Hardship Withdrawal

Updated on January 5, 2024
Article byKosha Mehta
Edited byAshish Kumar Srivastav
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is A Hardship Withdrawal?

A hardship withdrawal is a provision offered by some retirement savings plans that allow participants to withdraw funds before the designated retirement age due to financial difficulties or unexpected life circumstances. Its purpose is to provide a safety net for individuals facing significant financial challenges such as medical expenses, disability, job loss, or impending foreclosure.

Hardship Withdrawal

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The importance of a hardship withdrawal lies in its ability to offer financial relief during times of crisis, helping individuals access their retirement savings to address immediate pressing needs. While it provides an essential lifeline, it’s important to note that hardship withdrawals often come with strict eligibility criteria and potential tax implications.

Key Takeaways

  • A hardship withdrawal is an option in some retirement plans that allow early access to funds due to qualifying financial hardships like medical expenses or preventing foreclosure.
  • While it provides immediate financial relief, hardship withdrawals come with tax liabilities and potential penalties, impacting long-term retirement savings.
  • Before choosing this option, explore alternatives such as emergency funds, loans, or government assistance, and carefully consider the implications on both short-term needs and long-term financial security. Consulting with financial experts is advised.

Hardship Withdrawal Explained

A hardship withdrawal is a provision within certain retirement plans that allows participants to withdraw funds before the standard retirement age under specific qualifying circumstances. Typically, these circumstances encompass pressing financial challenges like medical bills, education expenses, home repairs, or preventing eviction.

The significance of a hardship withdrawal lies in its capacity to provide a vital source of financial support. Especially when individuals are confronted with unexpected and overwhelming hardships. By granting access to a portion of retirement savings, this option can help individuals navigate immediate crises. However, it’s important to remember that hardship withdrawals often come with eligibility criteria, potential taxes, and consequences for long-term retirement goals. As such, individuals should exercise caution and consider all available alternatives before opting for a hardship withdrawal.

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A hardship withdrawal is a provision within certain retirement plans that permits participants to access a portion of their savings before the standard retirement age for specific qualifying reasons. These reasons generally include medical emergencies, funeral expenses, purchasing a primary residence, preventing eviction or foreclosure, and covering higher education costs for the participant, their spouse, children, or dependents.

The importance of hardship withdrawals lies in their ability to offer crucial financial assistance during times of urgent need. However, it’s important to note that these withdrawals are subject to strict criteria and potential tax implications. Therefore, individuals should carefully evaluate their circumstances. Also, they should explore other options before opting for a hardship withdrawal from their retirement savings.

Permitted Uses

A hardship withdrawal is a provision available in certain retirement plans that allows participants to access a portion of their retirement savings before the standard retirement age due to specific qualifying circumstances. The funds withdrawn through a hardship withdrawal can only be used for certain permitted purposes designed to address immediate financial needs and hardships. These permitted uses typically include:

  1. Medical Expenses: Hardship withdrawals can cover medical expenses for the participant, their spouse, children, or dependents. This includes costs related to medical treatments, surgeries, prescription medications, and other healthcare-related expenses.
  2. Primary Residence Purchase: Participants may use hardship withdrawals to make a down payment or cover closing costs for purchasing a primary residence. This provision recognizes the significance of stable housing and aims to prevent homelessness.
  3. Preventing Eviction or Foreclosure: Hardship withdrawals can help individuals facing imminent eviction from their current residence or foreclosure on their home by providing funds to address overdue rent or mortgage payments.
  4. Funeral Expenses: These withdrawals can cover funeral and burial expenses for the participant’s deceased spouse, children, parents, or dependents.
  5. Higher Education Costs: Participants can use withdrawals to pay for higher education expenses, including tuition, fees, and room and board, for themselves, their spouse, children, or dependents.

Tax Treatment

The tax treatment of hardship withdrawals from retirement plans is essential before opting for this option. When individuals withdraw funds from their retirement accounts under the hardship provision, the withdrawal amount is generally subject to income taxes and potential early withdrawal penalties.

  1. Income Taxes: Any funds withdrawn from a retirement plan through a withdrawal are typically treated as taxable income in the year of withdrawal. This means that the withdrawn amount is added to the individual’s annual income. It potentially pushes them into a higher tax bracket and results in increased tax liability.
  2. Early Withdrawal Penalties: In addition to income taxes, an early withdrawal penalty might be assessed on the amount taken out if the participant is not yet of retirement age (usually 59½ years old). This penalty is often 10% of the withdrawn amount. It is intended to discourage premature withdrawals that could undermine the purpose of retirement savings.


When facing financial difficulties or unexpected expenses, there are alternatives to withdrawals. Like retirement plans that individuals should consider before tapping into their retirement savings:

  1. Emergency Savings: An emergency fund is crucial for emergencies, car repairs, or sudden job loss. Before considering it, individuals should first exhaust their emergency savings to cover immediate expenses.
  2. Personal Loans: Depending on creditworthiness, individuals might explore loans from banks or credit unions. While these loans must be repaid with interest, they often have lower interest rates than early withdrawal penalties. It can help avoid the tax implications of withdrawals.
  3. 401(k) Loans: Some retirement plans allow participants to take out loans against their 401(k) savings. These loans must be repaid, typically within a set timeframe. It might be a better option than withdrawals since they don’t trigger immediate taxes and penalties.
  4. Government Assistance: Depending on the nature of the hardship, individuals might qualify for government assistance programs designed to help with specific needs, such as unemployment benefits, housing assistance, or medical aid.
  5. Borrowing from Family or Friends: While not always ideal, borrowing from family or friends might provide a temporary solution. These are without the tax consequences of a hardship withdrawal.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to apply for a hardship withdrawal? 

One usually needs to contact your retirement plan administrator or provider to apply for a withdrawal. They will provide the necessary forms and information about the process. Before taking a hardship withdrawal, carefully evaluate the situation’s urgency, explore alternative options, understand the tax implications and penalties, and consult financial advisors to make an informed decision.

2. How does a hardship withdrawal affect retirement savings? 

A hardship withdrawal can significantly impact retirement savings by reducing the amount that continues to grow tax-deferred. Considering the long-term implications and exploring other options before withdrawing is important.

3. Are hardship withdrawals repayable? 

A hardship withdrawal is typically not repayable. Unlike loans from retirement accounts, the withdrawn funds are not expected to be returned to the account.

This has been a guide to what is Hardship Withdrawal. Here, we explain its reasons, tax treatment, permitted uses, and alternatives. You can learn more about it from the following articles –

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