SIMPLE, SEP or 401(k)? FAQ’s
I regularly get calls from legal firms, medical and dental practices and CPA’s looking to set up a company sponsored retirement plan. Not surprisingly, they usually want a plan that is simple to administrate and is low cost. Congress has established several types of retirement plans in addition to 401(k) that are intended to be easy for small businesses to implement and maintain. This article will attempt to highlight the similarities and differences between 401(k), Simplified Employee Pension (“SEP”) and Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE).
Although both SEP and SIMPLE plans require minimal documentation, no annual testing and limited government filings, each imposes some additional limitations that often lead to a regular 401(k) plan being a more cost effective solution.
The Size and Goals for Your Plan
Employers of any size are allowed to implement 401(k) and SEPs. SIMPLE plans are limited to companies of 100 or fewer employees with a minimum of $5000 compensation during the immediately preceding year. It is also important to determine whether the plan goals are to benefit more highly compensated partners and owners, or primarily to help rank and file employees save for retirement.
A SIMPLE plan must be the only plan maintained by an employer in a given calendar year. This is important when transitioning a SIMPLE to a 401(k) plan in that the earliest a 401(k) can be established is January 1 of the subsequent year given that adequate notice of termination is provided to employees (not less than 60 days prior to year-end).
401(k) and SEP plans are not subject to this exclusivity restriction, allowing employers more flexibility to maintain multiple plans or to transition from one plan to another.
Flexibility in regard to eligibility requirements is a key feature of 401(k) plans, with employers allowed to restrict up to age 21 and completion of one year of service. A year of service is further defined as a twelve consecutive month period in which the employee works a minimum of 1000 hours.
In a SIMPLE or a SEP, this flexibility is lost. SIMPLE plans are able to limit eligibility to employees who have earned at least $5000 in compensation in the prior two years and are reasonably expected to do the same in the current year. There are no service eligibility exclusions. SEPs can limit plan coverage only to those employees who have earned at least $550 in compensation in at least three of the past five years. Importantly, there is no ability to exclude short-term or part-time employees if they meet this requirement. This often makes these plans more, not less, expensive for employers than a traditional or safe harbor 401(k).
Salary deferrals are not allowed in SEP plans unless they were established prior to 1997. While both 401(k) and SIMPLE plans allow employee deferrals, there are some critical differences.
The first is in regard to the limits to total annual deferral limits. A 401(k) participant is allowed to defer up to $25,000 per year ($19,000 plus an additional “catch-up” deferral for those age 50 or older). SIMPLE participants are capped at $16,000 ($13,000 plus $3000), a whopping $10,000 less than 401(k). Do the math! For business owners or partners in higher tax brackets, the tax savings alone often offset the additional cost of a 401(k) plan not to mention hundreds of thousands of additional retirement benefits at retirement age.
Employer contributions are mandatory for SIMPLE plans, with the option of a match or profit sharing contribution. The match option is limited to 100% of the first 3% deferred by the employee. There are no additional matching contributions available.
401(k) plan sponsors, however, may elect a discretionary match, giving them flexibility from year to year whether to make a match and if so, how much. Employers who elect safe harbor provisions avoid certain non-discrimination testing restrictions by agreeing to a matching formula of 100% up to the first 3% deferred by participants, plus 50% of the next 2% deferred. This match is typically made each payroll, although some plans make a one-time match in the quarter immediately following year end.
Since SEP plans do not allow employee deferrals, matching options are eliminated by design.
Employer Profit Sharing
Employers with SIMPLE plans can elect a mandatory profit sharing contribution of 2% of compensation for each eligible employee rather than making the required matching employee contributions. This makes it easier for many employers to estimate the total employer contributions required.
Both SEPs and 401(k) plans allow discretionary profit sharing contributions of up to 25% of compensation, limited to the lesser of 100% or $56,000 in 2019. As an alternative to the tiered safe harbor match for 401(k) plans, a non-elective safe harbor profit sharing of 3% may be made on behalf of all eligible employees.
SEP contributions must be uniform, or pro-rata, for all eligible employees. An employer or owner contributing 10% of pay for himself or other key employees must also contribute 10% to each eligible employee. 401(k) plans on the other hand allow owners much greater flexibility to discriminate higher profit sharing allocations to those who earn more than the taxable wage base or target contributions based on job classification. These allocation options include age weighted, Social Security integration and new comparability. These profit sharing options make 401(k) a much more popular option for attorneys, physicians and dentists who benefit from the ability to maximize deferrals and tax savings.
Additional Tax Savings for Partners & Owners
In addition, a separate “cash balance” added to a traditional or safe harbor 401(k) plan may be established in organizations with strong and predictable cash flow and where owners, partners and other highly compensated employees wish to increase their annual pre-tax contributions. These plans enable certain targeted participants the ability to contribute up to a total of $280,000 annually, depending on age and annual compensation. I plan to discuss these plans in greater detail in future articles so stay tuned to the blog or give me a call for further details.
Vesting Considerations for Employer Contributions
A 401(k) plan can impose a vesting schedule of up to 6 years on employer contributions other than those which are designated as safe harbor. (All safe harbor employer contributions are immediately vested.) This can be an advantage to a plan sponsor who has higher turnover among its lower paid employees.
There is no such vesting flexibility with SIMPLE or SEP plans, making them less effective than 401(k) in regard to retaining key employees.
Loans and In-Service Withdrawals
401(k) plans are the only employer sponsored retirement plans that offer participant loans.
