Tax Consequences of Borrowing From a Retirement Plan

If your company has a qualified retirement plan or you have set one up in self-employment -- such as a 401(k), profit-sharing, or Keogh plan -- the participants might be allowed to borrow from their accounts. (This option is not available for traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEPs, or SIMPLE-IRAs.) In the right circumstances, taking out a plan loan can be a smart financial move because a participant gains access (within limits) to his or her retirement account money without having to pay taxes. Plus, when the loan is repaid with interest (which is generally at a reasonable rate), the participant is effectively paying the interest to him or herself rather than to some commercial lender. But there is a caveat: A participant must be prepared to pay back the borrowed money on time or face potentially dire tax consequences.

Here are some answers to frequently asked tax questions about retirement plan loans that you can pass along to your employees:

Q. How much can I borrow?

A. The maximum you can borrow from a qualified retirement plan is generally:

Most plan loans are secured exclusively by the borrower's vested account balance, although that's not always the case.

Q. What are the drawbacks?

A. There are two big ones:

Bottom Line: Failing to pay back a retirement plan loan is a financial sin for which you'll pay dearly.

Q. Can I deduct the interest?

A. It depends. With some exceptions, which we'll explain later, the standard federal income tax rules for interest expense paid by individual taxpayers also apply to interest paid on a qualified retirement plan loan. Under these rules, your ability to deduct (or not deduct) the interest depends on how you use the borrowed money. In other words, you must trace where the loan proceeds go. Once the borrowed cash has been traced to a personal, business, or investment expenditure, the related interest expense is classified accordingly. Here are the deductibility rules:

Q. Are there exceptions to these general rules for deducting interest?

A. Yes, and unfortunately, they aren't so favorable. Specifically, you can't usually deduct interest on 401(k) or 403(b) plan loans if any of the balance comes from elective deferrals. In other words, if it comes from salary reduction contributions that you've made.

Let's say your plan loan is secured by your 401(k) or 403(b) account balance. If any of that balance is from your elective deferrals, you can't deduct any of the interest. It doesn't matter how you use the loan proceeds. It also doesn't matter if there's other security or collateral for your plan loan, such as your home. The fact is almost every 401(k) or 403(b) account balance includes at least some dollars from elective deferrals. Therefore, interest on loans from these types of plans is rarely deductible.

That said, you may be the exception. Your 401(k) or 403(b) account balance might have been funded exclusively by employer contributions and related earnings. Or your plan loan might be secured exclusively by the portion of your account balance attributable to employer contributions and related earnings and by another asset, such as your home. If you're lucky enough to be in one of these rare categories, you can follow the general interest expense rules explained above, which means you might be entitled to a deduction for the interest on your 401(k) or 403(b) plan loan.

Q. What about interest on other plan loans, such as a defined benefit plan? Is it deductible?

A. The chances are better. Let's say you pay interest on a loan from a qualified retirement plan that's not a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, such as a defined benefit pension plan or a garden-variety company profit-sharing plan. In most cases, the general interest expense rules for individual taxpayers explained above apply to you. Under those rules, you may or may not be able to deduct the interest, depending on how you spent the borrowed money.

However, there's an exception. You cannot deduct any interest on a plan loan if you are a key employee of the employer that sponsors the retirement plan in question.

Q. How do I know if I'm a key employee?

A. You are if any of the following three descriptions fits:

In Summary: If you borrow from your 401(k) or 403(b) plan, the resulting interest expense is very likely to be nondeductible -- but not always. You could be one of the lucky few. Interest on loans from other types of plans may or may not be deductible under the general rules for interest expense paid by an individual, unless you're an owner or high-powered employee (as defined by the tax law), in which case you can't deduct any of your interest. As you can see, these rules are tricky. Consult with your tax adviser if you have questions or need more information.

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