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Retirement Planning for Small-Business Owners

If you're a typical small-business owner, you know how many things you need to keep in your head at the same time. Not only must you do an exceptional job in your chosen occupation, but you also have to make sure you take care of all of the technicalities involved in running a small business. Hiring employees can take some of the burden off your shoulders, but employees also bring a host of additional legal requirements into play.

With the many responsibilities that business ownership entails, it's easy to understand why retirement planning often gets placed on the back burner. Yet business owners are uniquely placed to take advantage of some retirement-plan options that most employees don't get to choose from.

Your many options
Several retirement plan options exist for small-business owners. They vary in how much money can be contributed, whether employees other than the owners may participate, what (if any) contributions the employer must make on behalf of employees, what deadlines there are for creating and putting money into the plan, and how hard it is to run the plan. Among the options small businesses commonly use are SIMPLE IRAs, SEP IRAs, profit-sharing plans, SIMPLE 401(k) plans, and single-participant 401(k) plans.

Simple IRAs
Congress likes acronyms, so it picked the name "Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees" to spell the word "simple." Employers with fewer than 100 employees can choose this option. It allows the owner and any employees to save up to $10,000 per year, indexed for inflation, of their own money; if an employee is older than 50, an additional "catch-up" amount of $2,500 is allowed. The employer must generally either contribute an additional 2% of each employee's compensation to the plan or match 100% of each employee's contribution up to 3%; additional employer contributions are not allowed. The business owner must set up the SIMPLE IRA before October 1, unless the business starts after that date.

Most financial companies offer SIMPLE IRA options at a low cost compared with some other plan options. And as the name suggests, administering SIMPLE IRA plans is relatively easy. However, if you choose this option for your business, you are not allowed to set up any additional type of retirement plan.

SEP IRAs
The Simplified Employee Pension IRA has significant differences from SIMPLE IRAs. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the employer funds the SEP IRAs entirely. The employer is allowed to contribute up to 25% of compensation to the plan, up to an overall maximum of $42,000 per employee (indexed for inflation). Business owners have extra time to set up a SEP IRA; the deadline is the same as the deadline for the business income tax return, which means that most businesses that use a calendar year have until March or April of the following year to set up a SEP IRA.

SEP IRAs are also fairly easy to administer, and many financial companies offer them at a relatively low cost.

Profit-sharing plans
Like SEP IRAs, profit-sharing plans are generally all employer-funded. The same 25% contribution limit exists, although the per-employee limit is $44,000 rather than $42,000. And unlike the other plans discussed here, employer contributions to profit-sharing plans do not have to vest immediately. So if an employee leaves the company before a designated period of time passes, that employee forfeits any contributions the employer made on the employee's behalf.

Because profit-sharing plans allow for this added complexity, costs may be higher than for other plans, and some administrative tasks may be more burdensome or require professional assistance.

SIMPLE 401(k) plans
SIMPLE 401(k) plans share many similarities with SIMPLE IRAs. The same 100-employee limit applies, as does the $10,000 limit on employee contributions. The employer also has the same choice between contributing 2% of compensation or matching up to 3% of the employee's contribution.

The differences are relatively minor. The guidelines for how and when a new employee qualifies for the plan are slightly different, and there are some small variations in the amount that highly compensated employees can receive in employer contributions. Perhaps the biggest difference is that SIMPLE 401(k) plans can include provisions that allow employees to take loans against their account balances -- that's not an option with SIMPLE IRAs. In addition, business owners must file an information return with the IRS.

Single-participant 401(k) plans
These plans allow business owners without employees (other than a spouse) to take advantage of the higher limits that 401(k) plans allow. By using a single-participant 401(k) plan, a business owner can choose to save $15,000, plus an additional $5,000 for owners older than 50. In addition, the business can make a tax-deductible employer contribution on the owner's behalf of up to 25% of compensation. The total contributions cannot exceed $44,000, indexed for inflation.

A business owner must create the plan before the end of the year but can generally wait until the tax-return deadline to make deposits. In some circumstances, an IRS information return is required. Because the single-participant 401(k) is somewhat more complicated than SIMPLE and SEP-based plans, not as many providers offer them, and the costs can be somewhat higher. However, the higher contribution limits may mean that potential tax savings more than make up for any additional costs.

While this list of retirement-plan options is not exhaustive, it gives a good idea of the range of alternatives available to small business owners. A good retirement plan can not only attract faithful employees but also make it easier for business owners to achieve their own personal financial goals.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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Dan Caplinger
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Dan Caplinger has been a contract writer for the Motley Fool since 2006. As the Fool's Director of Investment Planning, Dan oversees much of the personal-finance and investment-planning content published daily on Fool.com. With a background as an estate-planning attorney and independent financial consultant, Dan's articles are based on more than 20 years of experience from all angles of the financial world.

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