How Do I File Taxes on a CARES 401(k) Withdrawal?
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act Badges: Pile of CARES Act Buttons With US Flag, 3d illustration

How Do I File Taxes on a CARES 401(k) Withdrawal?

Several bills were passed by Congress to ease financial challenges for Americans during the pandemic. One of the provisions of the CARES Act was to allow workers to withdraw up to $100,000 from their company sponsored 401(k) plan or IRA account in 2020. This is a big departure from the usual rules, says an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal.”

Normally, a withdrawal from either of these accounts would incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty, but the CARES Act waives the penalty for 2020. However, income tax still needs to be paid on the withdrawal. There are a few options for delaying or minimizing the resulting tax bill.

Here are three key rules you need to know:

  • The penalties on early withdrawals were waived, but not the taxes.
  • The taxes may be paid out over a period of three years.
  • If the taxes are paid and then the taxpayer is able to put the funds back into the account, they can file an amended tax return.

It’s wise to take advantage of that three-year repayment window. If you can put the money back within that three-year time period, you might be able to avoid paying taxes on it altogether. If you are in a cash crunch, you can take the full amount of time and repay the money next year, or the year after.

For instance, if you took out $30,000, you could repay $10,000 a year for 2020, 2021, and 2022. You could also repay all $30,000 by year three. Any repayment schedule can be used, as long as all of the taxes have been paid or all of the money is returned to your retirement account by the end of the third year period.

If you pay taxes on the withdrawal and return the money to your account later, there is also the option to file an amended tax return, as long as you put the money back into the same account by 2022. The best option, if you can manage it, is to put the money back into your retirement account as soon as possible, so your retirement savings has more time to grow. Eliminating the tax bill and re-building retirement savings is the best of all possible options, if your situation permits it.

If you lost your job or had a steep income reduction, it may be best to take the tax hit in the year that your income tax levels are lower. Let’s say your annual salary is $60,000, but you were furloughed in March and didn’t receive any salary for the rest of the year. It’s likely that you are in a lower income tax bracket. If you took $15,000 from your 401(k), you might need to pay a 12% tax rate, instead of the 22% you might owe in a higher income year.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 23, 2021) “How to Avoid Taxes on Your CARES Act Retirement Withdrawal”

Using Retirement Funds in a Financial Crisis

For generations, the tax code has been a public policy tool, used to encourage people to save for retirement and what used to be called “old age.” However, the coronavirus pandemic has created financial emergencies for so many households that lawmakers have responded by making it easier to tap these accounts. The article “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes” from The Wall Street Journal asks if this is really a good idea.

This shift in thinking actually coincides with trends that began to emerge before the last recession. People were living and working longer. Unemployment and career changes later in life were becoming more commonplace, and fewer and fewer people devoted four decades to working for a single employer, before retiring with an employer-funded pension.

For those who have been affected by the economic downturns of the coronavirus, withdrawals up to $100,000 from retirement savings accounts are now allowed, with no early-withdrawal penalty. That includes IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) or employment-linked 401(k) plans. In addition, $100,000 may be borrowed from 401(k) plans.

Americans are not alone in this. Australia and Malaysia are also allowing citizens to take money from retirement accounts.

Lawmakers are hoping that putting money into pockets now may help households prevent foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies, with less of an impact on government spending. With trillions in retirement accounts in the U.S., these accounts are where legislators frequently look when resources are threatened.

However, there’s a tradeoff. If you take out money from accounts that have lost value because of the market’s volatility, those losses are not likely to be recouped. And if money is taken out and not replaced when the world returns to work, there will be less money during retirement. Not only will you miss out on the money you took out, but on the return, it might have made through years of tax-advantaged investments.

The danger is that if retirement accounts are widely seen as accessible and necessary now, a return to saving for retirement or the possibility of putting money back into these accounts when the economy returns to normal may not happen.

IRA and 401(k) accounts began to supplant pensions in the 1970s as a way to encourage people to save for retirement, by deferring income tax on money that was saved. By the end of 2019, IRAs and 401(k) types of accounts held about $20 trillion in the US.

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has estimated that even before the coronavirus, early withdrawals were reducing retirement accounts by a quarter over 30 years, taking into account the lost returns on savings that were no longer in the accounts. For many people, taking retirement funds now may be their only choice, but the risk to their financial future and retirement is very real.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020) “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes”