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Can I Use a SEP IRA If I Have Employees?
Mat Sorensen
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October 21, 2019

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 $56,000 into 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 then 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.

Employer Contribution

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 its 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. Learn more now at www.directedira.com.

Mat has been at the forefront of the self-directed IRA industry since 2006. He is the CEO of Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company where they handle all types of self-directed accounts (IRAs, Roth IRAs, HSAs, Coverdell ESA, Solo Ks, and Custodial Accounts) which are typically invested into real estate, private company/private equity, IRA/LLCs, notes, precious metals, and cryptocurrency. Mat is also a partner at KKOS Lawyers and serves clients nationwide from its Phoenix, AZ office.

He is published regularly on retirement, tax, and business topics, and is a VIP Contributor at Entrepreneur.com. Mat is the best-selling author of the most widely used book in the self-directed IRA industry, The Self-Directed IRA Handbook: An Authoritative Guide for Self-Directed Retirement Plan Investors and Their Advisors.