409A Plans: How They Work and Real-life Scenarios


409A plans, or non-qualified deferred compensation plans, allow high-income earners to defer taxes on their earnings and save more for retirement. This article explores the ins and outs of 409A plans, their benefits, and limitations, and when you pay taxes on them. If you’re a high earner looking to maximize your retirement savings, read on to discover how 409A plans can work for you.

Understanding 409A plans

409A plans, formally known as non-qualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plans, are a financial tool designed to assist high-income earners in planning for their retirement. These plans exist to address a critical issue: the limits on contributions to government-sponsored retirement savings plans. Let’s delve deeper into what 409A plans are and how they work.

Why were 409A plans created?

409A plans emerged as a response to limitations on employee contributions to tax-advantaged retirement plans. High-income earners found it challenging to contribute a significant portion of their income to traditional retirement accounts like the 401(k), making it difficult to save adequately for their post-retirement years.
For instance, someone like Sarah, an executive earning $750,000 annually, could only contribute a fraction of her income to her 401(k) due to contribution limits. As a result, she might not be able to save enough to maintain her lifestyle during retirement. This is where 409A plans come into play, allowing high-income individuals to defer paying taxes on a portion of their earnings while benefiting from tax-deferred investment growth.
By deferring some of her earnings into a 409A plan, Sarah can postpone paying income taxes, which enables her to save a higher percentage of her income compared to a traditional 401(k) plan. These savings are often deferred for a predetermined period, typically five or ten years, or until the employee retires.

Internal revenue code and 409A plans

The legal framework governing 409A plans is the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). The specific section that applies to for-profit plan sponsors is IRC Section 409A, while nonprofit or governmental plan sponsors adhere to IRC Section 457(b) or 457(f). These sections outline the rules and regulations that govern the operation of these plans.

Pros and cons of 409A plans


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • High-income earners can save more for retirement.
  • Deferred income is not counted as taxable until received.
  • Tax-deferred investment growth potential.
  • Not protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
  • Assets may not be shielded in the event of employer bankruptcy.
  • Cannot be rolled over into an IRA.

When do I pay tax on a 409A plan?

Compensation placed into a 409A plan is taxable upon receipt. In most cases, this occurs after retirement. Early withdrawals or distributions before retirement age may result in penalties in addition to the standard tax liability. There are also other triggering events, such as disability, that can prompt distributions.

How is deferred compensation taxed?

Deferred compensation in a 409A plan is taxed based on your income bracket when you receive it. This means that it will be taxed according to your tax rate at the time of distribution, not your tax rate when you initially earned the income.

How do I report distributions from a 409A plan?

Distributions from a 409A Plan are considered income you earned but deferred until you receive them. Consequently, these distributions will be reported by your employer on a W-2 form, even if you are no longer employed at the company. They may also be reported on Form 1099-MISC.

Examples of 409A plans

409A plans can vary in structure and application. Here are a couple of examples that demonstrate how these plans can be used by individuals in different scenarios:

Example 1: Executive compensation

Consider an executive, John, who earns a substantial salary working for a large corporation. With an annual income well into the six figures, John’s 401(k) contributions alone may not be enough to secure a comfortable retirement. To bridge the gap, John’s employer offers him the option to participate in a 409A plan. John decides to defer a portion of his income into the plan, allowing him to save more for retirement without immediate tax implications. He can choose to receive the deferred income after his retirement, at which point he’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket, reducing his overall tax liability.

Example 2: Nonprofit employee

Now, let’s consider an employee named Lisa who works for a nonprofit organization. While Lisa is not a high earner, she values the opportunity to save for her future. Her employer sponsors a 409A plan governed by IRC Section 457(b). Lisa decides to defer a portion of her modest income into the plan, allowing her to save for retirement while enjoying tax-deferred growth. Since her employer is a nonprofit, the plan is subject to different tax regulations, but it still offers her valuable retirement savings benefits.

