457 Plan vs. 403(b) Plan: An Overview
The public sector may be the last bastion of the defined-benefit plan—the old-fashioned pension funded by an employer and paid to employees automatically after they retired.
But nowadays, no single source of income may be enough to ensure a comfortable retirement. People also need to save on their own. Public-sector and nonprofit organizations don't offer 401(k) plans to which employees can contribute. However, they can and do offer other employer-sponsored plans: the 403(b) and the 457.
- Public-sector and nonprofit organizations don't offer their employees 401(k) plans.
- These organizations can offer other employer-sponsored plans, such as the 403(b) and the 457 plans.
- There are two different types of 457 plans—the 457(b), which is offered to state and local government employees, and the 457(f) is for top executives in nonprofits.
- A 403(b) plan is typically offered to employees of private nonprofits and government workers, including public school employees.
- If you are eligible for both plans, you can split your contributions between them.
What Is a 457 Plan?
The 457 Plan
There are two types of 457 plans. A 457(b) is offered to state and local government employees, while a 457(f) is for top-level executives at non-profits.
If you have a 457(b) plan, you can contribute up to $19,500 in 2021 and $20,500 in 2022. You can also contribute an additional $6,500 in 2021 and 2022 if you’re age 50 or older.
If you are within three years of normal retirement age, you can contribute even more. You may be able to contribute as much as $39,000 in 2021 and $41,000 in 2022. However, your maximum contribution when you are within three years of normal retirement age is limited by previous contributions.
This limit is, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), "The basic annual limit plus the amount of the basic limit not used in prior years (only allowed if not using age 50 or over catch-up contributions).”
The 457(f) plans are significantly different from their 457(b) counterpart. They are often described as golden handcuffs because they are primarily used to recruit executives from the private sector, where the pay tends to be higher and the benefits more generous.
Under a 457(f) plan, compensation is deferred from taxation. However, this deferred compensation is subject to a "substantial risk of forfeiture," which means executives risk losing the benefit if they fail to meet specific requirements for length of service and performance.
When the compensation becomes guaranteed and is no longer subject to the risk of forfeiture, it becomes taxable as gross income.
Unless you become the head of a nonprofit organization (NPO), you're unlikely to run into the 457(f) plan. Because the deferred compensation is not yet paid and is sheltered from taxation, the benefits remain in the hands of the employer. Rules require that executives must perform services for at least two years in order to receive benefits under a 457(f) plan.
If you have a 457(f) plan, there is no limit on how much income can be deferred from taxation. However, amounts deferred are subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.
Pros and Cons of the 457 Plan
- The 457(b) allows participants to double their retirement plan contributions if they are within three years of normal retirement age. Those who fall into this category can contribute up to $39,000 in 2021 and $41,000 in 2022.
- You can also put in an extra $6,500 per year in 2021 and 2022 if you’re at least 50 years old.
- While other plans do not allow distributions until you are 59½ years old, your 457(b) benefits become available when you no longer work for the employer providing the 457(b) plan. Otherwise, distributions are permitted when you are 72 (or 70½ years old if you reached that age before January 1, 2020), or if needed for an unforeseeable emergency.
- “You can take your money before you are 59½ years old with a 457 without any penalties, unlike any other retirement plan out there,” said Associate Professor/Dr. Mary Jean Scheuer Endowed Professor of Finance, Inga Chira Timmerman, of California State University, Northridge. “That’s a big deal.”
- If you leave your job, you can roll your account over into a Roth IRA or 401(k). This is an option for the 457(b) plan, not the 457(f) plan.
- Unlike the 401(k), the match your employer contributes will count as part of your maximum contribution. If your employer contributed $9,500 in 2021, then you can only contribute $10,000 unless you’re eligible for a catch-up strategy.
- If you’re used to a 401(k), you might already be aware that the $19,500 limit for 2021 applies only to employee contributions. For 401(k) plans, the total contribution limit, including catch-up contributions, is $64,500 for 2021 and $67,500 for 2022.
- Few governments provide matching programs within the 457(b) plan. It’s mostly up to the employees to make sure they’re saving an adequate amount.
- The 457(f) plan requires that employees stay on the job for a minimum of two years. Those who leave earlier forfeit their right to the 457(f) plan.
The IRS makes annual adjustments to contribution and deduction limits based on inflation.
The 403(b) Plan
A 403(b) plan is typically offered to employees of private nonprofits and government workers, including public school employees. Like the 401(k), 403(b) plans are a type of defined-contribution plan that allows participants to shelter money on a tax-deferred basis for retirement.
When these plans were created in 1958, they could only invest in annuity contracts. So, they were known as tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) plans or tax-deferred annuity (TDA) plans.
