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Roth 401(k) Conversions Explained

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Earlier in 2013, with the passage of ATRA (American Taxpayer Relief Act) there was a provision to loosen the rules for 401(k) plan participants to convert monies in those “regular” 401(k) accounts to the Roth 401(k) component of the account.  Prior to this, there were restrictions on the source of the funds that could be converted, among other restrictions.  These looser restrictions apply to 401(k), 403(b) and 457 plans, as well as the federal government Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

Recently, the IRS announced that guidance was available to utilize the new conversion options.  As long as the 401(k) plan is amended to allow the conversions, all vested sources of funds can be converted, even if the participant is not otherwise eligible to make a distribution from the account.

This means that employee salary deferrals, employer matching funds, and non-elective payins to the 401(k) account can be converted to a Roth 401(k) account (as long as the plan allows it).  Previously, only employee deferrals were eligible to be converted, and then only if the participant was otherwise eligible to make distributions from the 401(k) account, such as being over age 59½ (if the plan allows) or having left employment.

The converted funds will remain under the purview of the 401(k) plan’s distribution restrictions.  Administrators of 401(k) plans can choose to amend their plan to allow these new conversion options or limit existing conversions as they see fit.

Any conversions will cause the converted funds to be included in your ordinary income for the tax year of the conversion, most likely triggering income tax on the additional ordinary income.  If you don’t have funds outside the 401(k) plan to pay the tax on the conversion, the whole operation becomes less attractive, since you’re having to take a (presumably) unqualified distribution of funds to pay the tax on the conversion.  In the future, qualified distributions from the Roth 401(k) account will be treated as tax-free (as with all Roth-type distributions).

For example, if you have a 401(k) account with $100,000 in it and you wish to convert the entire account to your company’s Roth 401(k) option.  If your marginal tax bracket for this additional income is 25%, this means that you would have a potential tax burden of $25,000 on this conversion.  If you have other sources to pull this $25k from, then you can convert the entire $100,000 over to your Roth 401(k) plan.

However (say it with me: “there’s always a however in life”), if you don’t have an extra $25,000 laying around to pay the taxes, you might need to withdraw the money from your 401(k) plan to pay the tax – which would also trigger a penalty on the withdrawal of an additional $10,000.  So now your conversion has cost 35% overall – and the chance of such a conversion paying off due to higher taxes later becomes less likely.

And then there’s the additional rub: most 401(k) plans have significant restrictions on taking an in-plan distribution such as the one mentioned above to pay the tax.  Your plan may allow the Roth 401(k) conversion distribution, but not the regular distribution while you’re participating in the plan, so you’re stuck – and will be stuck with a huge tax bill the following April.

Pros and Cons of the Roth 401(k)

Christine Roth

The Roth 401(k) first became available in January 2006, is an option available for employers to provide as a part of “normal” 401(k) plans, either existing or new.  The Roth provision allows the employee to choose to direct all or part of his or her salary deferrals into the 401(k) plan to a separate account, called a Designated Roth Account, or DRAC.

The DRAC account is segregated from the regular 401(k) account, because of the way the funds are treated.  When you direct a portion of your salary into a DRAC, you pay tax on the deferred salary just the same as if you had received it in cash.  This deferred salary is subject to ordinary income tax, Medicare withholding, and Social Security withholding if applicable.

The unique thing about your DRAC funds is that, upon withdrawal for a qualified purpose (e.g., after you have reached age 59½, among other purposes) the growth that has occurred in the account is not subject to tax.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same type of tax treatment that is applied to a Roth IRA.  Conversely, the regular 401(k) growth and contributions are subject to ordinary income tax upon withdrawal – just the same as a regular (non-Roth) IRA.

Pros of a Roth 401(k)

Among the positive aspects of a Roth 401(k) versus a regular 401(k) are:

  • Future taxation is eliminated (for qualified purposes).  Growth and contributions are tax-free when withdrawn after age 59½.
  • Concerns over future tax rates are eliminated since you’ve already paid the tax on your contributions. If the future tax rates are greater you’d pay the higher rates on regular 401(k) distributions – no tax is due on qualified Roth 401(k) distributions.
  • Contributions could be withdrawn tax-free, with restrictions, prior to age 59½ – after you have left the employer.
  • Early distribution options for education, home down payment, or medical expenses are not available for a DRAC as they are from a regular 401(k).

Benefits of a Roth 401(k) versus a Roth IRA:

  • Higher contribution amounts for the Roth 401(k) – up to $23,000 in 2013, versus $6,500 for a Roth IRA (catch-up contributions have been included, the maximums are $17,500 and $5,500 if under age 50).
  • Employer matching contributions are available, although these must be directed to a “regular” 401(k) account, not the DRAC.
  • Income restrictions that are applied to Roth IRA contributions are more-or-less eliminated with the DRAC.
  • Contributions can be made to the account after reaching age 70½ if still employed and not a 5% or greater owner of the employer.
  • Loans may be available against the balance in the Roth 401(k) account while still employed, if allowed by the plan administrator.

Cons of a Roth 401(k)

Negative aspects of a Roth 401(k) compared to a regular 401(k):

  • You must pay tax on the salary deferred into the DRAC, whereas deferrals to a regular 401(k) are not subject to ordinary income tax.
  • If tax rates are lower for you in retirement, you have paid a higher rate on the contributions to the account, although the growth is still tax free for qualified withdrawals.

