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Table of Contents

What to Do After You Have Over-Contributed to Your 401(k)

The most common basic personal finance advice anyone gets is this—max out your 401(k) contributions. But what does that mean? How much is the maximum, and what do you do if you exceed it? And yes, you can exceed it—under certain circumstances.

Excess contributions are double-taxed for each year the excess amounts remain in the retirement account and are also subject to the 10% early withdrawal when removed. The fifteenth of April is the generally cited deadline, but the date has been moved back in the past for small reasons (to skip over a holiday) and large reasons (the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020).

Key Takeaways

  • The most common basic personal finance advice anyone gets is this: max out your 401(k) contributions.
  • Under certain circumstances, you can exceed this amount.
  • For 2021, the maximum allowed contribution to a 401(k) is $19,500 per year (rising to $20,500 in 2022).
  • If you over-contributed to your 401(k) plan—that is, you contributed more than the annual maximum set by the IRS—you should notify your employer or the plan administrator immediately.
  • If you are age 50 or older, you can contribute an extra $6,500.

Understanding What to Do After You Have Over-Contributed to Your 401(k)

For 2021, the maximum allowed contribution to a 401(k) is $19,500 per year (rising to $20,500 per year in 2022). The combined amount contributed by employer and employee is $58,000 for 2021 ($61,000 for 2022). If you are age 50 or older, you can make catch-up contributions of an additional $6,500 per year. Check with your human resources department to determine what kind of pace you are on.

If you overcontributed to your 401(k) plan—that is, you contributed more than the annual maximum set by the IRS—you should notify your employer or the plan administrator immediately. Ideally, this notification should be provided by March 1 of the year after the excess deferral contribution, as it's technically known, occurred. If you contributed too much in the current tax year, the notification should be provided by March 1 of the following tax year.

The excess deferral amount should be returned to you by April 15. For example, if the excess deferral occurred in the current year, it should be corrected—that is, removed from the account—by April 15 of the following year. This sum should include earnings accrued on the excess amount while it was in your account. You must add the earnings to your taxable income for the year the excess amount is distributed from your 401(k).

In addition, if the excess amount was deferred on a pre-tax basis, your employer must amend your W-2 Form to show the returned amount as wages. For example, assume your excess deferral occurred this year, and you provided timely notification to your plan administrator. If your contributions were made pre-tax, your employer must amend your W-2 for this year to show the excess deferral amount as taxable wages (in Box 1).

If you accidentally or intentionally go over the approved contribution limits for a 401k, you must let your employer or plan administrator know as soon as possible. As your employer is also required to make changes to your W-2 Form to show the returned 401k contribution amount as earnings.

Special Considerations

If the excess contribution is returned to you, any earnings included in the amount returned to you should be added to your taxable income on your tax return for that year. Excess contributions are double-taxed for each year the excess amounts remain in the 401k.

To avoid the penalties on excess contributions, you must withdraw:

  • Excess contributions from your retirement account by the due date of your individual income tax return (including extensions)
  • Any income earned on the excess contribution

If the excess contribution is returned to you this year, for example, any earnings included in the amount returned to you should be added to your taxable income on next year's tax return. If the excess amount is not returned to you by April 15, you could end up paying taxes on the amount twice—in the year the excess occurred, and it is returned to you.

What Happens If You Go Over the 401k Contribution Limit?

If you go over your 401k contribution limit, you will have to pay a 10% penalty for early withdrawal, as you must remove the funds. The funds will be counted as income, and those extra contributions will cost you at tax time. In fact, you will be double-taxed for each year the extra funds stayed in your retirement account.

How Do I Report Excess 401k Contributions?

If you accidentally added excessive contributions to your 401k, you must include it as reported income on your taxes, and use form 1099-R to report it to the IRS.

Can a 401k Contribution Be Reversed?

Fortunately, you can reverse an accidental 401k contribution. If you made an accidental contribution to your plan, you should notify your employer or plan administrator. The excess amount will usually be returned to you by April 15, and you will have to add those earnings to your taxable income.

CorrectionMarch 23, 2022: A prior version of this article incorrectly specified the excess contribution tax on 401(k) plans as limited to 6%. This is only correct for individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and not 401(k)s.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plan Fix-It Guide - Elective deferrals weren't limited to the amounts under IRC Section 402(g) for the calendar year and excesses weren't distributed."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Announces 401(k) Limit Increases to $20,500."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plans - Deferrals and Matching When Compensation Exceeds the Annual Limit."

  4. Internal Revenue Service.. "Issue Snapshot—Consequences to a Participant Who Makes Excess Deferrals to a 401(k) Plan."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "General Instructions for Forms W-2 and W-3," Page 16.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits."

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