A qualified retirement plan is an investment plan offered by an employer that qualifies for tax breaks under the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and ERISA guidelines. An individual retirement account (IRA) is not offered (with the exception of SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs) by an employer. A traditional or Roth IRA is thus not technically a qualified plan, although these feature many of the same tax benefits for retirement savers.

Companies also may offer non-qualified plans to employees that might include deferred-compensation plans, split-dollar life insurance, and executive bonus plans. Because these are not ERISA-compliant, they do not enjoy the tax benefits of qualified plans.

Key Takeaways

  • Qualified retirement plans are tax-advantaged retirement accounts offered by employers and must meet IRS requirements.
  • Common examples of qualified retirement plans include 401(k), 403(b), SEP, and SIMPLE IRAs.
  • Traditional IRAs, while sharing many of the tax-advantages of plans like 401(k)'s, are not offered by employers and so are technically not qualified plans.

Traditional IRAs

Traditional IRAs are savings plans that allow you the benefit of tax-advantaged growth. As contributions to them are made with money that has not yet been taxed, investors generally get a tax write-off, though that write-off can be limited or not permitted, depending on your income and whether you have a qualified retirement plan at work.

However, taxes must be paid on distributions, which you are required to start taking at age 72, even if you haven't retired yet. These are called required minimum distributions (RMDs); the amount is determined by an IRS formula involving your age and your account balance. Generally, the latest you may start taking them is by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 72.

If you withdraw any funds before you turn 59½, you will be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to the usual requirement of paying income tax on the amount you take.

There are also limits to how much you can contribute to an IRA each year. In 2020 you are limited to a total of $6,000 for the year ($7,000 if you are 50 or older) for all the IRAs you may have.

IRA plan providers allow holders to designate beneficiaries, and some plan holders allow beneficiaries for multiple generations. Because traditional IRAs allow individuals to invest on a tax-deferred basis, they are suitable for people who are in a high tax bracket but anticipate being in a lower one at retirement.

Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs require that investors pay tax on contributions; in other words, you contribute with after-tax funds and do not get a tax write-off. The advantage comes when you retire: No tax is assessed on distributions, which means that you are not taxed on any of the money that your income earns over the years it sits in your Roth account. What's more, if you need to take money out of the account, you are not taxed if you take out just the contributions you originally made.

Roth IRAs have no RMDs, no requirement that you start taking distributions. Another benefit of no RMDs: If you can afford to hold the funds, they can continue to grow tax-free and be passed to your heirs. The heirs will be required to take distributions, however. Unlike traditional IRAs, you may continue to make contributions to Roth IRAs for as long as you like even into old age.

As Roth IRAs allow individuals to invest on a tax-free basis, they are suitable for individuals who are in a low tax bracket but anticipate being in a higher one at retirement. In fact, there are income limitations on who is permitted to contribute to a Roth IRA.

Those with higher incomes can only open one by rolling over traditional IRA or 401(k) money and paying substantial taxes, a process called opening a backdoor Roth IRA. One exception: If they have a Roth 401(k), they can roll it over into a Roth IRA without the tax requirement.

Qualified Retirement Plans

Some employers offer defined-contribution or defined-benefit qualified retirement plans. Employers receive incentives from the U.S. government to create these plan under ERISA rules.

Defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, have largely replaced defined-benefit plans (the old-fashioned pension)  as the preferred model. With many employers, employees may elect to take part in retirement savings plans, such as 401(k) plans, in which employers match contributions and savings grow on a tax-advantaged basis.

A non-qualified plan does not fall under ERISA guidelines so they do not receive the same tax advantages. They are considered to be assets of the employer and can be seized by creditors of the company. If the employee quits, they will likely lose the benefits of the non-qualified plan. The advantages are no contribution limits and more flexibility. Executive Bonus Plan is an example.