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Why Choose a Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA Plan?

Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA

Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA

There are many advantages that come with self-employment, but saving for retirement often serves as a problem. Because you can no longer depend on the 401(k) plan your employer sponsors, you must now create and fund your own retirement plan. 

For many years, self-employed individuals and small business owners relied on the SEP IRA (simplified employee plan). This type of IRA is tax-advantageous and is a good way for the self-employed to save for retirement. But then came the Solo 401(k) plan. 

Solo 401(k) 

A Solo 401(k) Plan is an IRS approved retirement plan suited for business owners who do not have any employees, other than themselves and perhaps their spouse. Also called the self-employed 401(k) and individual 401(k), the Solo 401(k) is not a new type of plan. Essentially, it’s a traditional 401(k) plan that covers one employee

Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA

Like a SEP IRA, a Solo 401(k) offers the plan participant the ability to contribute up to $62,000 each year.  Before the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) became effective in 2002, an owner-only business had few reasons to establish a 401(k) because the business owner typically received the same benefits by adopting a profit sharing plan or a SEP IRA. 

After 2002, EGTRRA paved the way for an owner-only business to put more money aside for retirement and to operate a more cost-effective retirement plan than a SEP IRA or 401(k) Plan. 

There are a number of options that are specific to Solo 401(k) Plans that make it a far more attractive retirement option for self-employed individuals than a SEP IRA.

So what exactly are the differences between the Solo 401(k) vs the SEP IRA? Let’s take a look. 

1. Reach your Maximum Contribution Amount Quicker

A Solo 401(k) Plan includes both an employee and profit sharing contribution option. A SEP IRA is purely a profit sharing plan.

Under the 2019 Solo 401(k) contribution rules, a plan participant under the age of 50 can make a maximum employee deferral contribution in the amount of $19,000. You can make this in pre-tax or after-tax (Roth).

On the profit sharing side, the business can make a 25% (20% in the case of a sole proprietorship or single member LLC) profit sharing contribution up to a combined maximum, including the employee deferral, of $56,000.

For plan participants over the age of 50, you can make a maximum employee deferral contribution in the amount of $25,000. Again, you can make this amount one of two ways: pre-tax or after-tax. Then, on the profit sharing side, the business can make a 25% (20% in the case of a sole proprietorship or single member LLC) profit sharing contribution up to a combined maximum. This includes the employee deferral of $62,000.

Contributions with a SEP IRA

Whereas, a SEP IRA only allows for a profit sharing contribution.  Hence, a participant in a SEP IRA will be limited to 25% (20% in the case of a sole proprietorship or single member LLC) profit sharing contribution up to a combined maximum of $56,000 for 2019. No employee deferral exists for a SEP IRA.

Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA by IRA Financial Group

Let’s take a look at an example of the SEP IRA vs Solo 401(k) in action.

Joe A. is 60 years old and owns 100% of an S Corporation with no full-time employees. For 2019, Joe A. earns $100,000 in self-employment W-2 wages. If Joe were to establish a Solo 401(k) Plan for 2019, he could defer approximately $50,000. First, there is the $25,000 employee deferral, which can be pre-tax or Roth. Second, there’s the 25% of his compensation, which gives him $50,000 for the year. 

However, if Joe A. establishes a SEP IRA, he can only defer approximately $25,000 (25% if his compensation) for 2019.

2. No catch-up Contributions

You can make a contribution of up to $56,000 with a Solo 401(k) Plan each tax year. If you’re over the age of 50, you can contribute $62,000. However, with a SEP IRA, the maximum amount that you can defer is $56,000 since a SEP IRA does not offer any catch-up contributions.

3. No Roth Feature

There are two retirement saving forms with a Solo 401(k). You can choose pre-tax or after-tax (Roth). Whereas, in the case of a SEP IRA, you only have the pre-tax format to make contributions. As a result, you will have to pay taxes when you make a distribution. Additionally, a contribution of $19,000 can be made to a Solo 401(k) Roth account. Again, this will increase if you’re 50 or older, to $25,000.

4. Tax-Free Loan Option

You have the option of borrowing up to $50,000 or 50% of your account value (whichever is less). You can then use this loan for any purpose, tax and penalty-free. As a small business owner, this can come in handy when you need immediate funding for your business.

However, with a SEP IRA, if you borrow even $1 from the retirement account, you will trigger a prohibited transaction

5. Use Nonrecourse Leverage and Pay No Tax

If you have interest in making a real estate investment, this is yet another reason you should opt for the Solo 401(k) vs the SEP IRA. With your Solo 401(k) Plan, you can use nonrecourse funds without triggering the Unrelated Debt Financed Income Rules and the Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBIT or UBTI) tax.

However, nonrecourse leverage exceptions in IRC 514 apply to 401(k) retirement plans, not individual retirement accounts (IRAs). In other words, a Self-Directed SEP IRA involving nonrecourse financing will, unfortunately, trigger the UBTI tax. 

6. Open the Account at Any Local Bank

Another advantage of the Solo 401(k) over the SEP IRA is that you can open this retirement plan at any local bank or trust company. Yet in the case of a SEP or a Self-Directed IRA, a special IRA custodian must hold the IRA funds. 

7. No Need for the Cost of an LLC

Depending on the state of formation, establishing an LLC (limited liability company) can prove very costly. With a Solo 401(k) Plan, you can make real estate and other investments without an LLC. Because a 401(k) plan is a trust, the trustee can take title to a real estate asset without the need of an LLC. 

8. Better Creditor Protection

Finally, between the discussion of the SEP IRA vs. Solo 401(k), understand that the Solo 401(k) plan offers greater creditor protection than the SEP IRA. The 2005 Bankruptcy Act generally protect all 401(k) Plan assets from creditor attack in a bankruptcy proceeding.

Additionally, most states offer better creditor protection to a Solo 401(k) qualified retirement plan than a SEP IRA outside of bankruptcy. 


solo 401(k) vs sep IRA by IRA Financial Group

No matter which plan you choose, if you are self-employed or a small business owner, it’s important to have a retirement vehicle to create a nest-egg for the future.

But as you can see, the Solo 401(k) has many great features that the SEP IRA simply lacks. This is why it has become the number one choice for the self-employed.

Get in Touch 

Do you still have questions about the Solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA that we didn’t cover in the article? Contact IRA Financial Group at 800-472-0646. Or fill out the form and speak to a 401(k) specialist. 

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