The 401(a) plan is one of several lesser-known employer-sponsored retirement plans. Because of the customizable nature of the 401(a), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has few hard-and-fast regulations for its administration. However, the guidelines in place are very similar to those set for the administration of 401(k) plans.

A 401(a) can be a profit-sharing plan, a money-purchase pension plan or an employee stock ownership plan. The tax code provides guidelines for such vehicles in Section 401(a) of the tax code. (Technically, a 401(k) plan is also a 401(a) plan.)

In effect, a 401(a) plan resembles a 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity plan. Administrators of a 401(a) plan must file a Form 5500 annual report with the IRS every year.

Key Takeaways

  • 401(a) plans are for government entities and other public employers, such as schools and some nonprofits.
  • The terms of a 401(a) plan are set by employers and highly customizable.
  • 401(a) plans may be restricted to only certain employees in an attempt to encourage them to remain with the organization.

Specific IRS Guidelines

Though there are few specific limitations set by the IRS on 401(a) plans, some regulations do apply. As of 2019 the maximum allowable contribution to a 401(a) plan is 100% of the employee’s income or $56,000, whichever is smaller (up from $55,000 in 2018). There is no provision for catch-up contributions for those age 50 or older.

Though specific distribution regulations are at the discretion of the employer, in general 401(a) distributions are subject to the same IRS regulations that apply to other retirement plans. This means distributions taken before age 59½ are subject to an additional 10% tax. In addition, participants must begin taking minimum distributions upon reaching age 70½. 

Contributions to 401(a) plans can come from a variety of sources:

  • Employer Contributions (fixed dollar of percentage of salary)
  • Mandatory Employee Contributions (on a pretax basis)
  • Employer Matching Contributions
  • Voluntary Employee Elective Contributions (a plan may allow employees to make after-tax contributions up to 25% of their pay)

Important

A 401(k) plan is also a 401(a) plan, but employees with a 401(a) plan cannot also have a 401(k) plan.

Who Can Use a 401(a)?

While the 401(a) and 401(k) plans were created out of the same tax code, one important difference between the two is the type of employer that may sponsor them. In general, 401(a) plans are reserved for government entities or other public employers, such as schools and some nonprofits. In some cases employees may have the option to participate in a 401(a) plan rather than in a government pension scheme.

In addition, though employer-sponsored 401(k) plans are generally extended to all employees with identical contribution, matching, and vesting terms, 401(a) plans are more tailored and may be made available only to certain employees as a means of encouraging a continued commitment to the organization.

Who Dictates the Terms of a 401(a) Plan if Not the IRS?

Because 401(a) plans are so customizable, many of the terms and conditions are dictated by the sponsoring employer rather than being specifically outlined by the IRS. For example, the employer determines if employee contributions are voluntary or mandatory, the amount each employee must contribute, the degree to which that contribution is matched by employer funds, whether contributions can be made with pretax or after-tax funds, and the types of investment options available.