Be careful about taking advantage of the Cares Act rules for penalty-free retirement withdrawal

If an employer allows plan loans, the Cares Act has increased the limit on loans to $100,000 from $50,000. And payments — new and existing — can be deferred for a year. However, interest will continue to accrue.

If you’re younger than 59½, you’re ordinarily subject to a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty, in addition to income tax, if you remove money from an IRA, 401(k) or 403(b) retirement account. However, under the Cares Act, if you have experienced financial hardship related to the pandemic, the 10 percent penalty is waived for distributions up to $100,000.

But these relaxed rules for retirement plans only apply to individuals impacted by the novel coronavirus.

I offer this warning after receiving the following question from a reader.

Q: I am planning to retire within the next two years. I have a 457(b) retirement account and will also receive a government pension. I’ve been thinking about taking advantage of the coronavirus-related provision in the Cares Act to withdraw money from my retirement account to pay off my mortgage. My mortgage is the biggest debt I have. I understand that I can spread the taxes for the withdrawal over a three-year period. Paying off my mortgage would still leave me with more than $100,000 in the account. Is this a good idea?

A: It’s important to note in answering this question that under the Cares Act, coronavirus-related distributions can be taken for the following reasons:

— You, your spouse or a dependent has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

— You’ve experienced adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed or laid off, or having your work hours reduced.

— You’re unable to work because of a lack of child care.

— You’ve had to close or reduce the hours of a business as a result of the virus.

— You’ve been financially affected by other factors determined by the treasury secretary.

In addition, guidance from the IRS widens the category of who can tap their retirement plan. Plan participants who have someone living with them who has been financially affected can take advantage of tax-friendly provisions of the Cares Act. For instance, a plan participant can withdraw money or take out a loan if their spouse is out of work because of the coronavirus — even if they are still employed.

The IRS also expanded the benefit categories to include “any member of the individual’s household” who has lost a job or income or had an employment offer rescinded, or even experienced a delay in the start date for a job. This might include a spouse, live-in partner or an adult child who has moved back home. For purposes of applying these expanded rules, “a member of the individual’s household is someone who shares the individual’s principal residence,” the guidance says.

If you don’t fall into those categories, you can’t take advantage of the retirement plan relief offered in the Cares Act.

As for using retirement money to pay off a mortgage, I asked Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax at online financial adviser Betterment, to pick up that part of the question.

Bronnenkant: Taking a coronavirus-related distribution from a retirement plan to pay off a mortgage has its pros and cons. The biggest pro is the weight off your back by no longer having a monthly mortgage payment, and the biggest con is having less money that is growing tax-deferred for retirement.

While I typically do not advocate withdrawing from retirement plans to pay off mortgages, the most compelling argument for a strategy like this is when the net interest rate (after-tax) on the debt exceeds the after-tax expected return on the investments.

If you qualify under the Cares Act, the pros:

— The distribution will be 10 percent free regardless of age.

— The income from the distribution can be spread over three years, potentially reducing the total tax liability.

— The debt is paid off, which reduces monthly operating expenses.

— If you change your mind, the distribution can be repaid within three years tax-free.

— There is less money available to grow in a tax-deferred savings account.

— The mortgage interest tax deduction is potentially reduced (if you were itemizing before the payoff).

Not eligible for the Cares Act relief? Here are some pros and cons of paying off your mortgage anyway. Here’s a column where some readers shared why they paid off their mortgage before retiring.

Color of Money Online Chat

Join me on Thursday, Aug. 13, from noon to 1 p.m. (Eastern time) for a real-time discussion about your money.

All you have to do is send in your written questions, and I’ll answer them during the one-hour online chat.

Reader Question of the Week

If you have a personal finance or retirement question, send it to In the subject line, put “Question of the Week.”

Q: Would you mind reposting information about creating a “death book,” which came up a few months ago? I have some time off from work for a staycation and want to tackle this.

A: During one of my online discussions, a reader shared plans to create a “death book.” And although it sounds pretty morbid, it’s a good idea to leave instructions for the person responsible for handling your estate after you die.

Here’s what should be in your “death book.” (By the way, it doesn’t have to be a binder. You can create a file and scan all of your important financial documents.)

— Bank/credit union account information, including whose name is on what accounts.

— Homeownership information, including the mortgage servicer.

— Any titles to anything you own.

— Retirement accounts/pension information. List the beneficiaries.

— Life insurance policy information. Make sure beneficiaries are up to date.

— What you want done with all of your stuff. Some people will fight over the turkey plate.

— What kind of funeral arrangements you want. I’ve told my family not to bury me. I want to be cremated. I don’t want flowers. (I won’t be there to smell them.)

— Instructions if you are entitled to military honors at your funeral.

— Your will. (Please get one!)

— Advanced health-care directives, including health-care power of attorney, which is a document that lists who can make medical decisions for you if you can’t speak for yourself.

— Power of attorney. Make sure you can really trust this person.

— A list of passwords to your computer/mobile phone.

— User IDs and passwords for your online accounts.

Here’s a column that should inspire you to plan for your demise.

Finally, I loved this comment made during the chat about creating a death book.

Q: Isn’t leaving your affairs a mess a way to ensure that your heirs and relatives mourn you much longer? Why make it easy for them to get your stuff?

A: Or, more likely, they will be cussing you out! I want to make it easy for my heirs, because I’ve been the witness to some hot messes when folks die and their estates are not in order. I’m guessing you’re joking, but it’s not funny the chaos left when people haven’t taken the time to get their affairs in order. I’ve actually seen people fight at the funeral home.

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. You can rant or rave. Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”