Withdrawing money from a 401 (k) can be quite complicated and could be quite expensive. Since your employer has established the 401(k) the plan documents that govern your plan are in his office. The first thing to find out is whether “in service” withdrawals are allowed by the plan. Often there will be allowed withdrawals but the withdrawal must meet certain conditions. It is important to determine if you have the right to withdraw money from the 401(k) if you are still an employee.
The rules also change if you leave your employer, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. You will probably find that your access to the 401(k) is much greater if you have left your job.
If your employer is contributing to your 401(k) there is probably a vesting schedule that is a part of the plan documents. The vesting schedule tells you the percentage of the employer’s contribution that is actually yours. Normally these vesting schedules run out several years so money that is received by the account may not actually be yours for a number of years. Your deposits will remain yours. These are the employer’s contributions that have a vesting schedule.
If the money in a 401(k) has been deferred from current income tax you will be responsible to pay income tax as ordinary income in the year that you receive the money. If the money is in a Roth 401(k) the withdrawal will be treated as a return of your contribution until you exhaust you basis (the total amount that you contributed.)
The next major issue is your age. The rules vary a great deal if you are younger than fifty-nine and a half years old. If money can be withdrawn from a 401(k) and you are younger than fifty-nine and a half years old you will be subject. Generally speaking withdrawals from a 401(k) prior to age fifty-nine and a half are also treated to a special penalty tax of ten per cent. This is changed in addition to the ordinary income tax on the distribution.
You cannot avoid paying income tax on the money received but there are ways to avoid paying the ten per cent penalty tax. There are several general reasons. The first reason is if the amount is being withdrawn because the participant has died. A beneficiary will receive all of the distributions of the inherited 401(k) free of the penalty tax. This can become complicated if the beneficiary is a spouse, please see a retirement income adviser or competent tax advisor prior to finalizing a 401(k) to a spouse.
Another circumstance under which money can be taken from a 401(k) without paying the penalty tax is if the money is need due to the disability of the participant. This can also be true if money is needed to pay deductible medial expense.
There is also a method of withdrawing money that can avoid the penalty tax. This can be quite complicated but the gist is to take the money in substantially equal period payments. If you think about a retirement annuity you will understand this concept. The payments should be designed to cover the lifetime of the participant. It is necessary for the participant to leave employment to use this technique. The computations for these payments are complicated but there are advisors who can help you should this be necessary. It is important to note that the penalty tax is only applicable until you reach age fifty-nine and half and the payments under this plan do not need to be continued after that point.
Other retirement programs have additional exceptions that are more liberal than a 401(k.) IRAs, SEPs and SIMPLEs allow a $10,000 exemption to first-time homebuyers (this means anyone who is purchasing a home and hasn’t owned a home for two years.) These plays also provide exceptions for higher education expenses (these must be taken in the year they are incurred, not the year that they are paid.) These plans offer exceptions for health insurance premiums for the unemployed.
There is also a special rule for participants who are separating from their company and are more than fifty-five years old. There are ways to avoid the penalty tax but this requires careful tax planning.