In response to Hurricane Matthew the IRS in Announcement 2016-39 granted the option to qualified plans to give access to retirement funds to individuals impacted by the disaster without requiring certain the plans to go through certain verification procedures required of such plans when making loans or hardship distributions.
Employer retirement plans of various sorts (§§401(k), 403(b) and 457) must follow certain procedures in order to make distributions or loans to account holders. Distributions can only be made upon the occurrence of certain events that the IRC allows, and then only if the plan itself allows for such a distribution. As well, distributions will generally be subject to tax except to the extent the distribution consists of already taxed amounts.
This announcement provides:
… a qualified employer plan will not be treated as failing to satisfy any requirement under the Code or regulations merely because the plan makes a loan, or a hardship distribution for a need arising from Hurricane Matthew, to an employee or former employee whose principal residence on October 4, 2016, (October 3, 2016, for Florida) was located in one of the counties identified for individual assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew or whose place of employment was located in one of these counties on that applicable date or whose lineal ascendant or descendant, dependent, or spouse had a principal residence or place of employment in one of these counties on that date
Plans covered by this announcement include:
… a plan or contract meeting the requirements of § 401(a), 403(a) or 403(b), and, for purposes of the hardship relief, that could, if it contained enabling language, make hardship distributions. For purposes of this paragraph, a “qualified employer plan” also means a plan described in § 457(b) maintained by an eligible employer described in § 457(e)(1)(A), and any hardship arising from Hurricane Matthew is treated as an “unforeseeable emergency” for purposes of distributions from such plans.
For hardship distributions the announcement provides the following:
The amount available for hardship distribution is limited to the maximum amount that would be permitted to be available for a hardship distribution under the plan under the Code and regulations. However, the relief provided by this announcement applies to any hardship of the employee, not just the types enumerated in the regulations, and no post-distribution contribution restrictions are required. For example, regulations under § 401(k) provide safe harbor hardship distribution standards under which a hardship is deemed to exist only for certain enumerated events, and, after receipt of the hardship amount, the employee is prohibited from making contributions for at least 6 months. Plans need not follow these rules with respect to hardship distributions for which relief is provided under this announcement.
While the plans are allowed to make such loans or hardship distributions currently without regard to plan provisions, the IRS is going to require retroactive amendments to be eventually adopted for plans that don’t provide such options:
To make a loan or hardship distribution pursuant to the relief provided in this announcement, a qualified employer plan that does not provide for them must be amended to provide for loans or hardship distributions no later than the end of the first plan year beginning after December 31, 2016. To qualify for the relief under this announcement, a hardship distribution must be made on account of a hardship resulting from Hurricane Matthew and be made on or after October 4, 2016, (October 3, 2016, for Florida) and no later than March 15, 2017. Plan loans made pursuant to this announcement must satisfy the requirements of § 72(p).
As well, while the plan doesn’t need to get documentation prior to making the loan or distribution, the plan will need to obtain that information. As the announcement continues:
However, as soon as practicable, the plan administrator (or financial institution in the case of IRAs) must make a reasonable attempt to assemble any forgone documentation. For example, if spousal consent is required for a plan loan or distribution and the plan terms require production of a death certificate if the employee claims his or her spouse is deceased, the plan will not be disqualified for failure to operate in accordance with its terms if it makes a loan or distribution to an individual described in the first paragraph under "Relief" in the absence of a death certificate if it is reasonable to believe, under the circumstances, that the spouse is deceased, the loan or distribution is made no later than March 15, 2017, and the plan administrator makes reasonable efforts to obtain the death certificate as soon as practicable.
While the IRS has granted this relief, the announcement does not change the tax treatment to the employees. As the announcement continues:
Taxpayers are reminded that in general the normal spousal consent rules continue to apply, and, except to the extent the distribution consists of already-taxed amounts, any distribution made pursuant to the relief provided in this announcement will be includible in gross income and generally subject to the 10-percent additional tax under § 72(t).
Any relief for those issues would require Congressional action, since the applicable provisions are contained in the IRC. While the IRS’s actions for the plans also runs technically counter to the IRC, the IRS is generally just allowing for “after the fact” compliance by plans with the law’s requirements. But actually removing a tax imposed by the law through imposition of a “carve-out” for a special class of taxpayers would be a step further than the agency is comfortable with taking.