What Is a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP)?

A simplified employee pension (SEP) is an individual retirement account (IRA) that an employer or a self-employed person can establish. The employer is allowed a tax deduction for contributions made to the SEP IRA and makes contributions to each eligible employee’s plan on a discretionary basis.

Additionally, under the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, which was enacted on Dec. 20, 2019, small employers get a tax credit to offset the costs of starting a 401(k) plan or savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA with auto-enrollment. That’s on top of the start-up credit they already receive.  

SEP IRAs often have higher annual contribution limits than standard IRAs. Fundamentally, a SEP IRA can be considered a traditional IRA with the ability to receive employer contributions. One major benefit it offers employees is that employer contributions are vested immediately.

Key Takeaways

  • A simplified employee pension (SEP) is an individual retirement account (IRA) that an employer or self-employed individual can establish.
  • SEP IRAs are used by small businesses and self-employed individuals to meet their retirement savings needs.
  • SEP IRA contribution limits are annual and often higher than standard IRAs and 401(k)s.
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SEP Account: Jessica Perez

How a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) Works

A SEP IRA is an attractive option for many business owners because it does not come with many of the start-up and operating costs of most conventional employer-sponsored retirement plans. Many employers also set up a SEP IRA to contribute to their own retirement at higher levels than a traditional IRA allows.

Small organizations favor SEP IRAs because of eligibility requirements for contributors, including a minimum age of 21, at least three years of employment, and a $600 compensation minimum. In addition, a SEP IRA allows employers to skip contributions during years when business is down.

SEP IRAs are treated like traditional IRAs for tax purposes and allow the same investment options. The same transfer and rollover rules that apply to traditional IRAs also apply to SEP IRAs. When an employer makes contributions to SEP IRA accounts, it receives a tax deduction for the amount contributed. Additionally, the business is not locked in to an annual contribution—decisions about whether to contribute and how much can change each year.

The employer is not responsible for making investment decisions. Instead, the IRA trustee determines eligible investments, and the individual employee account owners make specific investment decisions. The trustee also deposits contributions, sends annual statements, and files all required documents with the IRS.

Immediately Vested

Contributions to SEP IRAs are immediately 100% vested, and the IRA owner directs the investments. An eligible employee (including the business owner) who participates in their employer’s SEP plan must establish a traditional IRA to which the employer will deposit SEP contributions.

Some financial institutions require the traditional IRA to be labeled as a SEP IRA before they will allow the account to receive SEP contributions. Others will allow SEP contributions to be deposited to a traditional IRA regardless of whether the IRA is labeled as a SEP IRA.

Contributions to a SEP IRA are immediately 100% vested, and account owners must choose their investments themselves from a list provided by the account trustee.

SEP IRA Contribution Limits

Contributions made by employers cannot exceed the lesser of 25% of an employee’s compensation or $58,000 in 2021 (up from $57,000 in 2020).  As with the traditional IRA, withdrawals from SEP IRAs in retirement are taxed as ordinary income. 

When a business is a sole proprietorship, the employee-owner pays themselves wages and may also make a SEP contribution, which is limited to 25% of wages (or profits) minus the SEP contribution. For a particular contribution rate (CR), the reduced rate is CR ÷ (1 + CR) for a 25% contribution rate. This yields a 20% reduced rate, as in the above example. 

Because the funding vehicle for a SEP plan is a traditional IRA, SEP contributions, once deposited, become traditional IRA assets and are subject to many of the traditional IRA rules, including the following:

  • Distribution rules
  • Investment rules
  • Contribution and deduction rules for traditional IRA contributions, which apply to the employee’s regular IRA contributions, not the SEP employer contributions
  • Documentation requirements for establishing an IRA

In addition to the documents required for establishing a SEP plan (discussed later), each SEP IRA must meet the documentation requirements for a traditional IRA. 

$290,000

The compensation limit for a business to be allowed to set up a SEP IRA in 2021 ($285,000 for 2020).

SEP IRA Rules

Not all businesses can start SEP IRAs, which were primarily designed to encourage retirement benefits among businesses that would otherwise not set up employer-sponsored plans. Sole proprietors, partnerships, and corporations can establish SEPs. Too high of an income can be a limitation—the 2020 eligible compensation limit is $285,000 (up from $280,000 in 2019 and rising to $290,000 in 2021).  Unlike qualified retirement plans—under which participants, including the business owner, may borrow up to the lesser of 50% or $50,000 of their vested balance—the SEP does not have this feature. 

Moreover, certain types of employees may be excluded by their employer from participating in a SEP IRA, even if they would otherwise be eligible based on the plan’s rules. For example, workers who are covered in a union collective bargaining agreement for retirement benefits can be excluded. Workers who are nonresident aliens can also be excluded as long as they do not receive U.S. wages or other service compensation from the employer.

SEP contributions and earnings are held in SEP IRAs and can be withdrawn at any time, subject to the general limitations imposed on traditional IRAs. A withdrawal is taxable in the year received. If a participant makes a withdrawal before age 59½, generally a 10% additional tax applies.

SEP contributions and earnings may be rolled over tax free to other IRAs and retirement plans. SEP contributions and earnings must eventually be distributed following the IRA-required minimum distributions. 

SEP IRA vs. Individual 401(k)

A SEP IRA and an individual 401(k), also known as a solo 401(k) are both retirement accounts that allow employer contributions. They have two main differences.

The first is that though the maximum contribution limit for both is comparable once income levels reach $200,000, you can contribute more to a 401(k) at lower income levels than you can to a SEP IRA. In addition, if you are 50 or older, the 401(k) has a catch-up contribution, which the SEP IRA does not. The second important difference is that you can take a loan against the 401(k), something that is not allowed with a SEP IRA.

A SEP IRA, however, is somewhat easier to set up and maintain. An individual 401(k) requires its owner to be more involved in its administrative responsibilities, and it can also generate higher fees than a SEP IRA.

SEP IRA vs. Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

There are important differences among these three retirement accounts. With a traditional IRA, you contribute tax-free money, which reduces your tax bill in the year in which you make the contribution. However, when you withdraw funds in retirement, they are taxed as ordinary income, and you are required to make distributions once you reach the age of 72. This makes it best for people who expect to be in a lower tax bracket when they retire.

A Roth IRA reverses the process. You have already paid income tax on the money you contribute, so withdrawals in retirement are tax free. This makes a Roth IRA better for people who expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement. In addition, there are no required minimum distributions from a Roth IRA, so if you don’t need the money, you can just let it sit there and pass the account on to your heirs.

A SEP IRA is, of course, only available to self-employed persons. It allows employer contributions, which traditional and Roth IRAs do not, and all contributions to it are tax free, meaning that distributions in retirement will be taxed as ordinary income. The maximum contribution limit for a SEP IRA is considerable higher than that for either a traditional or Roth IRA. Employers can get a tax deduction for their contribution, which means when the self-employed person is both employer and employee, they can get that tax deduction. SEP IRAs were invented as a way to help small businesses provide employer-sponsored retirement plans to their employees and owners.