You should contact your plan administrator for information specific to your plan.
A 401(k) plan is a qualified (i.e., meets the standards set forth in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) for tax-favored status) profit-sharing, stock bonus, pre-ERISA money purchase pension, or a rural cooperative plan under which an employee can elect to have the employer contribute a portion of the employee’s cash wages to the plan on a pre-tax basis. These deferred wages (elective deferrals) are not subject to federal income tax withholding at the time of deferral, and they are not reflected as taxable income on the employee’s Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.
The employer reports elective deferrals on the participant’s Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. Although these amounts are not treated as current income for federal income tax purposes, they are included as wages subject to social security (FICA), Medicare, and federal unemployment taxes (FUTA). Refer to Publication 525, Taxable and Nontaxable Income, for more information about elective deferrals. Refer to the Form W-2 Instructions, for more information on how amounts should be reported.
401(k) plans are permitted to allow employees to designate some or all of their elective deferrals as “Roth elective deferrals” that are generally subject to taxation under the rules applicable to Roth IRAs. The information contained in this guide does not pertain to Roth 401(k)s unless specifically stated.
Two of the tax advantages of sponsoring a 401(k) plan are:
Employer contributions are deductible on the employer’s federal income tax return to the extent that the contributions do not exceed the limitations described in section 404 of the Internal Revenue Code. Refer to Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE, and Qualified Plans), for more information about deduction limitations.
Elective deferrals and investment gains are not currently taxed and enjoy tax deferral until distribution.
There are several types of 401(k) plans available to employers - traditional 401(k) plans, safe harbor 401(k) plans and SIMPLE 401(k) plans. Different rules apply to each. For tax-favored status, a plan must be operated in accordance with the applicable rules. Therefore, it is important that the employer be familiar with the special rules that apply to its plan so the plan is administered in accordance with those rules. To qualify for the tax benefits available to qualified plans, a plan must both contain language that meets certain requirements (qualification rules) of the tax law and be operated in accordance with the plan’s provisions. The following is a brief overview of important qualification rules. It is not intended to be all-inclusive.
Traditional 401(k) plans. A traditional 401(k) plan allows eligible employees (i.e., employees eligible to participate in the plan) to make pre-tax elective deferrals through payroll deductions. In addition, in a traditional 401(k) plan, employers have the option of making contributions on behalf of all participants, making matching contributions based on employees’ elective deferrals, or both. These employer contributions can be subject to a vesting schedule which provides that an employee’s right to employer contributions becomes nonforfeitable only after a period of time, or be immediately vested. Rules relating to traditional 401(k) plans require that contributions made under the plan meet specific nondiscrimination requirements. In order to ensure that the plan satisfies these requirements, the employer must perform annual tests, known as the Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) and Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) tests, to verify that deferred wages and employer matching contributions do not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees.
Safe harbor 401(k) plans. A safe harbor 401(k) plan is similar to a traditional 401(k) plan, but, among other things, it must provide for employer contributions that are fully vested when made. These contributions may be employer matching contributions, limited to employees who defer, or employer contributions made on behalf of all eligible employees, regardless of whether they make elective deferrals. The safe harbor 401(k) plan is not subject to the complex annual nondiscrimination tests that apply to traditional 401(k) plans.
Safe harbor 401(k) plans that do not provide any additional contributions in a year are exempted from the top-heavy rules of section 416 of the Internal Revenue Code.
Employers sponsoring safe harbor 401(k) plans must satisfy certain notice requirements. The notice requirements are satisfied if each eligible employee for the plan year is given written notice of the employee's rights and obligations under the plan and the notice satisfies the content and timing requirements.
In order to satisfy the content requirement, the notice must describe the safe harbor method in use, how eligible employees make elections, any other plans involved, etc. Income Tax Regulations section 1.401(k)-3(d)(2), contains information on satisfying the content requirement using electronic media and referencing the plan's Summary Plan Description.
The timing requirement requires that the employer must provide notice within a reasonable period before each plan year. This requirement is deemed to be satisfied if the notice is provided to each eligible employee at least 30 days and not more than 90 days before the beginning of each plan year. There are special rules for employees who become eligible after the 90th day. See Income Tax Regulations section 1.401(k)-3(d)(3).
Both the traditional and safe harbor plans are for employers of any size and can be combined with other retirement plans.
SIMPLE 401(k) plans. The SIMPLE 401(k) plan was created so that small businesses could have an effective, cost-efficient way to offer retirement benefits to their employees. A SIMPLE 401(k) plan is not subject to the annual nondiscrimination tests that apply to traditional 401(k) plans. As with a safe harbor 401(k) plan, the employer is required to make employer contributions that are fully vested. This type of 401(k) plan is available to employers with 100 or fewer employees who received at least $5,000 in compensation from the employer for the preceding calendar year. Employees who are eligible to participate in a SIMPLE 401(k) plan may not receive any contributions or benefit accruals under any other plans of the employer.
