401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - Limitation on Elective Deferrals

There is a limit on the amount of elective deferrals that you can contribute to your traditional or safe harbor 401(k) plan.


Generally, all elective deferrals that you make to all plans in which you participate must be considered to determine if the dollar limits are exceeded.

Limits on the amount of elective deferrals that you can contribute to a SIMPLE 401(k) plan are different from those in a traditional or safe harbor 401(k).


Although, general rules for 401(k) plans provide for the dollar limit described above, that does not mean that you are entitled to defer that amount. Other limitations may come into play that would limit your elective deferrals to a lesser amount. For example, your plan document may provide a lower limit or the plan may need to further limit your elective deferrals in order to meet nondiscrimination requirements.

Catch-up contributions. A plan may permit participants who are age 50 or over at the end of the calendar year to make additional elective deferral contributions. These additional contributions (commonly referred to as catch-up contributions) are not subject to the general limits that apply to 401(k) plans. An employer is not required to provide for catch-up contributions in any of its plans. However, if your plan does allow catch-up contributions, it must allow all eligible participants to make the same election with respect to catch-up contributions.

If you participate in a traditional or safe harbor 401(k) plan and you are age 50 or older:

  • The elective deferral limit increases by $6,000 for 2016 (unchanged from 2015).
  • The limit is subject to cost-of-living increases.


If you participate in a SIMPLE 401(k) plan and you are age 50 or older:

  • The elective deferral limit increases by $3,000 for 2016 (unchanged from 2015).
  • The limit is subject to cost-of-living increases.


The catch-up contribution you can make for a year cannot exceed the lesser of the following amounts:

  • The catch-up contribution limit, above, or
  • The excess of your compensation over the elective deferrals that are not catch-up contributions.


Participation in plans of unrelated employers. If you participate in plans of different employers, you can treat amounts as catch-up contributions regardless of whether the individual plans permit those contributions. In this case, it is up to you to monitor your deferrals to make sure that they do not exceed the applicable limits.

Example: If Joe Saver, who’s over 50, has only one employer and participates in that employer’s 401(k) plan, the plan would have to permit catch-up contributions before he could defer the maximum of $24,000 for 2016 (the $18,000 regular limit for 2016 plus the $6,000 catch-up limit for 2016). If the plan didn’t permit catch-up contributions, the most Joe could defer would be $18,000. However, if Joe participates in two 401(k) plans, each maintained by an unrelated employer, he can defer a total of $24,000 even if neither plan has catch-up provisions. Of course, Joe couldn’t defer more than $18,000 under either plan and he would be responsible for monitoring his own contributions.

The rules relating to catch-up contributions are complex and your limits may differ according to provisions in your specific plan. You should contact your plan administrator to find out whether your plan allows catch-up contributions and how the catch-up rules apply to you.

Treatment of excess deferrals. If the total of your elective deferrals is more than the limit, you can have the difference (called an excess deferral) returned to you from any of the plans that permit these distributions. You must notify the plan by April 15 of the following year of the amount to be paid from the plan. The plan must then pay you that amount plus allocable earnings by April 15 of the year following the year in which the excess occurred.

Excess withdrawn by April 15. If you withdraw the excess deferral for 2015 by April 15, 2016, it is includable in your gross income for 2015, but not for 2016. The April 15 date is not tied to the due date for your return and is not extended until April 17, 2015. However, any income earned on the excess deferral taken out is taxable in the tax year in which it is taken out. The distribution is not subject to the additional 10% tax on early distributions.

Excess not withdrawn by April 15. If you do not take out the excess deferral by April 15, 2016, the excess, though taxable in 2015, is not included in your cost basis in figuring the taxable amount of any eventual distributions from the plan. In effect, an excess deferral left in the plan is taxed twice, once when contributed and again when distributed. Also, if the entire deferral is allowed to stay in the plan, the plan may not be a qualified plan.

Reporting corrective distributions on Form 1099-R. Corrective distributions of excess deferrals (including any earnings) are reported to you by the plan on Form 1099-R, Distributions From Pensions, Annuities, Retirement or Profit-Sharing Plans, IRAs, Insurance Contracts, etc.

Refer to Publication 525, Taxable and Nontaxable Income, for more information about limits on your elective deferrals.

Additional limits. There are other limits that restrict contributions made on your behalf. In addition to the limit on elective deferrals, annual contributions to all of your accounts - this includes elective deferrals, employee contributions, employer matching and discretionary contributions and allocations of forfeitures to your accounts - may not exceed the lesser of 100% of your compensation or $53,000 for 2016 (unchanged from 2015). In addition, the amount of your compensation that can be taken into account when determining employer and employee contributions is limited. The compensation limitation is $265,000 for 2016 (unchanged from 2015).