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Is a Roth IRA a Qualified Retirement Plan?


The Roth IRA stands out among other types of retirement accounts due to its unique tax advantages and withdrawal rules. But is a Roth IRA a qualified retirement plan? While Roth IRAs offer significant benefits and are regulated by the IRS, they do not meet the technical definition of a qualified retirement plan, such as 401(k)s and traditional pensions, which adhere to specific criteria under the IRS code and ERISA guidelines. Consider working with a financial advisor if you need help understanding the tax benefits and requirements of different retirement plans.

What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan?

A qualified retirement plan is an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan that offers tax advantages to both employers and employees. These plans are designed to encourage individuals to save for their retirement while providing them with certain tax benefits.

Contributions made to qualified retirement plans are typically tax-deductible for the employer and are not taxed as income for the employee until withdrawn, allowing for tax-deferred growth of investments within the plan. 

For example, if an employee contributes $5,000 to their qualified retirement plan, that amount will not be subject to income tax in the year it is contributed, and the investment earnings will grow tax-free until the funds are withdrawn in retirement. This tax-advantaged status makes qualified retirement plans an attractive option for both employers looking to provide valuable benefits to their employees and for individuals seeking to save for their future.

To be considered qualified, a retirement plan must meet specific criteria set forth by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS):

  1. The plan must be established and maintained by an employer, ensuring that it is a formal, structured savings vehicle.
  2. The plan must comply with non-discrimination rules, which are designed to ensure fair treatment of all employees, regardless of their income level or position within the company.
  3. The plan must adhere to specific contribution limits set by the IRS, which may vary depending on the type of plan and the employee’s age.
  4. The plan must follow required minimum distribution rules, which dictate when participants must begin withdrawing funds from their accounts once they reach a certain age.

Types of Qualified Retirement Plans 

Qualified retirement plans can be broadly categorized into two main types: defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans

Defined benefit plans, such as traditional pensions, guarantee a predetermined retirement benefit based on a formula that considers factors like the employee’s salary and length of service. So in a company like General Motors, which historically offered a defined benefit plan, employees received a fixed monthly pension payment in retirement based on their years of service and average salary. The employer is responsible for ensuring that the plan is adequately funded to provide the promised benefits. 

In contrast, defined contribution plans allow employees and/or employers to contribute funds to individual investment accounts. A well-known example of a defined contribution plan is the 401(k) plan offered by many companies, where employees can choose to contribute a portion of their salary and invest in a selection of mutual funds or other investment options. 

The final retirement benefit in a defined contribution plan depends on the performance of the invested assets over time, with the employee bearing the investment risk. 

Defined contribution plans include: 

Roth IRAs vs. Qualified Retirement Plans

A qualified retirement plan is offered by an employer and subject to ERISA.

While both Roth IRAs and qualified retirement plans both help people save for retirement, they differ significantly in structure, contribution limits and tax implications. Roth IRAs, unlike qualified plans, are not sponsored by employers but are established by individuals. They offer post-tax contributions, which means the contributions are made with after-tax dollars, and withdrawals can typically be made tax-free in retirement.

Tax Treatment

The primary difference lies in the tax treatment of contributions and distributions. Qualified plans often allow for pre-tax contributions, which reduce taxable income during the years of contribution. The distributions are then taxed as ordinary income upon withdrawal. 

In contrast, Roth IRAs offer no tax break on contributions but offer tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals in retirement, provided certain conditions are met.

Since Roth IRAs are funded with money that’s already been taxed, they are not subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs) – mandatory withdrawals that must be made from tax-deferred accounts starting at age 73 (75 for people turning 74 after Dec. 31, 2032). 

Contribution Limits

Roth IRAs and qualified retirement plans also differ in contribution limits. For 2024, Roth IRAs have a contribution limit of $7,000 per year ($8,000 if you’re age 50 or older), while qualified plans like 401(k)s have a much higher limit of $23,000 ($30,500 if you’re 50 or older).


Eligibility for Roth IRAs is determined by income limits, while eligibility for qualified plans is determined by the employer. This means that not everyone may have access to both options, and it’s essential to understand which plans are available based on individual circumstances.

In 2024, Roth IRA contributions are subject to the following limits:

Filing StatusFull ContributionPartial ContributionNo Contribution
Single or Head of HouseholdLess than $146,000$146,000 – $161,000$161,000+
Married Filing JointlyLess than $230,000$230,000 – $240,000$240,000+
Married Filing SeparatelyN/ALess than $10,000$10,000+
Note: Limits are based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI).


Another key difference is that Roth IRAs are not subject to the same regulatory requirements as qualified plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). This means they lack some of the consumer protection features that qualified plans offer but provide greater flexibility in investment choices and fewer restrictions on withdrawals.

Can You Have Both a Roth IRA and a Qualified Plan?

A woman who has both a qualified retirement account through her job and a Roth IRA looks over her retirement savings on her phone.

Yes, individuals can indeed have both a Roth IRA and a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), at the same time. According to IRS Publication 590-A, there are no restrictions on having both a Roth IRA and a qualified plan in the same year. As long as you meet the eligibility requirements for each account type, you can contribute to both.

For example, if you participate in your employer’s 401(k) plan, you can also open a Roth IRA to boost your retirement savings. By contributing to both accounts, you could enjoy the tax-deferred growth and employer match of your 401(k), while also benefiting from the tax-free withdrawals and flexibility of your Roth IRA in retirement.

Are Roth IRAs Nonqualified Plans?

Nonqualified retirement plans are employer-sponsored plans that do not meet the requirements for qualified plans under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. These plans offer more flexibility in design and distribution options compared to qualified plans, as they are not subject to the same contribution limits, discrimination testing and mandatory participation requirements. However, nonqualified plans also lack the tax advantages and creditor protection that qualified plans provide.

Typically, nonqualified plans are used to provide additional retirement benefits to key employees, such as executives or highly compensated individuals, who may be limited by the contribution and benefit restrictions of qualified plans. Employers can tailor these plans to their specific needs and the needs of selected employees, offering greater customization in terms of plan design and distribution options. 

Roth IRAs, on the other hand, are not considered nonqualified retirement plans. They aren’t sponsored by an employer and they have specific contribution limits and eligibility requirements. 

Additionally, the tax implications of Roth IRAs differ from those of nonqualified plans, as Roth IRA contributions are made with after-tax dollars, and qualified distributions are tax-free in retirement. Nonqualified plans, depending on their specific design, may have different tax consequences for both the employer and the participating employees.

Bottom Line

Qualified retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and pensions, offer tax advantages and are subject to specific IRS rules, while Roth IRAs provide tax-free growth and withdrawals in retirement. Individuals can contribute to both a Roth IRA and a qualified plan at the same time, allowing for diversification and maximization of retirement savings. Nonqualified plans, on the other hand, are employer-sponsored and offer more flexibility in design and distribution options, but lack the same tax advantages and creditor protection as qualified plans.

Retirement Planning Tips

  • Saving for retirement is often a decades-long endeavor, so it’s important to track your progress and periodically assess whether you’re on pace to retire when you want. SmartAsset’s retirement calculator can help you do just that. This free tool not only provides you an estimate of how much income you’ll need to cover your projected expenses in retirement, but it also makes savings recommendations based on how much you currently have.
  • If you need additional help saving and planning for retirement, consider working with a financial advisor. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals,  get started now.

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