Some assets in 401(k) plans are tax deferred. Before the January 1, 2006, effective date of the designated Roth account provisions, all 401(k) contributions were on a pre-tax basis (i.e., no income tax is withheld on the income in the year it is contributed), and the contributions and growth on them are not taxed until the money is withdrawn. With the enactment of the Roth provisions, participants in 401(k) plans that have the proper amendments can allocate some or all of their contributions to a separate designated Roth account, commonly known as a Roth 401(k). Qualified distributions from a designated Roth account are tax free, while contributions to them are on an after-tax basis (i.e., income tax is paid or withheld on the income in the year contributed). In addition to Roth and pre-tax contributions, some participants may have after-tax contributions in their 401(k) accounts. The after-tax contributions are treated as after-tax basis and may be withdrawn without tax. The growth on after-tax amounts not in a designated Roth account are taxed as ordinary income.
A 401(k) plan is a type of defined contribution plan (under the IRS's definition). It is a salary reduction plan, where employees must choose a percentage of their salary to contribute to the plan, and the plan spells out the extent of employer matching, if any (regardless of profits). Employee taxable salaries are reduced by these contributions, the contributions are invested, and any earnings are tax-deferred, e.g., until the employee draws the money out at retirement. Two other types of defined contribution plans are profit-sharing plans, in which the plan specifies, for example, that the employer will contribute 10% of net profits each year (divided among participant accounts), and money purchase pension plans, in which the plan defines the contribution as 10% of participants' annual salary, for example. 401(k) plans are not a defined benefit plan, because the benefit formula (specifying what participants will receive at retirement) is not spelled out in the plan. 401(a) profit sharing plans and money purchase pension plans, and 401(k) plans, are individual account plans, because each participant's benefit is the value of an individual account to which the contributions have been made plus any investment income and less any losses. If investments do well, there will be more in the account at retirement; if investments do poorly, there will be less.
In addition, 401(k) plans are tax-qualified plans covered by ERISA such that assets held by the plans are generally protected from creditors of the account holder, which in the past was generally not true for IRA plans. In the case of employer bankruptcy, all 401(a) (pension and defined contribution plans) and 401(k) plans are protected, because of the rule that contributions must accrue to the exclusive benefit of employees in general. Even though pension plans are backed by insurance through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, workers whose company enters bankruptcy may not receive the full value of their pension. ERISA protection of 401(k) assets does not extend to losses in the value of investments that participants choose. Employees investing their 401(k) in their own employer stock face the possibility of losing the value of their retirement accounts that is invested in employer stock along with their jobs if their employer goes out of business.
Defined benefit plans have a definitely determinable benefit amount that usually has a fixed formula, regardless of how the underlying plan assets perform. Defined contribution plans according to Section 414(i) of the IRC have individual accounts. Because plan sponsors want to take advantage of the exemption from the fiduciary duty to diversify plan assets to minimize the risk of large losses by using ERISA Section 404(c), these plans usually provide each worker the ability to control the contents of his account. The account value may fluctuate in value based on the underlying investments. There is a risk that returns may even be negative.
Some companies match employee contributions to some extent, paying extra money into the employee's 401(k) account as an incentive for the employee to save more money for retirement. Alternatively the employer may make profit sharing contributions into the 401(k) plan or just contribute a fixed percentage of wages. These contributions may vest over several years as an inducement to the employee to stay with the employer.
When an employee leaves a job, the 401(k) account generally stays active for the rest of his or her life, though the accounts must begin to be drawn out beginning the April 1st of the calendar year after the attainment of age 70½ (except that under SBJPA 1996, those still employed can defer). In 2004 some companies started charging a fee to ex-employees who maintained their 401(k) account with that company. Alternatively, when the employee leaves the company, the account can be rolled over into an IRA at an independent financial institution, or if the employee takes a new job at a company that also has a 401(k) or other eligible retirement plan, the employee can "roll over" the account into a new 401(k) account hosted by the new employer.
Comparable types of salary-deferral retirement plans include 403(b) plans covering workers in educational institutions, churches, public hospitals, and non-profit organizations and 457 plans which cover employees of state and local governments and certain tax-exempt entities.
Significant new rules are allowing benefits companies (Plan Providers) and those involved in selling benefits to plans (Plan Advisors) to expand their capabilities to sell services to Plan Sponsors (those responsible for managing employer-sponsored retirement plans for companies).
