Updated February 12, 2019
When you own your own business, it’s up to you to establish and fund your own pension plan to supplement the Social Security benefits you’ll receive when you retire. The tax law helps you do this by providing tax deductions and other income tax benefits for your retirement account contributions and earnings.
Choosing what type of account to establish is just as important as deciding what to invest in once you open your account—if not more so. Once you set up your retirement account, you can always change your investments within the account with little or no difficulty. But changing the type of retirement account you have may prove difficult and costly. So it’s best to spend some time up front learning about your choices and deciding which plan will best meet your needs.
Why You Need a Retirement Plan (or Plans)
In all likelihood, you will receive Social Security benefits when you retire. However, Social Security will probably cover only half of your needs—possibly less, depending upon your retirement lifestyle. You’ll need to make up this shortfall with your own retirement investments.
When it comes to saving for retirement, small business owners are better off than employees of most companies. This is because the government allows small businesses to set up retirement accounts specifically designed for small business owners. These accounts provide enormous tax benefits that are intended to maximize the money you can save during your working years for your retirement years. The amount you are allowed to contribute each year to your retirement account depends upon the type of account you establish and how much money you earn. If your business doesn’t earn money, you won’t be able to make any contributions—you need income to fund retirement accounts.
Retirement accounts that comply with IRS requirements are called “tax-qualified.”
You can deduct the amount you contribute to a tax-qualified retirement account from your income taxes (except for Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s). If you are a sole proprietor, a partner in a partnership or LLC member, you can deduct from your personal income contributions you make to a retirement account. If you have incorporated your business, the corporation can deduct as a business expense contributions that it makes on your behalf. Either way, you or your business get substantial income tax savings with these contributions.
Example: Art, a sole proprietor, contributes $10,000 this year to a qualified retirement account. He can deduct the entire amount from his personal income taxes. Because Art is in the 28% tax bracket, he saves $2,800 in income taxes for the year (28% × $10,000), and he has also saved $10,000 toward his retirement.
In addition to the tax deduction you receive for putting money into a retirement account, there is another tremendous tax benefit to retirement accounts: tax deferral. When you earn money on an investment, you usually must pay taxes on those earnings in the same year that you earn the money. For example, you must pay taxes on the interest you earn on a savings account or certificate of deposit in the year when the interest accrues. And when you sell an investment at a profit, you must pay income tax in that year on the gain you receive. For example, you must pay tax on the profit you earn from selling stock in the year that you sell the stock.
A different rule applies, however, for earnings you receive from a tax-qualified retirement account. You do not pay taxes on investment earnings from retirement accounts until you withdraw the funds. Because most people withdraw these funds at retirement, they are often in a lower income tax bracket when they pay tax on these earnings. This can result in substantial tax savings for people who would have had to pay higher taxes on these earnings if they paid as the earnings accumulated.
Example: Bill and Brian both invest in the same mutual fund. Bill has a taxable individual account, while Brian invests through a tax-deferred retirement account. They each invest $5,000 per year. They earn 8 percent on their investments each year and pay income tax at the 28 percent rate. At the end of 30 years, Brian has $566,416. Bill only has $272,869. Reason: Bill had to pay income taxes on the interest his investments earned each year, while Brian’s interest accrued tax-free because he invested through a retirement account. Brian must pay tax on his earnings only when he withdraws the money (but retiree will have to pay a penalty tax if withdrawals occur before age 59½, subject to certain exceptions).
Types of Retirement Accounts
If, like the vast majority of small business owners, you’re a sole proprietor with no employees, you have an array choice of tax-qualified retirement accounts to choose from.
Individual Retirement Accounts—IRAs
The simplest type of tax-deferred retirement account is the individual retirement account or IRA. An IRA is a retirement account established by an individual, not a business. An IRA is a trust or custodial account set up for the benefit of an individual or his or her beneficiaries. The trustee or custodian administers the account. The trustee can be a bank, mutual fund, brokerage firm or other financial institution (such as an insurance company). Most financial institutions offer an array of IRA accounts that provide for different types of investments.
You can establish as many IRA accounts as you want, but there is a maximum combined amount of money you can contribute to all of your IRA accounts each year. This amount goes up every year. Maximum contributions are $6,000 for individuals under age 50. An additional 1,000 catch up contribution is allowed for those age 50 or older.
There are two different types of IRAs that you can choose from: traditional IRAs, and Roth IRAs. Contributions to traditional IRAs are tax deductible (subject to income limits if you have another retirement plan. However, withdrawals made after retirement are taxable income. In contrast, contributions to Roth IRAs are not deductible, but you pay no income tax on withdrawals you make after age 59½.
