4 Reasons to Ditch Your SEP IRA for a Solo 401(k)

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).

2015 Solo 401(k) Contribution Deadlines and Mechanics

Photo of twenty dollar bills sitting on top of a 1040 form with the text "2015 Solo 401(k) Contribution Deadlines and Mechanics."As 2015 comes to an end, it is critical that Solo 401(k) owners make year-end retirement plans. There are three important deadlines you must know if you have a solo 401(k) or if you plan to set one up still in 2015. A solo 401(k) is a retirement plan for small business owners or self-employed persons who have no other full time employees other than owners and spouses. It’s a great plan that can be self directed into real estate, LLCs, or other alternative investments, and that allows the owner to contribute up to $53,000 per year (far faster than any IRA).

New Solo 401(k) Set-Up Deadline is 12/31/15

First, in order to make 2015 contributions the solo 401(k) must be adopted by your business by December 31, 2015. If you haven’t already adopted a Solo 401(k) plan, you should be starting right now so that documents can be completed and filed in time. If the 401(k) is established on January 1, 2016, or later you cannot make 2015 contributions.

2015 Contributions Can Be Made in 2016

Second, both employee and employer contributions can be made up to the company’s tax return deadline INCLUDING extensions. If you have a sole proprietorship (e.g. single member LLC or schedule C income) or partnership then the tax return deadline is April 15, 2016. If you have an s-corporation or c-corporation, then the tax return deadline is March 15, 2016. Both of these deadlines may be extended 6 months by filing an extension and the date to make 2015 contributions will also be extended. This a huge benefit for those that want to make 2015 contributions but who won’t have funds until later in the year to do so.

W-2’s Force You to Plan Now

Third, while employee and employer contributions may be extended until the company tax return deadline you will typically need to file a W-2 for your wages (e.g. an s-corporation) by January 31, 2016. The W-2 will include your wage income and any deduction for employee retirement plan contributions will be reduced on the W-2 in box 12. As a result, you should make your employee contributions (up to $18,000 for 2015) by January 31, 2016 or you should at least determine the amount you plan to contribute so that you can file an accurate W-2 by January 31, 2016. If you don’t have all or a portion of the funds you plan to contribute available by the time your W-2 is due, you can set the amount you plan to contribute to the 401(k) as an employee contribution and will then need to make said contribution by the tax return deadline (including extensions).

Example

Now let’s bring this all together and take an example to outline how this may work. Let’s take Sally who is a real estate professional and who owns an s-corporation. She is the only owner and only employee and has a solo 401(k) established in 2015. She has $120,000 in net income for the year and will have taken $50,000 of that in wage income that will go on her W-2 for the year. That will leave $70,000 of profit that is taxable to her and that will come through to her personally via a K-1 from the business. Sally has not yet made any 2015 401(k) contributions but plans to do so in order to reduce her taxable income for the year and to build a nest-egg for retirement. If she decided to max-out her 2015 Solo 401(k) contributions, it would look like this.

  1. Employee Contributions – The 2015 maximum employee contribution is $18,000. This is dollar for dollar on wages so you can contribute $18,000 as long as you have made $18,000. Since Sally has $50,000 in wages from her s-corp, she can easily make an $18,000 employee contribution. Let’s say that Sally doesn’t have the $18,000 to contribute but will have it available by the tax return deadline (including extensions). What Sally will need to do is she will let her accountant or payroll company know what she plans to contribute as an employee contribution so that they can properly report the contributions on her payroll and W-2 reporting. By making an $18,000 employee contribution, Sally has reduced her taxable income on her W-2 from $50,000 to $32,000. At even a 20% tax bracket for federal taxes and a 5% tax bracket for state taxes that comes to a tax savings of $4,500.
  1. Employer Contributions – The 2015 maximum employer contribution is 25% of wage compensation for Sally. Since Sally has taken a W-2 wage of $50,000, the company may make an employer contribution of $12,500 (25% of $50,000). This contribution is an expense to the company and is included as employee benefit expense on the s-corporations tax return (form 1120S). In the stated example, Sally would’ve had $70,000 in net profit/income from the company before making the solo 401(k) contribution. After making the employer matching contribution of $12,500 in this example, Sally would then only receive a K-1 and net income/profit from the s-corporation of $57,500. Again, if she were in a 20% federal and a 5% state tax bracket that would create a tax savings of $3,125. This employer contribution would need to be made by March 15, 2016 (the company return deadline) or by September 15, 2016 if the company were to file an extension.
  1. In the end, Sally would have contributed and saved $30,500 for retirement ($18,000 employee contribution, $12,500 employer contribution). And finally, she would have saved $7,625 in federal and state taxes. That’s a win-win.

