Many small employers want to offer their employees the opportunity to save for retirement but are unsure of how to go about setting up a retirement plan. In this article, we’ll explore three options that are widely used by small businesses: payroll deduction IRAs, SEP plans, and SIMPLE IRAs.

1. Payroll deduction IRAs
Many small employers find a payroll deduction IRA very attractive because it allows them to offer their employees a retirement savings vehicle at little cost. A business of any size, even self-employed individuals, can establish a payroll deduction IRA. Under a payroll deduction IRA, only your employees make contributions to an IRA. Your responsibility as an employer is simply to transmit the employee’s authorized deduction to the financial institution that maintains the IRA.

The IRA is set up with a financial institution, such as a bank, mutual fund or insurance company. You can limit the number of IRA providers to as few as one. The employee establishes a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA (based on the employee’s eligibility and personal choice) with the financial institution and authorizes the payroll deductions. As the employer, you withhold the payroll deduction amounts authorized by your employees and send the funds to the financial institution.

An employee’s decision to participate in a payroll deduction IRA is entirely voluntarily. If an employee decides to participate, he or she can only contribute up to a certain amount to the payroll deduction IRA every year. For 2010, the contribution limit is $5,000. An employee age 50 or older may make an additional “catch-up” contribution of $1,000 for a yearly total of $6,000. Every employee who participates is 100 percent vested in the contributions to their payroll deduction IRA.

Let’s look at an example of a payroll deduction IRA:
Aidan’s employer offers its employees the opportunity to have deductions taken from their paychecks to contribute to IRAs that the employees have set up for themselves. Aidan signs up for the program and has $100 from his $1,000 bi-weekly paycheck deposited into his IRA for a yearly total of $2,600. At the end of the year, Aidan’s employer would report the full $26,000 he earned on his Form W-2 and Aidan would add the $2,600 to any other IRA contributions he made during the year for Form 1040 deduction purposes.

The costs of a payroll deduction IRA are low. Moreover, payroll deduction IRAs are not subject to the often complex filing, documentation and administration requirements that are imposed on other employer-sponsored retirement arrangements, such as 401(k) plans.

2. SEP Plans
“SEP” stands for “Simplified Employee Pension” plan. While there are filing, administration and documentation requirements for SEP plans, the goal of an SEP plan is to keep these as simple as possible. The IRS has created, for example, model SEP language for plan documents.

An SEP plan is similar to a payroll deduction IRA. Under an SEP plan, employers make contributions to traditional IRAs set up for employees (including self-employed individuals). An SEP-IRA is funded solely by employer contributions whereas a payroll deduction IRA is funded solely by employee contributions.

As the employer, you must select the financial institution for your SEP. This decision must be made carefully because you and the financial institution will very work closely to administer the plan. After you send the SEP contributions to the financial institution, the financial institution will manage the funds. Depending on the financial institution, SEP contributions can be invested in individual stocks, mutual funds, and other similar types of investments.

Federal law requires you and the trustee to keep employees informed about the administration and health of the SEP. Employees must be provided with plan documents, an annual statement that reports the fair market value of each employee’s account and a copy of an annual statement that is filed by the financial institution with the IRS. Like a payroll deduction IRA, each employee is 100 percent vested in his or her SEP-IRA.

Generally, the annual contributions an employer makes to an employee’s SEP-IRA cannot exceed the lesser of:
— 25 percent of compensation,or
— $49,000 for 2010.

Generally, contributions are not required to be made every year to an SEP. In years that contributions are made to an SEP, they must be made to the SEP-IRAs of all eligible employees. Contributions to an SEP-IRA must be made in cash; property cannot be contributed to an SEP-IRA. Special rules apply if you, as the employer, also contribute to a 401(k) or similar plan on the employee’s behalf.

All eligible employees must be allowed to participate. An eligible employee is any employee who is at least age 21 and has worked for you in at least three of the immediate past five years.

To encourage employers to establish SEPs, the government offers a tax credit. You may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $500 for each of the first three years for the cost of starting the SEP.

A “SIMPLE IRA” is a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees IRA. Like an SEP plan, a SIMPLE IRA is intended to be easily created and administrated.

A SIMPLE IRA is funded both by employer and employee contributions. As the employer, you can choose either to (1) match the contributions of employees who decide to participate or (2) contribute a fixed percentage of all eligible employees’ pay. Under option (2), which is known as the nonelective contribution formula, even if an eligible employee does not contribute to his or her SIMPLE IRA, you must make a contribution to the employee’s SIMPLE IRA equal to a fixed percent of the employee’s salary. Each employee is 100 percent vested in his or her SIMPLE IRA.

While similar to a payroll deduction IRA, a SIMPLE IRA has additional requirements. One important requirement is the number of employees. Generally, your business must have 100 or fewer employees to be eligible for a SIMPLE IRA.

Let’s look at an example of a SIMPLE IRA. In this example, the employer matches the employee contributions of employees who decide to participate.

Allison’s employer has established a SIMPLE IRA plan for its employees. The employer will match its employees’ contributions dollar-for-dollar up to three percent of each employee’s salary. If an employee does not contribute to his or her SIMPLE IRA, then that employee does not receive a matching employer contribution. Allison decides to contribute five percent ($2,500) of her annual salary of $50,000 to a SIMPLE IRA. The employer’s matching is $1,500 (three percent of $50,000). Therefore, the total contribution to Allison’s SIMPLE IRA that year is $4,000.

There are contribution limits for SIMPLE IRAs. For employees, the annual contribution limit is $11,500 in 2010. Employees age 50 and older may make additional catch-up contributions of $2,500 in 2010.

The SIMPLE IRA contribution for the employer is dependent upon which contribution formula you select. If you decide to make matching contributions, only eligible employees who have elected to make contributions will receive an employer contribution. If you decide to make a nonelective contribution, each eligible employee must receive a contribution regardless of whether the employee makes contributions.

As with an SEP plan, a SIMPLE IRA creates a relationship between you and the financial institution that manages the funds. SIMPLE IRA plan contributions can be invested in individual stocks, mutual funds and similar types of investments. Each participating employee must receive an annual statement indicating the amount contributed to his or her SIMPLE IRA for the year.

As with SEP plans, you may be eligible for a tax credit to help you offset start-up costs. The tax credit can reach up to $500 per year for each of the first three years for the cost of starting a SIMPLE IRA plan.

We’ve covered a lot of material about retirement plans for small businesses. There are more detailed requirements, especially for SEP plans and SIMPLE IRAs, which we can discuss in depth. Please contact us to set up an appointment to explore these and other retirement arrangements for small businesses.