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What Is a Roth 401(k)?

What Is a Roth 401(k)?

While many people are familiar with the benefits of traditional 401(k) plans, others are not as acquainted with Roth 401(k)s.

Since January 1, 2006, employers have been allowed to offer workers access to Roth 401(k) plans.¹ And some have rolled out offerings as part of their retirement programs.

As the name implies, Roth 401(k) plans combine features of traditional 401(k) plans with those of a Roth IRA.2,3

With a Roth 401(k),contributions are made with after-tax dollars—there is no tax deduction on the front end—but qualifying withdrawals are not subject to income taxes. Any capital appreciation in the Roth 401(k) also is not subject to income taxes.

What to Choose?

Fast Fact: Roth 401(k) plans were made permanent by the Pension Protection Act of 2006.
Source: IRS, 2016

The choice between a Roth 401(k) and a traditional 401(k) comes down to determining whether the upfront tax break on the traditional 401(k) is likely to outweigh the back-end benefit of tax-free withdrawals from the Roth 401(k).4

Often, this isn’t an “all-or-nothing” decision. Many employers allow contributions to be divided between a traditional 401(k) plan and a Roth 401(k) plan—up to overall contribution limits.

Considerations

One subtle but key consideration is that Roth 401(k) plans aren’t subject to income restrictions like Roth IRAs. This can offer advantages to high-income individuals whose Roth IRA has been limited by these restrictions. (See accompanying table.)

Traditional
401(k)
Roth 401(k) Roth IRA
Contributions Contributions are made with pre-tax dollars Contributions are made with after-tax dollars Contributions are made with after-tax dollars
Income Limits No income limits to participate No income limits to participate For 2017, contribution limit is phased out between $186,000 and $196,000 (married, filing jointly), and between $118,000 and $133,000 (single filers)
Maximum Elective Contribution* Aggregate contributions are limited to $18,000 in 2017, ($24,000 for those over age 50)* Aggregate contributions are limited to $18,000 in 2017, ($24,000 for those over age 50)* Contributions are limited to $5,500 for 2017, ($6,500 for those over age 50)*
Taxation of Withdrawals Qualifying withdrawals of contributions and earnings aresubject to income taxes Qualifying withdrawals of contributions and earnings are notsubject to income taxes Qualifying withdrawals of contributions and earnings are notsubject to income taxes
Required Distributions In most cases, distributions must begin no later than age 70½ In most cases, distributions must begin no later than age 70½ There is no requirement to begin taking distributions while owner is alive

* This is an aggregate limit by individual rather than by plan. The total of an individual’s aggregate contributions to his or her traditional and Roth 401(k) plans cannot exceed the deferral limit—$18,000 in 2017, ($24,000 for those over age 50).

Source: IRS, 2017

Roth 401(k) plans are subject to the same annual contribution limits as regular 401(k) plans—$18,000 for 2017, ($24,000 for those over age 50). These are cumulative limits that apply to all accounts with a single employer; an individual couldn’t save $18,000 in a traditional 401(k) and another $18,000 in a Roth 401(k).

Another factor to consider is that employer matches are made with pretax dollars, just as they are with a traditional 401(k) plan. In a Roth 401(k), however, these matching funds accumulate in a separate account that will be taxed as ordinary income at withdrawal.

Setting money aside for retirement is part of a sound personal financial strategy. Deciding whether to use a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k) often involves reviewing a wide-range of factors. If you are uncertain about what is the best choice for your situation, you should consider working with a qualified tax or financial professional.

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