401(a) Plan Rules

Many people are not completely familiar with all the facts associated with a 401(a) plan. If your company offers this type of plan, be sure to take the time to learn what the plan is and how it works. Also learn the rules regarding contributions and withdrawals. Spending a little time asking questions will help when you begin to contribute to the plan. The following questions are commonly asked and they will give you some important answers.

What is a 401(a) plan?
It is a retirement savings plan that is established by an employer. The plan must meet the requirements of IRC Section 401(a). The plan has a defined amount that can be contributed each year. In 2009, the amount is a maximum of $49,000. The employer will determine the eligibility requirements for you to join. They will also provide information that tells you how and when you will receive your contributions and will describe any circumstances in which money in the account is made available to you.

When can I participate in a 401(a) plan?
Any employee, whether full or part-time, who works more than 20 hours per week is eligible to join the plan. You must have more than one year of service with the company and must have worked at least 1,000 hours within that year. If an employee is participating in another type of retirement plan, they may be eligible to participate in the 401(a) after three months, as long as they are not receiving any benefits from the other plan.

When will I be fully vested?
A new rule went into effect in January of 2002 stating that all NOAO employees that are participating will be vested 100% immediately.

Can I make contributions to the plan?
You may not. Your employer completely funds the 401(a) plan.

Are there different funds available?
There are actually two available funds. These are the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund, known as TIAA-CREF, and Fidelity Investments. Once you choose which company to deal with, you will be allowed to choose from whatever funds are available from that particular company. You are not allowed to contribute to both funds.

Can I withdraw early?
You are not allowed to make early withdrawals if you are still employed with the company. If you leave the company or retire, you may then withdraw the money from the account. If you do not want to withdraw it, you can transfer the balance or roll it over into a different type of retirement account.

Is there a penalty for early withdrawals?
If you are under the age of 59 1/2, you will be subject to a 10% penalty if you withdraw funds early.

When can I begin withdrawals?
Once you have reached 59 1/2, you have the option to withdraw from the account without incurring any penalties. You will be required to pay taxes on the amount withdrawn.

Can I name my children as beneficiaries, even if I am married?
Rules require you to name a spouse as a beneficiary for at least 50% of the amount in the account. This can be avoided if the spouse signs a waiver.

Can I combine other retirement accounts from previous employers?
You may rollover money from qualified plans but this must be approved by the plan administrator. If you have concerns whether your prior plan is compatible, you can contact your investment company at any time.

Are plan documents available for review?
All documentation associated with the 401(a) plan must be made available to all employees.

How do I determine how much money has been contributed?
Quarterly statements are issues from your employer. These statements will inform you of the balance in the account and how much was contributed in that quarter. This information is also available from your investment company.

Can I change investment allocation?
As long as you remain with the same investment company, you can change investment allocation.

Can I switch investment companies?
As long as you stop investing with one company, you may switch to the other at any time.

When I terminate employment, what happens to the account?
You are allowed to leave the money in the account until you determine what you wish to do with it. If you withdraw and have not met the withdrawal eligibility requirements, you will be subject to penalties. It is best to transfer the funds into another account. This way you will avoid penalties and taxes at that time.

Upon retirement, what should I consider?
At this point, you should have a long term financial goal, and you should know what funds you have available.