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how does a simple IRA work

Not every company with employees should have a 401(k) plan. In many cases, a Simple IRA plan may be the best fit for a small business. These plans carry the following benefits

  • No TPA fees
  • Easy to setup & operate
  • Employee attraction and retention tool
  • Pre-tax contributions for the owners to lower their tax liability

Your company

To be eligible to sponsor a Simple IRA, your company must have less than 100 employees. The contribution limits to these plans are about half that of a 401(k) plan but it still may be the right fit for you company. Here are some of the most common statements that we hear from the owners of the business that would lead you to considering a Simple IRA plan over a 401(k) plan:

“I want to put a retirement plans in place for my employees that has very low fees and is easy to operate.”

“We are a start-up, we don’t have a lot of money to contribute to the plan as the owners, but we want to put a plan in place to attract and retain employees.”

“I plan on contributing $15,000 per year to the plan, even if I sponsored a plan that allowed me to contribute more I wouldn’t because I’m socking all of the profits back into the business”

“I have a SEP IRA now but I just hired my first employee. I need to setup a different type of plan since SEP IRA’s are 100% employer funded”

Establishment Deadline

The deadline to establish a Simple IRA plan is October 1st. Once you have cross over that date, you would have to wait until the following calendar year to set the plan.


The eligibility requirements for a Simple IRA are different than a SEP IRA or 401(k) plans. Unlike these other plan “1 Year of Service” = $5,000 of compensation earned in a calendar year. If you want to only cover “full-time” employees with your retirement plan, you may need to consider a 401(k) plan which has the 1 year and 1000 hours requirement to obtain a year of service. The most restrictive “wait time” that you can put into place is 2 years. Meaning an employee must obtain 2 years of service before they are eligible to start contributing to the plan. You can also be more lenient that 2 years, such as immediate entry or a 1-year wait, but 2 years is the most restrictive it can be.

Types of Contributions

Like a 401(k) plan, Simple IRA have both employee deferral contributions and employer contributions.

Employee Deferrals

Eligible employees are allowed to make pre-tax contributions to their Simple IRA accounts. The contribution limits are less than a traditional 401(k). Below is a tale comparing the 2017 contribution limits of a Simple IRA vs a 401(k) Plan:

simple ira contribution limits

There are not Roth deferrals allows in Simple IRA plans.

Employer Contributions

Unlike other employer sponsored retirement plans, employer contributions are mandatory each year to a Simple IRA plan. The company must choose between two pre-set employer contribution formulas:

  • 2% Non-elective
  • 3$ Matching contribution

With the 2% non-elective contribution, the company must contribute 2% of each eligible employee’s compensation to the plan whether they contribute to the plan or not.

For the 3% matching contribution, it’s a dollar for dollar match up to 3% of compensation that they employee contributes to the plan. The match formula is more popular than the 2% non-elective contribution because the company only must contribute if the employee contributes.

Special 1% Rule

With the employer matching contribution there is also a special rule. In 2 out of any 5 consecutive years, the company can lower the employer match to as low as 1% of pay. We will often see start-up company’s take advantage of this rule by putting a 1% employer match in place for the first 2 years of the plan to minimize costs and then they are committed to making the 3% match for years 3, 4, and 5.

100% Vesting

All employer contributions to Simple IRA plans are 100% vested. The company is not allowed to attach a “vesting schedule” to the contributions.

Important Compliance Requirements

Make sure you have a 5304 Simple Form in your files for each year you sponsor the Simple IRA plan. If you are audited by the IRS or DOL, they will ask for these forms. You need to distribute this form to all of your employee each year between Nov 1st and Dec 1st for the upcoming plan year. The documents notifies your employees that:

  • A retirement plan exists
  • Plan eligibility requirement
  • Employer contribution formula
  • Who they submit their deferral elections to within the company

If you do not have this form on file, the IRS will assume that you have immediate eligibility for your Simple IRA plan, meaning that all of your employees are due employer contributions since day one of employment. Even employee that used to work for you and have since terminated employment. It’s an ugly situation.

Make sure the company is timely when submitting the employee deferrals to the Simple IRA plan. Since you are withholding money from employees pay for the salary deferrals the IRS want you to send that money to their Simple IRA accounts “as soon as administratively feasible”. The suggested time phrase is within a week of the deduction in payroll. But you must be consistent with the timing of your remittances to your Simple IRA plan. If you typically submit contributions to your Simple IRA provider 5 days after a payroll run but one week you randomly submit it 2 days after the payroll run, 2 days just became the rule and all of the other deferral remittances are “late”. The company will be assessed penalties for all of the late deferral remittances. So be consistent.

Cannot Terminate Mid-Year

Unlike other retirement plans, you cannot terminate a Simple IRA plan mid-year. Simple IRA plan termination are most common when a company started with a Simple IRA, has grown in employee head count, and now wishes to put a 401(k) plan in place. You must wait until after December 31st to terminate the Simple IRA plan and implement the new 401(k) plan.

Special 2 Year Rule

If you replace your Simple IRA with a 401(k) plan, the balances in the Simple IRA can usually be rolled over into the new 401(k) if the employee elects to do so. However, be very careful of the special Simple IRA 2 Year Distribution Rule. If you process any type of distribution from a Simple IRA, within a two-year period of the employee depositing their first dollar to the account, and the employee is under 59½, they are hit with a 25% IRS penalty. THIS ALSO APPLIES TO DIRECT ROLLOVERS. Normally when you process a direct rollover from one retirement plan to another, no taxes or penalties are assessed. That is not the case in Simple IRA plan so be care of this rule. If you decide to switch from a Simple IRA to a 401(k), make sure you run a list of all the employees that maintain a balance in the Simple IRA plan to determine which employees are subject to the 2-year withdrawal restriction.

Michael Ruger

About Michael………

Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.

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Investment advisory services offered through Greenbush Financial Group, LLC. Greenbush Financial Group, LLC is a Registered Investment Advisor. Securities offered through American Portfolio Financial Services, Inc (APFS). Member FINRA/SIPC. Greenbush Financial Group, LLC is not affiliated with APFS. APFS is not affiliated with any other named business entity. There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not ensure against market risk. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly.