What Is a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP)?

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

Additionally, under the new Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act legislation, which was enacted on December 20, 2019, small employers will get a tax credit to offset the costs of starting a 401(k) plan or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA plan with auto-enrollment 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 or SEP IRA) is a retirement plan 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 IRAs often have higher annual contribution limits than standard IRAs and 401(k)s.

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 plan to contribute to their own retirement at higher levels than a traditional IRA allows.

Small organizations favor SEP plans 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 IRA accounts 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 simplified employee pension (SEP) IRAs are immediately 100% vested, and the IRA owner directs the investments. An eligible employee (including the business owner) who participates in his or her 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.

SEP IRA Contribution Limits

Contributions made by employers cannot exceed the lesser of 25% of an employee's compensation, or $57,000 maximum for 2020 (up from $56,000 in 2019 and $55,000 in 2018).  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. These 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. 


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 $275,000 in 2018). 

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 agreement that bargains 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 individual retirement account and retirement plans. SEP contributions and earnings must eventually be distributed following the IRA-required minimum distributions.