Retirement Plan FAQ

Quick answers to common questions about different types of retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, IRAs, Keoghs, and SEPs.

What types of retirement plans are there?

There are two main categories of retirement plans. One category of plan is set up by you, the individual taxpayer, and is appropriately called an individual retirement account, or IRA.

There are four main types of IRAs:

  • traditional IRAs
  • Roth IRAS
  • SEP-IRAs (Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Accounts), and
  • SIMPLE-IRAs (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees of Small Employers).

Another large category of plans, referred to as "qualified plans," consists of plans that are usually set up by an employer, or by you if you're self-employed. A qualified plan is one that qualifies to receive certain tax benefits as described in Section 401 of the U.S. tax code.

Here are the types of qualified plans:

  • 401(k) and Roth 401(k) profit-sharing plans
  • defined benefit plans
  • stock bonus plans
  • employee stock ownership plans
  • money purchase pension plans
  • defined benefit plans
  • target benefit plans, and
  • plans for self-employed people called Keogh plans.

Is an IRA a retirement plan?

Yes, an IRA, or individual retirement account, is indeed a retirement plan. But it's not a "qualified plan," because it's not part of Section 401 of the U.S. tax code. Instead, IRAs are described in Section 408 of the tax code and have their own set of rules. One significant difference between qualified plans and IRAs is that qualified plans are established by businesses, while certain types of IRAs—traditional or Roth IRAs—are established by individuals. That means you can set up a traditional or Roth IRA for yourself, whether or not your employer has established a qualified plan for you at work.

Other types of IRAs, known as SEPs and SIMPLE IRAs, are for businesses and must be established by an employer (or self-employed person). The employer who sets up one of these plans might be a corporation, a sole proprietor, or a partnership. SEPs and SIMPLE IRAs permit larger tax deductions than do traditional or Roth IRAs.

What are the different types of individual retirement plans?

The first two types of IRAs below are purely individual accounts, while the second two types of IRAs are more like qualified plans; they're set up by employers.

Traditional IRAs allow individuals to make tax-deductible contributions and grow their savings tax-free until they withdraw the funds in retirement.

Roth IRAs are individual retirement accounts that allow individuals to make after-tax contributions so that their savings grow tax-free and their retirement withdrawals are tax-free.

SEP-IRAs allow employers (or self-employed people) to set up a plan where each participant has their own individual retirement account to which the employer and employee can contribute. SEP contributions can be as much as 25% of your annual compensation, up to a maximum contribution of $69,000 (in 2024).

SIMPLE IRAs also allow an employer to set up a plan that consists of individual retirement accounts, but the employer is required to contribute to a SIMPLE IRA. The participant can elect to contribute any percentage of their compensation to the plan, but the total dollar amount can't exceed $16,000 per year (in 2024).

What's the difference between a 401(k) and an IRA?

Anyone can open an IRA, while a 401(k) plan has to be set up by an employer. Employers can match a portion of an employee's 401(k) contributions, while IRAs don't offer opportunities for employer-matching contributions.

The maximum amount that a participant can contribute to an IRA is $7,000 (in 2024) per year, plus an additional $1,000 for people age 50 and over.

The maximum contribution limit for a 401(k) plan is $23,000 per year (in 2024), plus an additional $7,500 for employees age 50 and over.

IRAs and 401(k) plans also have different rules for taking distributions. For instance, while, the age at which you have to start taking distributions is 73 for both types of plans, if you're still working at that time, the minimum required distribution rules are waived for a 401(k) plan.

Why are 401(k) plans so popular?

401(k) plans are popular with employers because they're less expensive than other types of retirement plans. Retirement contributions traditionally constituted the biggest expense for some employers. But in the case of a 401(k) plan, the bulk of the contribution is typically made by the employee—through salary reductions. The employee diverts into the plan a portion of the salary he or she would otherwise receive in cash.

401(k) plans are popular with employees because the plan allows them to save for retirement while simultaneously reducing their current income tax bill. Employees don't pay income tax on salary deferrals until the money comes out of the 401(k) plan, sometime in the future.

Also, employers usually allow employees to change the amount of salary deferred into the plan as the employees' circumstances change. And employees are often permitted to make their own investment decisions, and are frequently given access to their retirement funds through loans or hardship withdrawals. (For more on loans and hardship withdrawals, see Getting Your Retirement Money Early—Without Penalty.)

Which retirement plans are best if you're self-employed?

If you own a business and are self-employed, you have several good retirement options available to you. You can create one of the plans described below if you're self-employed and have no employees. (Once you add employees, you can still establish a plan, but the considerations become more complicated.) These plans typically have contribution limits, which can change every year.

SEPs. If you've waited until the last minute to figure out your retirement plan options, this might be the plan for you: You can open a SEP as late as the due date of your income tax return (or the extended due date, if you file an extension). The plan will also not lock you into a contribution amount, so you can always contribute less than the maximum (or nothing at all)—an attractive prospect for self-employed individuals with fluctuating income.

