The Roth 401(k) account made its debut in the retirement investment community in 2006. Created by a provision of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and modeled after the Roth IRA, the Roth 401(k) is an employer-sponsored investment savings account that gives employees the opportunity to save for retirement with after-tax money.

Participants in 403(b) plans are also eligible to participate in a Roth account.

Although the ability to contribute to a Roth 401(k) was originally set to expire at the end of 2010, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 made the Roth 401(k) permanent.

Key Takeaways

  • A Roth 401(k) is an employer-sponsored savings plan that gives employees the option of investing after-tax dollars for retirement.
  • Contribution limits for 2020 are $19,500 for people under age 50 and $26,000 for those age 50 and above.
  • Although you pay taxes on your contributions, withdrawals that you take after age 59½ will be tax-free if the account has been funded for at least five years.
  • Unlike a Roth IRA, you must take required minimum distributions from a Roth 401(k) starting at age 70½.
  • People whose taxes are currently low or who expect to pay higher taxes in retirement may benefit from opening a Roth 401(k).

Perspectives on Roth 401(k) Benefits

The benefits associated with the Roth 401(k) depend largely on your point of view. From the government's perspective, the Roth 401(k) generates current revenue in the form of tax dollars. That's different from a traditional 401(k), for which investors receive a tax deduction on their contributions. Thanks to this deduction, funds which ordinarily would be lost to the IRS remain in the account tax-deferred until they're withdrawn. 

From the investor's perspective, the account is expected to grow over time and money that would have been lost to the tax man will instead spend all of those years working for the investor. The government also wants those assets to grow because the tax deferral ends when the money is withdrawn from the account. In essence, the government gives you a tax break today in the hope that there will be even more money to tax in the future.

The Roth 401(k) works in reverse. The money you earn today is taxed today. When you put this after-tax money into your Roth 401(k), withdrawals that you take after you reach age 59½ will be tax-free if the account has been funded for at least five years. The prospect of tax-free money during retirement is attractive to investors. 

The prospect of tax dollars being paid today instead of deferred is attractive to the government. In fact, it's so attractive that lawmakers have discussed eliminating traditional tax-deductible IRAs and replacing them with accounts such as the Roth 401(k) and Roth IRA.

The Rules

Unlike the Roth IRA, which has income limitations that restrict some investors from participating, there are no income limits on the Roth 401(k). An investor can contribute to a Roth 401(k), a traditional 401(k), or a combination of the two, assuming both are offered by their employer. 

However, contribution limits remain the same regardless of whether you choose a traditional account, a Roth, or both. The contribution limit for 2019 is set at $19,000 for people under 50 and $25,000 for those 50 and above. In 2020, this figure goes up to $19,500 and an additional $6,500 if you are age 50 or over.

The contribution limit is one advantage that a Roth 401(k) has over a Roth or traditional IRA: the total amount you can contribute to those accounts is $6,000 a year ($7,000 if you're 50 or over) in 2019 and 2020.

The decision regarding which plan you choose depends largely on your personal financial situation. If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket after retirement than you are in your working years, the Roth 401(k) may be the way to go—it will provide tax-free withdrawals when you retire. 

While it may seem intuitive that most investors will experience a decrease in their tax rate upon retirement, retirees often have fewer tax deductions, and there's also the potential impact of future legislation, which could result in higher tax rates. Considering the uncertainty of tax rates in the future, young workers who currently have lower income tax rates may want to consider investing in after-tax programs like the Roth 401(k), essentially locking in the lower tax rate.

Factors in the Decision-Making Process

There are a number of factors that may influence whether or not you decide to open a Roth 401(k).

  1. Your company may not offer the Roth 401(k). Doing so is voluntary for employers, and in order to offer such a plan, employers must set up a tracking system to segregate Roth assets from the company's current plan. This may be an expensive proposition, and your employer may choose not to do it.
  2. Unlike Roth IRAs, Roth 401(k) participants are subject to required minimum distributions at age 70½, which forces investors to take distributions even if they don't need or want them. 
  3. The distribution requirement can be avoided by rolling over to a Roth IRA, but doing so is an administrative hassle, and legislators may change the rules at any time to forbid such transfers.
  4. Having both a Roth and a traditional 401(k) will allow you to take money from your tax-free and/or tax-deferred accounts, which can help you manage your taxable income in retirement.

Any matching contributions your employer makes to your Roth 410(k) must be deposited into a traditional 401(k) account.

The Bottom Line

It's wise to assess your current tax rate versus your expected future tax rate before making your decision about investing in a Roth 401(k). A tax rate that's lower now than what you expect later makes this type of account attractive, but if the opposite is true, tax-deferred programs are probably a better option. Keep in mind, too, that assets held in a traditional 401(k) account cannot be converted into a Roth 401(k).