A SEP IRA is a powerful retirement account used by many self-employed persons and business owners. It is particularly attractive as you can contribute up to $58,000 to it annually. That’s in comparison to a Traditional IRA, where you can only contribute up to $6,000 a year. “But what if I have employees? If I have employees in my business do I need to offer them the plan and contribute for them?” The answer is “yes” and “no,” as it depends on your employees. The devil’s – or perhaps we should say loopholes – in the details.
Keep in mind that the money contributed to a SEP IRA is an “employer contribution.” This means that the money comes from the company and is set at a maximum of 25% of the employee’s wage. So, if you are the only employee and you make $100,000 that year, the company can contribute $25,000 to the SEP IRA. For a business owner with no employees, it doesn’t really make a difference whether you pay into the SEP IRA from your company’s account or from your personal account as it’s all effectively your money in the end.
However, once you have employees, you are required to offer the same SEP IRA and same employer contribution to them that you offer to yourself. Now, you will likely care whether that money comes from the employee’s wages or from the company’s account. So, let’s say you had an S-Corporation and had a W-2 of $100,000, and you had one employee who had a W-2 of $40,000. The company would contribute $25,000 to your SEP IRA account (if doing the 25% max rate) and would also contribute $10,000 to the employee’s SEP IRA. While you, as the business owner, may be excited about contributing $25,000 into your own SEP IRA from the company’s funds, you may be less excited about contributing $10,000 to an employee’s SEP IRA account from the company’s funds. But, this is what’s required if the employee is eligible.
Employee Eligibility Loophole and Flexibility
The good news is that you only need to offer the SEP IRA to “eligible employees,” and you can make employees “ineligible” if they have not worked for you for 3 years out of the prior 5 years (see IRS SEP IRA FAQs). In other words, until someone has worked for the company for at least 3 years, you do not need to offer the SEP IRA to them. For many small businesses, self-employed persons, and new companies, a SEP IRA can be an excellent choice for the business owner as they may be the only eligible person who has worked for the company for 3 years. You can also restrict eligibility if an employee has not yet turned 21. This 3 year employee eligibility rule under a SEP IRA is far superior to the 1 year employee eligibility rule that would apply when using a Solo K upon hiring employees.
Keep in mind that you are subject to the same eligibility rules. So, if this is a new company, then the strategy of offering the plan to yourself while restricting others doesn’t work so well. But, as is usually the case, if you have worked the business for years before having an employee, then you can set the work year requirement to make yourself eligible while setting it out up to 3 years for any employees.
If an employee has worked 3 out of the prior 5 years and is now eligible, the business owner can decide to cease the SEP IRA plan (and their own contributions), and can instead move to a 401(k) or other more common retirement plan structure where the company is not required to offer such a generous employer contribution.
A SEP IRA can be self-directed and invested into real estate, LLCs, private stock, notes, and precious metals. Directed IRA establishes SEP IRA accounts for self-directed investors and you can set-up an account entirely online.