These plans are most commonly used by educational institutions. However, any entity that qualifies under IRS Section 501(c)(3) can adopt it.
Contribution and Deferral Limits
The contribution limits for 403(b) plans are now identical to those of 401(k) plans. All employee deferrals are made on a pretax basis and reduce the participant's adjusted gross income (AGI) accordingly.
The annual contribution limit, which is also called the elective deferral, is $19,500 for 2021 while the threshold increases for 2022 to $20,500. Individuals can invest an additional catch-up contribution of $6,500 for 2021 and 2022 as long as they're 50 or over.
These plans offer a special additional catch-up contribution provision known as the lifetime catch-up provision or 15-year rule. Employees who have at least 15 years of tenure are eligible for this provision, which allows for an extra $3,000 payment a year. However, this provision also has a lifetime employer-by-employer limit of $15,000.
Employers are allowed to make matching contributions, but the total contributions from employer and employee cannot exceed $58,000 for 2021 and $61,000 for 2022.
After-tax contributions are allowed in some cases, and Roth contributions are also available for employers who opt for this feature. Like with 401(k) plans, employers are allowed to institute automatic 403(b) plan contributions for all workers, although the employees may opt out at their discretion. Eligible participants may also qualify for the Retirement Saver's Credit.
When calculating 403(b) contribution limits for an individual, the IRS applies them in a specific order. First, they apply the elective deferral. The IRS then uses the 15-year service catch-up provision. These are followed by the age 50 catch-up contribution. It is an employer's responsibility to limit contributions to the correct amounts.
The rules for rolling over 403(b) plan balances have been loosened considerably over the past few years. Employees who leave their employers can now take their plans with them to another employer. They can roll their plans over into another 403(b), a 401(k), or another qualified plan. They can also choose to roll their plans over into a self-directed IRA instead.
This means that employees can now maintain one retirement plan throughout their careers instead of having to open a separate IRA account or leave their plans with their old employers.
Notably, 403(b) plan distributions resemble those of 401(k) plans in most respects:
- You can start taking distributions at age 59½, whether or not you’re still working at that organization.
- Distributions taken before age 59½ are subject to a 10% early-withdrawal penalty unless a special exception applies.
- All normal distributions are taxed as ordinary income.
- Roth distributions are tax-free. However, employees must either contribute to the plan or have a Roth IRA open for at least five years before being able to take tax-free distributions.
- Required minimum distributions (RMDs) must begin at age 72. The age for RMDs was 70½ until it was raised by the SECURE Act of 2019. Investors can avoid RMDs if they roll the plan into a Roth IRA or other Roth retirement plan. Failure to take a required minimum distribution will result in a 50% excise tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.
- Loan provisions may also be available at the employer's discretion. The rules for loans are also mostly the same as for 401(k) plans. Participants cannot access more than the lesser of $50,000 or half of the plan balance. Any outstanding loan balance that is not repaid within five years is treated as a taxable or premature distribution.
Distributions are reported each year on Form 1099-R, which is mailed to plan participants.
Investment options in 403(b) plans are limited compared with some other retirement plans. Funds can be invested into an annuity contract provided by an insurance company or invested in a mutual fund via a custodial account.
This situation is a source of ongoing debate in the financial and retirement planning community. Annuities are tax-deferred vehicles in and of themselves, and there is no such thing as double tax-deferral.
Most plans now offer mutual fund choices as well, albeit inside a variable annuity contract in most cases. But fixed and variable contracts and mutual funds are the only types of investments permitted inside these plans.
Importantly, 403(b) plans differ from their 401(k) counterparts in that, in theory, the contributions are immediately vested and cannot be forfeited. In practice, however, employers can make contributions to a separate account and, as benefits vest, retroactively apply them to the 403(b) plan.
In addition, as a result of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, 403(b) plans also now receive the same level of protection from creditors as qualified plans.
Plan participants should also be aware of all of the fees charged by their plan and investment providers. The plan administrator must provide a complete breakdown of these fees to all plan participants.
How to Choose
If you need more time to put aside money for retirement, a 457 plan is best for you. It has a better catch-up policy and will allow you to stash away more money for retirement.
A 403(b) is likely to be your best bet if you want a larger array of investment options. “Although a 457 can also have multiple providers, usually, the choice of providers is not as wide as a 403(b),” Chira says.
There’s a third option for some people: If you are eligible for both plans, you can split your contributions between them.
That means you can put away $39,000 in 2021 and $41,000 for 2022, not including any catch-up contributions if you’re eligible. “This is especially appealing to employees who have a great income and are trying to minimize their taxes,” notes Timmerman.