Man walking out of a door to the outside.If you are self-employed and use a SEP IRA to save for retirement, you should carefully consider moving those funds to a new Solo 401(k) (aka “Solo K”).

Both SEP IRAs and Solo Ks are retirement plans commonly used by self-employed persons with no employees, such as: Real estate professionals, investors, consultants, direct-marketing professionals, 1099 salespersons, and other small business owners. Here’s why: Both the SEP IRA and the Solo K offer big annual contribution amounts that far exceed the $5,500 ($6,500, if over 50) that you can put into a Roth or Traditional IRA. In fact, in both the SEP IRA and Solo K, you can contribute, depending on your income, up to $54,000 annually – $60,000, if over 50 in a Solo K. That’s almost ten times the contribution limit of an IRA. And, if you’re really trying to build up a retirement account you can retire on, you’re going to need to contribute more than $5,500 a year.

Now, if you have a SEP IRA, you should really look at changing that SEP IRA to a Solo K. Sure, SEP IRAs are good, but Solo Ks are great. Here are four major reasons why you should make the switch:

1. You Can Contribute More to a Solo K on Less Income

You can contribute more to a Solo K each year on less income. Let’s consider the following example: Sally is 41 and the 100% owner of Sally, Inc. She sells products online and Sally, Inc. is taxed as an S-Corp. The total cash flow income from her company is $8,000 and she ends up paying herself a W-2 of $40,000 for the year. Based on the $40,000 W-2, she could contribute the following amounts:

  • SEP IRA – 25% of Wage Income: $10,000
  • Solo 401(k) – $18K on the first $18K Wage Income, plus 25% of Wage Income: $38,000

That’s right: Sally can contribute $38K a year to her Solo K on a $40,000 W-2. If she was using a SEP, she’d only be able to contribute $10,000. The significant difference is that, under a Solo K, you get to contribute $18K on the first $18K ($24k, if 50 or over), plus you get to contribute 25% of the wage income.

Also, if you are looking to max out the Solo K contribution amount of $54,000, then you’d need to have a W-2 from the S-Corp of $144,000. However, if you were looking to max out contributions at $54,000 using a SEP IRA, then you would need to have a W-2 of $216,000. Bottom line: It’s easier to max out your retirement plan contributions with a Solo K. And, at lower W-2 levels, something S-Corp owners strive for, the contribution difference is significant. For more details on Solo K contributions, please refer to my prior blog article.

2. You Can Self-Trustee and Administer Your Solo K

All IRAs, including SEP IRAs, must have a third-party custodian – a bank, credit union or trust company – for the account. However, with a Solo K, you can self-trustee and can have control of the bank checking account and/or a brokerage account without having a third party as the trustee. This allows you to invest directly out of the Solo K and gives checkbook control. A valuable tool when investing a retirement account into alternative assets like real estate, notes, or private companies, as you can sign off on investments or process funds without waiting on a third party to process and approve your own funds.

3. You Can Loan Yourself Up to $50K from a Solo K

Under a Solo K, you can loan yourself half of the balance of the Solo K not to exceed $50,000. This is known as a “participant loan,” and is a great option to use when you need to access funds you’ve contributed and saved for retirement. Maybe you need funds to grow the business, pay for school expense, or take a trip to Vegas. Whatever the reason, good or bad, your hard-earned money can be accessed without penalty under a Solo K using the participant loan. Now, you will need to pay the funds back over five years with a set interest. But, this money goes back into the Solo K you’ve been building. For more details on the 401(k) loan, please refer to my prior blog article. Unfortunately, the participant loan cannot be done with a SEP IRA, and would actually result in a distribution, penalty and taxes.

4. No UDFI Tax on Leveraged Real Estate with a Solo K

If you self-direct your SEP IRA plan into real estate, you may have heard of a tax called “unrelated debt financed income” (or “UDFI”). This tax applies when you leverage your SEP IRA’s cash with debt. For example, you buy a rental property with your SEP IRA for $100,000. Of this $100,000, $40,000 comes from your SEP IRA’s cash and $60,000 is from the bank loaning your SEP money on the deal. By bringing in 60% debt to the investment, the IRS will require tax on 60% of the net income from the profits of the property. However, this tax on leveraged real estate does NOT apply to Solo Ks as Congress created an exemption for Solo Ks, but not SEP IRAs. So, if you self-direct and leverage real estate investments with debt, you’d be crazy to use a SEP IRA over a Solo K.  The tax can be tricky to calculate for IRAs and requires a separate 990-T tax return. Check out my detailed webinar on the topic if you’d like to learn more.

There are a couple of downsides to the Solo K over a SEP IRA:

1. Solo Ks are more expensive to set up, as it requires an IRS-compliant plan document. Expect to pay around $1,000 – $2,000 for an IRS-compliant Solo K that you can self-direct and self-trustee. Under both a SEP IRA and a Solo K, you will have similar on-going annual fees to keep them compliant.

2. The other downside to a Solo K is that once you have $250,000 in assets or more in a Solo K, you must file a 5500-EZ tax return to the IRS each year. This return isn’t overly complex, but it is an annual filing requirement you’ll need to handle, or hire someone else to handle if you are self-administering your Solo K.

So, what if you have a SEP IRA and you want to move over to a Solo K? You’ll first need to establish a Solo K for your business by adopting an IRS-compliant Solo K plan. Once you do that, you can start making your new contributions into the Solo K and also roll over the existing funds from your SEP IRA (or other traditional IRAs).

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