We’re frequently asked questions about this, that, or the other thing involving retirement plans and taxes.  Not only do we think our clients can use an FAQ resource, we’ll be using it too, to help answer questions we get.  (There’s only so much information we can store in our heads without occasionally double-checking our answers!)  Is the question you need an answer to not asked below?  Go to ASK AN EXPERT, and ask your question.  We’ll send you an email with our answer—and if appropriate, edit our FAQs to include your question for the next person seeking that answer.

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Your Contributions

No. If you employer does offer a 401(k), consider yourself one of the lucky ones:  More than half of all workers in the United States do not access to a workplace retirement plan!  Your employer undertakes significant cost, operational aggravation, and fiduciary liability to make a 401(k) available.  Take advantage of it!

No. But most likely you can make an IRA contribution for your spouse.  See the FAQs on IRAs.

No. Contributions to a 401(k) must be made from your paycheck. Once you stop getting a paycheck from an employer, your ability to defer into that company’s 401(k) plan also stops.

  1. 401(k) contribution limits are not “per plan” but “per calendar year”. The amount you contributed into another plan in the current year will reduce the amount you can contribute to your new 401(k) plan.
  2. When participating in two 401(k) plans in the same calendar year, neither your former employer nor your current employer must monitor how much you contribute in total for the year: it’s your responsibility to track this.  If you contribute too much, there are potential adverse tax implications to you when you file your tax return for that year.

  1. No, contributions to a 401(k) must be deducted from your paycheck.
  2. PLANNING TIP: It might be possible to contribute 100% of your paycheck into the 401(k) late in the calendar year and use your savings to make up for the lost take-home pay. Ask your payroll department about the frequency with which you can change the amount coming out of your paycheck.

No. While you can make both Roth and “traditional” 401(k) contributions, the total contributions into your 401(k) cannot exceed the current year’s dollar limitations (or a lesser amount if your compensation is less than the dollar limitations).

  1. In calendar year 2019, $19,000, but no more than 100% of your paycheck (less FICA taxes). Some plans, for IRS considerations, may impose lower limits for some or all plan participants. (In calendar year 2020, the dollar limit is $19,500.)
  2. If in calendar year 2019 you are age 50 or older, you can also make a catch-up contribution of $6,000 in addition to the $19,000. (In 2020, the catch-up increases to $6,500.)
  3. These dollar limits can increase year-by-year given inflation and IRS rules.
  4. Certain employees designated by the IRS as “highly compensated” may not be able to defer as much as they might otherwise prefer. If you are impacted by these IRS rules, your HR department will undoubtedly inform you of your deferral limitations.

Employer Contributions
  1. A “safe harbor” 401(k) plan allows an employer to skip certain testing requirements that might otherwise constrain certain employees from being able to defer the maximum dollar amounts. To secure this relief, the plan must either:
    • Match deferrals with a formula as favorable as dollar-for-dollar on the first 3% of compensation deferred and fifty-cents on the dollar for the next 2% of compensation deferred (in total a 4% match); or
    • Contribute at least 3% of compensation to every eligible employee whether they defer or not.
  2. Safe harbor contributions cannot have “allocation conditions”, e.g., last day of the year employment, or hours of service, in order to receive an employer contribution
  3. You are fully vested in safe Harbour contributions with the exception of “additional, discretionary” safe-harbor contributions.

  1. Under all circumstances, a matching contribution will only be made if you have deferred money into the plan. Don’t miss out on this important benefit by failing to contribute to your 401(k).
  2. Some plans will not offer a matching contribution. It still makes great sense to defer, however. You may be forgoing tax savings for the contribution and tax-deferred accumulation. And how else are you going to save money for retirement.
  3. Some plans state that contributions are “discretionary” meaning that the Employer could decide later it cannot afford to make a matching contribution—even if you contributed.
  4. Some plans require that you meet certain conditions to receive a match. For example, you must be employed on the last day of the plan year; or you must have worked a certain number of hours during the plan year.
  5. Some plans are “safe harbor” plans. Instead of making a matching contribution, the employer will make a “profit sharing” contribution for eligible employees even if they do not defer into the 401(k).