When comparing a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, the following downsides are evident:

  • Upon reaching age 70½ your DRAC account will be subject to Required Minimum Distributions, just like a regular 401(k) or IRA.  This can be mitigated by rolling over the Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA upon leaving the employer.
  • You can’t access the contributions to the DRAC before you leave employment, while you can always have access to the contributions to a Roth IRA account.


The decision of whether to participate in a Roth 401(k) if your employer provides one is primarily the same as the decision-point of contributing to a Roth IRA versus a regular IRA.  Actually, the decision between the two types of IRA is a bit more complicated due to restrictions on income levels and deductibility, which don’t apply here.  The primary questions that need to be asked are:

  1. Can you afford the tax on the maximum contribution to a Roth 401(k) account?
  2. Do you think the tax rates will be higher or lower when you reach retirement age?


If you can’t afford to pay the additional tax on the deferred salary (as compared to when you place the money in a regular 401(k)), then it would probably be better to choose the regular 401(k).

For example, if you’re in the 25% tax bracket deferring the maximum $23,000 into a regular 401(k) will reduce your taxes by $5,750 – and so if you chose the DRAC instead, you’d have to pay that much more in tax.  If this kind of additional tax will have a negative impact on being able to pay your day-to-day expenses, the Roth 401(k) is probably not a good option for you.

Keep in mind that the decision isn’t all-or-nothing: you could choose to direct a portion of your deferral to Roth 401(k) and the remainder to the regular 401(k), which would allow you to manage the amount of extra tax that you pay.

Future Tax Rates

If you believe that the future tax rates will be greater than they are for you now, it will be to your advantage to use the Roth 401(k) – so that you pay tax at the lower rate now and avoid the future higher rate.  On the other hand, if you believe that the rates will be lower for you in the future, deferring tax on regular (non-Roth) 401(k) contributions will be more to your advantage.

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The Roth 401(k) Plan

David Lee Roth

Many hard working Americans have access to a defined contribution retirement plan called a 401(k). Essentially, a 401(k) is a retirement savings vehicle provided by employers to their employees as a means for the employee to save for retirement, often with the employer providing a “match” of the employee’s contributions up to a certain percentage.

As of January of 2006 (a result of EGTRRA 2001), employers can now offer employees the Roth 401(k) as part of their 401(k) plan. Before we get into the advantages of the Roth 401(k), let’s briefly look at how the regular 401(k) works. Employees that have access to a 401(k) are generally allowed to contribute up to $17,000 (2012 figures, indexed annually) per year to their 401(k). Employees aged 50 and over are allowed an additional $5,500 (again, 2012 figures, indexed annually). Employee salary deferrals are taken from the employee’s earnings on a pre-tax basis – meaning the amounts going to the 401(k) are not taxed and thus allowed to grow tax deferred in the 401(k) until needed or required to be withdrawn at 70½ (RMDs). When withdrawn, they are then taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

Enter the Roth 401(k).

With a Roth 401(k), an employee’s salary deferrals are taken after the paycheck has been taxed – meaning after tax money goes into the Roth 401(k) account and is allowed to grow tax-deferred and qualified withdrawals are income tax free. Like its regular 401(k) counterpart, the Roth 401(k) requires RMDs to be taken at age 70½.

The Roth 401(k) offers an employee many advantages. The first is that an employee may make more money than would allow him or her to contribute to a Roth IRA. There are no such income restrictions or phase-outs in a Roth 401(k). Additionally, an employee can choose to save money to their Roth 401(k) if they feel they may be in a higher tax bracket at retirement or if they feel tax rates will increase in the future. Also, the maximum contribution to a Roth 401(k) is $17,000 annually versus $5,000 annually for a Roth IRA. Those age 50 or over are allowed to put in an additional $5,500 into their Roth 401(k), whereas those same people are only allowed an additional $1,000 for their Roth IRA. Finally, when an employee retires, they are allowed to roll their Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA – without taxation or penalty, and avoid RMDs (remember Roth IRAs do not have RMDs).

The first place to check to see if you can take advantage of the Roth 401(k) is with your HR representative. Should you have access to this option, see if your employer will match your contributions to the Roth 401(k). The Roth 401(k) can make a lot of sense for those wanting to save even more money on a tax-advantaged basis.

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What types of accounts can I rollover into?

OMG IRA (Photo credit: girlonaglide)

When you have money in several accounts and you’d like to have that money consolidated in one place, the question comes up – Which type of account can be tax-free rolled over into which other type of accounts?

Thankfully, the IRS has provided a simple matrix to help with this question. At this link you’ll find the matrix, sourced from IRS Publication 590.

In terms of explanation, here are a few rules to remember:

You can generally rollover one account of any variety (IRA, Roth IRA, 401(k), and so on) into another account of the exact same type.

You can rollover a Traditional IRA into just about any other tax-deferral plan, including 401(k), 403(b), 457(b), as well as a SEP IRA.  The same goes for each of the accounts in reverse as well as between all of these types of accounts.  In general, employer plans such as 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) plans are not eligible to rollover until the employee has left the job.

You can also rollover any of these accounts into a Roth IRA – but you’ll have to pay tax on the rollover amount.  This is known as a Roth Conversion.

A SIMPLE IRA generally cannot accept a rollover of any other type of account (other than another SIMPLE IRA) into the account.  On the other hand, a SIMPLE IRA can be rolled over into any of the other tax-deferred plans – IRA, 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) or SEP IRA – but only after the SIMPLE IRA has been established for at least two years.

A Designated Roth Account (DRAC), which is part of a 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan, can only be rolled over into another DRAC or a Roth IRA.  Likewise, a Roth IRA is only eligible to be rolled over into another Roth IRA.

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