Keep in mind, you need to start making plans now and you want to begin coordinating with your account or payroll company as your yearly wage information and W-2 are critical in determining what you can contribute to your Solo 401(k).

Maximizing 2015 401(k) Contributions with Your S-Corp

Photo of someone putting money into their piggy bank with the text "Maximizing 2015 401(k) Contributions with Your S-Corp."It’s time to start thinking about year-end tax planning and as every savvy business owner knows, effective 2015 tax planning happens before December 31, 2015. One of the most commonly used strategies for our clients is an s-corporation and a 401(k). A properly structured s-corporation is utilized best for tax purposes when the business owner adopts and contributes to a 401(k) plan as the contributions to 401(k) are tax deductible. Whether the business has only one owner/employee (or spouses only) or whether the business has dozens or even hundreds of employees, a 401(k) is a great tool to help defer taxable income. Simply put, a 401(k) plan can be used as a tool for putting the income of the business owner (and applicable employees) away for retirement with the added benefit of a tax deduction for every dollar that can be contributed. There are numerous benefits and options in a 401(k) plan.  For example, you can do Roth 401(k) account, you can self direct a 401(k) account, and you can even loan money to yourself from your 401(k) account. While books have been written about all of these options and benefits, one of the most misunderstood concepts of 401(k) plans is how s-corporation owners can contribute their income to the plan. That is the focus of this article.

Rules for 401(k) Contribution

In order to understand how s-corporations income can be contributed to a 401(k) plan, you need to understand the following three basic rules.

  1. Only W-2 Salary Income can be Contributed to a 401(k). You cannot make 401(k) contributions from dividend or net profit income that goes on your K-1. See IRS.gov for more details. Since many s-corporation owners seek to minimize their W-2 salary for self-employment tax purposes, you must carefully plan your W-2 and annual salary taking into account your annual planned 401(k) contributions. In other words, if you cut the salary too low you won’t be able to contribute the maximum amounts. On the other hand, even with a low W-2 Salary from the s-corporation you’ll still be able to make excellent annual contributions to the 401(k) (up to $18,000 if you have at least that much in annual W-2 salary).
  1. Easy Elective Salary Deferral Limit of $18,000 or 100% of Your W-2, whichever is less. If you have at least $18,000 of salary income from the s-corporation, you can contribute $18,000 to your 401(k) account.  Every employee under the plan is allowed to make this same contribution amount. As a result, many spouses are added to the s-corporation’s payroll (where permissible) to make an additional $18,000 contribution for the spouse’s account. If you are 50 or older, you can make an additional $6,000 annual contribution.  Follow this link for the details from the IRS on the elective salary deferral limits. The elective salary deferral can be traditional dollars or Roth dollars.
  1. Non-Elective Deferral of 25% of Income Up to a $53,000 total Annual 401(k) Contribution. This is usually maximized best in solo 401(k) plans where you as the business owner decided to offer them most generous company match allowed by law (25% of wages). Rarely is this offered or maximized like this in a group 401(k) scenario where you have other employees because what you offer yourself, you must offer to all employees who qualify for the plan (full-time, worked for you a year, over 21). If you are in the solo 401(k) situation, this additional 25% deferral is an excellent tool because in addition to the $18,000 annual elective salary contribution, an s-corporation owner can contribute 25% of their salary compensation to their 401(k) account up to a maximum of a $53,000 total annual contribution.  This non-elective deferral is always made with traditional dollars and cannot be Roth dollars. So, for example, if you have an annual W-2 of $100,000, you’ll be able to contribute a maximum of $25,000 as a non-elective salary deferral to your 401(k) account. If you have employees who participate in the plan besides you (the business owner) and your spouse, then the non-elective deferral calculation gets much more complicated because you’d have to offer it to those employees too. But for now, let’s assume there are no other employees and run through the examples.

Examples

Let’s run through two examples. The first is an s-corporation business owner looking to contribute around $30,000 per year. The second is a business owner looking to contribute the maximum of $53,000 a year.

Example 1: Seeking a $30,000 Annual Contribution.

  • S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $50,000
  • Elective Salary Deferral = $18,000
  • 25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $12,500 (25% of $50,000)
  • Total Possible 401(k) Contribution = $30,500

Example 2: Seeking Maximum $52,000 Annual Contribution

  • S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $140,000
  • Elective Salary Deferral = $18,000
  • 25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $35,000 (25% of  $140,000)
  • Total Possible 401(k) Contribution  (maximum) = $53,000

As a result of the calculations above, in order to contribute the maximum of $53,000, you need a W-2 salary from the s-corporation of $140,000. Keep in mind that if you have other employees in your business (other than owner and spouse) that you are required to do comparable matching on the 25% non-elective deferral and as a result such maximization is often difficult to accomplish in 401(k)s with employees other than the owner and their spouse. Consequently, the additional 25% non-elective salary deferral is best used in owner only 401(k) plans. If you do have employees though you can at least do $18,000 per year without having a matching requirement for your employees. That’s still three times what you can contribute to a traditional or a roth IRA. There are also common matching formulas used where you end up matching yourself and your employees contributions  at a rate of 4% of salary (safe harbor).

