What should employers know about the new 401(k) after-tax rules?

15 Oct

The IRS has changed transfer rules between 401(k) and Roth IRA accounts.

Many employees begin saving for retirement through a 401(k) account, hoping it will generate enough money over time that they can stop working at a reasonable point in their careers. At the same time, a large number of workers invest in a Roth IRA for the same reasons. Employers often handle these accounts for their staff using payroll management software, but it's not always an easy task, especially if an employee has both types of retirement accounts.

However, recent changes to the way employees can deal with after-tax money in their 401(k) account in relation to their Roth IRA may alter the way employers help manage workers' retirement savings.

Making it easier to transfer funds
The IRS is the government body that writes the rules for retirement accounts, and it has recently made several alterations that will provide employees a bit more freedom. Forbes wrote that IRS Notice 2014-54 gives employees the ability to transfer after-tax money from their 401(k) account to their Roth IRA without having to pay taxes on the transaction. Beginning January 1, 2015, employees will be able to take advantage of this opportunity to roll over funds between the two accounts.

Why is it advantageous for employees?
A 401(k) account is essentially a contributor-based savings plan that has limits in terms of how much workers can contribute. At the same time, money is taxed in this kind of account, while a Roth IRA is tax free. With regard to the latter, workers fund their retirement savings using after-tax money, which grows in the account until it's withdrawn at retirement.

Before the IRS made this change, employees could technically still do the same thing, but it was a convoluted process, Investment News explained. In fact, many tax experts felt that the IRS was against the practice, which makes the recent announcement a welcome surprise.

Still, it doesn't give employees a blank check in transferring after-tax money from their 401(k) to a Roth IRA. The first caveat is whether a worker actually has after-tax money in his or her 401(k) account.

What's expected of employers?
Many employees who meet the criteria for transferring money between accounts will likely want to take advantage of the opportunity. Employers should facilitate the process. Human resources managers will need to clearly communicate the changes in the IRS's treatment of retirement savings to employees. This may even involve bringing in a financial advisor who can explain any aspects of the changes that may cause confusion. 

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