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Retirement plans for small businesses

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

  • 401(k)
  • IRA
  • SEP IRA
  • SIMPLE IRA
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As a small business owner, you’re probably used to handling a lot of responsibility, including 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 many small business owners can find the options 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, 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."

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. This is important given that more people will likely be relying on employer-sponsored plans as Social Security becomes less certain, health care gets more expensive, and life spans grow longer.
  • 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.

Basically, due to their broad use, 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 set up costs, administration, fiduciary responsibilities, etc.)

For the purposes of this article, 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).

This is an important exercise. Sure, it’s possible to change your retirement plan type. But, if you’ve been operating a plan that doesn’t match your business needs, you could be missing out on important tax benefits, or possibly making mistakes with respect to employee contributions. A recent Fidelity survey of small business owners who already offer SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA, or Self-Employed 401(k) plans found a significant lack of understanding of the plans they currently have. For example, only 45% of small business owners who have a SEP IRA knew that contributions with this retirement plan are made solely by the employer.1 What’s more, only half of business owners surveyed with a Self-Employed 401(k) plan knew that they could make an additional contribution of up to 25% of compensation, up to a maximum of $50,000 annually (as of 2012).

Consider your options

Key questions to help determine the most appropriate retirement plan for your business

  • Do you have or expect to have any “common law employees?"
  • Do you want your employees to be able to contribute their own money to their retirement plan?
  • What’s a higher priority—maximizing contributions or keeping plan administration simple?

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

  • Tax-deferred growth potential, which allows contributions to grow without being eaten away 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 with respect to 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. 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 thought and consideration

"If a business owner knows what he or she is trying to accomplish with a retirement plan, it may be relatively straightforward for him or her 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.

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. In Fidelity’s survey,1 small business owners considered low administration fees their top priority for choosing a Self-Employed 401(k) plan and/or SIMPLE IRA. The top reason for choosing a SEP IRA was because it has fewer administrative responsibilities.

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 future possibility, 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 them 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 them.

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 $17,500 for 2013. As an employer, you can make a profit-sharing contribution of up to 25% of compensation, up to a maximum of $51,000 for 2013. The plan also allows catch-up contributions of up to $5,500 for those who are age 50 or older in 2013. 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, if you have employees, 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 $51,000 in 2013. 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 $12,000 in 2013. You, as employer, must also contribute to their accounts. You, as the employer, 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 $2,500 in 2013.

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. In Fidelity’s survey, 75% of small business owners thought a retirement plan would help them retain employees. But 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.

Next steps

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1. Results of Fidelity’s Small Business Owner Retirement Plan study are based on an online survey conducted among 638 owners of a business with fewer than 100 employees. Interviewing for this survey was completed during the period December 8-13, 2011 by ORC International, an independent company not affiliated with Fidelity Investments. The results of this survey may not be representative of all small business owners meeting the same criteria as those surveyed for this study.

Guidance provided by Fidelity is educational in nature, is not individualized, and is not intended to serve as the primary or sole basis for your investment or tax-planning decisions.
Keep in mind investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.
The tax information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws which may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity does not assume any obligation to inform you of any subsequent changes in the tax law or other factors that could affect the information contained herein. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
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