By Ian Berger, JD
IRA Analyst

Most workplace retirement plans allowing elective deferrals fall into one of these varieties:

  • 401(k) plans for employees of private sector companies.
  • 403(b) plans for employees of tax-exempt employers, public schools and churches.
  • 457(b) plans for employees of state and local governments.

Although many of the tax rules governing these types of plans are the same, there are some important differences. (This article doesn’t cover the Thrift Savings Plan, for federal government workers and the military, or 457(b) “top-hat” plans for employees of tax-exempt employers.)

What’s the same?  These tax rules apply to all three types of plans:

  • Elective deferrals are limited (to $19,500 for 2020), but employees who are age 50 or older at the end of the year can make catch-up contributions (up to $6,500 for 2020).
  • Roth contributions may be offered.
  • Plan loans may be offered.
  • Hardship withdrawals may be offered (although the 457(b) hardship standards are stricter than the 401(k) and 403(b) standards).
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are required, but the “still-working exception” may be used. That exception allows employees who do not own more than 5% of the company (after applying family aggregation rules) to defer RMDs until the year they separate from service or retire.
  • Rollovers of eligible distributions to IRAs or other plans must be offered. In addition, 20% of the distribution must be withheld for federal income taxes (and possibly an additional amount for state income taxes) for eligible distributions that are not directly rolled over.
  • Rollovers of eligible distributions from IRAs or other plans are permitted. However, 457(b) plans allowing incoming rollovers from IRAs or non-457(b) plans must hold them in separate accounts.
  • 401(k) and 403(b) plans have always been able to offer in-service distributions at age 59 ½ or older. Following a change made by a 2019 law, governmental 457(b) plans can now also offer age 59 ½ or older in-service distributions.

What’s different?  These tax rules apply differently:

  • While 401(k) and 403(b) plans can offer after-tax contributions, 457(b) plans cannot.
  • In determining RMDs, 403(b) plans can be aggregated, but 401(k) and 457(b) cannot be. RMDs for pre-1987 403(b) accounts can be delayed until age 75.
  • A 10% early distribution penalty applies to certain 401(k) or 403(b) distributions made before age 59 ½. The penalty does not apply to 457(b) distributions – except for certain distributions of non-457(b) plan rollovers.
  • Only 403(b) plans allow for a special catch-up contribution for employees with 15 or more years of service. Only 457(b) plans allow a special catch-up for the last three years before an employee’s normal retirement age.

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