There is a formula that will be spelled out in a Summary Plan Description or in an annual notice to you.

  1. YES, if one of the following applies:
    1. You are paying no income taxes.
    2. You are in a low tax bracket and expect in future years to be in a higher tax bracket.
    3. You think your income tax rate at retirement will be higher than it currently is.
    4. The tax-deduction for a “traditional” 401(k) contribution is unimportant to you.
    5. You are in a high tax bracket and want to maximize the after-tax income you will have during retirement.
  2. NO, if one of the following applies:
    1. The tax deduction for a “traditional” 401(k) contribution is important to you—and the deduction helps you to make a larger 401(k) contribution.
    2. You will be in a lower income tax bracket during retirement.

No, all employer contributions will be subject to taxation when withdrawn from the account.

  1. Yes and no.
    1. Once a contribution has been processed via a payroll, its designation as a Roth or “traditional” contribution cannot be changed.
    2. Subject to administrative rules regarding the frequency with which you can change the amount of your 401(k) deferrals, you can change how FUTURE contributions are designated as Roth or “traditional”.
  2. PLANNING TIP: If your plan allows for in-plan conversions, traditional, pre-tax plan balances can be changed to Roth account balances. This conversion is a taxable event and the tax liability must be paid with your annual tax return.

Yes, but the total annual contributions of both types cannot exceed the annual dollar limitation in effect for the current year.

  1. Unlike “traditional” 401(k) contributions which are tax-deductible, Roth 401(k) contributions are not tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution.
  2. Unlike “traditional” 401(k) account balances that are taxable upon distribution from your plan, earnings on your Roth account balance are tax-free when withdrawn – providing the distribution is a “qualified distribution.”
    1. For a distribution to be “qualified”, two conditions must be met:
      1. You are over the age of 59 ½;
      2. The Roth account has existed for 5 years.
    2. Distribution of Roth contributions are always tax-free. The question is whether the earnings on the Roth balances are taxable or not.

  1. You may not be eligible for the plan yet.
  2. You didn’t defer into the 401(k), a necessary condition for receiving a match.
  3. You didn’t fulfill certain eligibility conditions, such as:
    1. Last day of the year employment
    2. Hour of Service during the Plan Year

  1. You first need to fulfill certain conditions, such as:
    1. Attainment of a certain age, usually 21
    2. Number of Hours of Service, for example 1,000
    3. The ability to defer into the 401(k) vs. eligibility to receive an employer contribution can have different condtions attached to each
  2. Next, you must wait until an “entry” date. Examples of entry dates are the next January 1 or July 1; or the first day of the calendar quarter;
    1. There could be different Entry Dates for deferring into the 401(k) vs. being eligible to receive an employer match
  3. Eligibility conditions will be spelled out in the plan’s Summary Plan Description (“SPD”). If you do not have a copy of the SPD, ask your HR Department for one.


You might possibly earn a Year of Service for the last calendar year of your employment, but beyond that, nothing increases your percentage of vesting (unless the company terminates the plan).

  1. The plan defines a Year of Service, typically a calendar year in which you work 1,000 hours.
  2. For each Year of Service, you become more vested. Typical vesting schedules give no vesting until you have 2 Years of Service—at which point you are 20% vested.  With each passing year, you earn an addition 20% vesting such that you are fully vested after 6 Years of Service.

  1. You are always 100% vested in your 401(k) deferrals.
  2. You are always 100% vested in non-discretionary, employer Safe Harbor contributions
  3. Terms of your company’s plan dictate if other “sources” of contributions, e.g., regular matches, profit sharing, etc., are subject to a vesting schedule.

Vesting is a term that describes your right to receive your account balance upon distribution from the plan. For example, you are 80% vested in an account that is worth $20,000. Upon distribution, you will receive $16,000.  The other $4,000 is “forfeited”.

  1. NO, if:
    1. In all situations, the distribution occurs after age 59 ½.
    2. You have terminated employment in the year in which you are age 55 or older.
      1. This exception applies only to the distribution of account balances of plans in which termination of employment occurs at age 55 or older.
    3. You take your distribution as a series of “equally periodic distributions” for a period not less than 5 years AND through to your age 59 ½ or older.
  2. YES, in all other circumstances.

