SEP IRA Contribution Limits, Rules, and Deadline to Establish Account

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If you’re self-employed, you may be wondering what options you have to save for retirement. The good news is that there are several different retirement accounts, depending on your needs. Figuring out the best option for you and your retirement goals can be the challenge— but we are here to help.

One option many of our clients chose is to open a SEP IRA. They’re easy to set up and maintain, with no reporting requirements and adjustable contribution limits. This flexibility is exactly what many small business owners are looking for in a retirement plan and we can help you get one started.

Who Qualifies for a SEP IRA?

A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) account is an IRA for small business owners with one or more employees, or anyone with independent (self-employed individual) income. Unlike the Traditional or Roth IRA for individuals (which has a specific contribution deadline, generally April 15), SEPs are different. The deadline for establishing and contributing to a SEP IRA is the filing deadline for the employer's tax return, including extensions for which year the contribution will apply for.

There are many reasons our clients open SEP IRAs for their business. Aside from the overall ease of plan management, you can vary the contribution amount depending on the ebb and flow of business.

For example, say a construction company opens a SEP plan for their employees. They chose this plan due to the cyclical nature of the industry, so in good years they can contribute more but in off years reduce the percentage. With a self-directed SEP, employee John Doe can decide where and what to invest in— though he cannot make any additional contributions, the account is solely owned by him and is under his control.

Contribution Limits

A SEP IRA is tax deferred. That means up-front tax breaks and tax-deferred savings, so you don't pay taxes until you withdraw the money from the account during your retirement. One big advantage of a SEP IRA is the higher contribution limit.

In 2020, the SEP contribution limit was up to 25% of individual compensation, with a maximum of $57,000. That amount increased for 2021. The 2021 SEP contribution limit is still up to 25% of compensation, but now with a maximum of $58,000.

The contributions allowed in a SEP are much higher compared to a maximum of $6,000 ($7,000 with a catch-up contribution if 50 or older) allowed in a Traditional or Roth IRA. The SEP IRA doesn’t allow for catch-up contributions at age 50 like other IRAs because the employer makes the contributions to the SEP, not the employee.

Since the employer is making the contributions, the amounts are related to the employees' salary or wages. This means that everyone’s contribution is the same percentage of salary. If you make a 25% SEP IRA contribution to yourself as the owner, you also must make a 25% employer contribution for your employees who qualify to participate in the plan.

However, not all employees may be eligible to participate in the SEP IRA. Employees must be included in the SEP IRA if they:

  • Attained age 21;
  • Worked for your business in at least 3 of the last 5 years;
  • Received at least $650 in compensation for 2021 ($600 for 2019- 2020) from your business.

You can decide to have requirements for eligibility that are less restrictive (i.e. attained age 18), but not more restrictive than what is listed above.

Also, you can exclude employees covered by a union agreement whose retirement benefits were bargained for in good faith by the employees' union.

One neat thing about a self-directed SEP IRA with IRAR is that the participants can invest in a wide variety of different investment types. The self-directed SEP IRA has all the same limits and rules as a regular SEP, but allows investments in alternative assets. The higher contribution limits allow you to invest in alternative assets (like real estate) faster. You could be contributing as much as $57,000 in 2020 and $58,00 in 2021 to help you reach your retirement goals.

Another important thing to note is that employer contributions to a SEP-IRA won't affect the amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA. However, it may prevent you from receiving a tax deduction for contributions to a Traditional IRA.

How to Set Up a SEP IRA

You can set up a SEP IRA for all eligible employees by executing a formal written agreement, form 5305-SEP that you get from your IRA custodian. You must give each eligible employee a copy of this form. The SEP isn't considered adopted until you give each employee this information. You 

IRAR can help you establish your employees’ individual retirement accounts. Once the accounts are set up, you would send the contributions directly to IRAR.

The deadline for setting up a SEP is May 17 or your tax-filing deadline, including extensions. Generally this would be April 15 but deadline was extended due to the pandemic.

SEP Distributions

Distributions from a self-directed SEP IRA work like any other tax deferred IRA. Distributions are treated as ordinary income and subject to income tax (and if you are under the age 59 ½, early withdrawal penalties) when a withdrawal is made.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) rules apply to SEPs. Due to changes made by the SECURE Act in 2019, if your 70th birthday is July 1, 2019 or later, you do not have to take distributions until you reach age 72.

Things to Remember

  • The IRS has a handy checklist for business owners to use to determine their eligibility for a SEP IRA. You can use this to help you make sure your plan is compliant with IRS regulations.
  • You must contribute the same percentage for all employees, including yourself. If the business contributes 20% of your income to your SEP account, it must also contribute 20% of each individual employee’s income to their personal SEP accounts.
  • The SEP IRA cannot issue a loan to the account-holders, and the assets cannot be used as collateral.
  • SEP IRAs do not allow catch-up contributions, unlike some other accounts. The maximum contribution is capped at 25% of an individual’s compensation (with a maximum amount of $57,000 for 2020 and $58,000 for 2021), per tax year. 
  • Employees cannot contribute any additional funds to their SEP accounts— the contribution is limited to the percentage set by the employer.
  • If an employee leaves before the end of the plan term, you must still contribute to their SEP account, even if they have already left your employ. They must receive the same percentage contribution as the rest of your employees.
  • Your business can deduct your contributions to employee SEP accounts. These are tax deductible. The IRS has more detailed information on limits and allowances here.

SEP IRAs are inexpensive, easy to setup, easy to maintain, and do not require annual IRS filings like 401(k) accounts. With a self-directed SEP, you have all those benefits plus the flexibility to invest in almost anything. Why wouldn’t you want to start saving for your retirement today?


When is the SEP IRA Contribution deadline?

The deadline to establish a SEP IRA is May 17, 2021 or your tax-filing deadline, including extensions. Due to the pandemic this deadline was extended along with the tax filing deadline for 2020.

Who qualifies for a SEP IRA?

A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) account is an IRA for small business owners with one or more employees, or anyone with independent (self-employed individual) income. This IRA allows higher contributions than a Traditional or Roth IRA.

What is a SEP IRA?

A SEP IRA or Simplified Employee Pension is a retirement plan for small businesses with one or more employees. You, the business owner count as an employee.

Can an employee contribute to a SEP IRA?

An employee cannot contribute to a SEP IRA, only the employer. However, the employee can set up a separate individual retirement account and make contributions not to exceed the total allowed for the year.

What is the deadline to set up a SEP IRA?

The IRS sent out a press release extending the deadline to May 17th, 2021 for the tax year 2020. This applies to individuals to make 2020 contributions to their individual retirement arrangements (IRAs and Roth IRAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), Archer Medical Savings Accounts (Archer MSAs), and Coverdell education savings accounts (Coverdell ESAs).


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