What is a 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan?

By Anna Davies · March 08, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What is a 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan?

Like a traditional 401(k) plan, a profit-sharing 401(k) plan is an employee benefit that can provide a vehicle for tax-deferred retirement savings. But the biggest difference between an employer-sponsored 401(k) and a profit-sharing 401(k) plan is that in a profit share plan, employers have control over how much money—if any—they contribute to the employee’s account from year to year.

In other ways, the profit-sharing 401(k) plan works similarly to a traditional employer-sponsored 401(k). Under a 401(k) profit share plan, as with a regular 401(k) plan, an employee can allocate a portion of pre-tax income into a 401(k) account, up to a maximum of $22,500 in 2023, and up to $23,000 in 2024. Those 50 and older can contribute up to $30,000 in 2023 and $30,500 in 2024, thanks to catch-up contributions.

At year’s end, employers can choose to contribute part of their profits to employees’ plans, tax-deferred. As with a traditional 401(k), maximum total contributions to an account must be the lesser of 100% of the employee’s salary or $66,000 a year in 2023 and $69,000 in 2024, per the IRS. Those numbers jump to $73,500 for older employees who are making catch-up contributions in 2023 and $76,500 in 2024.

How Does 401(k) Profit Sharing Work?

There are several types of 401(k) profit-sharing setups employers can choose from. Each of these distributes funds in slightly different ways.

Pro-Rata Plans

In this common type of plan, all employees receive employer contributions at the same rate. In other words, the employer can make the decision to contribute 3% (or any percentage they choose) of an employee’s compensation as an employer contribution. The amount an employer can contribute is capped at 25% of total employee compensation paid to participants in the plan.

New Comparability 401(k) Profit Sharing

In this plan, employers can group employees when outlining a contribution plan. For example, executives could receive a certain percentage of their compensation as contribution, while other employees could receive a different percentage. This might be an option for a small business with several owners that wish to be compensated through a profit-sharing plan.

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Age-Weighted Plans

This plan calculates percentage contributions based on retirement age. In other words, older employees will receive a greater percentage of their salary than younger employees, by birth date. This can be a way for employers to retain talent over time.

Integrated Profit Sharing

This type of plan uses Social Security (SS) taxable income levels to calculate the amount the employer shares with employees. Because Social Security benefits are only paid on compensation below a certain threshold, this method allows employers to make up for lost SS compensation to high earners, by giving them a larger cut of the profit sharing.

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Pros and Cons of 401(k) Profit Sharing

There are benefits and drawbacks for both employers and employees who participate in a profit-sharing 401(k) plan.

Employer Pro: Flexibility of Employer Contributions

Flexibility with plan contribution amounts is one reason profit share plans are popular with employers. An employer can set aside a portion of their pre-tax earnings to share with employees at the end of the year. If the business doesn’t do well, they may not allocate any dollars. But if the business does do well, they can allow employees to benefit from the additional profits.

Employer Pro: Flexibility in Distributions

Profit sharing also gives employers flexibility in how they wish to distribute funds among employees, using the Pro-Rata, New Comparability, Age-Weighted, or Integrated profit sharing strategy.

Employer Pro: Lower Tax Liability

Another advantage of profit share plans is that they allow employers to lower tax liability during profitable years. A traditional employer contribution to a 401(k) does not have the flexibility of changing the contribution based on profits, so this strategy can help a company maintain financial liquidity during lean years and lower tax liability during profitable years.

Employee Pro: Larger Contribution Potential

Some employees might appreciate that their employer 401(k) contribution is tied to profits, as the compensation might feel like a more direct reflection of the hard work they and others put into the company. When the company succeeds, they feel the love in their contribution amounts.

Additionally, depending on the type of distribution strategy the employer utilizes, certain employees may find a profit-sharing 401(k) plan to be more lucrative than a traditional 401(k) plan. For example, an executive in a company that follows the New Compatibility approach might be pleased with the larger percentage of profits shared, versus more junior staffers.

Employee Con: Inconsistent Contributions

While employers may consider the flexibility in contributions from year to year a positive, it’s possible that employees might find that same attribute of profit-sharing 401(k) plans to be a negative. The unpredictability of profit share plans can be disconcerting to some employees who may have previously worked for an employer who had a traditional, consistent employer match set up.

Employee/Employer Pro: Solo 401(k) Contributions

A profit share strategy can be one way solo business owners can maximize their retirement savings. Once a solo 401(k) is set up with profit sharing, a business owner can put up to $22,500 a year into the account, plus up to 25% of net earnings, up to a total of $66,000 in 2023. In 2024, they can put up to $23,000 into a solo 401(k) account, plus up to 25% of net earnings, for a total of up to $69,000. This retirement savings vehicle also provides flexibility from year to year, depending on profits.

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Withdrawals and Taxes on 401(k) Profit Share Plans

A 401(k) with a generous profit share plan can help you build your retirement nest egg. So what about when you’re ready to take out distributions? A 401(k) withdrawal will have penalties if you withdraw funds before you’re 59 ½ (barring certain circumstances laid out by the IRS) but the money will still be taxable income once you reach retirement age.

Additionally, like traditional 401(k) plans, a profit-sharing 401(k) plan has required minimum distribution requirements (RMDs) once an account holder turns 73.

Investors who anticipate being in a high tax bracket during their retirement years may consider different strategies to lower their tax liability in the future. For some, this could include converting the 401(k) into a Roth IRA when doing a rollover. This is sometimes called a “backdoor Roth IRA” because rolling over the 401(k) generally does not subject an investor to the income limitations that cap Roth contributions.

An investor would need to pay taxes on the money they convert into a Roth IRA, but distributions in retirement years would not be taxed the way they would have if they were kept in a 401(k). In general, any 401(k) participant who qualifies for a Roth IRA can do this, but the additional funds in a 401(k) profit share account could make these moves that much more impactful in the future.

The Takeaway

A 401(k) profit-sharing plan allows employees to contribute pre-tax dollars to their retirement savings, as well as benefit from their employer’s profitability. But because profit share plans can take multiple forms, it’s important for employees to understand what their employer is offering. That way, employees can work to create a robust retirement savings strategy that makes sense for them.

Another step that could also help you manage your retirement savings is doing a 401(k) rollover, where you move funds from an old account to a rollover IRA. You may want to consider this option if you have a 401(k) from a previous employer, for instance.

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Can I cash out my profit-sharing?

You can cash out your profit-sharing 401(k) without penalty once you reach age 59 ½. Withdrawals taken before that time are subject to penalty. However, if you leave the company, you can roll over the profit-sharing 401(k) into an IRA without penalty as long as you follow the IRS rollover rules.

How much tax do you pay on profit-sharing withdrawal?

You pay regular income tax on profit-sharing withdrawals. Depending on what tax bracket you’re in, you might pay anywhere from 10% to 37%.

Is profit-sharing 100% vested?

Depending on your company, your profit-sharing contributions may be 100% vested right away, or they may follow a vesting schedule. If your employer requires you to work for the company for two years before you’re eligible to participate in a profit-sharing plan, your contributions must be fully vested right away.

Can I roll my profit-sharing plan into an IRA?

You can roll over your profit sharing plan into an IRA when you leave your company. You can choose to have the funds directly transferred from your profit-sharing plan to an IRA, or you can have the money paid to you and then deposit the funds into an IRA yourself. Just be sure to complete the rollover within 60 days to avoid being taxed.

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