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.

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.

Similar to a SEP, a PSP allows for discretionary contributions by the employer. This is a beneficial feature if the business’ cash flow is a concern. The employer contributes what he or she can and the contributions are divided among employees based on a formula set by the plan. This is commonly based on an individual employee’s compensation relative to total compensation. Employer contributions are limited to the lesser of 100 percent of the employee’s compensation or $51,000 for 2013 ($52,000 for 2014). An employer can deduct amounts that do not exceed 25 percent of aggregate compensation for participants. A plan must be established by the last day of the business’ fiscal year. Contributions are due by the business’ tax filing deadline, including extensions.

A PSP is a good choice if cash flow is variable. It can motivate workers to increase profits and the likelihood of receiving a contribution. However, many employees might not find it as beneficial as a plan with guaranteed contributions. These employees may prefer a Money Purchase Plan (MPP).

A MPP is similar to a PSP, but it requires an annual contribution of a specific percentage of employee compensation, up to 25 percent. This creates a liability for the business, and thus may not be a good choice if cash flow is uncertain. An MPP must be established by the last day of the business’ fiscal year. Contributions must be made by the due date of the employer’s tax return, including extensions.

Standard eligibility requirements for both a PSP and an MPP are employees over age 21 and who have at least one to two years of service with the employer. If two years of service are required for participation, contributions vest immediately.

MPPs and PSPs also may allow loans to participants, a feature that employees often find attractive. Loans are usually limited to either (1) the greater of $10,000 or 50 percent of the vested balance or (2) $50,000, whichever is less. Loans must be repaid, with interest, over 5 years, unless they are used to purchase the employee’s principal residence.

The vesting and loan features make MPPs and PSPs more difficult to establish and maintain than SEP or SIMPLE plans. Both types of plan require employers to file Form 5500 with the IRS annually. These plans also both require testing to ensure that benefits do not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. Employers may also find the administration of plan loans to be burdensome. The added features of MPPs and PSPs make them more costly and complicated than the standard model SEP and SIMPLE plans.

You may choose an MPP or PSP if you would like a plan that encourages employee retention and you can handle the extra paperwork. Whether you choose an MPP or a PSP depends mainly on your cash flow.

The fully loaded model retirement plan is the traditional 401(k). These plans allow employee and employer contributions, vesting of employer contributions (employee contributions are always fully vested), and other options such as loans. These plans can be as basic or as complex as the employer wants. However, with complexity comes cost.

Annual employee contributions for a 401(k) are limited to $17,500 for 2013 and 2014. Participants age 50 and older can contribute an additional $5,500. Combined, the employer and employee contributions can be up to the lesser of either 100 percent of compensation or $51,000 for 2013 ($52,000 for 2014). Employers can deduct contributions up to 25 percent of aggregate compensation for participants and all salary reduction contributions. A 401(k) must be adopted by the end of the business’ fiscal year, and contributions are due by the business’s tax filing deadline, plus extensions.

An employer’s contribution to a traditional 401(k) plan can be flexible. Contributions can be a percentage of compensation, a match for employee contributions, both or neither. However, the plan must be tested annually to determine that it does not discriminate against rank-and-file employees in favor or owners and managers. A Safe Harbor 401(k) does not require discrimination testing but does require the employer to make either a specified matching contribution or a 3 percent contribution to all participants.

Commonly, 401(k) plans must be offered to all employees over age 21 who have worked at least 1,000 hours in the previous year.

A 401(k) is a good option for an employer who would like a plan with salary deferral, like a SIMPLE IRA, but also allows for vesting of employer contributions. An employer considering this sort of plan should be able to afford the contributions and the additional administrative work required. A 401(k) is a good option for larger businesses, where the maintenance of such a plan is less burdensome.

The plans I have described in this article are all defined contribution plans. This mean that the plan determines the contributions made, not the ultimate benefits received. Once the contribution is made, the employee invests it however he or she sees fit. At retirement, the amount the employee can withdraw is dictated by the performance of those investments. Poor investments lead to smaller retirement savings.

Defined benefit plans, in contrast, are the Rolls Royces of the retirement plan world. These plans include traditional pension plans, which pay out a set amount to an employee in retirement. The employer, not the employee, takes on the investment risk and will have to make up most shortfalls if the money originally set aside does not cover the ultimate expense.

While in theory an employee could do better with a defined contribution plan, depending on investment results, the certainty of a set payout in retirement makes defined benefit plans highly attractive to participants. However, such plans are costly and administratively complex. On top of annual filings, the plan needs to be tested by an actuary. The required future payments become a liability of the company. The burdens of these plans have made them unattractive for many businesses, and they have become much less common in recent years. In most cases, especially for small businesses with employees, it is not economical to adopt a defined benefit plan.

Adopting a qualified plan for your small business need not be a hassle, even if you want to adopt one for the 2013 tax year. However, be prepared for the administrative complexity, and cost, to grow in step with the plan’s features. In general, though, the benefits of tax-deferred savings and contribution deductions for employers make setting up and maintaining one of these vehicles worth the price tag.

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