401(a) Plan: What It Is, Contribution Limits, Withdrawal Rules

What Is a 401(a) Plan?

A 401(a) plan is an employer-sponsored money-purchase retirement plan that allows dollar or percentage-based contributions from the employer, the employee, or both. The sponsoring employer establishes eligibility and the vesting schedule. The employee can withdraw funds from a 401(a) plan through a rollover to a different qualified retirement plan, a lump-sum payment, or an annuity.

Key Takeaways

  • A 401(a) plan is employer-sponsored, and both the employer and employee can contribute.
  • 401(a) plans are usually used by government and non-profit organizations.
  • 401(a) plans give the employer a larger share of control over how the plan is invested.
  • An employee can withdraw funds from a 401(a) plan through a rollover to a different qualified retirement plan, a lump-sum payment, or an annuity.
  • Investments in 401(a) plans are low risk and typically include government bonds and funds focused on value-based stocks.

401(a) Plan

Understanding a 401(a) Plan

There are a variety of retirement plans that employers can offer their employees. Each comes with different stipulations, restrictions, and some are better suited for certain types of employers.

A 401(a) plan is a type of retirement plan made available to those working in government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. Eligible employees who participate in the plan include government employees, teachers, administrators, and support staff. A 401(a) plan's features are similar to a 401(k) plan, which are more common in profit-based industries. 401(a) plans do not allow employees to contribute to 401(k) plans, however.

If an individual leaves an employer, they do have the option of transferring the funds in their 401(a) to a 401(k) plan or individual retirement account (IRA).

Employers can form multiple 401(a) plans, each with distinct eligibility criteria, contribution amounts, and vesting schedules. Employers use these plans to create incentive programs for employee retention. The employer controls the plan and determines the contribution limits.

To participate in a 401(a) plan, an individual must be 21 years of age and have been working in the job for a minimum of two years. These conditions are subject to vary.

Contributions for a 401(a) Plan

A 401(a) plan can have mandatory or voluntary contributions, and the employer decides if contributions are made on an after-tax or pre-tax basis. An employer contributes funds to the plan on an employee's behalf. Employer contribution options include the employer paying a set amount into an employee's plan, matching a fixed percentage of employee contributions, or matching employee contributions within a specific dollar range.

The majority of voluntary contributions to a 401(a) plan are capped at 25% of an employee's annual pay.

Investments for a 401(a) Plan

The plan gives employers more control over their employees' investment choices. Government employers with 401(a) plans often limit investment options to only the safest and most secure options to minimize risk. A 401(a) plan assures a certain level of retirement savings but requires due diligence by the employee to meet retirement goals.

Vesting and Withdrawals for a 401(a) Plan

Any 401(a) contributions an employee makes and any earnings on those contributions are immediately fully vested. Becoming fully vested in the employer contributions depends on the vesting schedule the employer sets up. Some employers, especially those who offer 401(k) plans, link vesting to years of service as an incentive for employees to stay with the company.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) subjects 401(a) withdrawals to income tax withholdings and a 10% early withdrawal penalty unless the employee is 59½, dies, is disabled, or rolls over the funds into a qualified IRA or retirement plan through a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer. 

Qualifying for Tax Credits

Employees who contribute to a 401(a) plan may qualify for a tax credit. Employees can have both a 401(a) plan and an IRA at the same time. However, if an employee has a 401(a) plan, the tax benefits for traditional IRA contributions may be phased out depending on the employee's adjusted gross income.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions." Accessed August 21, 2020.

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