Employers of small businesses have a variety of choices if they want to institute a tax-advantaged retirement plan. It's important to think about them carefully and review the options with financial and tax advisors.

For example, instead of a traditional traditional 401(k) plan, a small business owner can opt for a SIMPLE 401(k). They sound similar, but there are important differences between them that employers need to review.

Or an employer could choose between a SIMPLE 401(k) and a SIMPLE IRA. These plans share many similarities, but they also have differences that could provide enough reason to choose one type of SIMPLE plan over the other. This article focuses on the seven important issues small business owners need to review before choosing whether to fund a SIMPLE IRA or SIMPLE 401(k).

1. Eligible Employers and Plan Options

For both the SIMPLE IRA and the SIMPLE 401(k) plans, eligible employers must have no more than 100 employees who have received at least $5,000 in compensation from the employer for the previous year. Employers cannot maintain any other retirement plan for employees who are eligible to participate in the SIMPLE 401(k). However, the employer can choose to maintain a second retirement plan to cover those employees who are not eligible to participate in the SIMPLE 401(k) plan.

By contrast, an employer who chooses a SIMPLE IRA is not allowed to maintain any other plan whatsoever while maintaining a SIMPLE IRA. (Note that exceptions are allowed for employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement, and plans that cover these employees are disregarded for this purpose.) Consequently, an employer may choose one plan over the other, depending on the need to provide a retirement plan for certain employees.

Note: Certain exceptions apply to the "only plan" requirement, if the other plan is maintained during a calendar year in which an acquisition, disposition or similar transaction occurs or in the calendar year following such a transaction. Check with your plan administrator if you feel you may be eligible for this exception.

2. Eligible Employees

To be eligible to participate in the SIMPLE 401(k) plan, employees may be required to perform service for at least one year and reach the age of 21. There is no age requirement for the SIMPLE IRA. Instead, any employee who earned at least $5,000 during any two preceding years – and is reasonably expected to earn $5,000 in the current year – must be allowed to participate in the plan. For both plans, the employer may choose to implement less stringent eligibility requirements.

3. Operations Requirements

No non-discrimination testing is required for either plan, and both plans are subject to the 60-day annual notification requirement. The deadline to establish either plan is from January 1 to October of the year. This deadline allows employees to make salary-deferral contributions before year-end.

4. Loans: Only for 401(k)s

Because the SIMPLE IRA is an IRA-based plan, loans are not allowed. On the other hand, an employer may include loans as a feature in a SIMPLE 401(k) plan. For employees who need to tap into their retirement assets when they are ineligible to receive distributions from the plan, loans can be an attractive plan feature.

5. Vesting: Immediate

For both the SIMPLE IRA and the SIMPLE 401(k) plans, all contributions are immediately 100% vested.

6. Contributions: Some Key Differences

Both plans permit the same type of contributions. Employees may make salary-deferral contributions, while employers may choose to make matching contributions to employees who make salary-deferral or non-elective contributions.

For the matching contributions, employers must contribute dollar for dollar up to 3% of the employee's compensation. For the non-elective contributions, employers must contribute 2% of the employee's compensation.

Year SIMPLE Deferral Limit
2002 $7,000
2003 $8,000
2004 $9,000
2005 $10,000
2006 $10,000
2007 $10,500
2008 $10,500
2009 $11,500
2011 $11,500
2012 $11,500
2013 $12,000
2014 $12,00
2015 $12,500
2016 $12,500
2017 $12,500
2018 $12,500
2019 $13,000

Participants who are at least age 50 by the end of the year may make catch-up contributions.

However, employer contributions for the SIMPLE IRA and the SIMPLE 401(k) are subject to different rules. As a result, the two plans will require/allow different employer contribution amounts. For instance, all employer contributions to a SIMPLE 401(k) are subject to the compensation cap (which is $280,000 for 2019, $275,000 for 2018), while only non-elective employer contributions to SIMPLE IRAs are subject to the compensation cap. The following is an example of how this could affect contributions that employees receive.

ABC Company established a SIMPLE for its employees and has elected to make a matching contribution to the plan for the 2018 calendar year. Jane, an employee, is eligible to participate in the plan. She receives compensation of $350,000 for the year from the company. Jane has decided to defer the maximum allowable amount of $12,000 to the plan. The amount Jane receives as an employer contribution is determined by the type of SIMPLE that ABC adopted.

  • If ABC Company adopts a SIMPLE IRA: Jane may receive a matching contribution of $10,500 (3% of $350,000).
  • If ABC Company adopts a SIMPLE 401(k): Jane would receive no more than $8,250 as a matching employer contribution. This is because ABC Company may consider no more than $275,000 of Jane's compensation for plan purposes (3% of $275,000).

As we stated earlier, the non-elective contribution is subject to the same compensation cap for both plans. Therefore, if ABC Company had elected to make non-elective contributions, Jane's contribution amount would be the same under both plans.

7. Reducing Matching Contributions: Different Rules

For the SIMPLE IRA, an employer who elects to make matching contributions may choose to reduce the amount to one that is less than 3% but no less than 1% for two out of every five years. This option is not available for SIMPLE 401(k)s.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a retirement plan is one of the most important financial decisions a business owner will make for their business. The retirement plan not only allows the employer to claim a tax deduction for contributions, but also serves as a means of attracting highly competent employees.

However, some plans are an administrative burden and can be quite costly to maintain. A small business owner who wants to avoid complex administration and limit costs may find the SIMPLE plans attractive. Before choosing a SIMPLE plan, the business owner may want to review certain specifics, including the average age of the business' employees and whether they would prefer loans be allowed under the plan.