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The Owners-Only 401k Plan

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Last updated: 25 Nov, 2018
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By Jason Watson ()
Posted November 23, 2018

The i401k, solo 401k, solo k, uni k, or owners-only 401k is a great small business retirement plan for

  • a one-person show,

  • a one-person show with a spouse who also works for the business, or,

  • a group of members in a multi-member LLC that does not have any employees. The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 modified the contribution limits and rules, and allowed for an emergence of the owners-only 401k plan.

Due to special tax rules, you can contribute more to this type of plan than other comparable retirement plans. The previous table in the beginning of this chapter illustrated this point with real life numbers. Under the usual rules for defined contribution plans such as SEP IRAs and profit-sharing plans, the deductible contribution is capped at-

  • 25% of your salary or 25% of your earned income (as adjusted), or

  • $56,000 for 2019 (or $62,000 for catch-up) whichever is more restrictive.

But your deferrals as an employee into your solo 401k plan do not count towards the 25% cap, and this rule extends to your spouse. This is why the owner-only or solo 401k plan allows for the largest contribution because you have three sources of funding-

  • You at $19,000 (2019) plus $6,000 for catchup (employee deferral), and

  • Ditto for your spouse, and

  • The business contribution up to 25% of your compensation, and

  • The funding is independent of each other (deferrals are deferrals, and contributions are contributions).

Read that again. Let’s say you have a $50,000 salary, $38,000 to invest into retirement savings and you are married. If only one person draws a salary, he or she can only defer a maximum of $19,000 (2019). But if a married couple pays a $25,000 salary to each person, then the total retirement deferral can be $38,000 without having to increase salaries to allow for a larger business contribution.

With a SEP IRA, in contrast, you would need a 4 x $38,000 or $152,000 salary to make the same retirement contribution. The increase payroll costs would wipe out your returns for at least two years. Not good. We’ll talk more about why a SEP IRA is used for crisis management and not for self-employed retirement plans.

Deferrals and contributions are discretionary, so you can cut back as cash flow and objectives change. The deadline for funding the business (employer) matching or non-elective contribution to your solo 401k plan is the tax filing deadline for your business including extensions. So, if you are an S Corp, the business tax return (Form 1120S) is due March 15. But with a tax return extension you could delay the funding until September 15. However, sole proprietors have until April 15 (the tax return filing deadline) or October 15 (if you file an extension) to make his or her deposits.

Employee deferrals for corporations (such as an S Corp) must be deposited by the 15th of the following month. So, a March 27 paycheck for Q1 would require you to deposit employee funds by April 15, which is typically a slow day around the Watson CPA Group office (kidding).

These deadlines are true for all 401k plans (solo, company-sponsored, Roth option, Safe Harbor provision, etc.). However, there is more wiggle room and less scrutiny for when employee deferrals are deposited since discovery is a challenge (in other words, you won’t rat on yourself). To keep things and elegant, we recommend following the same schedule as “big boy” 401k plans.

As a side note, there is nothing saying you cannot wait until Q4 to make all your deferrals into your 401k plan, or any other quarter where perhaps a little bit of market timing or dollar cost averaging might be beneficial. Being the boss gives you flexibility with your small business retirement options.

Sidebar to the Side Note: Be careful about running out of room on your Q4 pay check. If you are paying yourself $60,000 a year or $15,000 a quarter, your Q4 pay check will be $15,000 and will not have enough room for a one and done $19,000 (2019) employee 401k deferral.

Unlike company-sponsored 401k plans, the individual or solo 401k plan does not need to perform discrimination testing of highly compensated employees (HCEs). More on that in a bit.

Solo 401k plans are also very economical to administer, allow for attractive retirement savings for you and your spouse, and remain simple enough to avoid all the hassles of a full company-sponsored plan. A company-sponsored plan (in contrast to a solo 401k plan) will cost about $1,000 per year (as of November 2018, Watson CPA Group has 23 employees and our 401k plan with Sure401k, a sister business to SurePayroll, was about $1,100 annually).

However, most solo 401k plans only charge for the commission or sales charge of the investments. For example, if you invest in A share mutual funds, there is a one-time sales load or commission of 5.75% (which might vary a bit between funds and fund classes). On that particular investment there are not any additional commissions, and the account fees are very small or non-existent. A shares (as opposed to C shares) are desirable for long-term investing since the commission paid is a one and done, and this cost is essentially amortized over several years.

The only downside is you cannot have a solo 401k or an owners-only 401k if you have employees. Even one part-time admin might blow this up.

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