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Do I Need to Do Anything Special on My Taxes for My 401(k)?

By Damian Davila -

Tax day 2020 will be here sooner than you think! It’s the middle of the week in 2020 — the deadline is Wednesday, April 15th. As you’re gathering your tax forms for this year, you’ll most likely run into a W-2 for income from an employer or a 1099-INT for interest income from a bank, brokerage firm, or financial institution. You will also need to take into account your 401(k) taxes and 401(k) tax deductions. 

One of the most common questions about 401(k) plans and taxes is, “Is my 401(k) tax-deductible?” or, more to the point, “Do you pay taxes on 401(k) plans?” Generally speaking, you can claim deductions for 401(k) contributions. Since one of the immediate tax advantages of owning a 401(k) is the 401(k) deductions, you may wondering what 401(k) tax form you’ll need to attach to your return and how to report any 401(k)-related numbers on your 1040. Let’s review different scenarios for 401(k) plan holders and the necessary action items for each one of them.

Case #1, the most common: No distributions (withdrawals) from a 401(k)

Here’s some great news for the bulk of retirement savers: if you haven’t made any withdrawals from your 401(k), then you don’t need a special form from your 401(k) provider and you don’t need to report anything to the IRS. You don’t have to pay taxes on money that stayed in your 401(k) plan. This is an incentive from Uncle Sam to keep your contributions untouched until retirement age.

Can you deduct your 401(k) contributions?

Generally, yes, you can deduct 401(k) contributions. Per IRS guidelines, your employer doesn’t include your pre-tax contributions in your taxable income because your 401(k) contributions are tax-deductible. Instead, they report your contributions in boxes 1 and 12, respectively, of your form W-2. While your contributions aren’t subject to federal withholding, they are subject to withholding for Social Security and Medicare taxes. In the case of a Roth 401(k), you contribute with after-tax dollars. So, your employer would include your contributions in box 1 from your W-2.

Whether you own a traditional or Roth 401(k), as long as you didn’t take out any distributions, you don’t have to do a thing on your federal or state return!

Note about potential state tax forms: As more and more states are rolling out their state-sponsored retirement savings plans in 2017 and beyond, you may have to do some kind of paperwork with your state government in future years. While you may opt-out from these state retirement plans due to personal choice or existing ownership of an employer-sponsored 401(k), you’ll very likely have to notify you State Treasury in some way. Keep up with the latest developments in your state.

Case 2: You separated from an employer

You may have separated from your employer because you were laid off, let go, or quit. Depending on the rules and features of the employer-sponsored retirement plan from your previous employer, you may have left your contributions untouched, cashed out your account, or completed a direct or indirect rollover. Depending on the option you selected, you may be paying penalties or taxes on the 401(k) withdrawal, and your 401(k) is taxable income.  Here are the reporting repercussions for each one of these scenarios:

Case 2a: You left contributions in the plan from the previous employer.

If this is the case, you have nothing to report to the IRS, just like in the first case that we reviewed above. You’ll pay your 401(k) taxes at retirement, not before.

However, plan holders with balances under $5,000 should make sure to leave instructions to their former employers to leave the monies in the plan as-is. According to a Plan Sponsor Council of America survey of 613 plans with 8 million participants, 57% of 401(k) plans with balances between $1,000 and $5,000 are forcefully transferred to an IRA of the plan’s choosing when the owner of the 401(k) doesn’t indicate what to do after separation from employment. This may not impact your 401(k) tax documents, but it will impact your investments.

Case 2b: You (or your employer) cashed out your 401(k)

The same survey indicates that over half of employers cash out employee accounts with balances under $1,000. Or you may have decided to cash out some or all of your nest egg. Unless you were to roll over those monies to a new account (more on that in just a bit), you would receive a 1099-R from your employer (as long as your balance was at least $10). Now, you may have a new tax bill for 401(k) contributions because it’s no longer in a 401(k). In this circumstance, your 401(k) tax rate is your income tax rate.

Your employer would indicate the taxable amount from your gross distribution on box 2a, indicate any capital gains on box 2b, and generally withhold 20% of your cash out in federal taxes on box 4 of Form 1099-R. 401(k) contribution deductions don’t apply if you cash out your account, and you may also owe penalties for early withdrawal.

You would use your 1099-R to calculate your taxable income and report your withheld federal taxes in the appropriate places of your 1040. Individuals under age 59 1/2 need to use part one of form 5329 to calculate the applicable extra 10% in early distribution tax. Roth 401(k) holders under age 59 1/2 are also subject to the 10% tax when taking distributions. But if you’re over 59 1/2 years old, you can make withdrawals without incurring penalties. You only owe the typical 401(k) tax at retirement at this point.

