Good news: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that 401(k) plans and similar defined contribution (DC) employer-sponsored retirement plans can make loans and hardship distributions to victims of Hurricane Irma and members of their families. Similar relief was provided to victims of Hurricane Harvey. Plans will be allowed to make loans and hardship distributions before they are formally amended to provide for these features. This relief applies to 401(a), 403(a), 403(b), and certain 457(b) plans. Defined benefit (DB) plans and money purchase plans cannot make hardship distributions unless they contain either employee contributions that are separately accounted for or rollover amounts.
Loans and hardship distributions will provide the financial resources needed to those suffering in the wake of the hurricanes. Announcement 2017-13 states that both current and former employees are able to take loans or hardship distributions if their principal residences on September 4, 2017, were located in the Florida counties identified for individual assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma, or whose places of employment were located in one of these counties on that applicable date, or whose lineal ascendant or descendant, dependent, or spouse had principal residences or places of employment in these counties on that date.
Plans can ignore the reasons that normally apply to hardship distributions, thus allowing the funds to be used, for example, for food and shelter. If a qualified plan requires certain documentation before a distribution is made, the plan can relax this requirement and still be considered qualified. The amount available for a hardship distribution is still limited to the maximum amount available under the IRS Code. In addition, there are no post-distribution contribution restrictions required as there normally are in plans, if the distribution is being made for hurricane relief. Employees still have to pay income taxes on hardship distributions and may have to pay the 10% early penalty tax. Loans, if not repaid, but rather defaulted, become taxable income to the participant.
There is a window of time in which employees can take advantage of this relief. The distributions must be taken from a qualified plan on or after September 4, 2017, but no later than January 31, 2018. Employers need to amend their retirement plans to provide for loans or hardship distributions generally by December 31, 2018.
Why this relief is important does not need debating, but the significant impact it may have on retirement plans and employee retirement accounts remains to be seen. It is challenging for employees to save money and, with an unforeseeable emergency in front of them, employees will turn to where they have most if not all of their savings. Employees may also stop saving for the future indefinitely because of their need for current income to survive now. All of this can’t help but compromise their future retirements.