Why do 401(k) and IRA contributions have such different rules?
Dear Liz: Can you please explain to me why the IRS allows an employee in a workplace 401(k) to contribute $19,000 but a wage earner without a 401(k) can contribute only $6,000 to an IRA? This seems grossly unfair. Why does one group get to save three times as much for retirement?
Answer: Congress works in mysterious ways, and this is far from the only weird byproduct of tax law.
The 401(k) and the IRA were created through different mechanisms.
The 401(k)’s birth was almost accidental. Benefits consultant Ted Benna created the first 401(k) savings plan in 1981, using a creative interpretation of a section of IRS code. Benna crafted the plan to provide an alternative to cash bonuses, not to replace traditional pensions — although that’s what it ended up doing.
IRAs, by contrast, were created deliberately by Congress in 1974 to provide a way for people to save independent of their employers.
Raising the IRA limit would be costly to the budget, while decreasing 401(k) limits would be unpopular, since so many people rely on them for the bulk of their retirement savings.
You aren’t, however, limited to saving only $6,000 annually for retirement. You can always save more in a taxable account. You wouldn’t get the tax deduction for contributions, but your investments can qualify for favorable long-term capital gains treatment if you hold them for at least one year.
A required minimum distribution headache
Dear Liz: For more than four years my husband has had to take a required minimum distribution from his 457 deferred compensation plan. We have always chosen when to do that, knowing that it has to be done by Dec. 31.
This year we processed the distribution on Dec. 28 to take advantage of stock market movements. We saw the direct deposit of that transaction hit our savings account as planned. To our astonishment, we got a letter (dated Dec. 27 but received after Jan. 1) from the plan’s trustee informing us that “as a courtesy” it had initiated a required minimum distribution “on our behalf.” The letter even “assisted” us with information on how we can “establish a recurring RMD” in the future. We received a check in the mail Jan. 5 for this unnecessary and unwanted distribution.
Not only is this a duplication of my husband’s RMD for this account, but this distribution also may push us into a higher tax bracket. It also sets me up for a further increase in my Medicare B premiums because of the higher income.
I have searched but could not find any information on how to roll this back or how they could have been so bold, and under what authority they took the liberty to babysit a depositor. Can you provide any information?
Answer: Before any more time passes, put the money into an IRA and keep documentation of the “redeposit,” said Robert Westley, a CPA and personal financial specialist with the American Institute of CPAs’ PFS Credential Committee.
The plan provider likely will send a 1099-R form that includes the second withdrawal, so you’ll need this documentation to avoid taxation on the extra money. If you don’t already have a tax pro to help you, consider hiring one to help you navigate this.
Some retirement plans, including 457s, have language that allow forced distributions, since many people either don’t understand the requirement or choose to ignore it. But your husband clearly was not in that group.
Your husband can call the 457 plan provider to find out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Or he might just roll this 457 into an IRA at another provider.
This advice assumes that the plan is a governmental 457, which allows rollovers into an IRA. If it’s a non-governmental 457, however — the kind used for highly paid executives in private companies — the rollover option doesn’t exist and you might be stuck with a higher tax bill.
Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.
Your guide to our clean energy future
Get our Boiling Point newsletter for the latest on the power sector, water wars and more — and what they mean for California.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.