You can make a 401(k) withdrawal in a lump sum, but is it a good idea to do so? Usually, the answer to that is no. Tax-deferred retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, are designed to provide income during retirement. In most cases if you make any withdrawal and are younger than 59½, you'll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to income taxes on the amount you withdraw. Note (see "Important" box below) that this early withdrawal penalty is not in effect for withdrawals of $100,000 or less in 2020 if you have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some of the options available to withdraw a lump sum from your 401(k) and what you need to consider.

Key Takeaways

  • You can make a 401(k) withdrawal in a lump sum but in most cases, if you do and are younger than 59½, you'll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to taxes.
  • There are special allowances for withdrawals in 2020 for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • You can take a 401(k) loan against your balance, but will be subject to penalties if you default. Those rules are also modified in 2020.
  • A hardship withdrawal can give you retirement funds penalty-free, but only for specific qualified expenses and you’ll still owe taxes.
  • You are limited to the lump-sum withdrawal options your plan allows.

Lump-Sum Withdrawal Options While Employed

Some companies automatically enroll eligible workers in a 401(k)—they can opt out—while others let employees choose if and when they participate. Employers often rely on a plan sponsor to educate employees on the investments, benefits, and contribution limits of a 401(k) plan.

The majority provide sufficient direction to employees when they begin contributing to the plan, but they often fall short of providing useful information when employees change jobs, retire, or need to withdraw money from their plans.

If you currently work for an employer with an active 401(k) plan, you are limited to the lump-sum withdrawal options indicated in the original plan document. This generally means that, while you may access a portion of it, you cannot simply cash it out. The two most common lump-sum withdrawal provisions come in the form of a hardship withdrawal or a loan against your 401(k) balance.

Hardship Withdrawals

A hardship withdrawal is a lump-sum withdrawal based on financial need that you do not need to repay. A hardship withdrawal must meet IRS criteria, such as covering crippling medical expenses, to avoid paying the 10% early withdrawal penalty. You'll still owe income taxes on the amount withdrawn.

On March 27, President Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency relief bill, called the CARES Act, into law. It allows those affected by the coronavirus pandemic to take a distribution of $100,000 or less without the 10% penalty those younger than 59½ normally owe. Account owners also have three years to pay the tax owed on withdrawals, instead of owing it in the current year. Or, they can repay the withdrawal during that period to a 401(k) or IRA plan and avoid owing any tax—even if the amount exceeds the annual contribution limit for that type of account.

401(k) Loans

A 401(k) loan is paid back through paycheck deferrals over time. Except under the 2020 law, the loan is capped at a certain percentage of your total 401(k) balance—the IRS allows up to 50% and a maximum of $50,000 of vested funds, which ever is less.

“If you have a 401(k) plan with the ability to take out a loan, you can withdraw the funds tax free,” says Kirk Chisholm, a wealth manager at Innovative Advisory Group in Lexington, Mass. “Of course, you will have to pay them back, but this allows you to borrow from your 401(k) account and pay yourself back the interest and principal over time.”

The CARES Act doubles the amount of 401(k) money available as a loan to $100,000 in 2020, but only if you’ve been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adoption or Birth Expenses

There is another case where plan holders can make a lump-sum withdrawal from their plans without incurring the 10% penalty. According to Section 113 of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act—signed into law in December 2019—new parents are allowed to withdraw a maximum of $5,000 from their plans penalty-free to pay for adoption or birth expenses.

Options When You Leave an Employer

Lump-sum withdrawal options are not as limited when you leave an employer for another job or if you retire. You can take a lump-sum distribution from a previous employer’s 401(k) plan up to the total vested account balance. After placing a distribution request, the plan sponsor or custodian sends a check directly to you, and the account is closed with the custodian.

If you have a Roth 401(k) balance, no taxes are withheld—with traditional pre-tax traditional 401(k) plans, sponsors withhold taxes from the balance before cutting the check. In either case, if you are under 59½, you are subject to a 10% tax penalty.

You can avoid taxes and penalties by rolling over the lump-sum withdrawal into an individual retirement account (IRA). In this case, the check is made out to the custodian of the IRA, not to you—although it should be marked “for the benefit of” you. As you never received the funds in cash, you are not taxed.

If you're switching jobs, another option is to roll over the 401(k) into the 401(k) at your new employer, if that new plan allows for this option. Review all your choices carefully before you decide.

Fast Fact

Funds withdrawn from your 401(k) must be rolled over to another retirement account within 60 days to avoid taxes and penalties.

Special Considerations for Withdrawals

The greatest benefit of taking a lump-sum distribution from your 401(k) plan—either at retirement or upon leaving an employer—is the ability to access all of your retirement savings at once. The money is not restricted, which means you can use it as you see fit. You can even reinvest it in a broader range of investments than those offered within the 401(k).

Since contributions to a 401(k) are tax deferred, investment growth is not subject to capital gains tax each year. Once a lump-sum distribution is made, however, you lose the ability to earn on a tax-deferred basis, which could lead to lower investment returns over time.

Tax withholding on pre-tax 401(k) balances may not be enough to cover your total tax liability in the year when you receive your distribution, depending on your income tax bracket. Unless you can minimize taxes on 401(k) withdrawals, a large tax bill further eats away at the lump sum you receive.

Finally, having access to your full account balance all at once presents a much greater temptation to spend. Failure in the self-control department could mean less money in retirement. You are better off avoiding temptation in the first place by having the funds directly deposited in an IRA or your new employer's 401(k), if that is permitted.