How is a 401k Taxed?

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

Types of 401(k)s and How They Are Taxed

Traditional 401(k) Taxation

Contributions to traditional 401(k) plans are made with pre-tax dollars, reducing your taxable income for the year. The growth of investments in a traditional 401(k) is tax-deferred, meaning taxes on gains are not paid until the funds are withdrawn.

Withdrawals made in retirement are taxed as ordinary income. If withdrawals occur before age 59½, they may also be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty, barring specific exceptions.

Roth 401(k) Taxation

Contributions to Roth 401(k) plans are made with after-tax dollars; therefore, they do not reduce your current taxable income. However, the growth and withdrawals are tax-free, provided the account has been open for at least five years, and withdrawals are made after age 59½ or due to qualifying exceptions.

Solo 401(k) Taxation

A Solo 401(k) is designed for self-employed individuals and small business owners with no employees other than the owner and their spouse. The tax treatment of contributions, growth, and withdrawals for a Solo 401(k) mirrors that of traditional and Roth 401(k)s, depending on whether the account is set up as a traditional or Roth Solo 401(k).

Helpful Tool: Determine the growth of your 401k with our 401k savings calculator

Taxation Comparison Table

Type of 401kContributionsWithdrawalsRMDs
Standard 401kPre-tax, reduces taxable incomeTaxed as ordinary incomeTaxed as ordinary income from age 73
Roth 401kAfter-tax, does not reduce taxable incomeTax-free if conditions metTax-free from age 73
Solo 401kPre-tax, higher limits, reduces taxable incomeTaxed as ordinary incomeTaxed as ordinary income from age 73

Taxation Timing

The timing of taxation in a 401(k) plan hinges on the type of account and the nature of the transaction—contributions, growth, or withdrawals.

  • Traditional 401(k): Taxation at withdrawal.
  • Roth 401(k): Taxation at contribution.
  • Solo 401(k): Follows the same taxation timing as its traditional or Roth counterparts.

Rollover Taxation

  • Direct Rollover: Moving funds from a traditional 401(k) to another retirement account directly incurs no immediate taxation. A Roth conversion (traditional 401(k) to Roth IRA) triggers taxes on the converted amount but ensures tax-free withdrawals later.
  • Indirect Rollover: Funds received then deposited into another qualifying account within 60 days to avoid taxation. Failure to deposit within 60 days leads to taxable distribution.

Withdrawal Taxation

  • Traditional 401(k): Taxed as ordinary income, subject to early withdrawal penalties if taken before age 59½, with certain exceptions for penalty-free withdrawals.
  • Roth 401(k): Withdrawals are tax-free if the account is at least five years old and withdrawals occur after age 59½.

Beneficiary Taxation

Beneficiaries of 401(k) accounts face unique tax implications. Traditional 401(k) inherited accounts require beneficiaries to pay taxes on distributions as ordinary income. Roth 401(k) inherited accounts allow tax-free withdrawals under certain conditions. Non-spouse beneficiaries may be subject to mandatory distribution timelines, affecting taxation.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) at Age 73

Beginning at age 73, account holders must start taking RMDs from their traditional 401(k) and Solo 401(k) accounts. The amount is calculated based on the account balance and life expectancy. Failure to take RMDs can result in a hefty penalty, up to 50% of the amount not withdrawn as required. Roth 401(k) accounts are also subject to RMDs, but withdrawals remain tax-free.

Minimizing 401(k) Taxes

  • Consider Roth Conversions: Converting a traditional 401(k) to a Roth account can offer tax-free growth and withdrawals despite the upfront tax cost.
  • Strategic Withdrawals: Plan withdrawals to minimize tax brackets in retirement.
  • Optimize Rollovers: Use direct rollovers to avoid unnecessary taxation and penalties.
  • Understand Beneficiary Rules: Choose beneficiaries wisely and understand the tax implications for them.


The taxation of your 401(k) plays a crucial role in your retirement planning. By understanding how and when different aspects of your 401(k) are taxed, you can make more informed decisions that potentially lower your tax burden and enhance your retirement readiness. Consulting with a financial advisor or tax professional can provide personalized advice tailored to your specific situation.

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Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

Shawn Plummer is a licensed financial professional, insurance agent, and annuity broker with over 14 years of first-hand experience with annuities and insurance. Since beginning his journey in 2009, he has been pivotal in selling and educating about annuities and insurance products. Still, he has also played an instrumental role in training financial advisors for a prestigious Fortune Global 500 insurance company, Allianz. His insights and expertise have made him a sought-after voice in the industry, leading to features in renowned publications such as Time Magazine, Bloomberg, Entrepreneur, Yahoo! Finance, MSN, SmartAsset, The Simple Dollar, U.S. News and World Report, Women’s Health Magazine, and many more. Shawn’s driving ambition? To simplify retirement planning, he ensures his clients understand their choices and secure the best insurance coverage at unbeatable rates.

The Annuity Expert is an independent online insurance agency servicing consumers across the United States. The goal is to help you take the guesswork out of retirement planning and find the best insurance coverage at the cheapest rates

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