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Mechanics of 401(k) Plans – Distribution

Photo courtesy of Sonja Langford on

Photo courtesy of Sonja Langford on

For the next in our series of articles regarding the mechanics of 401(k) plans, we’ll review distributions from the plan.  As with our other articles in this series, we’re referring to all sorts of qualified retirement plans (QRPs) – including 401(k), 403(b), 457, and others – generically as 401(k) plans throughout.

There are several types of distributions from 401(k) plans to consider.  Distributions before retirement age and after retirement age are the two primary categories which we’ll review below.  Another type of distribution is a loan – which will be covered in a subsequent article.

But first, we need to define retirement age.  Generally speaking, retirement age for your 401(k) plan is 59½, just the same as with an IRA.  However, if you leave employment at or after age 55, the operative age is 55.  If you have left employment before age 55, retirement age is 59½. This means that when you have reached retirement age you have access to the funds in your account without the early distribution penalty. (For government jobs with a 457 plan, retirement age is whenever you leave employment – no set age is defined. If you move your funds from the 457 plan to any other type of plan, such as an IRA or 401(k) you lose this provision and must abide by the retirement age for your new plan.)

Distributions before retirement age

When you take a distribution from your 401(k) account before you have reached retirement age (as defined above) – you will possibly owe ordinary income tax and a penalty for early distribution from the account.  This is if you take the distribution without rolling it over into some other sort of tax-deferral vehicle, such as an IRA or 401(k) plan.

If you withdraw funds or securities from your 401(k) plan and put the money into a non-deferred account (or just spend it), it is considered taxable income to you.  Ordinary income tax will apply to the pre-tax amounts distributed from your account.

The one exception: If you happen to have post-tax funds in your account – that is, if you have contributed funds that were taxable prior to your contribution to the account – when these funds are distributed there will be no tax on the distribution.  Any growth of the funds (interest received, capital gains, dividends, etc.) would be taxable, but the post-tax contributions are free from additional tax.  All other funds in your 401(k) account are taxable upon distribution.

The other exception: If the funds are rolled over into another tax-deferred account such as an IRA, another 401(k), or any other QRP, there should be no tax on this distribution.

The 10% penalty will apply to funds withdrawn prior to retirement age if one of the 72(t) exceptions does not apply. Some of these exceptions include (with limits): first-time home purchase, medical expenses, and education expenses, among other things.  See the article at this link for a complete list of 72(t) exceptions.

Distributions after retirement age

Withdrawals after retirement age are the same as withdrawals before retirement age, except for the 10% penalty.  If you are older than retirement age (defined above) you will not be subject to the 10% penalty on funds withdrawn from the account – because this is one of the 72(t) exceptions, the most common one used.

So pre-tax contributions and growth in the account will be taxed as ordinary income unless rolled over into another tax-deferred account.  Post-tax contributions to the account will be tax-free upon distribution.

Distributions including partly pre-tax and partly post-tax

If your account includes some after-tax money in addition to pre-tax money, the general rule is that any distribution from the account includes pro-rata amounts of some pre-tax and some post-tax money.  For example, if a 401(k) account contains $100,000 in total, of which $10,000 is post-tax contributions, for every dollar withdrawn from the account, 10¢ is tax-free, and 90¢ is taxable.  This is known in the industry as the “cream in the coffee” rule – as in, once you have cream (post-tax money) in your coffee (your 401(k) plan), every sip (distribution) contains some cream along with the coffee.

There are ways to separate the cream from the coffee, all controversial and subject to significant restrictions.  We’ll cover that in a later article.

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