IRS Logo
Print - Click this link to Print this page

Retirement Topics - Hardship Distributions

A retirement plan may (but is not required to) allow participants to receive hardship distributions. A distribution from a participant’s elective deferral account can only be made if the distribution is:

  • because of an immediate and heavy financial need, and
  • limited to the amount necessary to satisfy that financial need.

Immediate and heavy financial need

The employer determines the existence of an immediate and heavy financial need based on the terms of the plan and all relevant facts and circumstances.

  • Consumer purchases (such as a boat or television) are generally not considered an immediate and heavy financial need.
  • A financial need may be immediate and heavy even if it was reasonably foreseeable or voluntarily incurred by the employee.

Under a “safe harbor” in IRS regulations, an employee is automatically considered to have an immediate and heavy financial need if the distribution is for:

  • Medical care expenses for the employee, the employee’s spouse, dependents or beneficiary;
  • Costs directly related to the purchase of an employee’s principal residence (excluding mortgage payments);
  • 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, dependents or beneficiary;
  • 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 for the employee, the employee’s spouse, children, dependents, or beneficiary; or
  • Certain expenses to repair damage to the employee’s principal residence.

Limited to the amount necessary

The amount of a hardship distribution must be limited to the amount necessary to satisfy the need. This rule is satisfied if:

  • The distribution is limited to the amount needed to cover the immediate and heavy financial need, and
  • The employee could not reasonably obtain the funds from another source.

Unless the employer has actual knowledge to the contrary, the employer may rely on the employee’s written statement that the need cannot be relieved from other available resources, including:

  • Insurance or other reimbursement;
  • Liquidation of the employee’s assets;
  • The employee’s pay, by discontinuing elective deferrals and after-tax employee contributions; or
  • Plan loans or reasonable commercial loans.

Alternative resources do not have to be used if doing so would increase the amount of the need. For example, an employee requesting funds to purchase a principal residence does not need to obtain a plan loan if the loan would disqualify the employee from obtaining other necessary financing.

Under another “safe harbor” in IRS regulations, a distribution is automatically considered to be necessary to satisfy an immediate and heavy financial need if all of the following requirements are met:

  • The distribution is not greater than the amount of the immediate and heavy financial need, including the amounts necessary to pay any taxes resulting from the distribution;
  • The employee has obtained all other distributions and loans available under the employer’s plans; and
  • The employee is not allowed to make elective deferrals to the plan for at least six months after the hardship distribution.

Account balances eligible for hardship distributions

In a 401(k) plan, hardship distributions can generally only be made from accumulated elective deferrals (not from earnings on elective deferrals), employer nonelective contributions (sometimes referred to as “profit-sharing contributions”) and regular matching contributions. A plan may, but is not required to, apply the same conditions to hardship distributions of employer nonelective and regular matching contributions as apply to hardship distributions of elective deferrals. Some 401(k) plans may allow hardship distributions of certain kinds of contributions made to the plan before 1989.

If you are an employer and didn’t make hardship distributions according to your plan document, find out how you can correct this mistake.

Tax treatment of hardship distributions

Hardship withdrawals are subject to income taxes and a 10% additional tax on early distributions.

Employees who take a hardship distribution cannot repay it to the plan.

Additional Resources:


Page Last Reviewed or Updated: 28-Mar-2014