When a Woman’s Retirement Account Becomes the Family’s Emergency Fund

This includes one of Ms Wall’s former clients, who was headed for financial ruin because she drained a retirement account to help her daughter fight a custody battle. “I think kids often don’t realize what they’re doing for their parents’ financial future when they ask for money,” she said.

Parents, she added, may not be willing to tell their children about the potential harm to their finances. “But if you’re in your 50s or 60s, unless you’re fabulously wealthy, dipping into the money you’ve been diligently saving for your own retirement backfires incredibly,” Ms Wall said. “You won’t have time to get that money back.”

Ms. Ghilarducci has advice for women caught between a rock and a hard place to want to preserve their retirement money and participate when family needs arise. First, “take a deep breath,” she said. Next, “recognize that emotions about family ties are going to come faster than deliberate decisions” about the financial future. If meeting with a responsible 401(k) or financial advisor isn’t an option, “talk to a lot of people,” she said. “It helps you take a step back.”

A different solution requires systemic changes, many of which are cultural but some of which are legal. Ms. Ghilarducci and Marcia Mantell, a retired consultant in Plymouth, Mass., said rules protecting retirement accounts from exploitation needed to be strengthened.

Before a certain age, “I don’t think anyone should have access to their 401(k) for any reason,” Ms. Mantell said. One of her own relatives, she said, borrowed from an account to make a down payment on a house, although Ms Mantell advised against it.

“I hate the loan provisions,” she said. “I hate when there is special access in the event of a natural disaster. I know it’s sometimes people’s only savings, but retirement is too important to jeopardize.

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