SEP-IRAs - An Important Self-Employed Retirement Plan Option

A SEP-IRA can be a great way for the self-employed to save for retirement.

SEP IRAs allow self-employed individuals to save more. vgajic/Getty Images

A SEP-IRA (Simplified Employee Pension) allows employers to make retirement plan contributions to its employees. In addition, self-employed individuals may create and fund a SEP-IRA retirement plan for themselves. Compared to the better-known 401(k) plan, potentially higher contribution limits along with far less complexity are key SEP-IRA benefits.

Who Can Set Up a SEP-IRA?

Any employer can establish a SEP-IRA, including sole proprietorships, partnerships, and unincorporated businesses.

An individual with earnings from self-employment may create a SEP-IRA, even if he is also an employee elsewhere covered by a workplace retirement plan.

Benefits of a SEP-IRA

In addition to the SEP-IRAs primary benefit as an easy-to-implement retirement savings vehicle, a SEP-IRA can also provide large tax benefits. Contributions to a SEP-IRA provide a tax deduction to the employer (or self-employed individual) for the tax year to which the contributions are designated.

SEP-IRAs lack an annual IRS filing requirement. As further evidence of their simplicity, the paperwork necessary to establish a SEP-IRA is minimal.

Important SEP-IRA Dates

Like regular IRAs and Roth IRAs, contributions to a SEP-IRA can be made following the year to which the contribution applies. In addition, the ordinary SEP-IRA contribution deadline can be extended to as late as the extended due date of the tax return.

The deadline for creating the SEP-IRA is also the due date of the tax return plus any extensions.

For most people, the SEP-IRA must be established and the contributions made by the April 15 following the year the income was earned. Furthermore, most taxpayers may extend their tax returns to as late as October 15 and thereby also receive an extension of time to create and fund their SEP-IRAs. The deadline to make a SEP IRA contribution for the 2016 tax year is April 18, 2017 (October 16, 2017 is the extension deadline).


SEP-IRA Contribution Rules

There is a great deal of flexibility in the amount you contribute to your SEP-IRA. There is very little flexibility in who you contribute it to.

Since the contribution amount can be determined annually, there is no obligation for an annual contribution of a certain amount or percentage. In any year, the contribution amount can be as little as 0% to as much as 25% of compensation (up to a limit of $270,000 eligible compensation), provided that the total contribution to any one individual does not exceed $53,000 for 2016 and $54,000 for 2017.

Depending on your actual income, the SEP IRA contribution limit could be greater than the IRA contribution limits of $5,500 in 2016 and 2017 ($6,500 for ages 50 or older). It is often wise to compare SEP IRA limits to the 401(k) contribution limit for employees which is $18,000 in 2016 and 2017 ($24,000 for ages 50 or older).  Unlike IRAs and 401ks, SEP IRAs do not offer any catch-up provisions.  But the good news is that the contribution limits are already pretty substantial.

For more information on SEP IRA contribution limits for the 2016 and 2017 tax year, see SEP IRA Limits and Deadlines

Note: The employer must contribute the same contribution percentage to every employee who is at least 21 years old, earned $600 or more for the year in question, and worked for the employer at least three of the previous five years.

Compensation Calculation

Self-employed individuals who wish to calculate and possibly fund the maximum allowable SEP-IRA contribution should prepare for some head-scratching. First, the previously mentioned 25% limit is on net profit, not gross revenue. More importantly, the deduction for half of the self-employment tax as well as the deduction for the SEP-IRA contribution itself must be subtracted from the net profit number for purposes of calculating the SEP-IRA limit.

Here is a helpful contribution calculator that may be used to determine maximum annual contributions to a SEP IRA. However, for important tax matters such as this it is advisable to consult with a professional tax advisor if you have additional questions regard the actual contribution amounts to a SEP IRA.

The IRS provides a helpful list of SEP IRA related resources at

Updated by Scott Spann