Choosing A Retirement Plan For Your Small Business

A qualified retirement plan can be beneficial to employers and employees alike, yet for a small business owner who is busy with daily operations, the time and effort involved in choosing a plan can seem daunting. It does not have to be.

Retirement plans come in two flavors: qualified and non-qualified. A qualified plan is desirable because it provides a vehicle for tax-deferred retirement savings for both the business’ employees and its owner, with allowable contributions in excess of those permitted for IRAs. A qualified plan also provides the employer an immediate deduction for the contributions made. Depending on the plan, it can encourage employees to maximize the business’ profits and to remain with the employer. Plans can be customized with optional features MPP files

Non-qualified plans do not have to meet many of the requirements imposed on qualified plans, and have a wider range of features and provisions as a result. However, in most cases the employer does not get an immediate tax deduction for a non-qualified plan. Such arrangements also have to avoid “constructive receipt” by the employee in order to defer the employee’s taxes until the money is actually distributed. This usually exposes the employee to credit risk if the business fails before the deferred compensation is paid out. Non-qualified plans are sometimes useful, but most small businesses will prefer one of the qualified plan arrangements described in this article.

All of this can leave your head swimming, especially if personal finance is not your area of expertise. To simplify the exercise, think of finding a retirement plan that fits your small business like buying a new car. You should consider what retirement plan vehicle will fit your business’ size, needs and budget, as well as offering any special features you want. The more “tricked out” your retirement plan, the more costly it will be to establish and maintain.

The SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA is the bare-bones model that gets you from point A to point B. It is easy to adopt, and typically custodians like Schwab or T. Rowe Price offer a basic form to start one. A SEP can be established as late as the employer’s income tax filing deadline, including extensions. After the initial set-up, the employer has no further filing requirements.

With a SEP, the employer makes contributions for all eligible employees. The common threshold for eligibility is an employee who is at least age 21 and who has been employed by the employer for three of the last five years, with compensation of at least $550 during the year. Eligibility standards can be less strict than this if the employer chooses. Contributions are an equal percentage for each employee’s income. The maximum contribution for 2013 is 25 percent of compensation, but no more than $51,000 total ($52,000 in 2014). (The same limits on contributions made to employees’ SEP-IRAs also apply to contributions if you are self-employed. However, special rules apply when figuring the maximum deductible contribution.) In a year where cash is limited, an employer does not have to make a contribution. SEP contributions are due by the employer’s tax filing deadline, including extensions.

A SEP is a great choice for a sole proprietor or a small business with a few employees, where the employer would like to have a retirement savings vehicle that allows larger, tax deductible contributions than does a traditional IRA with minimal fuss and maximum flexibility.

A SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) IRA is also easy to establish and has no ongoing filing requirements for employers. SIMPLE IRAs are only available to businesses with fewer than 100 employees and no other retirement plan in place. These plans operate on a calendar-year basis and can be established as late as October 1.

While only the employer can contribute to a SEP IRA plan, a SIMPLE IRA allows employees to contribute to their own accounts, up to $12,000 in 2013 and 2014. Also, participants age 50 and older can make additional contributions, up to $2,500. The employer can either match employee contributions up to 3 percent of compensation (not limited by an annual compensation limit) or make a 2 percent of compensation nonelective contribution for each eligible employee (limited to an annual compensation limit of $255,000). The employer’s matching contribution can go as low as 1 percent when cash is constrained; however, the employer can use this option no more than 2 years out of a 5-year period. Unlike a SEP, a SIMPLE plan requires that the employer contribute each year.

An employer must deposit employees’ salary reduction contributions within 30 days of the end of the month in which the money is withheld from employee paychecks. The matching or nonelective contributions are due by the due date of the employer’s federal income tax return, including extensions.

All employees who have earned income of at least $5,000 in any prior 2 years and are reasonably expected to earn at least $5,000 in the current year must be eligible to participate in a SIMPLE IRA.

A SIMPLE can be a good choice for a small employer who would like to benefit from the tax deduction for employer contributions while encouraging his or her employees to save for retirement. Many employees will find this sort of plan attractive because it allows for higher contributions than a traditional IRA and requires employer contributions. It entails a greater administrative burden than a SEP, although this burden is still relatively small, and offers less flexibility. If cash flow is not an issue, a SIMPLE plan might be for you.

Once an employer makes a contribution to a SEP or SIMPLE plan, the employee is 100 percent vested in that contribution. Employees can take their contributions with them, even if they quit the next day. If employee retention is a concern, a plan that allows for deferred vesting, such as a Money Purchase Plan (MPP) or Profit Sharing Plan (PSP), may be a better fit. Vesting can either be graduated over a period of years of service or take effect all at once after a certain period of years. These plans are the middle-of-the-line models that provide more features than the most basic plans.

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