For pre-tax contributions, the employee does not pay federal income tax on the amount of current income that he or she defers to a 401(k) account. For example, a worker who earns $50,000 in a particular year and defers $3,000 into a 401(k) account that year only recognizes $47,000 in income on that year's tax return. Currently this would represent a near term $750 savings in taxes for a single worker, assuming the worker remained in the 25% marginal tax bracket and there were no other adjustments (e.g. deductions). The employee ultimately pays taxes on the money as he or she withdraws the funds, generally during retirement. The character of any gains (including tax favored capital gains) are transformed into "ordinary income" at the time the money is withdrawn.
For after tax contributions to a designated Roth account (Roth 401(k)), qualified distributions can be made tax free. To qualify, distributions must be made more than 5 years after the first designated Roth contributions and not before the year in which the account owner turns age 59 and a half, unless an exception applies as detailed in IRS code section 72(t). In the case of designated Roth contributions, the contributions being made on an after tax basis means that the taxable income in the year of contribution is not decreased as it is with pre-tax contributions. Roth contributions are irrevocable and cannot be converted to pre-tax contributions at a later date. Administratively Roth contributions must be made to a separate account, and records must be kept that distinguish the amount of contribution that are to receive Roth treatment.
In any event any amounts are subject to normal taxation as ordinary income. Some employers may disallow one, several, or all of the previous hardship causes. Someone wishing to withdraw from such a 401(k) plan would have to resign from their employer. To maintain the tax advantage for income deferred into a 401(k), the law stipulates the restriction that unless an exception applies, money must be kept in the plan or an equivalent tax deferred plan until the employee reaches 59½ years of age. Money that is withdrawn prior to the age of 59½ typically incurs a 10% penalty tax unless a further exception applies. This penalty is on top of the "ordinary income" tax that has to be paid on such a withdrawal. The exceptions to the 10% penalty include: the employee's death, the employee's total and permanent disability, separation from service in or after the year the employee reached age 55, substantially equal periodic payments under section 72(t), a qualified domestic relations order, and for deductible medical expenses (exceeding the 7.5% floor). This does not apply to the similar 457 plan.
Many plans also allow employees to take loans from their 401(k) to be repaid with after-tax funds at pre-defined interest rates. The interest proceeds then become part of the 401(k) balance. The loan itself is not taxable income nor subject to the 10% penalty as long as it is paid back in accordance with section 72(p) of the Internal Revenue Code. This section requires, among other things, that the loan be for a term no longer than 5 years (except for the purchase of a primary residence), that a "reasonable" rate of interest be charged, and that substantially equal payments (with payments made at least every calendar quarter) be made over the life of the loan. Employers, of course, have the option to make their plan's loan provisions more restrictive. When an employee does not make payments in accordance with the plan or IRS regulations, the outstanding loan balance will be declared in "default". A defaulted loan, and possibly accrued interest on the loan balance, becomes a taxable distribution to the employee in the year of default with all the same tax penalties and implications of a withdrawal.
These loans have been described as tax-disadvantaged, on the theory that the 401(k) contains before-tax dollars, but the loan is repaid with after-tax dollars. This is not correct. The loan is repaid with after-tax dollars, but the loan itself is not a taxable event, so the "income" from the loan is tax-free. This treatment is identical to that of any other loan, as long as the balance is repaid on schedule. (A residential mortgage or home equity line of credit may have tax advantages over the 401(k) loan; but that is because the interest on home mortgages is deductible, and unrelated to the tax-deferred features of the 401(k).)
Originally intended for executives, the section 401(k) plan proved popular with workers at all levels because it had higher yearly contribution limits than the Individual Retirement Account (IRA); it usually came with a company match, and in some ways provided greater flexibility than the IRA, often providing loans and, if applicable, offered the employer's stock as an investment choice. Several major corporations amended existing defined contribution plans immediately following the publication of IRS proposed regulations in 1981.
A primary reason for the explosion of 401(k) plans is that such plans are cheaper for employers to maintain than a defined benefit pension for every retired worker. With a 401(k) plan, instead of required pension contributions, the employer only has to pay plan administration and support costs if they elect not to match employee contributions or make profit sharing contributions. In addition, some or all of the plan administration costs can be passed on to plan participants. In years with strong profits employers can make matching or profit-sharing contributions, and reduce or eliminate them in poor years. Thus 401(k) plans create a predictable cost for employers, while the cost of defined benefit plans can vary unpredictably from year to year.
