Retirement plans for small businesses

Understanding your options may help you save more for retirement and lower taxes.

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As a small-business owner, you’re probably used to handling a lot of responsibility—everything from drawing up detailed business plans to creating a budget. So it should come as no surprise that funding your retirement will likely fall on your shoulders.

But what type of retirement plan is the right fit for your business? There are several types to choose from and the options can be confusing. For example, some small-business retirement plans are better for sole proprietors, while others may be more appropriate for businesses with up to 100 employees.

"Many small-business owners say they want to set up a 401(k) plan because that is the plan they are most familiar with," says Ken Hevert, senior vice president, retirement products, at Fidelity. "However, after reviewing their situation, small business owners often conclude that perhaps another plan type, such as a SEP IRA or a Self-Employed 401(k), may be more appropriate."

Basically, there are four types of retirement plans that small-business owners might consider:

  1. Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP IRA)
  2. Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE IRA)
  3. Self-Employed 401(k) plan
  4. 401(k) plan (better for larger companies given setup costs, administration, fiduciary responsibilities, etc.)

We will focus only on the first three, which are generally more suitable for very small businesses—typically, 10 employees or less. Each of these plans has different characteristics—such as the ability to cover employees, contribution limits, and administrative responsibility, to name a few. To choose the right plan for your business, you need to understand the nuances of these plans and match them to your priorities (e.g., higher contributions or simpler administration).

Understanding the differences in the plan types is an important exercise. If you have been operating a plan that doesn’t match your business needs, you could be missing out on important tax benefits, or possibly making mistakes regarding employee contributions.

Why have a small-business retirement plan?

Here are three very compelling reasons:

  • Your plan not only helps secure your future—it may be the primary way your employees can help secure theirs.
  • Offering a plan helps make your business competitive when it comes to attracting and keeping good employees.
  • There are potential tax benefits to offering a plan, because plan contributions for the business owner are deductible as a business expense.

Consider your options

Each of the three small-business retirement plans may offer certain tax advantages, including:

  • Tax-deferred growth potential, which allows contributions to grow without being reduced by current taxes
  • The potential to deduct employer contributions as a business expense
  • A tax credit of up to $500 for certain expenses incurred while starting and maintaining the plan each of the first three years, if this is your first time offering a plan

But this is where the similarities end, particularly about whether the plans cover employees and, if so, who is responsible for making contributions.

  • A SEP IRA is for self-employed people and small-business owners with any number of employees. Contributions are made by the employer only and are tax deductible as a business expense.
  • A SIMPLE IRA is for businesses with 100 or fewer employees and is funded by tax-deductible employer contributions and pretax employee contributions [similar to a 401(k) plan].
  • A Self-Employed 401(k) plan is a tax-deferred retirement plan for self-employed individuals that offers the most generous contribution limits of the three plans, but is suitable only for businesses with no “common law” employees, meaning any person working for the business who does not have an ownership interest.

Choosing the right plan takes careful consideration

"If you know what you are trying to accomplish with a retirement plan, it may be relatively straightforward to determine which plan is most appropriate for the business," Hevert says. "For example, is ease of administration an important consideration? Is it critical that employees be able to contribute to the plan? Knowing what you want and need ahead of time is a key component, because each plan has its advantages and disadvantages."

The chart below compares the three plans in detail.

