401(k) Plans:

Policy Changes Could Reduce the Long-term Effects of Leakage on Workers' Retirement Savings

GAO-09-715: Published: Aug 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2009.

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Under federal regulations, 401(k) participants may tap into their accrued retirement savings before retirement under certain circumstances, including hardship. This "leakage" from 401(k) accounts can result in a permanent loss of retirement savings. GAO was asked to analyze (1) the incidence, amount, and relative significance of the different forms of 401(k) leakage; (2) how plans inform participants about hardship withdrawal provisions, loan provisions, and options at job separation, including the short- and long-term costs of each; and (3) how various policies may affect the incidence of leakage. To address these matters, GAO analyzed federal and 401(k) industry data and interviewed federal officials, pension experts, and plan administrators responsi- ble for managing the majority of 401(k) participants and assets.

The incidence and amount of the principal forms of leakage from 401(k) plans--that is, cashouts of account balances at job separation that are not rolled over into another retirement account, hardship withdrawals, and loans--have remained relatively steady, with cashouts having the greatest ultimate impact on participants' retirement preparedness. Approximately 15 percent of participants initiated some form of leakage from their retirement plans, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau survey data collected in 1998, 2003, and 2006. In addition, the incidence and amount of hardship withdrawals and loans changed little through 2008, according to data GAO received from selected major 401(k) plan administrators. Cashouts of 401(k) accounts at job separation can result in the largest amounts of leakage and the greatest proportional loss in retirement savings. Most plans that GAO contacted used plan documents, call centers, and Web sites to inform participants of the short-term costs associated with the various forms of leakage, such as the tax and associated penalties. However, few plans provided them with information on the long-term negative implications that leakage can have on their retirement savings, such as the loss of compounded interest and earnings on the withdrawn amount over the course of a participant's career. Experts that GAO contacted said that certain provisions had all likely reduced the overall incidence and amount of leakage, including those that imposed a 10 percent tax penalty on most withdrawals taken before age 59?, required participants to exhaust their plan's loan provisions before taking a hardship withdrawal, and required plan sponsors to preserve the tax-deferred status of accounts with balances of more than $1,000 at job separation. However, experts noted that a provision requiring plans to suspend contributions to participant accounts for 6 months following a hardship withdrawal may exac-erbate the long-term effect of leakage by barring otherwise able participants from contributing to their accounts. GAO also found that some plans are not following current hardship rules, which may result in unnecessary leakage.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The bipartisan Shrinking Emergency Account Losses in 401(k) Savings Act (S. 606), referred to the Senate Committee on Finance on 3/19/13, contains a provision that allows employees to continue to contribute to their 401(k) plans during the six months following a hardship withdrawal, a practice currently prohibited.

    Matter: To help participants recover more quickly from a hardship situation, Congress may wish to consider changing the requirement for the 6-month contribution suspension following a hardship withdrawal.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Labor published, in conjunction with the Department of the Treasury, a Request for Information (RFI) in February 2010 soliciting public input on a variety of issues related to offering and selection of lifetime income products. The agency conducted public hearings in September 2010. The agencies reviewed the almost 800 comments received in response to the RFI. Labor continued to develop proposed individual benefit statement regulations. In FY11, the agency reported on an initiative to explore steps that it could or should take, by regulation or otherwise, to enhance retirement security by facilitating access to, and use of, lifetime income or income arrangements designed to provide a stream of income after retirement. Based on the public comments, the agency identified areas for further consideration and considered next steps for action. They also took into account GAO's report - "Retirement Income: Ensuring Income throughout Retirement Requires Difficult Choices" (GAO-11-400). The agency expected the proposed individual benefit statement regulations to include provisions relating to lifetime income illustrations in benefit statements provided to participants in 401(k) and similar defined contribution individual account plans. In 2012, the agency provided updated information that did not address the specifics of this recommendation for the agency to encourage plans to provide critical information on their Web sites on hardship withdrawals, loans, and cashouts and the long-term consequences of these forms of leakage. Although Labor's 2013 update mentioned that it had generally addressed lifetime income options in several hearings and through the comment process of a request for information, the hearing transcripts make no mention of using websites to convey critical information on the longterm consequences of 401(k) leakage.

    Recommendation: To support the goal of providing plan participants with understandable and useful information about their employer-provided retirement plan benefits, the Secretary of Labor should promote industry best practices by encouraging plans to include on their participant Web sites information on their plan loan, hardship withdrawal, and cashout provisions, including examples of the long-term consequences of each provision. For example, plans could place a copy of the summary plan description in an electronic form that participants could reference as needed, or provide modeling tools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Labor, in conjunction with the Department of the Treasury, published a Request for Information (RFI) in February 2010 soliciting public input on a variety of issues relating to offering and selection of lifetime income products. The agency conducted two days of public hearings in September 2010. The agencies then reviewed the comments received in response to the RFI and posted them. Labor continued to develop proposed individual benefit statement regulations. In FY11, Labor reported on an initiative to explore steps that it could or should take, by regulation or otherwise, to enhance retirement security by facilitating access to, and use of, lifetime income or income arrangements designed to provide a stream of income after retirement. Based on the hearing comments, the agencies identified areas for further consideration and considered next steps for action. They also took into account a GAO report -"Retirement Income --Ensuring Income throughout Retirement Requires Difficult Choices" (GAO-11-400). The agency expected the proposed individual benefit statement regulations to include provisions relating to lifetime income illustrations in benefit statements provided to participants in 401(k) and similar defined contribution individual account plans. In 2013, Labor finalized an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to solicit public input on an approach EBSA developed for 401(k) and other defined contributions plans showing on the pension benefit statements they distribute to workers their accrued pension benefit as an estimated lifetime stream of payments in addition to being presented as a lump sum account balance.

    Recommendation: To support the goal of providing plan participants with understandable and useful information about their employer-provided retirement plan benefits, the Secretary of Labor should promote industry best practices by encouraging plans to provide separating participants with a projection of their account balance under different scenarios, such as when assets are left in a tax-deferred retirement account compared with those assets cashed out in the form of a lump-sum distribution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In "Retirement News for Employers" (Summer 2009, Vol. 6), IRS provided the following guidance to plans to consider before allowing a hardship distribution: "If the plan, or any of your other plans in which the employee is a participant, offers loans, document that the employee has exhausted them prior to receiving a hardship distribution. Likewise, verify that the employee has taken any other available distributions, other than hardship distributions, from these plans." In an article in "Employee Plan News" (Fall 2009, Vol. 9) titled "Dos and Don'ts of Hardship Distributions," IRS included the following advice to plans before making a hardship distribution: "Document, as may be required by the plan, that the employee has exhausted any loans or distributions, other than hardship distributions, that are available from the plan or any other plan of the employer in which the employee participates."

    Recommendation: To prevent unnecessary leakage and increase compliance with existing regulatory requirements, the Secretary of the Treasury should clarify that the loan exhaustion provision applies to all plans that permit both participant loans and hardship withdrawals, and require plans to document that participants have exhausted available plan loans before allowing a hardship withdrawal.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

 

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