SEP Retirement Plans for Small Businesses
Looking for an easy and low-cost retirement plan? Why not consider a SEP?
Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans can provide a significant source of income at retirement by allowing employers to set aside money in retirement accounts for themselves and their employees. Under a SEP, an employer contributes directly to traditional individual retirement accounts (SEP-IRAs) for all employees (including themselves). A SEP does not have the start-up and operating costs of a conventional retirement plan and allows for a contribution of up to 25 percent of each employee’s pay.
Advantages of a SEP
- Contributions to a SEP are tax deductible and your business pays no taxes on the earnings on the investments.
- You are not locked into making contributions every year. In fact, you decide each year whether, and how much, to contribute to your employees’ SEP-IRAs.
- Generally, you do not have to file any documents with the government.
- Sole proprietors, partnerships, and corporations, including S corporations, can set up SEPs.
- You may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $500 per year for each of the first 3 years for the cost of starting the plan.
- Administrative costs are low.
As you read through this booklet, here are some definitions you will find helpful:
Employee – An “employee” is not only someone who works for you, but also includes you if you receive compensation from the business. In other words, you can contribute to a SEP-IRA on your own behalf. The term also includes employees of certain other businesses you and/or your family own and certain leased employees.
Eligible Employee – An eligible employee is an employee who:
- Is at least age 21, and
- Has performed service for you in at least 3 of the last 5 years.
All eligible employees must participate in the plan, including part-time employees, seasonal employees, and employees who die or terminate employment during the year.
Your SEP may also cover the following employees, but there is no requirement to cover them:
- Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement that does not provide for participation in the plan, if retirement benefits were the subject of good faith bargaining;
- Nonresident alien employees who did not earn income from you; or
- Employees who received less than $600 in compensation during the year (subject to cost-of-living adjustments).
Compensation – The term generally includes the pay an employee received from you for a year’s work. As the owner/employee, your compensation is the pay you received from the company. You must follow the definition of compensation included in the plan document.
Establishing the Plan
There are just a few simple steps to establish a SEP.
Step 1: Contact a retirement plan professional or a representative of a financial institution that offers retirement plans and choose the IRS model SEP, Form 5305-SEP, Simplified Employee Pension – Individual Retirement Accounts Contribution Agreement, or another plan document offered by the financial institution. Regardless of the SEP document you choose, when filled in, it will include the name of the employer, the requirements for employee participation, the signature of a responsible official, and a written allocation formula for the employer’s contribution.
A SEP may be established as late as the due date (including extensions) of the company’s income tax return for the year you want to establish the plan. For example, if your business’s fiscal year (a corporate entity) ends on December 31 and you filed for the automatic 6-month extension, the company’s tax return for the year ending December 31, 2015, would be due on September 15, 2016, allowing you to make the initial SEP contribution no later than September 15, 2016.
Choosing a financial institution to maintain your SEP is one of the most important decisions you will make, since that entity becomes a trustee to the plan. Trustees work with employers and agree to:
- Receive and invest contributions, and
- Provide each participant with a notice of employer contributions made each year and the value of his/her SEP-IRA at the end of the year.
Trustees of SEP-IRAs are generally banks, mutual funds, insurance companies that issue annuity contracts, and certain other financial institutions that have been approved by the IRS.
Step 2: Complete and sign Form 5305-SEP (or other plan document if not using the IRS model form). When it is completed and signed, this form becomes the plan’s basic legal document, describing your employees’ rights and benefits. Do not send it to the IRS; instead, use it as a reference since it sets out the plan terms (for example, eligible employees, compensation, and employer contributions).
Step 3: Give your employees a copy of the Form 5305-SEP (or other plan document if not using the IRS model form) and its instructions, along with certain information about SEP-IRAs (described in Employee Communications below). The model SEP is not considered adopted until each employee is provided with a written statement explaining that:
- A SEP-IRA may provide different rates of return and contain different terms than other IRAs the employee may have;
- The administrator of the SEP will provide a copy of any amendment within 30 days of the effective date, along with a written explanation of its effects; and
- Participating employees will receive a written report of employer contributions made to their SEP-IRAs by January 31 of the following year.
