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Coronavirus Bill Lets Struggling Americans Tap Retirement Money

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 3/27/2020 Ben Steverman and Suzanne Woolley
401k investment portfolio. © Robert Pears/Getty Images 401k investment portfolio.

Lawmakers in Washington are making it easier for Americans struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus to draw on the trillions of dollars in their 401(k)s and other retirement accounts.

For a limited time, Americans would be able to withdraw money from tax-deferred accounts without penalties under a stimulus package approved by the Senate and awaiting a vote in the House. Rules on 401(k) loans would also be relaxed, and some retirees would avoid so-called required minimum distribution, or RMD, rules that might have been onerous.

Some of the changes mirror what’s been done for retirement savers after previous disasters. In general, though, the adjustments are “much more significant than what was done for the California wildfires or the hurricane in Houston,” said Gregg Levinson, senior director, retirement, at Willis Towers Watson.

That’s needed because “with Covid-19, we are in uncharted territory,” said Will Hansen, chief government affairs officer for the American Retirement Association. “With 3.3 million people filing for unemployment last week, I think we’ll see a lot more usage of these provisions.”

Loose Rules

One provision in the bill would let investors of any age take as much as $100,000 from retirement accounts this year without paying an early withdrawal penalty. They also could avoid taxes on the withdrawal if the money is put back in the account within three years. If it can’t be returned, taxes could be paid over three years.

The legislation requires that the money be a “coronavirus-related distribution,” but the rules are loose. People diagnosed with the virus are eligible, along with anyone who “experiences adverse financial consequences” as a result of the pandemic, including an inability to find work or child care. Retirement plan sponsors are told to rely on employees’ word that they’re eligible.

The bill also makes it easier to borrow money from 401(k) accounts, raising the limit to $100,000 from $50,000. The payment dates for any loans due the rest of 2020 would be extended for a year.

When retirees reach their early 70s, they’re required to start taking money out of tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, and pay taxes on those distributions. The bill waives those rules in 2020.

Without the change, retirees’ required minimum distributions would be based on their account balances at the end of 2019, when the amounts were generally much higher than they are now. A similar one-year waiver was offered after the 2008 financial crisis.

Related video: The best ways to spend your stimulus check (provided by Veuer)

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Last Resort

U.S. individual retirement accounts, 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans held almost $20 trillion in assets at the end of 2019, according to the Investment Company Institute. Those totals almost certainly have dropped since then as global stock markets tumbled.

While tapping one’s 401(k) may be a necessity, Levinson said people should view it as a last resort. “Don’t mortgage your future if you have other options,” he said.

He thinks the $100,000 loan amount allowed is too high, and that people may jump at that number and later regret taking out that much.

The $2 trillion package was approved by the Senate late Wednesday and the House is scheduled to vote on Friday. President Donald Trump has said he would sign the bill into law immediately.


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