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For Small Businesses, Turning a Retirement Burden Into Tax Savings

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For many clients, retirement income planning is as simple as determining how to maximize contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan—often the primary source of a client’s retirement savings, at least during the accumulation phase of planning. But what about small business clients, where the ability to simply access an employer-sponsored plan falls on their shoulders? 

Most of these clients know of the various retirement plan options, but what is often overlooked is the valuable tax credit that can help small business owners get their plans off the ground—and by helping clients understand the strict IRS requirements for claiming this credit, you can turn a planning burden into tax savings for small businesses.

The Start-Up Credit Basics

The tax credit for qualified retirement plan startup costs is available only to small business owners—employers are eligible if, during the preceding tax year, they employed 100 or fewer employees who received at least $5,000 in annual compensation from the employer (the same definition that generally applies for SIMPLE retirement plans). Further, the plan must be available to at least one employee who is a non-highly compensated employee (for 2015, a highly compensated employee is one who owns 5% of the business or who has earned more than $120,000).

Importantly, the small business client is only eligible for the credit if its employees were not able to participate in another retirement plan sponsored by the client, a member of a controlled group or a predecessor of either within three years of establishing the new plan (essentially, this requirement ensures that the plan truly is a newly-established retirement plan).

The credit is equal to 50% of the ordinary and necessary costs of starting up the retirement plan, including both the costs of setting up and administering the plan and costs related to educating employees about the plan, up to a maximum credit of $500 per year. The credit is available for three years, with the option of first claiming the credit in the year before the year in which the plan becomes effective. 

If the entire value of the plan cannot be maximized in a single year, the client has the option of carrying it back or forward to another tax year, so long as that tax year doesn’t begin prior to January 1, 2002.  In order to claim the credit, the client files Form 8881 with the IRS.

Choosing the Plan

Choosing to establish a retirement plan is only the first step for the small business client, as the IRS has established several types of plans that are specifically designed for small business owners. The startup tax credit is available to employers who establish a qualified plan—whether specifically designed for small businesses (a SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA) or other qualified plan (such as a 401(k) or an ESOP).

A SEP IRA is a retirement plan that is available to business owners who wish to contribute on behalf of employees—employee salary reduction contributions to a SEP IRA are not permitted. Contributions are limited to the lesser of 25% of an employee’s salary or $53,000 (in 2015). While the employer is under no obligation to contribute every year, if it chooses to contribute in a given year, it must contribute a uniform amount (generally a percentage of compensation) to all employee-participants.

SIMPLE IRAs are available to clients with 100 or fewer employees who earn at least $5,000 in annual compensation from the employer. These plans are considered to be easy to both establish and run, and allow for both employee and employer contributions (employee contributions are capped at $12,500 in 2015, with a $3,000 catch-up for employees aged 50 or over).

Employers can choose to contribute up to 2% of compensation (up to $265,000 in 2015), regardless of whether employees make contributions, or a match of up to 3% of compensation for employees who make their own contributions. The small business owner can change the contribution method from year to year.


Choosing the plan type is a decision that must be made by the client taking all relevant circumstances into consideration—but the startup tax credit will generally be available to help with the cost if the plan is an IRS qualified plan, as long as the conditions described above are satisfied.

Originally published on Tax Facts Onlinethepremier resource providing practical, actionable, and affordable coverage of the taxation of insurance, employee benefits, small business and individuals.   

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