Code Section 139: Little Known Disaster Relief Benefits Now in the Spotlight

As most of the nation continues under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have received inquiries about ways employers can provide additional benefits to employees during this unprecedented time.

On March 13, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a “disaster” by President Trump under the Stafford Act. While this designation may not be enough to permit hardship distributions from all retirement plans, the “disaster” declaration under the Stafford Act does trigger availability of Code Section 139 – a little known and seldom used provision in the tax code added after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – that will permit an employer to provide tax-free “qualified disaster relief payments” to employees, if they meet certain requirements. First highlighted by our tax colleagues in a blog post on April 6, 2020, here we expand on how Code Section 139 works for our employer clients considering such a program.

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