Understanding the Roth 401k – Comparisons with Traditional 401k

Introduced in January 2006 under a provision of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, the Roth 401k is different from the traditional 401k plan because contributions are made after-tax (meaning after tax has been deducted off your pay). The Roth 401k is very similar to the Roth IRA; investors receive no tax deduction on annual contributions, but any withdrawals or proceeds will not be subject to tax either. Investors who own 403b plans are also eligible to contribute to Roth 401k. The government was more than happy to introduce this new piece of legislation because it means investors will pay more tax now, rather than making salary deferral contributions as in the case of traditional 401k plans.

The Roth 401k works inversely with a traditional IRA. With a traditional IRA, an investor receives current tax deduction after making contributions. Instead of this money going to the IRS now, it will stay with the investor and he can invest it in stocks/bonds/mutual funds or real estate. Over time, this money will grow tax-deferred. The government likes this idea too because say after 30 years of investing in various stocks/commodities/real estate, an investor has grown his money from $50,000 to $200,000. If he withdraws this money from his IRA, he will have to pay taxes not on the initial $50,000 but on the whole $200,000!

The Roth 401k works inverse with the above idea. The money you earn this year is taxed this year. You make contributions to a Roth 401k from your after-tax earnings. When you reach the age of 59.5 or more, you are eligible to make withdrawals that are not taxable (because they have already been taxed). The prospect of receiving tax-free money upon retirement is an idea liked by many investors. The idea of receiving tax dollars now is very much liked by the government such that some senators have proposed getting rid of traditional 401k plans or IRAs.

Roth 401k Works Best if:

– The federal government increases taxes over time
– You are a high income earner who has a compensation cap on Roth IRAs (maximum compensation cap of $250,000 in 2012)
– The mutual funds or stocks where you put your Roth 401k capital experience significant returns
– You are a young investor and need more time for your account to grow across various investments such as mutual funds, stocks, commodities, etc.
– You are in a lower tax bracket now and will be in a higher tax bracket upon retirement

Understand the Advantages of Roth 401k

i) Unlike the Roth IRA that has income limitations that will restrict high income earners from deducting the maximum tax off their earnings, the Roth 401k has no income limitations. The maximum compensation cap for Roth IRA is $101,000 for 1 individual, or $159,000 for for joint tax payers. In the case of the Roth 401k, there is no such compensation cap.

Note: The contribution limit for Roth 401k for 2012 is $17,000 for people under the age of 50, and $22,500 for people over the age of 50.

ii) Roth 401k provides tax-free withdrawals upon your retirement, and this idea is very appealing to investors.

iii) Also because of uncertainty regarding future tax legislation, it is better to lock in a lower tax rate now, than to wait upon retirement and pay taxes then. This is especially true for young investors who are earning lower incomes.

Disadvantages of Roth 401k

i) If you get terminated from your job or laid off and are forced to take a distribution of your Roth 401k assets, you are NOT exempt from paying taxes and will have to pay them.

Important Things You Should Know

Here are some of the important characteristics of Roth 401k that you should know about

i) Roth 401k is Voluntary – That’s right, Roth 401k is voluntary for employers. In order to offer Roth 401k for their employees, employers have to set up a tracking system that segregates Roth assets from the company’s existing plan. This tracking system is expensive to build and maintain, and employers may not choose to do it at all. If so, your employer will not be eligible to offer Roth 401k.

ii) Also, any matching contributions that your employer makes towards your Roth 401k must be deposited into a traditional 401k plan. Go figure!

iii) Unlike Roth IRAs, people who reach over the age of 70 and 1/2 must take minimum required distributions (MRDs) from their Roth 401k. This forces investors to take distributions even if they don’t want them or need them. Why wouldn’t they want them? Some investors like to leave behind inheritances for their children and grandchildren, and taking MRDs is not an option.

iv) If you think you are in a lower tax bracket now and will be in a higher tax bracket upon retirement, use a Roth 401k. If you think you will be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement and are thus in a higher tax bracket now, a traditional 401k makes sense.

v) Assets in a traditional 401k cannot be converted into a Roth 401k.

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