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Roth 401(k)

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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History of the 401(k)

President George W. Bush signs into law the Pension Protection Act of 2006

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.

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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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Rolling Over Your Roth 401(k)

rolloverI realize that the Roth 401(k) is a new animal, but here’s something you want to keep in mind about these accounts as you add to the account over your life.  When you leave your employer, generally speaking, you should always rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA.

This is primarily due to the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) requirement that is placed on Roth 401(k) accounts… unlike a Roth IRA, the owner of a Roth 401(k) is required to take minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 70½.  Therefore, as soon as possible (generally upon separation from service) the owner of the Roth 401(k) should rollover the account to a Roth IRA. But see the caution below!!

Roth IRAs do require the beneficiary to take RMDs after the death of the primary owner, but the distributions are tax free, as would be expected.  But otherwise, during the life of the primary owner of the account, there is no RMD required.

A Word of Caution

The Roth 401(k) (and Roth IRA) both require you to have held the account for five years, and a triggering event must have occurred (generally reaching age 59½), before the distribution is qualified and therefore tax-free.  The tricky part is that the time in the Roth 401(k) doesn’t count toward time held in a Roth IRA.

So, if you roll over the Roth 401(k) account before you’ve met the five year requirement, all the time that you’ve held that account is wiped out, and the time you’ve held the Roth IRA is the new holding period.  If you put the funds into a new Roth IRA, you will have to wait another five years before you can take the money out in a qualified fashion.

If you’d held the Roth 401(k) for five years or longer and a triggering event has occurred, rolling the funds over to a Roth IRA (of any age) allows you to withdraw the funds at any time, for any purpose, without tax.

Photo by DAVID
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