Operating the Plan
Once in place, a SEP is simple to operate. Your trustee will take care of depositing the contributions, investments, annual statements, and any required filings with the IRS. You will need to ensure that your plan is kept current with the law.
Contributions to SEP-IRAs
Your obligation is to forward contributions to your financial institution/trustee for those employees who participate as described in your plan document. You will want to keep your financial institution aware of any changes in the status of those employees in the plan. As you hire new employees, for instance, you will include them in the SEP if they satisfy the eligibility criteria described in the plan.
Your contributions to each employee’s SEP-IRA for a year cannot exceed the lesser of 25 percent of the employee’s compensation for the year or a dollar amount that is subject to cost-of-living adjustments. The dollar amount for 2015 and 2016 is $53,000. These limits apply to your total contributions to this plan and any other defined contribution plans (other SEP, 401(k), 403(b), profit sharing, or money purchase plan) you have.
You do not have to contribute every year. When you contribute, you must contribute to the SEP-IRAs of all participants who performed work for your business during the year for which the contributions are made, even employees who die or terminate employment before the contributions are made. Contributions for all participants generally must be uniform—for example, the same percentage of compensation.
Employee salary reduction contributions cannot be made under a SEP.
There are special rules if you are a self-employed individual. For more information on the deduction limitations for self-employed individuals, see IRS Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE, and Qualified Plans).
How does a SEP work?
Quincy Company decides to establish a SEP for its employees. Quincy has chosen a SEP because its industry is cyclical in nature, with good times and down times. In good years, Quincy can make larger contributions for its employees, and in down times it can reduce the amount. Quincy knows that under a SEP, the contribution rate (whether large or small) must be uniform for all employees. The financial institution that Quincy has selected to be the trustee for its SEP has several investment funds from which the Quincy employees can choose. Individual employees have the opportunity to divide their employer’s contributions to their SEP-IRAs among the funds made available to Quincy’s employees.
When employees participate in a SEP, they must receive certain key disclosure documents from you and the financial institution:
- You must give employees a copy of IRS Form 5305-SEP and its instructions (or other document that was used to establish the plan). When new employees become eligible to participate in the plan, they also must receive a copy of the plan.
- You must also provide a written statement containing information about the terms of the SEP, how changes are made to the plan, and when employees are to receive information about contributions to their accounts. (See Step 3 above.)
- In addition to the information above, the financial institution provides an annual statement for each participant’s SEP-IRA, reporting the fair market value of that account.
- The financial institution also gives participating employees a copy of the annual statement filed with the IRS containing contribution and fair market value information. (See Reporting to the Government below.)
- When an employee participating in the plan receives distributions from his/her account, the financial institution sends that employee a copy of the form that is filed with the IRS for the individual’s distribution. (See Reporting to the Government below.)
- The financial institution will notify the participant by January 31 of each year when a minimum distribution is required.
Reporting to the Government
SEPs generally are not required to file annual financial reports with the Federal Government. SEP-IRA contributions are not included on the Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement.
The financial institution/trustee handling employees’ SEP-IRAs provides the IRS and participating employees with an annual statement containing contribution and fair market value information on Form 5498, IRA Contribution Information.
Your financial institution also will report on Form 1099-R, Distributions From Pensions, Annuities, Retirement or Profit-Sharing Plans, IRAs, Insurance Contracts, etc., any distributions it makes from participating employees’ accounts. The Form 1099-R is sent to those receiving distributions and to the IRS.
Participants cannot take loans from their SEP-IRAs.
However, participants can make withdrawals at any time. These monies can be rolled over tax-free to another SEP-IRA, to another traditional IRA, or to another employer’s qualified retirement plan (provided the other plan allows rollovers).
Money withdrawn from a SEP-IRA (and not rolled over to another plan) is subject to income tax for the year in which an employee receives a distribution. If an employee withdraws money from a SEP-IRA before age 59½, a 10 percent additional tax generally applies.
