Business and Personal Finance: Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs)

Retirement Plans – Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs)

When it comes to simple plans, SEPs also fill the bill. These plans were especially designed for small-business owners, with the goal of making it as pain-free as possible for them to offer retirement benefits. In fact, the only IRS form you have to fill out is Form 5305-SEP, which you can download directly from the IRS Web site at Essentially, a SEP is a collection of IRAs, one for each employee and one for you, that together act as a pension plan.

Although part of the selling point of SEPs is that they’re “simplified,” they can be a little tricky to set up when you have employees (but they are very easy to deal with if the plan is only for you). They’re not as simple as SIMPLE plans, but that’s balanced by a much higher contribution limit. If you’re a sole proprietor with no employees, this could be the best fit for you.

Here are some of the key points you need to know if you’re considering a SEP:

  • When it’s just for you, you set up an IRA and say that you want it to be a SEP.
  • For 2006, employees can put away 25 percent of compensation (up to $220,000) or $44,000, whichever is less.
  • The maximums are a little lower for you as a self-employed individual and involve more math.
  • SEPs come with low costs and minimal administrative responsibilities.
  • These are the only plans that can be first set up after year-end and for which you can figure out contributions after you know how the year’s profits look.
  • SEPs are not very flexible.
  • You have to make contributions for all eligible employees, whether they want it or not, even if they leave during the year.
  • If an eligible employee doesn’t have an IRA, you have to establish one on his behalf and notify him, even if he doesn’t want one.
  • An eligible employee who won’t participate can mess up the tax benefits for everyone else.
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You can see why these plans can be great when you have no employees, but sticky when you do. If you are thinking about using a SEP and you have (or plan to have) employees, consider making participation a condition of employment. If a potential hiree doesn’t want to participate, you may be better off not hiring him.

When You Have Employees

You have to provide all your eligible employees with a bunch of information when you establish a SEP. Each needs a copy of Form 5305-SEP, a statement that says these SEP-IRAs are different from the usual and that also provides an explanation of things, such as how withdrawals work. Plus, you’ll have to provide written notification to employees when contributions are made. If it sounds too complicated for you to handle, don’t worry; you can hire a plan administrator who does it all the time and can easily do it all for you.


Although the minimum eligibility requirements are written in stone, you are allowed to use easier requirements if you want to, such as let- ting employees participate when they reach age 17 instead of 21. You might want to do this if you have your own kids as employees and want to start putting away money for them, but remember—that rule applies to all your employees.

As for eligibility, there are some pretty strict rules. You have to offer the SEP to any employee who’s at least 21, has worked for you for at least three of the past five years, and has gotten paid by you at least $450 for the year (that amount is for 2006 and may change going forward). If you have an employee who turns 21 during the year, he counts as eligible. If you have a part-time seasonal employee who’s been working only three weeks each year for the past few years but has switched to full-time now, he’s eligible.

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The minute an employee becomes eligible, he stays that way for the whole year. It doesn’t matter if he quits the next day. It doesn’t even matter if you have no idea where he is. For that year, you have to make a contribution for him.

Calculating Your Contribution

As a self-employed person, you have to do some quick calculations before you can get to your contribution. This math effectively makes your maximum allowable contribution lower than it would be if you were an employee. To figure out your total compensation for these purposes, start with the total business profits. From that amount, subtract half of your self- employment tax, as well as the deduction for contributions into your own SEP-IRA. If it sounds as though you have to deduct your contribution to figure out what that contribution is, you’re right. However, the IRS provides easy-to-use worksheets and tables that give you the correct rate for your contributions, which will be somewhat less than the rate you give your employees. Check out IRS Publication 590; it has everything you need.