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The Solo 401(k) vs. the SEP IRA

A Solo 401(k) Plan is an IRS approved retirement plan, which is suited for business owners who do not have any employees, other than themselves and perhaps their spouse. The “one-participant 401(k) Plan” or Individual 401(k) Plan is not a new type of plan. It is a traditional 401(k) Plan covering only one employee. Like a SEP IRA, a Solo 401(k) Plan offers the plan participant the ability to contribute up to $57,500 each year. Before the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) became effective in 2002, there was no compelling reason for an owner-only business to establish a Solo 401(k) Plan because the business owner could generally receive 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 the Solo 401(k) Plan a far more attractive retirement option for a self-employed individual than a SEP IRA.

1. Reach your Maximum Contribution Amount Quicker: A Solo 401(k) Plan includes both an employee and profit sharing contribution option, whereas, a SEP IRA is purely a profit sharing plan.

Under the 2014 Solo 401(k) contribution rules, a plan participant under the age of 50 can make a maximum employee deferral contribution in the amount of $17,500. That amount can be made 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 $52,000, an increase of $1,000 from 2013.

For plan participants over the age of 50, an individual can make a maximum employee deferral contribution in the amount of $23,000. That amount can be made 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 $57,500, an increase of $1,000 from 2013.

Whereas, a SEP IRA would only allows for a profit sharing contribution. Hence, a participant in a SEP IRA would 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 $52,000 for 2014. No employee deferral exists for a SEP IRA.

For example, Joe, who is 60 years old, owns 100% of an S Corporation with no full time employees. Joe earned $100,000 in self-employment W-2 wages for 2014. If Joe had a Solo 401(k) Plan established for 2014, Joe would be able to defer approximately $48,000 for 2014 (a $23,000 employee deferral, which could be pre-tax or Roth, and 25% of his compensation giving him $48,000 for the year). Whereas, if Joe established a SEP IRA, Joe would only be able to defer approximately $25,000 (25% if his compensation) for 2014.

2. No catch-up Contributions: With a Solo 401(k) Plan you can make a contribution of up to $52,000 to the plan each tax year ($57,500 if the participant is over the age of 50). However, with a SEP IRA, the maximum amount that can be deferred is $52,000 since a SEP IRA does not offer any catch-up contributions.

3. No Roth Feature: A Solo 401(k) plan can be made in pre-tax or Roth (after-tax) format. Whereas, in the case of a SEP IRA, contributions can only be made in pre-tax format. In addition, a contribution of $17,500 ($23,00, if the plan participant is over the age of 50) can be made to a Solo 401(k) Roth account.

4. Tax-Free Loan Option: With a Solo 401(k) Plan you can borrow up to $50,000 or 50% of your account value, whichever is less. The loan can be used for any purpose. With a SEP IRA, the IRA holder is not permitted to borrow even $1 dollar from the IRA without triggering a prohibited transaction.

5. Use Non-recourse Leverage and Pay No Tax: With a Solo 401(k) Plan, you can make a real estate investment using non-recourse funds without triggering the Unrelated Debt Financed Income Rules and the Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBTI or UBIT) tax (IRC 514). However, the non-recourse leverage exception found in IRC 514 is only applicable to 401(k) qualified retirement plans and does not apply to IRAs. In other words, using a Self-Directed SEP IRA to make a real estate investment (Self-Directed Real Estate IRA) involving non-recourse financing would trigger the UBTI tax.

6. Open the Account at Any Local Bank: With a Solo 401(k) Plan, the 401(k) bank account can be opened at any local bank or trust company. However, in the case of a SEP or a Self-Directed IRA, a special IRA custodian is required to hold the IRA funds.

7. No Need for the Cost of an LLC: With a Solo 401(k) Plan, the plan itself can make real estate and other investments without the need for an LLC, which, depending on the state of formation, could prove costly. Since a 401(k) plan is a trust, the trustee on behalf of the trust can take title to a real estate asset without the need for an LLC.

8. Better Creditor Protection: In general, a Solo 401(k) Plan offers greater creditor protection than a SEP IRA. The 2005 Bankruptcy Act generally protects all 401(k) Plan assets from creditor attack in a bankruptcy proceeding. In addition, most states offer greater creditor protection to a Solo 401(k) qualified retirement plan than a SEP IRA outside of bankruptcy.

The Solo 401k plan is unique and so popular because it is designed explicitly for small, owner-only businesses. The many features of the Solo 401(k) plan discussed above are why the Solo 401(k) Plan or Individual 401(k) Plan is so appealing and popular among self-employed business owners.

To learn more about the benefits of a Solo 401(k) Plan vs. a SEP IRA, please contact a tax professional at 800-472-0646.

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