The most popular workplace-sponsored retirement plan is far and away the 401(k) — a plan that can be both simple and complex at the same time. For some of your clients, it functions as a tax-deductible way to save for retirement. Others might see its intricacies as a way to maximize lifetime wealth, boost investments and minimize taxes. One such niche area of 401(k) planning is after-tax contributions, an often misunderstood and underutilized area of planning.
Before we jump into after-tax contributions, we need to cover the limits and the multiple ways your clients can invest money into 401(k) plans.
Employee Salary Deferrals and Roth
The most traditional way you can contribute money to a 401(k) is by tax-deductible salary deferrals. In 2019, employees can defer up to $19,000 a year. If they’re age 50 or older, they can contribute an additional $6,000 into the plan. In 2020, these numbers for “catch-up contributions” rise to $19,500 and $6,500 respectively.
Someone age 50 or over can put up to $25,000 into a 401(k) in 2019 and $26,000 in 2020 through tax-deductible salary deferrals. Additionally, the salary deferral limits could instead be used as a Roth contribution, but with the same limits. The biggest difference is that Roth contributions are after-tax. And as long as certain requirements are met, the distributions, including investment gains, come out income tax-free, whereas tax-deferred money is taxable upon distribution.
Employers often make contributions to a 401(k), with many matching contributions. For instance, if an employee contributes 6% of their salary (up to an annual indexed limit on salary of $280,000 in 2019 and $285,000 in 2020), the company might match 50%, 75%, or 100% of the amount.
For example, if an employee earns $100,000 a year and puts in $6,000 and their employer matches 100%, they will also put in $6,000, and the employee will end up with $12,000 in their 401(k). Employers can also make non-elective and profit-sharing contributions.
Annual 401(k) Contribution Cap
Regardless of how money goes into the plan, any individual account has an annual cap that includes combined employee and employer contributions. For 2019, this limit is $56,000 (or $62,000 if the $6,000 catch-up contribution is used for those age 50 and over). For 2020, this limit rises to $57,000 ($63,500 if the $6,500 catch-up contribution is used for those age 50 and over).
Inability to Max Out Accounts
If you look at the limits and how people can contribute, you might quickly realize how hard it is to max out a 401(k). If a client takes the maximum salary deferral of $19,000 and an employer matches 100% (which is rare), your client would only contribute $38,000 into the 401(k) out of the maximum of $56,000. Their employer would need to contribute more money in order to max out.
Where After-Tax Contributions Fit In
Not all plans allow employees to make after-tax contributions. If the 401(k) did allow this type of contribution, someone could add more money to the plan in the previous example that otherwise maxed out at $38,000.