Choosing the Right Retirement Plan

For Your Business

You’re an entrepreneur and you’re not looking back. You’ve opened your own business, whether alone or with other partners, and you’ve found some success. Now you’re thinking about retirement, not just for you, but also for any employees you may have.

Offering a retirement benefit plan can help your business attract and retain employees, while making it easier for you to save for your own retirement. Fortunately, choosing a plan may not be as difficult as you might imagine. Basic retirement plans for small businesses can be relatively easy to establish and administer, although you may want to reconsider your plan choice or offer additional features as your company expands and your personnel needs change.

Here are some of the retirement plan options available to business owners:

SEP IRA: The Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) is an IRA-based plan that is funded solely by the employer. Employees are fully vested in the plan from the time they join. Business owners do, however, have the flexibility to vary contributions to a SEP from year to year or to make none at all. The SEP is often a good choice for sole proprietors or businesses in a less stable financial position. Contributions can be set at a maximum of 25% of the employee’s compensation or up to $49,000 in 2010. The limit for self-employed taxpayers is 20% of compensation.

SIMPLE IRA: Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRAs, which are restricted to businesses with 100 or fewer employees, are usually funded by both the employer and the employee. The employer must make matching contributions on behalf of eligible participants, generally the lesser of the amount deferred by the employee or 3% of the employee’s compensation. Because employers are required to contribute a set amount each year, this plan is best suited to businesses with consistent earnings. Employees may defer as much as $11,500 in 2010 to a SIMPLE plan, and those who are age 50 or older may contribute an additional $2,500.

Profit-Sharing: Profit-sharing plans are relatively easy to administer and tend to be popular with small businesses. The plans are funded solely by the employer on a pre-tax basis, and contributions are discretionary. Many employers also require workers to remain with the company for a certain number of years before they become fully vested in the plan. With profit-sharing plans, the employer and employees can take out loans against the value of the funds in the account.

401(k): The 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan that allows employees to make salary deferral contributions on a pre-tax basis. Earnings in 401(k) accounts accrue on a tax-deferred basis, but they are subject to income tax upon withdrawal. While employers have the option of matching a percentage of their employees’ contributions to 401(k) accounts, they are not required to do so. The employer can set a vesting schedule for the portion of the funds contributed by the employer. The employee is responsible for managing the investments within the account. Employers may permit 401(k) plan participants to take out loans against their accounts, but this adds to the complexity of a plan. Employee contribution limits for 2010 are $16,500 for most workers or $22,000 for those aged 50 or older. The employer’s and employee’s combined contribution in 2010 may not exceed $49,000 or 100% of the employee’s pay.

Because the 401(k) plan has many reporting requirements and is costly to administer, it is generally best suited to companies with at least 25 employees. Businesses with large disparities of pay between employees may also encounter problems with the 401(k) nondiscrimination tests, which can limit the contributions of highly compensated employees if the company’s lower paid workers do not contribute comparable percentages of their incomes.

Safe Harbor 401(k): The Safe Harbor 401(k) offers the same benefits as the traditional 401(k), but it may allow employers to maximize contributions and still satisfy nondiscrimination rules. With a Safe Harbor 401(k), employers must make matching contributions for employees, but they have two options: Companies can make contributions for each eligible employee (even if the employee does not contribute) of 3% of annual compensation, or the company can match 100% of the first 3% of employees’ deferred contributions, plus 50% of the next 2% of employees’ contributions. While the mandatory employee match is larger with a Safe Harbor 401(k) than with most other plan types, the Safe Harbor may permit employers to make more pre-tax contributions on their own behalf.

Defined Benefit Plans: With the rise in popularity of 401(k) plans, defined benefit plans have faded from the spotlight. However, they can still be an attractive option, particularly for business owners with few employees who are looking to accelerate their personal savings. Using a defined benefit plan, business owners may be able to set aside significantly more than they could with a defined contribution plan. In 2010, the maximum annual benefit is $195,000, and the amount of yearly compensation that may be considered for benefit purposes is $245,000. On the other hand, defined benefit plans can be more complex and costly to administer than other options, and they are usually more expensive to fund than defined contribution plans.

Deferred Compensation Plans: A deferred compensation plan is often established by companies that already have a qualified plan, such as the 401(k), to provide additional retirement benefits to key executives or employees. This type of plan represents an agreement whereby one person (or legal entity) promises to compensate another for services to be rendered currently, with actual payment for those services delayed until sometime in the future. Using a deferred compensation plan, an employer can offer an employee extra income that will not be taxed until some future date, usually upon retirement, death, disability, or termination of employment. Because these plans are not governed by federal pension laws, making them “nonqualified,” they can be extremely flexible. Their very flexibility—and the associated risks—means that business owners should seek out professional guidance from tax, legal, and financial professionals before setting up these plans.

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