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Can a 403(b) Plan Merge with a 401(k) Plan?

The ERISA consultants at the Learning Center Resource Desk, which is available through Columbia Threadneedle Investments, regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs and qualified retirement plans. A recent call with an advisor in New York is representative of a common inquiry regarding plans for tax-exempt entities. The advisor asked:

“I have a tax-exempt client that currently offers a 401(k) plan. The group is taking over another IRC Sec. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity that has a 403(b) plan. Can the acquiring entity merge the 403(b) plan into the 401(k) plan?”

No, generally the IRS does not allow mergers or transfers of assets between 403(b) and 401(k) plans [Treasury Regulation 1.403(b)-10(b)(1)(i)]. The IRS has stated in private letter rulings (PLRs) (e.g., PLR 200317022) that if a 403(b) plan is merged with a plan that is qualified under IRC Sec. 401(a), the assets of the 403(b) plan will be taxable to the employees.

One option would be to terminate the 403(b) plan, which would allow its participants to receive distributions (See the IRS’ Terminating a 403(b) Plan publication for more information).

The participants in the terminated 403(b) plan who receive eligible rollover distributions from the 403(b) plan would have the option to roll the amounts to the 401(k), provided the 401(k) plan permits rollover contributions (Revenue Ruling 2011-7 and IRS rollover chart.)


IRC Sec. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entities have the ability to maintain both 401(k) and 403(b) plans independently. The IRS does not allow a sponsor to merge the two plan types, however. A plan termination followed by participant rollovers may be a viable alternative to merging the plans.

The Learning Center Resource Desk is staffed by the Retirement Learning Center, LLC (RLC), a third-party industry consultant that is not affiliated with Columbia Threadneedle. Any information provided is for informational purposes only. It cannot be used for the purposes of avoiding penalties and taxes. Columbia Threadneedle does not provide tax or legal advice. Consumers consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.

Information and opinions provided by third parties have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed by Columbia Threadneedle.

Columbia Threadneedle Investments (Columbia Threadneedle) is the global brand name of the Columbia and Threadneedle group of companies.

©2017, Columbia Management Investment Advisers, LLC. Used with permission.