When you placed assets into your 401(k), you probably did it with the best intentions, planning on leaving the account untapped until you reached retirement age. An extended disability that took you out of the work force can derail even the best intentions: Disability payments, insurance and savings may not be enough to sustain you through a long-term disability. Turning to your 401(k) may seem like an easy way to relax the financial squeeze, but you may incur tax penalties if your disability doesn’t qualify.
Read More: How to Withdraw Money From your 401k
Hardship Distribution Rules
The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t regulate 401(k) plans as strictly as it does traditional individual retirement accounts. Instead, plan administrators are allowed to set guidelines on many aspects of plan maintenance, including hardship distributions. Many plans allow you to take hardship distributions – withdrawals made under extreme financial conditions – without incurring any additional taxes.
Depending upon the details of your 401(k), you may have to prove your disabled status to qualify for such a hardship distribution. If your plan handles hardship distributions with the same rules as an IRA does, you’ll need to be permanently disabled, receiving Social Security disability insurance, to qualify.
Taxes on 401(k) Distributions
If you don’t qualify for a hardship exemption because of your disability, the IRS taxes all distributions you make from your 401(k) before you turn 59 1/2 with a 10 percent excise tax on the amount of the distribution. Because you make contributions to most 401(k) plans, though not Roth 401(k)s, on a pretax basis, you defer taxation on that income until you receive it.
The IRS taxes all distributions, whether it's a 401(k) hardship distribution, a 401(k) disability withdrawal, or qualifying, at regular income tax rates for your tax bracket. The silver lining? It's likely that because of your disability, you’re in a lower tax bracket than you were when you earned the money.
Use of 401(k) Loans
If you suffer from a short-term disability that won’t qualify you for a hardship distribution and you intend to return to your former job when you recover, you may be able to access 401(k) funds through a 401(k) loan. As with other rules regarding 401(k)s, your plan administrator’s rules govern the process and the amount you may be allowed to borrow from your 401(k). Some plans don’t allow loans.
If your plan allows it, you may be able to borrow up to $50,000 from your own contributions, although your plan may provide a lower limit. When you return to work, you’ll begin repaying the loan, with interest charges that also go into your account, with an automatic payroll deduction. Should you leave your job before paying off the loan, you may be required to pay back remaining balance immediately.
Considering Annuitized Distributions
The IRS also allows you to make even, significant distributions from your 401(k) as if it were an annuity. To do this, you’ll need to meet with an accountant who will use IRS-generated actuarial tables to determine your life expectancy. Your 401(k) balance may be paid in equal, annual installments without incurring an excise tax penalty, based upon your projected lifespan. This option usually doesn’t allow you to access large amounts each year unless your 401(k) was very large or your remaining projected lifespan is short.
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.