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Rules for Simplified Employee Pension Plans (SEP Plans)

By Daniel Lamaute

A SEP is a special type of IRA. Under a SEP plan, the employer creates an IRA account for each eligible employee, hence the name SEP-IRA. A SEP is funded solely with employer contributions. Employees do not make contributions to their SEP-IRA retirement account. Any money that goes into a SEP automatically belongs to the employee. Thus, the employee has the right to take his SEP IRA account money with him whenever he stops working for the company.

Businesses of any size can establish a SEP, but the SEP retirement plan is utilized mostly by the self-employed and the small business with few employees. The SEP IRA rules dictate that if the business contributes for one employee, (i.e., the owner), then the business must contribute proportionately for all of the employees. With few exceptions, anyone who works for the business must be included in the SEP. However, you can exclude from participating in the SEP plan anyone who:

1. Has not worked for the company during three out of the last five years.

2. Has not reached age 21 during the year for which contributions are made.

3. Received less than $450 in compensation (subject to cost-of-living adjustments) during the year.

SEP IRA contributions to each employee for 2004 cannot exceed the lesser of $41,000 or 25% of pay for W2 recipients (20% of income for sole proprietors). The SEP IRA contribution limit goes up to $42,000 for 2005, and is subject to cost-of-living adjustments for later years. SEP-IRA rules do not provide for additional catch-up contributions for those 50 years or older.

A growing number of self-employed individuals with no employees are abandoning the SEP-IRA for a newer type of retirement plan called the Solo 401(k) or Self-Employed 401(k). The two main reasons for the switch are 1) they can generally contribute much more to a Solo 401(k) than they can under a SEP IRA, and 2) loans are allowed under a Solo 401(k), whereas they are prohibited under a SEP-IRA.

Example: Henry, age 52, a realtor received $60,000 in compensation from self-employment income in 2004. For 2004, he could contribute a maximum of $27,152 in a Solo 401(k) versus a maximum of $11,152 under a SEP IRA.

However, the Solo 401(k) does not work for businesses with employees. Thus, if your company plans to hire employees or has a handful of employees, the SEP IRA may be your best choice as a retirement plan that is inexpensive and simple to operate.

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