Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans For Small Businesses

Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans For Small Businesses bb3 Apr 30, 2012

By Staff writer State Farm™ Employee

Employee retirement plans are supposed to help eligible employees who work for a company save for retirement. Participation in the plan must be for all eligible employees, not just top executives.

This regulation can be a problem for a small business, where the salary difference between the owner-employees and other employees may be substantial. A shop owner may have a small number of employees, or a graphic designer may use a part-time administrative assistant. It can be difficult to set up a retirement plan that covers all employees, allows the owner to save large amounts of money for retirement, and doesn’t inappropriately favor the person who makes the most money.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. The Internal Revenue Code and its related regulations allow for a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan to not be discriminatory, even if the owner is the only employee who contributes.

A Safe Harbor 401(k) plan can allow eligible employees to contribute part of their salary either pre-tax or after-tax (as a Designated Roth Contribution) to the plan. Then, the employer must generally contribute matching funds or a set amount of money on behalf of the employees who participate.

The first requirement for a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan is that all eligible employees be allowed to participate. An eligible employee is one who is over the age of 21, has at least one year of service, and has worked at least 1,000 hours in the year beginning with the date of hire. An employer can make the plan more inclusive, for example, by covering younger employees or allowing employees with less than one year of service to participate.

Once the Safe Harbor 401(k) plan is set up, there are four basic rules that must be followed in order to meet the Safe Harbor 401(k) requirements.

  • Required employer contribution: An employer is required to make a contribution to a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan. The employer can do this by contributing a minimum of 3 percent of the salary of all eligible employees. Or, the employer can match the salary deferral contributions of all eligible employees. The basic formula requires the employer to contribute 100 percent of the salary deferral contributions that represent the first 3 percent of compensation plus, an additional 50 percent of the salary deferral contributions that represent the next 2 percent of compensation. For example, if an eligible employee defers 5 percent of compensation, the employer would be required to make a matching contribution of 4 percent of the employee’s compensation.

  • 100 percent vesting of the required employer contribution: The required Safe Harbor employer contribution is 100% vested immediately. Employees can take that money when they leave the business, no matter how long they have worked there.

  • Annual notice to participants: Each year, the employer must provide a notice that explains Safe Harbor contributions and how the employer will satisfy those requirements.

  • Withdrawal restrictions: If an employer allows an employee to take a hardship withdrawal, money withdrawn can only come from the employee salary deferral contributions, and it is generally subject to a 10 percent penalty tax if the employee is younger than age 59½.

A Safe Harbor 401(k) lets an employer offer a retirement plan that benefits all eligible employees, regardless of salary. And it can generally allow all participants and employers to set more money aside than other types of retirement plans, which have lower limits on total annual contributions. That’s why it’s one of many retirement plan options for small businesses.

Neither State Farm nor its agents provide tax or legal advice. Please consult your own adviser regarding your particular circumstances.


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