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A SIMPLE Retirement Plan for the Self-Employed

Of all the retirement plans available to small business owners, the SIMPLE plan is the easiest to set up and the least expensive to manage.

These plans are intended to encourage small business employers to offer retirement coverage to their employees. SIMPLE plans work well for small business owners who don’t want to spend time and high administration fees associated with more complex retirement plans.

SIMPLE plans really shine for self-employed business owners. Here’s why…

Self-employed business owners contribute both as employee and employer, with both contributions made from self-employment earnings.

SIMPLEs calculate contributions in two steps:

1. Employee out-of-salary contribution

The limit on this “elective deferral” is $11,500 in 2010, after which it can rise further with the cost of living.

Catch-up. Owner-employees age 50 or over can make a further $2,500 deductible “catch-up” contribution as employee in 2010.

2. Employer “matching” contribution

The employer match equals 3% of employee’s earnings.

Example: A 52-year-old owner-employee with self-employment earnings of $40,000 could contribute and deduct $11,500 as employee plus a further $2,500 employee catch-up contribution, plus $1,200 (3% of $40,000) employer match, or a total of $15,200.

The SIMPLE plan is good for the home-based business and can be ideal for the moonlighter – the full-time employee, or the homemaker, with modest income from a sideline self-employment business.

With living expenses covered by your day job (or your spouse’s job), you could be free to put all your sideline earnings, up to the ceiling, into SIMPLE retirement investments.

A Truly Simple Plan

The SIMPLE plan really is simpler to set up and operate than most other plans. Contributions go into an IRA you set up. Those familiar with IRA rules – in investment options, spousal rights, creditors’ rights – don’t have a lot new to learn.

Requirements for reporting to the IRS and other agencies are negligible. Your plan’s custodian, typically an investment institution, has the reporting duties. And the process for figuring the deductible contribution is a bit simpler than with other plans.

What’s Not So Good About SIMPLEs

Other plans can do better than SIMPLE once self-employment earnings become significant.

Example: If you are under 50 with $50,000 of self-employment earnings in 2010, you could contribute $11,500 as employee to your SIMPLE plus a further 3% of $50,000 as an employer contribution, for a total of $13,000. In contrast, a Keogh 401(k) plan would allow a $25,500 contribution.

With $100,000 of earnings, it would be a total of $14,500 with a SIMPLE and $35,500 with a 401(k).

Because investments are through an IRA, you’re not in direct control. You must work through a financial or other institution acting as trustee or custodian, and you will in practice have fewer investment options than if you were your own trustee, as you would be in a Keogh.

It won’t work to set up the SIMPLE plan after a year ends and still get a deduction that year, as is allowed with Simplified Employee Pension Plans, or SEPs. Generally, to make a SIMPLE plan effective for a year, it must be set up by October 1 of that year. A later date is allowed where the business is started after October 1; here the SIMPLE must be set up as soon thereafter as administratively feasible.

There’s this problem if the SIMPLE is for a sideline business and you’re in a 401(k) in another business or as an employee: the total amount you can put into the SIMPLE and the 401(k) combined can’t be more than $16,500 (2010 amount) – $21,500 if catch-up contributions are made to the 401(k) by someone age 50 or over.

So someone under age 50 who puts $8,000 in her 401(k) can’t put more than $8,500 in her SIMPLE in 2010. The same limit applies if you have a SIMPLE while also contributing as an employee to a 403(b) annuity (typically for government employees and teachers in public and private schools).

How to Get Started in a SIMPLE

You can set up a SIMPLE on your own by using IRS Form 5304-SIMPLE or 5305-SIMPLE – but most people turn to financial institutions.

SIMPLES are offered by the same financial institutions that offer IRAs and Keogh master plans.

You can expect the institution to give you a plan document and an adoption agreement. In the adoption agreement you will choose an “effective date” – the beginning date for payments out of salary or business earnings. That date can’t be later than October 1 of the year you adopt the plan, except for a business formed after October 1.

Another key document is the Salary Reduction Agreement, which briefly describes how money goes into your SIMPLE. You need such an agreement even if you pay yourself business profits rather than salary.

Printed guidance on operating the SIMPLE may also be provided. You will also be establishing a SIMPLE IRA account for yourself as participant.

Keoghs, SEPs, and SIMPLES Compared




Plan type: Can be defined benefit or defined contribution (profit sharing or money purchase)

Defined contribution only

Defined contribution only

Number you can own: Owner may have two or more plans of different types, including an SEP, currently or in the past

Owner may have SEP and Keoghs

Generally, SIMPLE is the only current plan

Due dates: Plan must be in existence by the end of the year for which contributions are made

Plan can be set up later – if by the due date (with extensions) of the return for the year contributions are made

Plan generally must be in existence by October 1 of the year for which contributions are made

Dollar contribution ceiling (for 2010): $49,000 for defined contribution plan; no specific ceiling for defined benefit plan



Percentage limit on contributions: 50% of earnings for defined contribution plans (100% of earnings after contribution). Elective deferrals in 401(k) not subject to this limit. No percentage limit for defined benefit plan.

50% of earnings (100% of earnings after contribution). Elective deferrals in SEPs formed before 1997 not subject to this limit.

100% of earnings, up to $11,500 (for 2008) for contributions as employee; 3% of earnings, up to $11,500, for contributions as employer

Deduction ceiling: For defined contribution, lesser of $49,000 or 20% of earnings (25% of earnings after contribution). 401(k) elective deferrals not subject to this limit. For defined benefit, net earnings.

Lesser of $49,000 or 25% of eligible employee’s compensation. Elective deferrals in SEPs formed before 1997 not subject to this limit.

Same as percentage ceiling on SIMPLE contribution

Catch-up contribution age 50 or over: Up to $5,500 in 2010 for 401(k)s

Same for SEPs formed before 1997

Half the limit for Keoghs and SEPs (up to $2,750 in 2010)

Prior years’ service can count in computing contribution



Investments: Wide investment opportunities. Owner may directly control investments.

Somewhat narrower range of investments. Less direct control of investments.

Same as SEP

Withdrawals: Some limits on withdrawal before retirement age

No withdrawal limits

No withdrawal limits

Permitted withdrawals before age 59 1/2 may still face 10% penalty

Same as Keogh rule

Same as Keogh rule except penalty is 25% in SIMPLE’s first two years

Spouse’s rights: Federal law grants spouse certain rights in owner’s plan

No federal spousal rights

No federal spousal rights

Rollover allowed to another plan (Keogh or corporate), SEP or IRA, but not a SIMPLE.

Same as Keogh rule

Rollover after 2 years to another SIMPLE and to plans allowed under Keogh rule

Some reporting duties are imposed, depending on plan type and amount of plan assets

Few reporting duties

Negligible reporting duties

Please contact us if you are interested in exploring retirement plan options, including SIMPLE plans.

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