Back in 1978, the year of 3 popes, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1978 which included a provision that became Internal Revenue Code section 401(k).
The 401(k) has roots going back several decades earlier, with many different rulings (Hicks v. US, Revenue Ruling 56-497, and Revenue Ruling 63-180, among others), providing the groundwork for the specialized tax treatment of salary deferrals that Section 401(k) enabled.
More groundwork for the 401(k) as we know it was laid with the passage of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, in that the Treasury Department was restricted from putting forth a particular set of regulations that would have reduced or eliminated the tax-deferral benefits of deferred compensation plans. After the Treasury Department withdrew the proposed regulations in 1978, the way was cleared to introduce the 401(k) plan with the Revenue Act.
This particular section of the Code enabled profit-sharing plans to adopt “cash or deferred arrangements”, or CODAs, funded via pre-tax salary deferral contributions. When the 401(k) code section became effective in January 1980, and the IRS proposed the regulations for Section 401(k) in late 1981, the idea came forth to replace existing bonus arrangements with the new tax-deferred alternative. The real “kicker” that caused the 401(k) plan to garner interest by employers was the ability to save on taxes while still maintaining competitiveness with the earlier bonus plans – and the employer matching arrangement of 401(k) plans did just that.
Several large corporations very quickly began replacing after-tax thrift plans with the new 401(k) plan, and adding 401(k) options to existing profit-sharing and stock bonus plans. The new 401(k)-type of plan provided the employee with deferred taxation on funds diverted into the plans, and provided the employers with the ability to make significant matching contributions on a tax-favored basis.
In 1984, the Tax Reform Act of ‘84 enacted rules for “non-discrimination” testing in the 401(k) plans – meaning that highly-compensated employees couldn’t receive benefit from the plans if non-highly-compensated employees weren’t participating in the plans to an allowable degree.
Then the 1986 Tax Reform Act further tightened the non-discrimination restrictions and set the maximum annual allowable amount of deferral of compensation by employees at $7,000. Up to this point, there was only an annual limit on all contributions by both the employer and employee, which was set at $30,000 from 1982 through 2003. These amounts have gradually increased to today’s levels, of $17,500 for regular deferral by employees and a total annual limit of $51,000.
The 20% mandatory withholding requirement for distributions from 401(k) plans was added with the 1992 Unemployment Compensation Amendments. This requirement applies to distributions that are not rolled over into another retirement plan.
In 1996, the passage of the Small Business Job Protection Act provided an additional boost to participation in 401(k) plans with the release of limits on the contributions that could be made to a retirement plan by an employee that is also participating in a regular pension, or defined benefit, plan.
One more piece of legislation that had a great impact on 401(k) plans was the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), which bumped up the annual maximum contribution by employers and employees (it had been frozen at $30,000 since 1987), as well as adding the “catch-up” contribution provision. The catch-up contribution provision allows participants who are age 50 or older an additional amount to defer into 401(k) plans annually, not limited by the annual maximum contribution amount. This was set at $3,000 initially and has been indexed by COLA to the 2013 limit of $5,500.
EGTRRA also introduced the Roth 401(k) feature, which allows participants to elect a designated separate account within the 401(k) plan that accepts salary deferrals on an after-tax basis, and then provides for a Roth-IRA-type of treatment for qualified distributions.
After EGTRRA, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 came along, which made permanent the provisions of EGTRRA (originally these were set to expire in 2010), as well as providing methods for employers to automatically enroll employees in the plans and choose default investments. The purpose of these provisions was to bolster participation in 401(k) plans and facilitate the best used of these plans.
Most recently, the 2013 American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) provided a method for converting “regular” 401(k) account funds to Roth 401(k) accounts – previously, a participant in a 401(k) plan could only convert funds from a regular account to a Roth account if he or she was in a position to otherwise distributed funds from the account. Generally this means that the employee/participant has left the job associated with the 401(k) or has reached a retirement age set by the plan administrator. With the new rules provided by ATRA, these conversions could be undertaken by a currently-employed participant of any age.