Like loans, hardship withdrawals are allowed by law, but your employer is not required to provide for them in your plan. Again, most companies do, but some don't. The cost of administering such a program can be prohibitive for many small companies. Check with your Human Resources department if you're not sure if your plan allows hardship withdrawal. Like loans, your employer must adhere to some very strict and detailed guidelines.
The IRS code that governs 401(k) plans provides for hardship withdrawals only if: (1) the withdrawal is due to an immediate and heavy financial need; (2) the withdrawal must be necessary to satisfy that need (i.e. you have no other funds or way to meet the need); (3) the withdrawal must not exceed the amount needed by you; (4) you must have first obtained all distribution or nontaxable loans available under the 401(k) plan; and (5) you can't contribute to the 401(k) plan for six months following the withdrawal.
The following four items are considered by the IRS as acceptable reasons for a hardship withdrawal:
1. Un-reimbursed medical expenses for you, your spouse, or dependents.
2. Purchase of an employee's principal residence.
3. Payment of college tuition and related educational costs such as room and board for the next 12 months for you, your spouse, dependents or children who are no longer dependents.
4. Payments necessary to prevent eviction of you from your home, or foreclosure on the mortgage of your principal residence.
5. Beginning on January 1, 2006, you will also be able to make a hardship withdrawal for funeral expenses and repair of a primary residence.
Hardship withdrawals are subject to income tax and, if you are not at least 59½ years of age, the 10 percent withdrawal penalty. You do not have to pay the withdrawal amount back.
The information provided here is intended to help you understand the general issue and does not constitute any tax, investment or legal advice. Consult your financial, tax or legal adviser regarding your own unique situation and your company's benefits representative for rules specific to your plan.