As with other traditional IRAs, participants in a SEP-IRA must begin withdrawing a specific minimum amount from their accounts by April 1 of the year following the year the participant reaches age 70½. For the year following the year in which a participant reaches age 70½, he/she must withdraw an additional required minimum distribution amount by December 31 of that year and annually thereafter. The financial institution/trustee will notify the participant by January 31 of each year when a minimum distribution is required. (For further details regarding the required minimum distribution amount, see Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs).)
Monitoring the Trustee
As the plan sponsor, you should monitor the financial institution/trustee to assure that it is doing everything it is required to do. You should also ensure that the trustee’s fees are reasonable for the services it is providing. If the trustee is not doing its job properly, or if its fees are not reasonable, you should consider replacing the trustee.
Terminating the Plan
Although SEPs are established with the intention of continuing indefinitely, the time may come when a SEP no longer suits the purposes of your business. When that happens, consult with your financial institution to determine if another type of retirement plan might be a better alternative.
To terminate a SEP, notify the financial institution that you will not make a contribution for the next year and that you want to terminate the contract or agreement. Although not mandatory, it is a good idea to notify your employees that the plan will be discontinued. You do not need to give any notice to the IRS that the SEP has been terminated.
Mistakes … and how to correct them
Even with the best of intentions, mistakes in plan operation can happen. The U.S. Department of Labor and the IRS have correction programs to help employers with SEPs correct plan errors, protect participants’ interests, and keep the plan’s tax benefits. These programs are structured to encourage early error correction.
Ongoing review makes it easier to spot and correct mistakes in the plan’s operations. See the Resources section below for further information.
Your SEP – a quick review
- Choose a financial institution to set up your SEP.
- Sign the agreement; set up the SEP-IRAs.
- Inform your employees about the plan.
- Deposit contributions by the due date of your tax return.
- Monitor your financial institution/trustee.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Employee Benefits Security Administration and the IRS feature this booklet and additional information on retirement plans on their websites:
dol.gov/ebsa - Go to the Saving Matters website or Publications and Reports for additional information to help you understand and operate your SEP retirement plan. This website also has information to help your employees understand the importance of saving for retirement through an employer-sponsored plan.
IRS.gov/retirement – Go to Plan Sponsor to view plain-language information that will help you properly maintain your SEP. All the IRS forms and publications mentioned in this booklet are available here.
In addition, the following jointly developed publications are available on the DOL and IRS websites and can be ordered through the DOL toll-free number listed below:
- Choosing a Retirement Solution for Your Small Business, Publication 3998, provides an overview of retirement plans available to small businesses.
- 401(k) Plans for Small Businesses, Publication 4222, provides detailed information regarding the establishment and operation of a 401(k) plan.
- Adding Automatic Enrollment to Your 401(k) Plan, Publication 4721, explains how to add automatic enrollment to your existing 401(k) plan.
- Automatic Enrollment 401(k) Plans for Small Businesses, Publication 4674, explains a type of retirement plan that allows small businesses to increase plan participation.
- Payroll Deduction IRAs for Small Businesses, Publication 4587, describes an arrangement that is an easy way for businesses to give employees an opportunity to save for retirement.
- Profit Sharing Plans for Small Businesses, Publication 4806, describes a flexible way for businesses to help employees save for retirement.
- SIMPLE IRA Plans for Small Businesses, Publication 4334, describes a type of retirement plan designed especially for small businesses.
For business owners with a plan:
- Retirement Plan Correction Programs, Publication 4224, provides a brief description of the IRS and DOL voluntary correction programs.
DOL: Electronically at askebsa.dol.gov or by calling 866-444-3272
Related materials available from DOL
In addition, DOL sponsors an interactive website the Small Business Advisor that encourages small business owners to choose the appropriate retirement plan for their businesses and provides resources on maintaining plans.
Related materials available from the IRS
- Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE, and Qualified Plans)
- Publication 590-A, Contributions to Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)
- Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)
- Publication 3066, Have you had your Check-up this year? for Retirement Plans
- Publication 4285, SEP Checklist
- Publication 4118, Lots of Benefits
- Publication 4460, The IRS Retirement Plans Product Guide