The danger of the 401(k) plan is if the contributions are not diversified, particularly if the company had strongly encouraged its workers to invest their plans in their employer itself. This practice violates primary investment guidelines about diversification. In the case of Enron, where the accounting scandal and bankruptcy caused the share price to collapse, there was no PBGC insurance and employees lost the money they invested in Enron stock. Congress inserted trust law fiduciary liability upon employers who did not prudently diversify plan assets to avoid the chance of large losses inside Section 404 of ERISA, but it is unclear whether such fiduciary liability applies to trustees of plans in which participants direct the investment of their own accounts.
If the employee contributes more than the maximum pre-tax limit to 401(k) accounts in a given year, the excess must be withdrawn by April 15th of the following year. This violation most commonly occurs when a person switches employers mid-year and the latest employer does not know to enforce the contribution limits on behalf of their employee. If this violation is noticed too late, the employee may have to pay taxes and penalties on the excess. The excess contribution, as well as the earnings on the excess, is considered "non-qualified" and cannot remain in a qualified retirement plan such as a 401(k).
Plans which are set up under section 401(k) can also have employer contributions that (when added to the employee contributions) cannot exceed other regulatory limits. The total amount that can be contributed between employee and employer contributions is the section 415 limit, which is the lesser of 100% of the employee's compensation or $44,000 for 2006, $45,000 for 2007, and $46,000 for 2008. Employer matching contributions can be made on behalf of designated Roth contributions, but the employer match must be made on a pre-tax basis.
Governmental employers in the US (that is, federal, state, county, and city governments) are currently barred from offering 401(k) plans unless they were established before May 1986. Governmental organizations instead can set up a section 457(g).
The average deferral percentage (ADP) of all HCEs, as a group, can be no more than 2% greater (or 150% of, whichever is less) than the NHCEs, as a group. This is known as the ADP test. When a plan fails the ADP test, it essentially has two options to come into compliance. It can have a return of excess done to the HCEs to bring their ADP to a lower, passing, level. Or it can process a "qualified non-elective contribution" (QNEC) to some or all of the NHCEs to raise their ADP to a passing level. The return of excess requires the plan to send a taxable distribution to the HCEs (or reclassify regular contributions as catch-up contributions subject to the annual catch-up limit for those HCEs over 50) by March 15th of the year following the failed test. A QNEC must be an immediately vested contribution.
The annual contribution percentage (ACP) test is similarly performed but also includes employer matching and employee after-tax contributions. ACPs do not use the simple 2% threshold, and include other provisions which can allow the plan to "shift" excess passing rates from the ADP over to the ACP. A failed ACP test is likewise addressed through return of excess, or a QNEC or qualified match (QMAC).
There are a number of "safe harbor" provisions that can allow a company to be exempted from the ADP test. This includes making a "safe harbor" employer contribution to employees' accounts. Safe harbor contributions can take the form of a match (generally totalling 4% of pay) or a non-elective profit sharing (totalling 3% of pay). Safe harbor 401(k) contributions must be 100% vested at all times with immediate eligibility for employees. There are other administrative requirements within the safe harbor, such as requiring the employer to notify all eligible employees of the opportunity to participate in the plan, and restricting the employer from suspending participants for any reason other than due to a hardship withdrawal.
Prior to EGTRRA, the maximum tax-deductible contribution to a 401(k) plan was 15% of eligible pay (reduced by the amount of salary deferrals). Without EGTRRA, an incorporated business person taking $100,000 in salary would have been limited in Y2004 to a maximum contribution of $15,000. EGTRRA raised the deductible limit to 25% of eligible pay without reduction for salary deferrals. Therefore, that same businessperson in Y2008 can make an "elective deferral" of $15,000 plus a profit sharing contribution of $25,000 (i.e 25%), and — if this person is over age 50 — make a catch-up contribution of $5,000 for a total of $45,000. For those eligible to make "catch up" contribution,and with salary of $136,000 or higher, the maximum possible total contribution in 2008 would be $51,000. To take advantage of these higher contributions, many vendors now offer Solo-401(k) plans or Individual(k) plans, which can be administered as a Self-Directed 401(k), allowing for investment into real estate, mortgage notes, tax liens, private companies, and virtually any other investment.
Note: an unincorporated business person is subject to slightly different calculation. The government mandates calculation of profit sharing contribution as 25% of net self employment (Schedule C) income. Thus on $100,000 of self employment income, the contribution would be 20% of the gross self employment income, 25% of the net after the contribution of $20,000.