Keep in mind that while 401(k) contributions can be made until the tax return deadline (personal, 4/15/16 and s-corp 3/15/16), including extensions, that the 401(k) must be established before the end of 2015 in order to later make 2015 contributions. As a result, you just need to establish the 401(k) before the end of 2015 and that will allow you to later make 2015 contributions prior to filing your 2015 returns.

401(k) Contributions from S-Corp Income

Photo of twenty dollar bills sitting on top of a 1040 form with the text "401k Contributions from S-Corp Income."A properly structured s-corporation is utilized best when business owners adopt and contribute to a 401(k) plan. Whether the business has only one owner/employee (or spouses only) or whether the business has dozens or even hundreds of employees. Simply put, a 401(k) plan can be used as a tool for putting the income of the business owner (any applicable employees) away for retirement with the added benefit of a tax deduction for every dollar that can be contributed. There are so many neat things about 401(k) plans and there are so many options.  For example, you can do Roth 401(k) plans, you can self direct a 401(k) plan, and you can even loan money to yourself from your 401(k) account. While books have been written about all of these options and benefits, one of the most misunderstood concepts of 401(k) plans is how s-corporation owners can contribute their income to the plan. That is the focus of this article.

Rules for 401(k) Contribution

In order to understand how s-corporations income can be contributed to a 401(k) plan, you need to understand the following three basic rules:

  1. Only W-2 Salary Income can be Contributed to a 401(k). You cannot make 401(k) contributions from dividend or net profit income that goes on your K-1. See IRS.gov for more details. Since many s-corporation owners seek to minimize their W-2 salary for self-employment tax purposes, you must carefully plan your W-2 and annual salary taking into account your annual planned 401(k) contributions. In other words, if you cut the salary too low you wont be able to contribute the maximum amounts. On the other hand, even with a low W-2 Salary from the s-corporation you’ll still be able to make excellent annual contributions to the 401(k) (up to $17,500 if you have at least that much in annual W-2 salary).
  2. Easy Elective Salary Deferral Limit of $17,500 or 100% of Your W-2, whichever is less. If you have at least $17,500 of salary income from the s-corporation, you can contribute $17,500 to your 401(k) account.  Every employee under the plan is allowed to make this same contribution amount. As a result, many spouses are added to the s-corporation’s payroll (where permissible) to make an additional $17,500 contribution for the spouse’s account. If you are 50 or older, you can make an additional $5,500 annual contribution.  Follow this link for the details from the IRS on the elective salary deferral limits. The elective salary deferral can be traditional dollars or Roth dollars.
  3. Non-Elective Deferral of 25% of Income Up to a $52,000 total Annual 401(k) Contribution. In addition to the $17,500 annual elective salary contribution, an s-corporation owner can contribute 25% of their salary compensation to their 401(k) account up to a maximum of a $52,000 total annual contribution.  This non-elective deferral is always made with traditional dollars and cannot be Roth dollars. So, for example, if you have an annual W-2 of $100,000, you’ll be able to contribute a maximum of $25,000 as a non-elective salary deferral to your 401(k) account. If you have employees who participate in the plan besides you (the business owner) and your spouse, then the non-elective deferral calculation gets much more complicated. But for now, let’s assume there are no other employees and run through the examples.

Examples

Lets run through two examples. The first is an s-corporation business owner looking to contribute around $30,000 per year. The second is a business owner looking to contribute the maximum of $52,000 a year.

Example 1: Seeking a $30,000 Annual Contribution.

  • S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $50,00
  • Elective Salary Deferral = $17,500
  • 25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $12,500 (25% of $50,00)
  • Total Possible 401(k) Contribution = $30,000

Example 2: Seeking Maximum $52,000 Annual Contribution

  • S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $138,000
  • Elective Salary Deferral = $17,500
  • 25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $34,500 (25% of  $138,000)
  • Total Possible 401(k) Contribution  (maximum) = $52,000

As a result of the calculations above, in order to contribute the maximum of $52,000, you need a W-2 salary from the s-corporation of $138,000. Keep in mind that if you have other employees in your business (other than owner and spouse) that you are required to do comparable matching on the 25% non-elective deferral and as a result such maximization is often difficult to accomplish in 401(k)s with employees other than the owner and their spouse. Consequently, the additional 25% non-elective salary deferral is best used in owner only 401(k) plans.