What Is an Overcontribution?

The term overcontribution refers to any amount that a taxpayer sets aside to a tax-deductible retirement plan that exceeds the maximum allowable contribution for a given period. Contribution limits are determined and regularly adjusted by a retirement plan's registrar or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Overcontributing to your retirement plan can trigger penalties if taxpayers don't deal with the excess amounts within a certain period of time.

Key Takeaways

  • An overcontribution is any amount that someone sets aside to a tax-deductible retirement plan that exceeds the maximum allowable contribution for a given period.
  • The IRS imposes a 6% penalty for each year that any excess amount contributed remains in a retirement account until it is rectified.
  • Taxpayers can withdraw the excess and related earnings or apply it to a future year's contribution.
  • Plan holders should notify the plan administrator or their employer to fix the problem.
  • Employer-sponsored plans require that amended W-2 forms be issued to employees.

Understanding Overcontribution

The IRS sets limits to how much taxpayers can invest each year to their retirement savings accounts. The agency imposes different limits for different plans and adjusts them annually for inflation. For instance, individual taxpayers can contribute a maximum of:

Although it's important to max out your contribution limits, don't go overboard. Any amount you invest in these accounts above the limits is considered overcontributions. As such, they're ineligible for any tax breaks you may receive—like those associated with IRAs, which reduce your tax bill. In fact, overcontributions run the risk of costing you more money in the tax year they're made.

The IRS imposes a 6% penalty on the amount of the excess every year until you fix the situation. And any excess contributions made toward an IRA cannot be used to reduce your taxable income. Here's what you can do to fix the situation:

  • You have until the tax filing deadline of that year (generally April 15) to withdraw the excess and any related earnings. The earnings on that excess must be reported as income on your tax return. Keep in mind that you'll incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you aren't 59½.
  • You may apply the excess to the following year's contribution limit. But this means that you'll have to pay the 6% penalty in the current year.

The limits to employer-sponsored plans like a 401(k) only apply to employee contributions, such as those made through payroll deductions. Any matches from employers do not count toward overcontributions.

Special Considerations

Be sure you notify your plan administrator or employer if you breach the IRS limit for your 401(k), 403(b), IRA, or any other kind of retirement account. The earlier you make the notification the year after the overcontribution, the better. It’s up to the plan administrator to return any excess payments to employees (in the case of an employer-sponsored plan), as well as any earnings on the excess contributions.

Sending this notification as early as possible provides plan administrators enough time to do the necessary paperwork—especially when the plans are held through an employer. This typically includes adjusting any contributions that came out of employees' checks on a pretax basis and counting them as wages on employees' W-2 forms. This allows employees enough time to issue new forms before the annual tax filing deadline.

Risks of Overcontribution

As noted above, it's important to correct overcontributions quickly. Otherwise, tax trouble often ensues. If the excess amount is not returned to affected employees in enough time to file taxes, employees run the risk of double taxation. That is, they could pay taxes in the year the excess occurred, and still need to pay the following year, as well.

To avoid double taxation, some employees can file an amended return with the excess contribution taken out, plus any related earnings from the overcontribution. This must be done by the tax extension deadline, however.

Overcontributions to IRAs are a bit easier to correct but they still result in penalties. Employees can leave their accounts alone and designate any overcontribution toward next year’s limit. Remember, that 6% penalty applies on any excess per year. Of course, any individual contributions must be adjusted going forward to keep from again creating an overcontribution the following year.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-A, Contributions to Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs): Excess Contributions." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "About Form W-2 C, Corrected Wage and Tax Statements." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Catch-Up Contributions." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "COLA Increases for Dollar Limitations on Benefits and Contributions." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

  5. 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." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Issue Snapshot - Consequences to a Participant Who Makes Excess Deferrals to a 401(k) Plan." Accessed Jan. 25, 2022.

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.