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401(k) and 403(b) Plans: An Overview

Named after sections 401(k) and 403(b) of the tax code, both 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans are tax-advantaged defined-contribution (DC) retirement vehicles offered by employers. The primary difference between the two is the type of employer sponsoring the plans—401(k) plans are offered by private, for-profit companies, whereas 403(b) plans are only available to nonprofit organizations and government employers.

Another historical difference between 403(b) and 401(k) plans lies in the investment options each offer, although that distinction lessens over time. Once also known as tax-sheltered annuities, 403(b) plans used to be restricted to an annuity format. This restriction was removed in 1974.

Below, we go into further detail on the differences between these two types of retirement plan.

Key Takeaways

  • 401(k) and 403(b) plans are tax-advantaged retirement plans offered by employers to their employees.
  • 401(k) plans are offered by for-profit companies to eligible employees who contribute pre or post-tax money through payroll deduction.
  • 403(b) plans are offered to employees of non-profit organizations and government entities.
  • 403(b) plans are exempt from nondiscrimination testing, whereas 401(k) plans are subject to it.
  • 403(b) plans have income restrictions, while 401(k)s do not.

401(k) Plans

A 401(k) plan is a qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan whereby eligible employees may make tax-deferred contributions from their salary or wages on a pretax basis. Employers offering a 401(k) plan may make matching or non-elective contributions to the plan on behalf of eligible employees and may also add a profit-sharing feature to the plan. Earnings in a 401(k) plan accrue on a tax-deferred basis. 401(k) plans are offered through private employers.

When you withdraw funds from your 401(k) in retirement, you will be subject to the deferred tax liability and pay income tax at that time, based on your tax bracket when you make the withdrawals. For most people and with most 401(k)s, distributions are taxed as ordinary income, much like a paycheck. However, the tax burden you’ll incur varies by the type of 401(k) and how and when you withdraw funds from it.

It is rare but possible to have an employer who offers both a 401(k) and a 403(b). In these cases, employees may contribute to both accounts.

403(b) Plans

A 403(b) plan is a retirement plan for specific employees of public schools, tax-exempt organizations, and certain ministers. These plans can invest in either annuities or mutual funds. A 403(b) plan is also another name for a tax-sheltered annuity plan, and the features of a 403(b) plan are comparable to those found in a 401(k) plan.

Employees of tax-exempt organizations are eligible to participate in the plan. Participants include teachers, school administrators, professors, government employees, nurses, doctors, and librarians. Many plans vest funds over a shorter period than 401(k) plans or may allow immediate vesting of funds. Note that there are income restrictions on 403(b) plans not found in 401(k)s.

To participate in a 403(b) plan, your income cannot be more than the annual limit set by the IRS, which is $305,000 in 2022.

Legal Differences Between 401(k) and 403(b) Plans

Unlike a 401(k) plan, 403(b) plans may not have to comply with many of the regulations in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Notably, governmental employers, non-electing churches, and certain other organizations may be exempt from following ERISA requirements.

For example, 403(b)s are exempt from nondiscrimination testing. Done annually, this testing is designed to prevent management-level or “highly compensated” employees from receiving a disproportionate amount of benefits from a given plan.

The reason for this and other exemptions is a long-standing Department of Labor regulation, under which 403(b) plans are not technically labeled as employer-sponsored as long as the employer does not fund contributions. However, if an employer does make contributions to employee 403(b) accounts, they are subject to the same ERISA guidelines and reporting requirements as those who offer 401(k) plans.

Additionally, investment funds are required to qualify as a registered investment company under the 1940 Securities and Exchange Act to be included in a 403(b) plan. This is not the case for 401(k) investment options.

Practical Differences Between 401(k) and 403(b) Plans

Even though 403(b) plans are legally able to provide employer matches to their participants’ contributions, most employers are unwilling to offer matches so they do not lose ERISA exemption.

Consequently, 401(k) plans offer match programs at a far higher rate. However, if an employee has over 15 years of service with certain nonprofits or government agencies, they may be able to make additional catch-up contributions to their 403(b) plans that those with 401(k) plans cannot.

Another difference between 401(k) and 403(b) plans is that for non-ERISA 403(b) plans, expense ratios can be much lower since they are subject to less stringent reporting requirements.

Typically, the plan providers and administrators are different for each type of plan. Notably, 401(k) plans tend to be administered by mutual fund companies, while 403(b) plans are more often administered by insurance companies. This is one reason why many 403(b) plans limit investment options and prominently feature annuities, while 401(k) plans tend to offer a lot of mutual funds.

The SECURE Act and Annuities in 401(k) Plans

However, with the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, employees may see more annuity options offered in their 401(k) plans. This is because the SECURE Act eliminates many of the barriers that previously discouraged employers from offering annuities as part of their retirement plan options.

By implementing certain guidelines and procedures, ERISA fiduciaries are now protected from being held liable should an annuity carrier have financial problems that prevent it from meeting its obligations to its 401(k) participants.

Additionally, under Section 109 of the SECURE Act, annuity plans offered in a 401(k) are now portable. This means that if the annuity plan is discontinued as an investment option, participants can transfer their annuity to another employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA, thereby eliminating the need to liquidate the annuity and pay surrender charges and fees.

What Are the Contribution Limits for 401(k) and 403(b) Plans?

Both 401(k) and 403(b) plans have the same yearly contribution limits set by the IRS, which is set at $20,500 for the 2022 tax year.

Can I Contribute to Both a 401(k) and 403(b) Plan?

If you have employment in two firms (say a private corporation and also a public hospital) you may be offered both a 401(k) and 403(b), and you are allowed to contribute to both. However, you would still be subject to the $20,500 contribution limit (for 2022) total between the two accounts.

How Do Catch-Up Contributions Work With a 401(k) vs. 403(b) Plan?

With a 401(k) or 403(b), plan participants age 50 and older can make additional catch-up contributions of $6,500 (for 2022) above the standard contribution limit.

In a 403(b) plan, employees with at least 15 years of service with the same eligible employer can also make additional annual contributions that are the lesser of:

  • $3,000,
  • $15,000, reduced by the amount of additional elective deferrals made in prior years because of this rule, or
  • $5,000 times the number of the employee’s years of service for the organization, minus the total elective deferrals made for earlier years.

Which Is Better: a 401(k) or 403(b)?

Both types of defined-contribution retirement accounts are solid retirement accounts that offer tax advantages and investment options for retirement. The major difference is in what type of employer is offering the plan,

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans are very similar as far as retirement vehicles go. Both have the same basic contribution limits, both offer Roth options and both require participants to reach age 59.5 before taking distributions.

Correction—July 9, 2022: This article has been edited to highlight the ERISA exemptions for some 403(b) plans.

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