SEPs are easy and cheap to establish and administer. You can start one at a bank, brokerage firm, or insurance company, usually for free and in the amount of time it takes to complete a simple form. You don't have to file government reports, and ongoing administrative costs are nil.

Solo 401(k)s. If the contribution limits on a SEP aren't quite high enough for you, a solo 401(k)—also known as a one-participant 401(k)—might be what you're looking for. This 401(k) plan for self-employed individuals allows you to contribute as an employee and as an employer. If you're older than 50 years old, your contribution limit is higher. As with a SEP, you have the option of contributing little or no money in leaner years.

This type of plan requires more paperwork than a SEP IRA. In addition, a solo 401(k) costs more than a SEP to establish and maintain. You must create the plan by December 31 of the year that you want to contribute (and take the tax break).

Defined benefit plans. This type of plan is like the old-fashioned pension plan that your parents or grandparents enjoyed. Defined benefit plans promise to pay you a specific dollar amount, usually each month or year, for the rest of your life, starting at retirement.

The plans are complicated and costly to set up, in part because they require an actuary to calculate your contribution amount. And these plans aren't flexible; contributions are mandatory. But if you're making a lot of money, and you want the ability to make large contributions, you should consider this type of plan. To establish a defined benefit plan, you'll need the assistance of a financial planner or pension specialist.

Defined contribution plans. This plan requires regular contributions up to a particular limit. Two common types of defined contribution plans are profit-sharing and money-purchase plans. With a profit-sharing plan, you can choose a set amount to contribute every year. In contrast, with a money-purchase plan, you contribute a set percentage of your income every year.

Check out the IRS's page about retirement plans for self-employed people for more details about these plans. If you'd like to dive further into the types of retirement plans available to the self-employed, along with other ways to reduce your tax burden, see Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers & Gig Workers of All Types, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo).

What is a Keogh plan?

A Keogh plan is a qualified plan for self-employed individuals. The term Keogh isn't a tax term, and you won't find any reference to it in the tax code. It's just a bit of retirement planning jargon that refers to the special restrictions placed on qualified plans when they're established by self-employed individuals. The term is seldom used today.

Keogh plans are usually structured as defined benefit plans or defined contribution plans. Because Keogh plans have higher contribution limits than other plans, these types of plans are best suited for self-employed people with high incomes. Withdrawals from Keough plans are taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

What does it mean to be "vested" in my retirement plan?

If you're vested in your retirement plan, you can take the full amount with you when you leave the company. If you're 50% vested, you can take 50% of it with you when you go. In the case of a 401(k) plan, you're always 100% vested in the salary or wages you defer into the plan, but you might not be vested in any employer contributions to the plan (depending on the plan's rules).

Can employees who also own their own business have a retirement plan both at work and through their small business?

Generally, yes. The restrictions on contributions you can make to a retirement plan are applied to each employer separately. If you work for a company, the company is an employer. If you're self-employed, you are a separate employer and can have a separate retirement plan for your business. But be careful. If both you and your employer establish some type of salary reduction plan, you might run up against an overall limit on contributions.

The most common types of salary reduction plans are 401(k) plans, tax-deferred annuity or 403(b) plans (these generally cover university professors and public school teachers), and 457 plans (sponsored by state and local governments and other tax-exempt organizations). A SIMPLE IRA is also a salary reduction plan.

Although the amount of your salary or compensation you can defer into each of these plans is limited, the law also puts a limit on the total amount you can defer into all such plans, if you happen to be covered by more than one. The overall limit depends on the type of plan you participate in.

Is my retirement plan protected from creditors?

Most employer plans are safe from creditors, thanks to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, commonly known as ERISA. ERISA requires all plans under its purview (generally, qualified plans) to include provisions that prohibit the assignment of plan assets to a creditor. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that ERISA plans are even protected from creditors when you are in bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, Keogh plans that cover only you—or you and your partners, but not employees—are not governed or protected by ERISA. Neither are IRAs, whether traditional, Roth, SEP, or SIMPLE.

But even though IRAs are not automatically protected from creditors under federal law, many states have put safeguards in place that specifically protect IRA assets from creditors' claims, whether or not you are in bankruptcy. Also, some state laws contain protective language that is broad enough to protect single-participant Keoghs, as well.

For a complete guide to all common types of retirement plans, and to help you make sense of the rules that govern distributions from retirement plans, read IRAs, 401(k)s & Other Retirement Plans, by Twila Slesnick and John Suttle (Nolo).

What is a qualified retirement plan?

A qualified plan is simply one that is described in Section 401(a) of the tax code. The most common types of qualified plans are profit-sharing plans (including 401(k) plans), defined benefit plans, and money purchase pension plans. In general, your contributions are not taxed until you withdraw money from the plan. Most retirement plans that you obtain through your job are qualified plans.

Updated February 23, 2024

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