A participant taking an in-service withdrawal from 401(k) prior to age 59 ½ are subject to regular income tax plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty. SEP distributions in most cases are treated similarly. Withdrawals or rollovers from a SIMPLE, if made within the first two years of participation, are subject to a 25% penalty. This potential negative impact should be factored in both to decision and timing of terminating a SIMPLE.
All of these plan types require some form of documentation. For plans that that can be standardized (i.e. no creative plan design, controlled or complex ownership) the IRS has forms available that you can adopt:
- Form 5305 – SEP
- Form 5304 – SIMPLE: This allows each employee the option of selecting his own custodian and financial institution. This means that a company of 10 employees may have to send contributions to 10 different custodians each pay period. This is clearly not simple!
- Form 5305 – SIMPLE: Employer selects a single financial institution for all plan contributions.
Plans such as 401(k) or more customized SEP/SIMPLE plans typically adopt a pre-approved prototype format or an individually customized plan document. Many providers offer prototype plan documents that can appear to be straight-forward, but given the importance of the plan document, we recommend working with an advisor with expertise in plan design.
Annual Discrimination Tests
Both SEP and SIMPLE plans are exempt from most annual compliance testing, with the exception of minimum coverage requirements for SIMPLE plans. This is one of the reasons that administrative costs are lower for these plans.
A traditional 401(k) plan which has not adopted safe harbor matching or profit sharing provisions must comply with a series of compliance tests that ensure that employer contributions and the percentage overall invested assets associated with lower paid, rank and file employees are adequate. Although testing adds to administrative expense and complexity, the trade-offs for a well designed 401(k) plan may more than pay for this additional cost. Such trade offs include higher annual contribution limits and tax saving, employer profit sharing and lower investment fees.
401(k) plans of all sizes must file an annual Form 5500 report with the DOL each year. In addition, most plans with more than 100 employees are required to perform an annual audit of the plan, adding to administrative costs. Those plan sponsors with terminated employees which continue to maintain a balance in the plan must also file form 8955-SSA.
Neither SEP or SIMPLE plan sponsors are subject to these filing requirements. However, plan sponsors must monitor and comply with participant reporting requirements related to required minimum distributions at age 70 ½ and other in-service withdrawals. Because monitoring participant accounts with multiple custodians is next to impossible, compliance is a real headache for plan sponsors of SIMPLE plans.
Although there a few exceptions, financial providers of SIMPLE plans often offer mutual funds with front end or deferred sales loads that may range as high as 5%. In many cases, they offer proprietary funds that are subject to revenue sharing arrangements that offer them additional hidden compensation. In short, participants are treated as retail accounts and therefore the quality of financial advice to participants is subject to the lesser standard of suitability. In contrast, the fiduciary standard for an experienced, fee-based 401(k) advisor is a much higher level of prudence. Finally, fee disclosure requirements for SIMPLE plans are not uniform and transparency can vary significantly depending on the provider.
SEP plans are often invested in individual financial instruments subject to the restrictions of the plan document itself or the investment policies of the account. In most cases, participants do not self-direct their individual investment accounts or are offered standardized investment allocations with limited options to change during the plan year. As is the case with SIMPLE plans, fee disclosure transparency is often a huge downside.
Depending on the provider that you choose, 401K typically offers greater flexibility with regard to investment options. Although some bundled providers such as mutual fund companies or insurance companies offer more expensive mutual fund share classes or high-cost variable annuity products as turn-key solutions, there are many terrific, low-cost providers today who offer flexible “open-architecture” investment platforms. These designs permit lower cost, institutional share class funds and include both actively managed as well as passive index fund options that are superior to most of those offered through SIMPLE platforms. In general, plan sponsors should use only those providers that they understand and who are transparent about their fees.
Transitioning to 401(k) can offer significant investment cost savings both immediately and over longer time periods. Working with an experienced 401(k) advisor acting as a plan fiduciary is highly recommended to achieve both positive participant outcomes and a well-documented investment process.
What Plan is Right for My Practice?
There is no question that a company sponsored retirement plan offers significant benefits including individual tax saving, employee recruitment and retention of key employees. For most law firms, physician and dental groups, a well designed 401(k) offers these important employee benefits and pays for itself through tax savings at a fairly modest level of owner participation.
For established firms or practices with highly compensated owners or partners who wish to contribute more of their compensation pre-tax for retirement, the addition of a defined-benefit cash balance plan can offer huge benefits and more than pay for the additional administrative expense.
However, if your retirement plan goal is to offer a payroll savings plan which primarily motivates lower paid employees to save for retirement, a SIMPLE may be your best option, despite it’s clear limitations. On the other hand, if you are considering transitioning from a SIMPLE to a 401(k), you should understand the steps necessary to be compliant and attempt to avoid possible distribution penalties and rollover restrictions.
If you are shopping for a plan, give us a call. We can help you put the pieces together that will result in the best plan for you and your employees!
Brian C. Rall
President – Strategic Retirement Partners, LLC
Strategic Retirement Partners is an independent, boutique investment advisory and consulting firm providing plan design, vendor search, investment selection, fiduciary guidance and participant education for company sponsored retirement plans.
Strategic Retirement Partners, LLC is a registered investment advisor in the State of Washington. The investment advisor may not transact business in states where it is not appropriately registered, excluded or exempted from registration. Any information contained herein or on SRP’s website is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to make an offer or solicitation for the sale of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Investments involve risk and unless otherwise stated are not guaranteed. SRP does not provide legal or tax advice and clients should consult their attorneys and CPA for any strategy discussed herein or on this website.