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JANUARY 25, 2021

What's the appeal of a SEP IRA for small business owners, compared with other retirement plans?

Answered by
Judith Anderson
Senior Vice President, Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America
In a word, simplicity. SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRAs are a low-hassle way for small business owners to obtain tax-advantaged savings for themselves and to contribute for their employees as well. They can be ideal for businesses with fewer than 10 employees, especially when compared with more complex plans such as 401(k) plans. They also offer higher contribution limits than Traditional IRAs, nearly ten times more.

SEP IRA advantages for small companies:

"Contributions are generally tax-deductible to the business. There's also a tax credit aimed at encouraging small employers to start plans."
— Judith Anderson, Senior Vice President, Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America
  • Low maintenance. With little paperwork and low start-up costs, SEP IRAs allow you to contribute for you and your employees and these contributions are generally tax-deductible to the business.
  • The ability to contribute generously. The maximum contribution limit for 2022 is $61,000 or 25% of your employees' eligible compensation (or, for your own contribution, 20% of your net earnings from self-employment, as determined under the SEP IRA rules), whichever is less.Footnote 1 Employees cannot make salary deferral contributions to a SEP IRA. Only you as the employer can make contributions on behalf of you and your employees (if applicable), which are generally tax-deductible for your business. Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to contribute significantly more to a SEP IRA than a Traditional IRA.
  • Adjustable contributions and employee requirements. SEP IRAs offer the flexibility to contribute more when business is strong and cut back when things are tighter. When it comes to deciding which employees are eligible, you can adhere to the IRS's standard requirements or set your own less restrictive rules.
  • It helps your workers plan for the long-term. SEP IRAs offer a wide range of possible investments, and employees can generally transfer or roll over funds to and from a SEP IRA into or from other retirement accounts, consolidating their savings.
  • Potential tax benefits. A newly expanded tax credit of up to $5,000 annually for three years (previously capped at $500 annually) is aimed at small business owners who want to help their employees prepare for retirement, but who may have hesitated due to the perceived expense. Eligible employers can claim a tax credit equal to 50% of the eligible start-up costs up to the applicable limit for the first three years of the plan.

So what are the limitations of SEP IRAs?

  • Only you as the employer (and not your employees) may contribute for yourself and your eligible employees to the plan.
  • Participants don't have the option of taking loans from their SEP IRAs.
  • SEP IRAs have no catch-up provision enabling older participants to contribute more.

Could my company outgrow a SEP IRA?

As your company and staff grow, and your revenue potentially becomes more predictable, you might want to consider offering a company 401(k) plan. Though these come with greater fees and administrative requirements, 401(k)s can offer some advantages:
  • Participants can contribute directly to their own retirement savings through salary deductions — up to $20,500 in 2022, plus an additional $6,500 in catch-up contributions for those 50 and older at any time during the calendar year.
  • Participants may generally elect pre-tax or post-tax (Roth) contributions, depending on their situation and preferences.
  • Participants may take loans or hardship withdrawals from their savings, if offered under the plan.
When Should I Consider a Company 401(k)?
As your company grows and your revenue becomes more predictable, it may be time to consider the significant advantages a 401(k) can offer your employees. Here are a few.
Employees can:
directly from their 
pay — up to 
$20,500 in 2022
or post-tax (Roth) 
contributions Footnote 2,3
Take out
loans or hardship 
from their savings Footnote 3
In the end, understanding your choices can help you find the approach that helps your valued workers prepare for retirement, while also giving you and your company the opportunity for a healthy financial future.
Help when you want it
Footnote 1 The maximum eligible compensation that can be taken into account for purposes of this calculation is $290,000 per participant in 2021

Footnote 2 As with plan loans or hardship withdrawals, after-tax or Roth contribution features are optional

Footnote 3 If allowed under the plan

Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
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