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CARES Act Relaxes Rules Regarding 2020 Retirement Plan Distributions

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) in dramatic fashion, with several members racing back to Washington after Representative Thomas Massie threatened to demand a recorded vote. The legislation […]


On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) in dramatic fashion, with several members racing back to Washington after Representative Thomas Massie threatened to demand a recorded vote. The legislation (which had been previously passed on a unanimous vote by the Senate earlier in the week) was signed by President Trump shortly thereafter.

The CARES Act is the third extensive—roughly $2 trillion dollar—emergency relief package with numerous components designed to mitigate the rapid and sudden fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among its 880 pages are a few changes that loosen the requirements applicable to distributions from retirement plans for 2020:

  • Retirement plans may permit individuals to take a “coronavirus-related distribution” of up to $100,000 in 2020, which will be exempt from the 10% early distribution penalty. In addition, individuals taking such distributions may pay tax on them ratably over three years and may repay them within a three-year period. Individuals will be eligible for such a distribution if they (or their spouse or dependent) test positive, or if they experience adverse financial consequences as a result of COVID-19 due to being quarantined, furloughed, laid off, having work hours reduced, being unable to work due to lack of child care, or closing or reducing hours of a business owned or operated by the individual (a “qualified individual”). A plan administrator may rely on a participant’s certification that he or she is a qualified individual. Plans that may offer these distributions include qualified defined contribution plans, 403(b) plans, governmental 457(b) plans, and IRAs. Although more clarification would be welcome, these rules are structured similarly to the new “qualified birth or adoption” rules under the recently-passed SECURE Act. As such, the availability of these distributions appears to be an optional plan provision.
  • With respect to participant loans taken within 180 days following passage of the CARES Act, the limits on permissible plan loans has been increased from $50,000 to $100,000 and from half of the participant’s vested account balance to the entire vested account balance. In addition, with respect to any qualified individual (as defined in the previous bullet) with an outstanding loan, any payments due during the remainder of 2020 are delayed by one year. It is our understanding that offering loans up to the increased limits is optional (as is offering loans at all); whether plan sponsors will be required to offer delayed repayment to affected individuals is less clear, but this aspect is likely mandatory.
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are waived for 2020. This includes individuals who attained age 70½ in 2019 and did not take their first RMD prior to January 1, 2020.   Impacted plans again include qualified defined contribution plans, 403(b) plans, governmental 457(b) plans, and IRAs. Though more guidance is needed on implementation, we expect this temporary waiver to operate similarly to the 2009 waiver under WRERA. If that is the case, plan sponsors would be able to determine whether they would offer the 2020 RMD waiver, and if so, what the default will be (i.e., to receive or not receive an RMD).

The CARES Act includes a delayed amendment deadline for the above changes set at the last day of the plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2022 (i.e., December 31, 2022 for calendar year plans). Governmental plans have two additional years.

  • Along with the above changes, the CARES Act contains some funding relief for sponsors of qualified defined benefit plans. Specifically, the Act delays minimum funding contributions otherwise due during calendar year 2020 until January 1, 2021 (though delayed contributions will be subject to an interest adjustment). In addition, the CARES Act permits plan sponsors to elect to treat the AFTAP for the last plan year ending before January 1, 2020 as the AFTAP for plan years which include calendar year 2020. This will help many plans avoid funding-based benefit limitations (including the inability to pay lump sums) that might otherwise come into play.
  • Finally, the CARES Act provides authority for the DOL to delay ERISA filing deadlines due to public health emergencies. Though the Act itself does not provide any delay, we anticipate that forthcoming DOL guidance will do so.

If you have any questions on how the CARES Act (or any other COVID-19 developments) may impact your organization’s retirement plans, please contact Brian Gallagher at bgallagher@fraserlawfirm.com.


Brian T. Gallagher is an attorney at Fraser Trebilcock specializing in ERISA, Employee Benefits, and Deferred and Executive Compensation. He can be reached at (517) 377-0886 or bgallagher@fraserlawfirm.com.