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More people are eligible to tap retirement savings without penalty

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One of the emergency COVID-19 response laws passed by Congress lets people who have tax-protected retirement savings withdraw them without the extra tax penalty. That includes savings like individual retirement accounts, 401(k)s and 403(b)s, but it was only under certain circumstances that the government let people do this. Now the IRS is making more families eligible.

Marketplace’s Scott Tong has more on what’s changing. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

David Brancaccio: Explain this expansion — who qualifies?

Scott Tong: Originally, the CARES Act let you pull out up to $100,000 from your retirement plan — and not pay a penalty — if you were diagnosed with COVID-19, or your spouse was, if you were laid off, if your business shut down due to the virus, or if you were quarantined or for some reason couldn’t get child care. That’s several categories. But, as of Friday, there are more to reflect what’s happening in the workplace.

If you had a pay cut, or a job that was offered and then taken away or, and this is the big one, if your spouse has any of the above, you can take that $100,000 from your retirement account.

So for a household, that’d be double the tax help. But, let’s point out: About half the population does not have a retirement plan through work.

Brancaccio: What’s the tax help, here, if you or your spouse qualify?

Tong: This is important. Normally if you take this money out before you’re 59-and-a-half years old, you pay your regular tax rate plus a 10% penalty. So now, this coronavirus help only excuses you from the penalty. You still owe regular taxes if you dip into your nest egg.

Brancaccio: So this is still a dicey proposition. Only break glass in the case of an emergency?

Tong: That’s the warning from several personal finance gurus. You still owe taxes. And you’re shrinking your retirement.

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