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Understanding the SIMPLE IRA

Many retirement plans that work well for large companies are not practical for small businesses, which often require plans with lower costs and fewer administrative responsibilities. If you are a small-business owner, you may want to consider a retirement savings plan known as a SIMPLE IRA.

What is a SIMPLE IRA?

SIMPLE stands for Savings Investment Match Plan for Employees, reflecting the fact that both employers and employees make contributions to the plan. An employee can choose to defer a portion of their salary into their retirement account, and then their employer has the option to either match that contribution up to a limit of 3% of employee compensation or contribute a fixed percentage based on the employee's compensation.

SIMPLE IRAs are limited to businesses with 100 employees or fewer. In addition to providing employees with many of the tax benefits of traditional retirement accounts—such as pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth—they also can provide tax benefits for employers. For example, employer contributions to SIMPLE IRAs can be considered a tax-deductible business expense.

How does a SIMPLE IRA work?

SIMPLE IRAs offer employees the tax benefits of a 401(K) with the convenience of a personal IRA. Each year, employees can choose how much of their salary they would like to contribute to their accounts. Their contributions are automatically deducted from their paychecks before federal income tax, reducing taxable income while creating the opportunity for future tax-deferred growth on that money.

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SIMPLE IRA contribution limits

The employer match component adds another incentive for employees to contribute. SIMPLE IRA plans require employers to contribute to their employees' accounts in 1 of 2 ways. The employer can choose to match their employees' contributions up to 3% of the employees' deferral amounts, or make a nonelective contribution of 2% of employees' compensation.

If you choose to match your employees' contributions, you would contribute the lesser of either 3% of said contributions or the annual employee contribution limit. In 2023, the employee contribution limits to a SIMPLE IRA are $15,500 for employees under 50 years old and $19,000 for employees 50 and older by the end of the calendar year. The employer match is dollar for dollar of the employee contribution up to 3% of compensation. The 2% nonelective contribution is based on a maximum salary of $330,000 for 2023, meaning that you would contribute no more than $6,600 to an employee's account.

The ability to choose between employer match or nonelective contribution means SIMPLE IRAs can work well for businesses that need to adapt to changing financial circumstances. As a business owner, you can choose to match employee contributions in one year, then opt to make a 2% nonelective contribution in the following year, depending on how much you want to commit.

You also have the option of reducing the percentage of the matching contribution to as low as 1% of annual compensation. However, the percentage can only be reduced for 2 years within any given 5-year period. If the employer chooses the 2% nonelective contribution, the percentage cannot be changed or reduced unless switching back to a matching option.

The SECURE Act 2.0 introduced changes to contribution limits for SIMPLE IRA plans. Starting in 2024, employers will be permitted to allow additional employee deferrals of up to 110% of the contribution limit and, if applicable, the catch-up limit for that year. Employers with 26 to 100 employees must meet certain requirements in order to provide the additional 10% deferral limit.

How to set up a SIMPLE IRA

SIMPLE IRAs were designed for small businesses that don't have the resources to handle the administrative duties involved with larger retirement plans. They also do not require the business to file annual plan reports with the IRS.

Employees can choose a variety of investment options for their SIMPLE IRAs, including stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, and CDs. Employees do not need to meet a minimum investment in order to open a SIMPLE IRA. However, some investment options may require minimum investments and may not be available for investment under the SIMPLE plan.

Once employers have set up a SIMPLE IRA plan, they must provide an annual election period of at least 60 days prior to the start of the upcoming calendar year (generally from November 2 through December 31). Prior to this election period, the employer is required to send a notice to employees informing them of the contribution the employer has chosen and the dates of the election period. During the election period, employees also choose the amount of their salary they wish to contribute in the coming year.Typically, any employee who has earned more than $5,000 in 2 preceding years is eligible to join the plan, but employers can also design a plan that's open to employees who have earned less than $5,000. Employers must set up an account for each eligible employee. Keep in mind that if, as an employer, you offer a SIMPLE IRA, you cannot offer additional separate retirement plans.

SIMPLE IRA rules to encourage long-term savings

Employer contributions to SIMPLE IRAs are immediately vested to the employee. But like personal IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs are designed to discourage account holders from taking money out before retirement. The basic rules governing withdrawals and rollovers for SIMPLE IRAs are as follows:

  • Withdrawals from a SIMPLE IRA before age 59½1 are generally subject to a 10% penalty.
  • The penalty for withdrawals before age 59½ increases to 25% if the withdrawal occurs within the first 2 years of establishing the account.
  • Account holders can roll SIMPLE IRA assets into another SIMPLE IRA.
  • Account holders also can roll a SIMPLE IRA into another IRA or employer plan, subject to some restrictions depending on the receiving account or plan.
  • Starting at age 73,2 participants must take required minimum distributions.

If you are a small-business owner and do not currently offer your employees a retirement savings plan, the SIMPLE IRA's flexibility can help you achieve several important goals. These plans offer tax advantages for employers and employees, are easy to maintain, and encourage employees to save for retirement through the option for matching contributions. And because plan rules allow business owners and employees to adjust their contribution levels each year, they enable all parties to manage changing financial circumstances and still save for retirement.

Potential Drawbacks of SIMPLE IRAs

SIMPLE IRAs are not ERISA plans and do not offer the same level of creditor protection. IRAs are protected in the event of bankruptcy under federal law, but additional coverage varies by state. Consult your tax advisor for details regarding the laws within your state. 

Unlike some plan types, SIMPLE IRAs do not offer loans. Depending on your situation, keep other retirement plan types in mind such as Self-Employed 401(k)s and Pooled-Employer-Plans that may address these concerns.

Is an IRA right for you?

We can help you decide whether you might want a traditional, Roth, or rollover IRA.

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Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time, and you may gain or lose money.

1.You are always able to take money from your IRA. Some withdrawals may be taxable and some may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. If you are over age 59½, you aren't subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Other exemptions may apply. 2.

The change in the RMDs age requirement from 72 to 73 applies only to individuals who turn 72 on or after January 1, 2023. After you reach age 73, the IRS generally requires you to withdraw an RMD annually from your tax-advantaged retirement accounts (excluding Roth IRAs, and Roth accounts in employer retirement plan accounts starting in 2024). Please speak with your tax advisor regarding the impact of this change on future RMDs.

Recently enacted legislation made a number of changes to the rules regarding defined contribution, defined benefit, and/or individual retirement plans and 529 plans. Information herein may refer to or be based on certain rules in effect prior to this legislation and current rules may differ. As always, before making any decisions about your retirement planning or withdrawals, you should consult with your personal tax advisor.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.