Is socking away large sums in a tax-deferred retirement account ever a bad idea? It is when you exceed the annual IRS limits. Whether intentional or not, the penalties can be painful. Here’s how overfunding occurs and what steps to take to fix the problem.
How overfunding happens
Overfunding retirement accounts happens more than you may realize. It can be the result of a job change that causes you to participate in two different employer retirement plans. Sometimes people forget they made IRA contributions early in the year and do it again later. Others forget that the IRA limit is the total of all accounts, not per account. The rules are complicated. Traditional IRAs can’t be contributed to after age 70½, while Roth IRA contributions are subject to income limits. Plus all contributions are predicated on having earned income.
The annual Roth and Traditional IRA contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older). If you surpass this amount, you pay a 6 percent penalty on the overpayment every year until it’s corrected, plus a potential 10 percent penalty on the investment income attributed to the overfunded amount.
The fix: If the overfunding is discovered before the filing deadline (plus extensions), you can withdraw the excess and any income earned on the contribution to avoid the 6 percent penalty. You will potentially owe a 10 percent penalty in addition to ordinary income tax on the earnings of the excess contributions if you’re under age 59½. Often you can apply the contribution to the next year. If your issue is due to age (70½ or older for a Traditional IRA) or income limit (for a Roth IRA), consider recharacterizing your contribution from one IRA type to another.
The rules for correcting an overfunded 401(k) are a little more rigid. You have until April 15 to return the funds, period. The nature of the penalty is also different. The excess amount is taxable in the year of the overfunding, plus taxable again when withdrawn. So, you could pay the penalty multiple times on the same amount. And, in certain cases, overfunding a 401(k) could cause it to lose its qualified status.
The fix: If you suspect an overpayment situation, contact your employer as soon as possible. Adjust your contribution amount before the end of the year and try to get the problem resolved that way.