For more information on traditional, safe harbor and SIMPLE 401(k) plans, see Publication 4222, 401(k) Plans for Small Businesses.
Restriction on conditions of participation. A 401(k) plan cannot require, as a condition of participation, that an employee complete more than 1 year of service.
Automatic enrollment in a 401(k) plan. A 401(k) plan can have an automatic enrollment feature. This feature permits the employer to automatically reduce the employee’s wages by a fixed percentage or amount and contribute that amount to the 401(k) plan unless the employee has affirmatively chosen not to have his or her wages reduced or has chosen to have his or her wages reduced by a different percentage. These contributions qualify as elective deferrals. This has been an effective way for many employers to increase participation in their 401(k) plans. These contributions qualify as elective deferrals. For more information about 401(k) plans with an automatic enrollment feature, refer to Income Tax Regulations section 1.401(k)-1(A)(3)(ii).
Elective deferral limits. The law, under IRC section 402(g), limits the amount that a participant can defer on a pre-tax basis each year. See the 401(k) Plan Contribution Limits.
Elective deferrals that exceed the section 402(g) dollar limit for a year or are recharacterized as after-tax contributions as part of a correction of the Actual Deferral Percentage (nondiscrimination) test are included in the employee’s gross income.
Matching contributions. If the plan document permits, the employer can make matching contributions for an employee who contributes elective deferrals to the 401(k) plan. For example, a 401(k) plan might provide that the employer will contribute 50 cents for each dollar that participating employees choose to defer under the plan. As mentioned earlier, employer matching contributions may be subject to annual tests to determine if nondiscrimination requirements are met.
Other employer contributions. If the plan document permits, the employer can make additional contributions (other than matching contributions) for participants, including participants who choose not to contribute elective deferrals to the 401(k) plan. If the 401(k) plan is top-heavy, the employer may be required to make minimum contributions on behalf of certain employees. In general, a plan is top-heavy if the account balances of key employees exceed 60% of the account balances of all employees. The rules relating to the determination of whether a plan is top-heavy are complex. Please refer to section 1.416-1 of the Income Tax Regulations for the rules describing how to determine whether a plan is top-heavy.
Employee compensation limit. No more than $260,000 (in 2014, $265,000 in 2015) of an employee’s compensation can be taken into account when figuring contributions. This limit is indexed for inflation.
Vesting requirements. All employees must be fully (100%) vested in their elective deferrals. A plan may require completion of a specific number of years of service for vesting in other employer or matching contributions. For example, a plan may require that the employee complete 2 years of service for a 20% vested interest in employer contributions and additional years of service for increases in the vested percentage.
401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits
Two annual limits apply to contributions:
- A limit on employee elective deferrals; and
- An overall limit on contributions to a participant’s plan account (including the total of all employer contributions, employee elective deferrals, and any forfeiture allocations).
Deferral limits for 401(k) plans
The limit on employee elective deferrals (for traditional and safe harbor plans) is:
- $17,500 in 2014 and $18,000 in 2015
- The $18,000 amount may be increased in future years for cost-of-living adjustments
Generally, you aggregate all elective deferrals you made to all plans in which you participate to determine if you have exceeded these limits. If a plan participant’s elective deferrals are more than the annual limit, find out how you can correct this plan mistake.
Deferral limits for a SIMPLE 401(k) plan
The limit on employee elective deferrals to a SIMPLE 401(k) plan is:
- $12,000 in 2014 and $12,500 in 2015
- This amount may be increased in future years for cost-of-living adjustments
Plan-based restrictions on elective deferrals
These restrictions may further reduce the maximum allowable elective deferrals:
- Your plan's terms may impose a lower limit on elective deferrals
- If you are a manager, owner, or highly compensated employee, your plan might need to limit your elective deferrals to pass nondiscrimination tests
Catch-up contributions for those age 50 and over
If permitted by the 401(k) plan, participants who are age 50 or over at the end of the calendar year can also make catch-up contributions. The additional elective deferrals you may contribute is:
- $5,500 to traditional and safe harbor 401(k) plans in 2014 and $6,000 in 2015
- $2,500 to SIMPLE 401(k) plans in 2014 and $3,000 in 2015
- These amounts may be increased in future years for cost-of-living adjustments
You don’t need to be “behind” in your plan contributions in order to be eligible to make these additional elective deferrals.
