have worked over 500 hours this year I am not even eligible to receive my 401k until July of 2017. Is there any way to withdraw my 401k or possible receive a loan against my 401k? If so how? I have no other means of getting the money to pay off student loans or credit cards used to buy books. I am willing to deal with the 40% penalty.

DDaniel Cohen, Jul, 2015

Plan administrators are given a fair amount of leeway, but I think it is a good idea to check whether what you were told is accurate.

A loan is not an option, as you have to be employed to take out a 401k loan. The only way to repay the loan is through the automatic payroll deduction and you are not able to do that when you are no longer on payroll.

Money you put into the account is your money. You should have 90 days from the time you leave the job to rollover the money into a new account. It is my understanding that you could withdraw money with taxes and penalties at that time.

I recommend you speak with a company like Fidelity. You can call 800-343-3548 to speak with a Fidelity rollover specialist. They are just one company that does this kind of work, so they are not your only choice and I am not endorsing them, but believe they will give you accurate information about your options.

hhn, Mar, 2014
I was full time employee in a medical university. Recently I enrolled in the same school and quit from my job. I receive a scholarship from the same institute. From my employer I came to know I cannot continue my retirement fund as I am student. So I wanted to terminate and retirement fund and like to withdraw my saving. But now they are saying I cannot do that either as I am not out of the institute/disable/59 years! they do not even clarify what will happen to my savings. I appreciate any advice!
BBill, Mar, 2014
Ask the 401(k) administrator for the forms to roll-over your account into an IRA. Then do so. Make sure you understand the heavy tax implications of taking a distribution from your IRA before you do so.
GGM, Feb, 2014
I'm 37 and currently unemployed due to a lay-off. I do not receive unemployment benefits anymore. As of yet, I do not have a job offer. I have an overdrawn checking account.I have $10,000 in 401K. Can I cash it out without paying a penalty, so that I can pay my mortgage?
BBill, Feb, 2014
Under the 401(k) law, Congress created two classes of hardship withdrawals. One is subject to the 10% penalty tax, and the other is not. See the list above and the IRS 401(k) resource guide for clarification on this rule.

You can argue you face foreclosure if you do not take a distribution. This type of hardship withdrawal is subject to the 10% penalty tax. Consult with the IRS or a tax professional for clarification of this rule.