It’s been nearly half a year since Americans first became widely aware of the coronavirus contagion within the United States. While for a brief month it looked as if we had the virus in hand, since then it has spread wildly out of control in many areas.

People who did not suffer dramatic financial consequences in the early stages of the pandemic could see some hard days ahead. For this reason, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the new relaxed rules associated with withdrawals from tax-advantaged retirement plans.

In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This bill offered provisions related to distributions from retirement accounts such as an IRA or 401(k). One of the key goals was to enable workers to make penalty-free withdrawals from a retirement plan to help sustain them while out of work due to the coronavirus.

To be eligible to make penalty-free withdrawals, plan participants must meet one of the following criteria:

  • The account owner, spouse or a dependent is diagnosed with COVID-19
  • The account owner experiences one of the following financial consequences due to the virus:
    • Furloughed
    • Laid-off
    • Work hours reduced or place of business closed (including for self-employed)
    • No access to childcare
    • Quarantined

The Act stipulates that workers can self-certify that they meet at least one of the criteria. Be aware, however, that if it is later discovered that the account owner did not meet the criteria for a coronavirus-related distribution, he might be required to pay the early withdrawal penalty.

Also note that while this penalty is waived for qualified workers, they must still pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn. However, there are a few ways to mitigate the income tax burden on those withdrawals. The first is to through a regular distribution. These are the parameters:

  •  You have up until Dec. 30, 2020, to make a distribution
  • The total aggregate limit is $100,000 from all plans and IRAs
  • The distribution waives the 20 percent income tax withholding requirement
  • Income taxes will be due when filing a 2020 tax return
  • Retirement account owners who no longer work for an employer are free to take a distribution
  • Current employees may take a distribution only if the employer plan allows for a hardship or in-service distribution (note that the CARES Act permits employers to amend plan documents to allow coronavirus-related distributions)

While a retirement plan distribution does trigger income taxes for the tax year withdrawn, you can spread the tax burden out over three years. For example, let’s say you withdraw $18,000 this year. You may report the full amount as income on your 2020 tax return; or you can claim $6,000 a year on your 2020, 2021 and 2022 returns. This strategy reduces the chances of bumping your income into a higher tax bracket.

The second way to is to pay the distributed amount back into your retirement plan. Initially, you will have to pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn. However, if you pay it back within three years, you can file to get the taxes you paid refunded. One caveat with this plan is that eligible retirement plans will treat repayment of this type of distribution as a rollover event for tax purposes. Be aware that if the retirement plan does not accept rollover contributions, it is not required to change its terms for this purpose.

Your third option is to withdraw money as a loan if your employer permits loans from the retirement plan. This is another scenario in which you must repay that money within a specified time period. You do not have to pay income taxes on the loan, but you do have to pay interest on the amount borrowed. The good news is that the interest you pay also goes into your account.

Under normal circumstances, retirement account loans are limited to $50,000 or 50 percent of the account balance, whichever is less. But for a coronavirus loan, you may borrow up to 100 percent of your vested balance or $100,000, whichever is less. You will need to repay that loan within the plan’s stated repayment period, although the CARES Act gives 2020 borrowers an additional year to repay this type of loan from an eligible retirement plan. Be aware though that you’ll owe both income taxes on the outstanding balance and the penalty for withdrawals made before age 59½ if you do not repay that loan in time.

Note that these CARES Act provisions are available only for the first 180 days after the Act was passed, which was on March 27, 2020. As Congress debates new legislation to aid struggling Americans suffering from the pandemic, this provision could be extended.


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