What is a SEP IRA?

SEP IRAs are a type of traditional IRA for self-employed individuals or small business owners. (SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension.) Any business owner with one or more employees, or anyone with freelance income, can open a SEP IRA. Contributions, which are tax-deductible for the business or individual, go into a traditional IRA held in the employee’s name. Employees of the business cannot contribute – the employer does. Like a traditional IRA, the money in a SEP IRA is not taxable until withdrawal.

One of the key advantages of a SEP IRA over a traditional or Roth IRA is the elevated contribution limit. For 2016 business owners can contribute up to 25% of income or $53,000, whichever is less.

Who can participate?

An employee is eligible to participate in a SEP IRA if he or she is at least 21 years old and has worked for the company in three of the last five years, and received at least $600 in compensation during the year.

As an employer, you don’t have to fund contributions every year. But when you do choose to make contributions, you must contribute not only to your own SEP IRA, but the SEP IRA of every eligible employee.

Is the SEP IRA Right for me?

The SEP IRA may be your best bet if you are a one-person show and plan to keep it that way. You can open one at virtually any bank, mutual-fund company or brokerage firm, and pay low or no annual account fees. Your contribution limit is based on a simple formula: You can put away as much as 25% of your net income, up to a cap that increases periodically to keep pace with inflation. In 2016, the cap is $53,000.

If you’re a small business owner, SEP IRAs are appealing because they are easy and inexpensive to set up, and contributions are tax deductible. A SEP IRA’s funding flexibility is also a draw. If you have a tough year financially, you can choose not to contribute to the plan. If you have a great year, you can fund the plan with a larger contribution than you’d originally intended.

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