A SEP-IRA is a simplified employee pension. It’s very similar to an IRA, except that you can contribute more money under this plan. Instead of being limited to a $6,000 to $7,000 annual contribution, you can invest up to 25 percent of your net profit from self- employment every year, up to a maximum of $56,000 a year. You don’t have to make contributions every year, and your contributions can vary from year to year. As with other IRAs, you can invest your money in almost anything (stocks, bonds, notes, mutual funds).
You can deduct your contributions to SEP-IRAs from your income taxes, and the interest on your SEP-IRA investments accrues tax-free until you withdraw the money. Withdrawals from SEP-IRAs are subject to the same rules that apply to traditional IRAs.
Yet another type of IRA is the SIMPLE IRA. SIMPLE IRAs may be established only by an employer on behalf of its employees. If you are a sole proprietor, you are deemed to employ yourself for these purposes and may establish a SIMPLE IRA in your own name as the employer. If you are a partner in a partnership, LLC member or owner of an incorporated business, the SIMPLE IRA must be established by your business, not you personally.
Contributions to SIMPLE IRAs are divided into two parts. You may contribute:
- Up to 100 percent of your net income from your business up to an annual limit—the contribution limit is $13,000 plus an addition $3,000 if you are age 50 or older
- And a matching employer contribution up to 3 percent of your net business income.
If you establish a SIMPLE IRA, you are not allowed to have any other retirement plans for your business (although you may still have an individual IRA). SIMPLE IRAs are easy to set up and administer and will enable you to make larger annual contributions than a SEP plan if you earn less than $10,000 per year from your business.
Keogh plans are only for business owners who are sole proprietors, partners in partnerships or limited liability company members. You can’t have a Keogh if you incorporate your business. Keoghs require more paperwork to set up than employer IRAs, but they also offer more options: You can contribute more to these plans and still get an income tax deduction for your contributions.
There are two basic types of Keogh plans:
- Defined contribution plans, in which benefits are based on the amount contributed to and accumulated in the plan, and
- Defined benefit plans, which provide for a set benefit upon retirement.
There are two types of defined contribution plans: profit sharing plans and money purchase plans. These plans can be used separately or in tandem with one another. You can contribute up to 20 percent of your net self-employment income to a profit-sharing Keogh plan, up to a maximum of $53,000 per year in 2015. You can contribute any amount up to the limit each year or not contribute at all.
In a money purchase plan, you contribute a fixed percentage of your net self-employment earnings every year. You decide how much to contribute each year. Make sure you will be able to afford the contributions each year because you can’t skip them, even if your business earns no profit for the year. In return for giving up flexibility, self-employed small business owners can contribute a higher percentage of their earnings with a money purchase plan: the lesser of 25 percent of compensation or $56,000 (the same maximum amount as the profit-sharing plan).
Solo 401(k) Plans
Any business owner who has no employees (other than a spouse) can establish a solo self-employed 401(k) plan (also called a one-person or individual 401(k)). Solo 401(k) plans are designed specifically for business owners without employees.
Solo 401(k) plans have the following advantages over other retirement plans:
- You can make very large contributions—as much as 20 percent of your net profit from self-employment, plus an elective deferral contribution of up to $19,000. The maximum contribution per year is $56,000. Business owners over 50 may make additional catch-up contributions of up to $5,000 per year that are not counted toward the $53,000 limit.
- You can borrow up to $50,000 from your solo 401(k) plan, as long as you repay the loan within five years (you cannot borrow from a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, or SIMPLE IRA.
Having Employees Complicates Matters Tremendously
If you own your own business and have no employees (other than your spouse), you can probably choose, establish and administer your own retirement plan with little or no assistance. The instant you add employees to the mix, however, virtually every aspect of your plan becomes more complex. This is primarily due to something called nondiscrimination rules. These rules are designed to ensure that your retirement plan benefits all employees, not just you. In general, the laws prohibit you from doing the following:
- Making disproportionately large contributions for some plan participants (like yourself) and not for others
- Unfairly excluding certain employees from participating in the plan, and
- Unfairly withholding benefits from former employees or their beneficiaries.
If the IRS finds the plan to be discriminatory at any time (usually during an audit), the plan could be disqualified—that is, determined not to satisfy IRS rules. If this happens, you and your employees will owe income tax and probably penalties, as well.
Having employees also increases the plan’s reporting requirements. You must provide employees with a summary of the terms of the plan, notification of any changes you make, and an annual report of contributions. And you must file an annual tax return. Because of all the complex issues raised by having employees, any business owner with employees (other than a spouse) should seek professional help when creating a retirement plan.
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MileIQ’s blog does not constitute professional tax advice. You should contact your own tax professional to discuss your situation.