Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Tax-Sheltered Annuity: What It Means, How It Works

What Is a Tax-Sheltered Annuity?

A tax-sheltered annuity is a type of investment vehicle that lets an employee make pretax contributions into a retirement account from income. Because the contributions are pretax, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not tax the contributions and related benefits until the employee withdraws them from the plan.

Since the employer can also make direct contributions to the plan, the employee gains the benefit of having additional tax-free funds accruing.

Key Takeaways

  • A tax-sheltered annuity allows employees to invest income before taxes into a retirement plan.
  • TSA plans are offered to employees of public schools and tax-exempt organizations.
  • The IRS taxes the withdrawals, but not the contributions into the tax-sheltered annuity.
  • Because employers can contribute to TSA plans, employees have the benefit of additional tax-free funds accruing.
  • Charities, religious organizations, and other nonprofits can qualify to offer employees tax-sheltered annuities.

Understanding a Tax-Sheltered Annuity

In the U.S., one specific tax-sheltered annuity is the 403(b) plan. This plan provides employees of certain nonprofit and public education institutions with a tax-sheltered method of saving for retirement. There is usually a maximum amount that each employee can contribute to the plan, but sometimes there are catch-up provisions that allow employees to make additional contributions to make up for previous years when they did not maximize contributions.

The IRS caps contributions to TSAs at $20,500 for tax year 2022 (increasing to $22,500 for 2023), which is the same cap as 401(k) plans. TSAs also offer a catch-up provision for participants aged 50 or over, which totals $6,500 for tax year 2022 (and $7,500 for 2023).

Tax-sheltered annuities also include a lifetime catch-up for participants who have worked for a qualified organization for 15 years or more and whose average contribution level never exceeded $5,000 over that period. Including the contribution, catch-up provisions, and an employer match, the total contribution cannot exceed 100% of earnings up to a certain cap.

All qualified retirement plans require that withdrawals begin only after the age of 59½. Early withdrawals may be subject to a 10% IRS penalty unless certain exemptions apply. The IRS taxes withdrawals as ordinary income and requires them to start no later than the year the beneficiary turns 72, up from 70½ after the enactment of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act in 2019. Depending on the employer's or plan provider's provisions, employees may access funds before age 59½ via a loan. As with most qualified retirement plans, they may also permit withdrawals if the employee becomes disabled.

TSAs vs. 401(k) Plans

People often compare TSAs to 401(k) plans. The biggest similarity is that both plans represent specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code that establish qualifications for their use and their tax benefits. Both plans encourage individual savings by allowing for pretax contributions toward accumulating retirement savings on a tax-deferred basis.

From there, the two plans diverge. Notably, 401(k) plans are available to any eligible private sector employee who works for a company with a plan. TSA plans are reserved for employees of tax-exempt organizations and public schools. Nonprofit organizations that exist for charitable, religious, or educational purposes and are qualified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code can offer TSA plans to employees.

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. "IRC 403(b) Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plans FAQs Regarding 403(b) Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics - 403(b) Contribution Limits.”

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Limit Increases to $22,500 for 2023, IRA Limit Rises to $6,500.”

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 571 Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans (403(b) Plans)," Page 6.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 571 Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans (403(b) Plans)," Page 11.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plans."

  10. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) Plan Qualification Requirements.”

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.