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How SIMPLE IRA Plans Work

By Adam Levy – Updated Jun 8, 2022 at 12:48PM

A SIMPLE IRA is a retirement savings plan for employers with 100 or fewer employees. While SIMPLE IRAs are, as the name implies, pretty simple, the name is actually an acronym standing for Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees. Offering one might be a cost-effective way for small business owners to give their employees a retirement savings plan without the expenses or potential limitations of a 401(k).

A couple counts out the coins from their retirement jar.
Source: Getty Images

How a SIMPLE IRA works

At its core, a SIMPLE IRA is just like a traditional IRA. It mostly follows the same rules as a traditional IRA regarding investments, distributions, and rollovers.

However, SIMPLE IRA contributions work a lot like 401(k) contributions. There are two components to funding the SIMPLE IRA: elective salary deferrals made by the employee and nonelective contributions made by the employer.

The employer contribution can take one of two forms:

  • A flat 2% of the employee’s salary. The maximum salary used to determine the employer contribution is $290,000 for 2021 or $305,000 in 2022.
  • Matching contributions of up to 3% of the employee’s salary, with no salary cap. (The match rate can be temporarily reduced under certain circumstances.)

So a SIMPLE IRA can offer employees benefits like those of a 401(k), but in the nice low-cost package of an IRA. 401(k) plans can be costly and time-consuming to establish and administrate, while SIMPLE IRAs are relatively painless.

Pros and cons of a SIMPLE IRA

Pros Cons
Lower costs to establish and operate compared to a 401(k) plan. Both the employee elective salary deferral and the maximum employer matching contribution percentage are lower than in a 401(k) plan.
SIMPLE IRA accounts usually let owners buy and sell any security or financial instrument they choose, with just a few limitations on risky stock options trades. No Roth option: Elective deferrals are always tax deferred and pooled with employer contributions.
Employer contributions vest immediately. Extra penalty for rollovers and withdrawals within two years of establishing the account.

SIMPLE IRA rules and contribution limits

As mentioned, there are two types of SIMPLE IRA contributions: elective employee contributions and nonelective employer contributions.

In 2021, employee contributions are limited to 100% of salary or $13,500, whichever is less. The limit rises in 2022 to $14,000. Employees who are 50 or older can make an additional $3,000 catch-up contribution. Contributions are made through payroll deductions and aren’t subject to income tax. They are, however, still subject to FICA and unemployment taxes.

Employee SIMPLE IRA contributions do not preclude contributions to other employer-sponsored retirement plans an employee may have. Contributing to a SIMPLE IRA doesn’t prevent employees from opening their own IRAs and contributing. For those who rely on a backdoor Roth IRA, however, the SIMPLE IRA account may cause problems.

How to Establish a SIMPLE IRA

Employers can adopt a SIMPLE IRA plan by adopting one of the IRS’ model plans or by simply using the prototype plan available at their brokerage of choice. Then the employer must provide each eligible employee with plan details and let them know where contributions will be deposited. Finally, the employer sets up a SIMPLE IRA for each employee and fills out form 5305-S or 5305-SA, depending on whether the account is set up as a trust or custodial account. Most online brokerages will handle those details.

The deadline for establishing a SIMPLE IRA is Oct. 1 for the current tax year. If you’re a new employer established after Oct. 1, you can still set up a SIMPLE IRA “as soon as administratively feasible,” according to IRS rules.

Related Retirement Plans

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