Case 2c: You completed a direct rollover

If you completed a direct rollover (monies were directly transferred from your previous plan to your new plan) for the full amount of your 401(k), then you don’t have to do anything at all. You’ll still receive a 1099-R from your previous employer, but the form will indicate that your gross distribution isn’t subject to taxes. If you left a portion out of the rollover and kept it, then you’ll have to pay applicable taxes on that portion. 

Do you report your 401(k) on your taxes if you rolled it over?

When the rollover is to an IRA, then the plan admin of the IRA needs to provide you a form 5498 as proof that your monies were used to fund an IRA and aren’t subject to taxes. Your 401(k) income tax is $0.

Case 2d: You completed an indirect rollover

In an indirect rollover, you received a cashout check from your previous plan but were able to find a new qualifying plan within 60 days. In this case, the IRS will use your 1099-R from your previous employer and the W-2 from your new employer (or form 5498 from your new IRA) to cross-reference the indirect rollover on your 1040. You would report your 401(k) on your taxes, but you won’t pay a 401(k) contribution tax. 

When doing an indirect rollover, you have two options. Let’s go over them, assuming that your employer cashed out a $1,000 balance from your 401(k).

Here are additional resources on completing rollovers:

Depending on your unique situation, you may need to file additional forms. It’s a best practice to keep records of all communications with your previous and current plan admins as evidence of a rollover. Consult your tax planner or accountant for more details on how to report your direct or indirect rollover.

Case 3: You have an outstanding 401(k) loan

There are many reasons why it doesn’t make sense to take a loan from your 401(k). Here’s one more: You can’t deduct the interest payments that you make on your 401(k) loan. This means you won’t receive an interest statement like the one you receive when paying mortgage interest (Form 1098).

As long as you keep up with your agreed payment schedule and you pay your loan in full within five years (or within 60 days when separating from your employer), you won’t have to do anything special on your taxes. However, defaulting on your loan turns the remaining unpaid balance into a taxable distribution and triggers the same rules described under case 2b above. Even worse, you are no longer eligible to do an indirect rollover and are likely to trigger additional penalties from your plan and state government.

Case 4: You’re retired or age 70 1/2 and over

401(k) taxes after retirement get a bit more complicated. Once you’re retired or reach age 70 1/2, you’ll have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your traditional 401(k) or Roth 401(k). In these cases, you’ll have to consult the appropriate IRS distribution worksheets to determine your RMD starting on April 1st of the year after you retire or turn age 70 1/2.

Is your 401(k) taxed after retirement age? Yes, the deductions for 401(k) contributions let your account grow without tax obligations, but you owe taxes when you make withdrawals. 

What is the tax rate on 401(k) withdrawals? Withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. They also may incur penalty taxes if you don’t make withdrawals on time. It’s very important that you meet your RMDs because you would owe a 50% federal penalty tax on the difference between the amount you withdrew and the amount you should have withdrawn. To report that penalty tax, use form 5329 as part of your 401(k) tax return process.

One way to avoid having to take RMDs once you reach age 70 1/2 is to complete a rollover (as described in case 2c above) from your previous 401(k) to a new employer-sponsored 401(k) and continue working, even on a part-time basis. Holders of Roth 401(k)s trying to follow this advice need to roll over to a new Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA. If you’re trying to do complete this late rollover option, you can’t hold more than 5% of the company sponsoring the original traditional or Roth 401(k).

Age 70 1/2 isn’t the only age to think about retirement, here’s a list of other Critical Milestones and Ages on Your Path to Retirement.

The bottom line

As a general rule, most 401(k) retirement savers don’t have to do anything special on their taxes, and most retired 401(k) plan holders have to do something for their taxes. However, defaulting on your 401(k) loan, cashing out some or all of your balance, and completing a partial rollover will require to do some legwork on your return. When doing any of these, make sure to get your ducks in a row and prevent an IRS penalty.

One quick way to know if you have triggered any forms that you require for your return is to check the tax statement section of the online portal of your 401(k) throughout the first quarter of every year.

Recommended reading: Why You Should File Your Taxes Early

Avatar Damian Davila

Damian Davila is a Honolulu-based writer with an MBA from the University of Hawaii. He enjoys helping people save money and writes about retirement, taxes, debt, and more.

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