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Coronavirus aid law lets you more easily tap retirement savings. That doesn’t mean you should

A person in a mask walks in front of a mural
A person wearing a protective mask passes a mural outside the Von Dutch apparel store on Melrose Avenue. Taking a coronavirus hardship loan from a retirement account could cost you down the road.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that a person can withdraw money from their 401(k) and spread the taxes over three years. If 401(k) is paid back, they can amend their tax returns to get those taxes refunded. Because of some major home repairs, I asked our accountant about this before we proceeded. He said that he hasn’t read anything official about the above. Would you please provide where you obtained your information, so we can decide if that’s an avenue we can use?

Answer: It’s possible you had this conversation before March 27, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law.

Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to imagine an accountant anywhere in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the emergency relief package that created the stimulus checks being sent to most Americans, as well as the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans for businesses and the new coronavirus hardship withdrawal rules for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Those rules allow people who have been affected financially or physically by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to get emergency access to their retirement funds if their employers allow it.

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Even if you do have access to such a withdrawal, you should consider other avenues first.

The income taxes on retirement plan withdrawals can be substantial, even when spread over three years. Perhaps more importantly, you probably would lose out on future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned because few people who make such withdrawals will be able to pay the money back.

A home equity loan or line of credit is typically a much better option for home repairs, if you can arrange it.

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Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

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Taxes when inheriting a home

Dear Liz: My sister recently passed, and I acquired her home, which I’m selling (it’s now in escrow). I was looking at state tax forms for real estate transactions, and there is nowhere to check for a person who was given a home through death. Does this mean it is taxable? I was told since it was an inheritance that it was not taxable.

Answer: Technically, you weren’t given a home. You inherited it, and you’re correct that inheritances are typically not taxable. (Only six states impose inheritance taxes, and your state, California, is not one of them.) When you inherited the home, the property received what’s known as a step-up in tax basis, so that the appreciation that occurred during your sister’s lifetime is not taxed. You would owe tax only on any appreciation that occurred since you owned the property. A tax pro can help you figure out what you might owe.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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