  1. Unless Roth in character, your distribution will be taxed at your current tax bracket—given all the other income you have received—in the year of the distribution.
  2. Earnings on your Roth account balance are tax-free when withdrawn providing the distribution is a “qualified distribution.”
    1. A distribution to be “qualified”, two conditions must be met:
      1. You are over the age of 59 ½;
      2. The Roth account has existed for 5 years.
    2. Distribution of Roth contributions are always tax-free. The question is whether the earnings on the Roth balances are taxable or not.

  1. Funds to avoid foreclosure or eviction
  2. Medical expenses not covered by insurance
  3. Funeral expenses
  4. Home purchase
  5. Post-secondary education expenses

  1. Only if the plan allows for hardship distributions—and not all plans do.
  2. You must give proof of your financial hardship.
  3. If the plan has a loan provision, you may be required to take a loan rather than a hardship distribution.

  1. No. You can generally get access to your account balance upon certain “distributable events”:
    1. Termination of employment
    2. Death
    3. Disability
  2. Money in your retirement account should be used for what it is intended: your retirement.

  1. Only if the new plan agrees to accept a rollover. Plans are not required to accept them.
  2. You cannot under any circumstances rollover Roth IRA balances into a 401(k) plan.
  3. The IRS does permit you to rollover Roth 401(k) balances from one 401(k) plan to another.

  1. Only if you instruct your plan to send your account balance directly to your IRA or the 401(k) plan of your new employer. This is called a “trustee-to-trustee transfer”.
  2. If you are intending to rollover your account balance, it is best to have it happen via the trustee-to-trustee transfer.
  3. If not, when you do deposit your account balance into that IRA or new 401(k) plan, you won’t have the amount of federal and state withholdings to deposit unless you have other sources of funds. Thus you may inadvertently receive taxable income and a tax penalty.

  1. The plan will withhold a mandatory 20% Federal tax withholding of any money leaving the plan.
  2. Depending on your state of residency, state taxes must also be withheld if you do not give instruction to the contrary.
  3. You can ask that higher percentage of Federal and state taxes be withheld.

The difference is what you do with the money within 60 days after it leaves the plan—and its tax consequences.

  1. If you do not deposit the money into another 401(k) plan or an IRA, it is a distribution and is taxable.
  2. If within 60 days you deposit it into another 401(k) plan or an IRA, it is a rollover and not taxable—nor subject to a 10% penalty.

  1. Your plan account is credited the interest you pay.
  2. In essence, one of your plan’s investments is a loan you have made to yourself.

No, not even if the loan is taken out to help you purchase your primary residence.

Only if a Plan’s Loan Policy Permits it.

  1. The plan’s recordkeeper generally imposes a loan fee and annual servicing costs.
  2. You will be charged interest on your loan.
    1. Interest is generally 1 or 2 percentage points greater that the Prime Rate at the time of the loan.

  1. As a general rule, up to 60 months.
  2. Some plans allow longer terms for loans used to purchase your primary residence.
  3. Almost all loans are due upon termination of employment even if prior to the original term of the loan.

  1. The lesser of $50,000 or 50% of your vested account balance.
  2. The amount you can borrow may be reduced by the maximum outstanding loan balance you have had within the prior 12 months.
  3. Most plans impose a minimum loan amount, for example, $1,000.

  1. Some plans allow you to take a loan for any purpose—even imprudent ones!
  2. Some plans restrict your ability to borrow money from the plan to only include financial hardships. Most plans use the IRS’ definition of financial hardship to include:
    1. Funds to avoid foreclosure or eviction
    2. Medical expenses not covered by insurance
    3. Funeral expenses
    4. Home purchase
    5. Post-secondary education expenses

  1. Only if the plan allows for loans. Many employers feel strongly that plan money is for retirement and procedures should be in place to help you retain your plan balances for that express purpose.
  2. Some plans restrict the number of loans you can have at any given time. So if you have an existing loan, you might have to pay that loan off first before taking a new loan.
  3. Some plans restrict loans to certain “source” of money in the plan, for instance, 401(k) deferrals. Thus you might have a profit sharing contribution but no deferrals., and thus cannot take a loan.