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Understanding 403(b) Retirement Plans: The Benefits and Drawbacks

Introducing the 403(b) Plan

what is a 403b plan - 403(b) plan

The term 403(b) plan may not be as familiar as its counterpart, the 401(k) plan, but it plays a crucial role in the retirement planning landscape for many American workers.

Essentially, a 403(b) plan is a retirement account specifically designed for employees of public schools, tax-exempt organizations, and certain government employees. This group includes diverse professionals such as teachers, school administrators, professors, doctors, nurses, and librarians.

Like the 401(k) plan, the 403(b) plan enables participants to save for retirement via payroll deductions while reaping certain tax benefits. In some cases, the employer may even match a portion of the employee's contribution, augmenting the plan's appeal.

Key Insights into 403(b) Plans

The uniqueness of the 403(b) plan lies in its specific audience—employees of public schools and tax-exempt organizations. The contributions towards these plans are conveniently made through payroll deductions. However, the IRS has put a cap on the amount that employees can contribute to their 403(b) plans annually.

The 403(b) plan also offers certain advantages such as faster vesting of funds and the potential for additional catch-up contributions. On the downside, investment choices may be more limited, and some accounts might offer less protection from creditors compared to 401(k) plans.

How Does a 403(b) Plan Work?

The 403(b) plan operates similarly to the 401(k) plan used by private-sector employees. It caters to a wide range of participants, including employees of public schools, state colleges, and universities, public school employees of Indian tribal governments, church employees, employees of tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, and ministers and clergy members.

The plan also aligns with the 401(k) in terms of the caps on annual contributions. For the 2022 and 2023 tax years, the maximum allowed contributions are $20,500 and $22,500, respectively. Additional catch-up contributions of $6,500 for those aged 50 and above are offered for 2022, increasing to $7,500 for 2023. The total employee and employer contributions are limited to either $61,000 in 2022 and $66,000 in 2023 or 100% of the employee's most recent yearly salary, whichever is less.

Special Considerations

While it's not very common, certain job situations could offer you access to both a 401(k) and a 403(b) plan. Each of these provides a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. However, investment choices are typically more limited in a 403(b) plan than a 401(k).

Types of 403(b) Plans: Traditional vs. Roth

The 403(b) plan comes in two main varieties: traditional and Roth. However, not all employers provide access to the Roth version.

In a traditional 403(b) plan, the employee can have pre-tax money automatically deducted from their paycheck and deposited into their personal retirement account. This not only saves money for the future but also reduces their gross income, thereby decreasing their income tax liability for the year.

On the other hand, a Roth 403(b) requires after-tax money to be paid into the retirement account. While there's no immediate tax advantage, the employee won't owe any more taxes on that money or the profit it accrues when it is withdrawn.

Advantages and Disadvantages of 403(b) Plans

Like any retirement plan, the 403(b) plan comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Earnings and returns on amounts in a regular 403(b) plan are tax-deferred until withdrawn, and tax-deferred in a Roth 403(b) if the withdrawals are qualified distributions. Some 403(b) plans aren't required to meet the stringent oversight rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which can lower administrative costs and benefit the employee.

Many 403(b) plans allow for faster vesting of funds than 401(k)s, and some even offer immediate vesting of funds, a feature rarely seen in 401(k) plans. For employees with 15 or more years of service with certain nonprofits or government agencies, the 403(b) plan allows for additional catch-up contributions. This allows an extra $3,000 per year, up to a lifetime limit of $15,000, to be contributed to the plan.

However, there are also some downsides to consider. Funds withdrawn from a 403(b) plan before age 59½ are subject to a 10% tax penalty, although there are exceptions to this rule under certain circumstances. Moreover, the range of investment options may be more limited in a 403(b) plan than in other retirement plans. Certain securities like stocks and real estate investment trusts (REITs) are not allowed, and the investment options mainly include fixed and variable contracts, and mutual funds inside these plans.

Another factor to consider is the level of creditor protection offered. Non-ERISA 403(b) accounts may not provide the same level of protection from creditors as plans that require ERISA compliance. And despite the exemption from ERISA's strict oversight, non-ERISA 403(b)s are also exempt from nondiscrimination testing, designed to prevent management-level or highly compensated employees from receiving a disproportionate amount of benefits.

403(b) vs. 401(k): The Similarities and Differences

While the 403(b) plan shares many similarities with the 401(k) plan, they cater to different sectors. Both offer tax-advantaged ways to save for retirement and have similar basic contribution limits. They both offer Roth options and require participants to reach age 59½ to withdraw funds without incurring an early withdrawal penalty. However, while 401(k) plans are designed for private-sector employees, 403(b) plans are primarily for public-sector and non-profit employees.

The Verdict on 403(b) Plans

In conclusion, a 403(b) plan can be a valuable tool for retirement savings, especially for employees in the public and nonprofit sectors. With its tax advantages, the potential for employer matching, and faster vesting of funds, it offers a unique set of benefits. However, the potential for a narrower choice of investments, the presence of early withdrawal penalties, and the lack of ERISA protection in certain cases are important considerations. As with any financial decision, it's important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks carefully to decide whether a 403(b) plan is the right fit for your retirement savings strategy.


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Disclosure: Lyon Bern, LLC is a Registered Investment Adviser and is in the business of consulting and advising its clients in wealth and asset management. Each client's diversification between Lyon Bern's portfolios will be made individually and based on the client's Investment Policy Statement. Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product referred to directly or indirectly in this document will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), or be suitable for your portfolio. Due to various factors, including changing market conditions, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this document serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from Lyon Bern, LLC. To the extent that a reader has any questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed above to his/her individual situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with a professional investment advisor. A copy of our current written investment advisory agreement discussing our advisory services and fees is available for review upon request.


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