Tax efficiency and 409A plans

When examining the benefits of 409A plans, it’s essential to understand their tax efficiency. Here, we’ll explore how these plans can offer tax advantages based on timing and circumstances:

Deferred income and tax efficiency

One of the key advantages of 409A plans is their tax efficiency. By deferring a portion of your income into the plan, you can delay the recognition of that income for tax purposes. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals who expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement. For example, if you anticipate lower income after retirement, the taxes you pay on the deferred income will likely be lower than if you had received it during your high-earning years. This strategy can result in significant tax savings over the long term.

Tax diversification strategies

409A plans can also be a valuable component of your overall tax strategy. By combining a 409A plan with other retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, you can create a tax-diversified portfolio. This approach allows you to manage your tax liability more effectively, spreading the tax burden across different income sources and optimizing your overall financial plan.

Limitations and risks of 409A plans

409A plans offer high-income earners an opportunity to save more for retirement, but they come with limitations and risks. Unlike 401(k)s and 403(b)s, they are not protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). In the unfortunate event of an employer’s bankruptcy or legal action, assets in a 409A plan may not be shielded from creditors.
Additionally, one significant drawback is that the money from 409A plans cannot be rolled over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or other retirement accounts. Furthermore, if tax rates are higher when you access your 409A plan than when you earned the income, your tax burden could increase.


Bottom line

409A plans, also known as non-qualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plans, are a valuable financial tool for high-income earners aiming to save more for retirement while deferring taxes. These plans address the limitations of traditional retirement accounts and provide the opportunity for tax-deferred investment growth.

However, it’s essential to consider the potential drawbacks, such as the lack of protection under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the inability to roll over 409A plan funds into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Additionally, the tax implications at the time of distribution must be carefully understood.

When deciding on the best retirement savings strategy, individuals should assess their unique financial situation and goals. 409A plans can be a powerful addition to a diversified retirement portfolio, providing an avenue for substantial savings and tax benefits. By carefully considering the pros and cons, individuals can make informed choices that align with their long-term financial well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any contribution limits for 409A plans?

409A plans do not have annual contribution limits like traditional retirement accounts. Instead, the limits are imposed by the plan’s terms and conditions set by the employer. These terms may specify the maximum percentage of income that can be deferred into the plan.

What happens if I change employers while participating in a 409A plan?

If you change employers, the 409A plan balance remains with your previous employer. You won’t be able to make further contributions to the old plan, but you can typically defer the receipt of the funds according to the plan’s terms, even after changing jobs. However, you may have the option to roll over the funds into your new employer’s 409A plan, if available.

Can I choose how my deferred compensation is invested within a 409A plan?

It depends on the plan’s provisions. Some 409A plans offer investment options similar to those in 401(k) plans, allowing you to choose from a range of investments. Others may have limited investment options predetermined by the plan sponsor. Review your plan’s documents to understand the investment choices available to you.

What if I need to access my 409A plan funds in case of an emergency?

409A plans are not designed for emergency access to funds. Generally, distributions from a 409A plan are tied to specific triggering events like retirement, disability, or a fixed period defined by the plan. Accessing the funds outside of these events may result in penalties and taxes.

Can the terms of a 409A plan be modified by my employer?

Yes, the terms of a 409A plan can be modified by your employer, but there are strict rules and limitations imposed by the IRS. Any modifications must comply with these rules and should not result in an acceleration of benefits or other actions that would violate 409A regulations. Employers typically communicate any plan changes to participants.

Is it possible to contribute to both a 401(k) and a 409A plan simultaneously?

Yes, in most cases, you can contribute to both a 401(k) and a 409A plan at the same time, provided that you meet the eligibility criteria for each plan. Keep in mind that contributions to these plans are subject to separate annual limits and restrictions. Review your specific plans and consult with your employer’s benefits department for guidance on contribution limits and eligibility.

Key takeaways

  • 409A plans allow high earners to save more for retirement while deferring taxes.
  • Distributions from 409A plans are taxed upon receipt, based on your income bracket at the time.
  • Assets in 409A plans are not protected from employer bankruptcy or legal action.
  • 409A plan funds cannot be rolled over into an IRA or other retirement accounts.
View article sources
  1. 409A – AGFinancial
  2. 409A – Deferred Compensation Plan Administration Manual – GuideStone
  3. impact of the section 409a proposed – regulations on stock … – JSTOR