Fidelity’s small-business retirement plans at a glance

Features
SEP IRA
Simple IRA
Self-Employed 401(k)
Who it’s for
  • Self-employed individuals or small-business owner, including those with employees
  • Sole proprietors, partnerships, corporations, S corporations
  • Companies with 100 employees or fewer, that do not have any other retirement plan
  • Sole proprietors, partnerships, corporations, S corporations
  • Self-employed individuals or business owners with no employees other than a spouse (and no plans to add employees)
  • Sole proprietors, partnerships, corporations, S corporations with no common law employees
Key advantages
  • Easy to set up and maintain
  • No initial setup or annual maintenance fee
  • Salary reduction plan with less administration
  • Low-cost option of $25 per participant or $350 plan fee
  • Generous contribution limits
  • No initial setup or annual maintenance fee
Who contributes
  • Employer only (employee may make traditional IRA contributions to the account)
  • Employer and employee
  • Employer and employee (assuming the employee is the business owner or spouse)
Contribution limits
  • Employer contributes up to 25% of employee compensation or up to a maximum of $53,000 in 2016
  • Employer must contribute the same percentage to employee accounts in years he or she contributes to his or her own account
  • Mandatory business contribution of either: 1) 100% match on the first 3% deferred (match may be reduced to 1% in two out of five years) or 2) a 2% nonelective contribution on behalf of all eligible employees. No additional business contribution may be made.
  • Employee contributes up to 100% of compensation through salary deferral, not to exceed $12,500 for 2016
  • Catch-up contributions of up to $3,000 (2016) available for those age 50 or older
  • Employers may contribute up to 25% of compensation up to a maximum of $53,000 in 2016
  • Up to $18,000 in salary deferrals; $24,000 if age 50 or older
  • Total contributions to a participant’s account, not counting catch-up contributions for those age 50 and over, cannot exceed $53,000 for 2016
Administration
  • No Form 5500 filing
  • Employee notification of employer’s contribution, if made
  • No Form 5500 filing
  • Certain annual employee notifications
  • Annual Form 5500 filing after plan assets exceed $250,000
Cost1
  • No initial setup or annual maintenance fee
  • Low-cost option of $350 plan fee or $25 per participant
  • No initial setup or annual maintenance fee
Vesting
  • Immediate
  • Immediate
  • Immediate
Access to assets
  • Withdrawals at any time, which are subject to current federal income taxes and possibly to a 10% penalty if the participant is under age 59½.
  • Withdrawals any time. If employee is under age 59½, withdrawals may be subject to a 25% penalty if taken within the first two years of beginning participation, and possibly to a 10% penalty if taken after that time period.
  • Cannot take withdrawals from plan until a “trigger” event occurs, such as termination of service or plan termination. Withdrawals are subject to current federal income taxes and possibly to a 10% penalty if the participant is under 59½.

Matching a retirement plan to your business

As you consider the specific features of each plan, it’s important to remember that there are always trade-offs. Think very carefully about your priorities.

Here are some factors that may be helpful as you consider the right retirement plan for your business:

Covering employees
If you have no employees other than you and your spouse (or business partner) and want the highest possible contribution limits, consider a Self-Employed 401(k). If, however, additional employees are a possibility in the future, you may need to choose between a SEP IRA and a SIMPLE IRA, both of which can cover employees. Then it’s a matter of deciding whether you want to fund your employees’ accounts by yourself (SEP) or you want your employees to contribute (SIMPLE).

Contributions: how much and who pays?
Next, think about how much flexibility you want in terms of contribution limits and who is responsible for making such contributions.

A Self-Employed 401(k) plan offers the largest possible contributions because it recognizes that self-employed people wear two hats—as an employee and as an employer. In fact, as an employee, you can make elective deferrals of up to $18,000 for 2016. As an employer, you can make a profit-sharing contribution of up to 25% of compensation, up to a maximum of $53,000 for 2016. (Total contributions as employer and employee can not exceed $53,000 for 2016.) The plan also allows catch-up contributions of up to $6,000 for those who are age 50 or older in 2016. You are also eligible for added tax breaks. If your business is not incorporated, you can generally deduct contributions for yourself from your personal income. If your business is incorporated, the corporation can generally deduct the contributions as a business expense.

If you have a business with variable income and you want more flexibility, you might consider a SEP IRA. Just remember that, if you have employees in years you contribute, you have to contribute the same percentage for them as you contribute for yourself. As an employer, you can contribute up to 25% of compensation, up to a maximum of $53,000 in 2016. And you don’t have to contribute every year.

On the other hand, if you want your employees to help fund their retirement account, you may want to consider a SIMPLE IRA, available to businesses with up to 100 employees. With a SIMPLE IRA, employees can make salary deferral contributions of up to 100% of compensation, not to exceed $12,500 in 2016. You, as the employer, must also contribute to their accounts—you can either match the employees' contributions dollar for dollar up to 3% of compensation (contributions can be reduced to as little as 1% in any two out of five years), or contribute 2% of each eligible employee’s compensation. The SIMPLE IRA also allows employees age 50 or older to make catch-up contributions of up to $3,000 in 2016.

Time and money
The good news is that all three of these plans are relatively low cost and easy to administer. Neither the SEP IRA nor the SIMPLE IRA requires annual plan filings with the IRS, just certain employee notifications. The Self-Employed 401(k) plan involves a little more effort, requiring an annual Form 5500 filing once plan assets exceed $250,000. To make the most of this retirement savings opportunity—both for yourself and your employees—make sure it’s the right plan for your small business before you set one up.

Learn more

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