Catch-ups for participants in plans of unrelated employers
If you participate in plans of different employers, you can treat amounts as catch-up contributions regardless of whether the individual plans permit those contributions. In this case, it is up to you to monitor your deferrals to make sure that they do not exceed the applicable limits.
Example: If Joe Saver, who’s over 50, has only one employer and participates in that employer’s 401(k) plan, the plan would have to permit catch-up contributions before he could defer the maximum of $23,000 for 2014 (the $17,500 regular limit for 2014 plus the $5,500 catch-up limit for 2014). If the plan didn’t permit catch-up contributions, the most Joe could defer would be $17,500. However, if Joe participates in two 401(k) plans, each maintained by an unrelated employer, he can defer a total of $23,000 even if neither plan has catch-up provisions. Of course, Joe couldn’t defer more than $17,500 under either plan and he would be responsible for monitoring his own contributions.
The rules relating to catch-up contributions are complex and your limits may differ according to provisions in your specific plan. You should contact your plan administrator to find out whether your plan allows catch-up contributions and how the catch-up rules apply to you.
Treatment of excess deferrals
You have an excess deferral if the total of your elective deferrals to all plans is more than the elective deferral limit for the year. You may notify your plan administrator before April 15 of the following year that you would like the excess deferral amount, adjusted for any gains and losses, to be paid from the plan. The plan must then pay you that amount plus allocable earnings by April 15 of the year following the year in which the excess occurred.
Excess withdrawn by April 15. If you withdraw the excess deferral for 2014 by April 15, 2015, it is includable in your gross income for 2014, but not for 2015. The April 15 date is not tied to the due date for your return. However, any income earned on the excess deferral taken out is taxable in the tax year in which it is taken out. The distribution is not subject to the additional 10% tax on early distributions.
Excess not withdrawn by April 15. If you don't take out the excess deferral by April 15, 2015, the excess, though taxable in 2014, is not included in your cost basis in figuring the taxable amount of any eventual distributions from the plan. In effect, an excess deferral left in the plan is taxed twice, once when contributed and again when distributed. Also, if the entire deferral is allowed to stay in the plan, the plan may not be a qualified plan.
Reporting corrective distributions on Form 1099-R. Corrective distributions of excess deferrals (including any earnings) are reported to you by the plan on Form 1099-R, Distributions From Pensions, Annuities, Retirement or Profit-Sharing Plans, IRAs, Insurance Contracts, etc.
Overall limit on contributions
Total annual contributions (annual additions) to all of your accounts in plans maintained by one employer (and any related employer) are limited. The limit applies to the total of:
- elective deferrals
- employer matching contributions
- employer non-elective contributions
- allocations of forfeitures
The annual additions paid to a participant’s account cannot exceed the lesser of:
- 100% of the participant's compensation or
$52,000 ($57,500 including catch-up contributions) for 2014 ($53,000, or $59,000 including catch-up contributions for 2015).
There are separate, smaller limits for SIMPLE 401(k) plans.
Example 1: Greg, 46, is employed by an employer with a 401(k) plan and he also works as an independent contractor for an unrelated business. Greg sets up a solo 401(k) plan for his independent contracting business. Greg contributes the maximum amount to his employer’s 401(k) plan for 2014, $17,500. Greg would also like to contribute the maximum amount to his solo 401(k) plan. He is not able to make further elective deferrals to his solo 401(k) plan because he has already contributed his personal maximum, $17,500. He has enough earned income from his business to contribute the overall maximum for the year, $52,000. Greg can make a nonelective contribution of $52,000 to his solo 401(k) plan. This limit is not reduced by the elective deferrals under his employer’s plan because the limit on annual additions applies to each plan separately.
Example 2: In Example 1, if Greg were 52 years old and eligible to make catch-up contributions, he could contribute an additional $5,500 of elective deferrals for 2014. His catch-up contribution could be split between the plans in any proportion he chooses. His maximum nonelective contribution to his solo 401(k) plan would remain $52,000 even if he contributed the full $5,500 catch-up contribution to this plan.
Compensation limit for contributions
Remember that annual contributions to all of your accounts - this includes elective deferrals, employee contributions, employer matching and discretionary contributions and allocations of forfeitures to your accounts - may not exceed the lesser of 100% of your compensation or $52,000 for 2014 and $53,000 for 2015. In addition, the amount of your compensation that can be taken into account when determining employer and employee contributions is limited. The compensation limitation is $260,000 in 2014 and $265,000 in 2015.
- 401(k) plans home page
- Contribution limits if you're in more than one plan
- When compensation exceeds the annual limits - deferrals and matching
- Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE, and Qualified Plans)
- Publication 525, Taxable and Nontaxable Income