The SEP-IRA is a terrific accumulation tool for workers who are self-employed, have a family business, or who have earnings as a 1099 Independent Contractor. SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension, but the account functions similar to a Traditional IRA. Money is contributed on a pre-tax basis, and then withdrawals in retirement are taxable. Distributions taken before age 59 1/2 may be subject to a 10% penalty.
We talk about Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) regularly, yet even for long-time investors, there are often some gaps in understanding all your options. This means that many investors are missing chances to save money on taxes, which is the primary advantage of IRAs versus regular “taxable” accounts.
Here’s a primer on the six types of IRAs you might encounter. For each type of IRA, I’m including an interesting fact on each, which you may be something you haven’t heard before! All numbers are for 2015; call me if you have questions on 2014 eligibility.
1) Traditional IRA. This is the original IRA, yet has the most complicated rules. Anyone can contribute to a Traditional IRA. Contributions grow tax-deferred and then you are taxed on any gains when the money is withdrawn.
The confusing part of the Traditional IRA is whether or not you can deduct the contribution from your income taxes. If you are in the 25% tax bracket, a $5,500 contribution will reduce your taxes by $1,375. Anyone can contribute, but not everyone can deduct their contribution. Here are the rules for three scenarios:
a) If you are not eligible for an employer sponsored retirement plan (and your spouse is also not eligible for one), then you (and your spouse) can deduct your IRA contributions.
b) If you are covered by an employer sponsored retirement plan, you can deduct your contribution if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below $61,000 (single), or below $98,000 (married, filing jointly).
c) If your spouse is covered by an employer sponsored plan, but you are not, you can deduct your contribution if your joint MAGI is below $183,000.
I suggest avoiding non-deductible contributions to a Traditional IRA as the deduction is the main benefit. If you’re eligible for a Roth IRA, never make a non-deductible contribution to a Traditional IRA. Non-deductible contributions create a cost basis for your IRAs, which you will have to track for the rest of your life. It’s a headache you don’t need.
Spouses can contribute to an IRA based on joint income, even if they do not have an income of their own. You cannot contribute to a Traditional IRA in the year you reach age 70 1/2. At that point, you must start Required Minimum Distributions. A premature withdrawal, before age 59 1/2, is subject to a 10% penalty, in addition to any income taxes due.
Interesting Fact: A Rollover IRA is a Traditional IRA. You can roll a 401(k) or other employer sponsored plan to a Traditional IRA or a Rollover IRA; they receive the same treatment. 401(k) plans are governed by Federal ERISA rules, whereas IRAs are protected under state creditor laws. If you want to remain under the Federal Regulations, you should designate the account as a “Rollover IRA” and not commingle with a Traditional IRA. I consider this step unnecessary. In Texas, we have robust protection for IRAs, so you are not at risk by consolidating accounts into one Traditional IRA.
2) Roth IRA. In a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax dollars, so there is no upfront tax deduction. Your account grows tax-free, and there is no tax due on withdrawals in retirement. The Five Year Rule” requires you to have had a Roth open for at least 5 years before you can take tax-free withdrawals in retirement. So, if you open a Roth at age 58, you would not be able to access tax-free withdrawals until age 63.
Not everyone is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. To be eligible for a full contribution, your MAGI must be below $116,000 (single), or $183,000 (married).
Interesting Fact: There are no RMDs on Roth IRAs and no age limits. Even after age 70 1/2, you can contribute to a Roth IRA (provided you have earned income) or convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth.
3) “Back Door” Roth IRA. This is not a separate type of account, but rather a funding strategy. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can fund a Non-Deductible Traditional IRA, then immediately convert the account to a Roth. You pay taxes on any gains, but since there were no gains, your tax due is zero. Very important: the conversion is only tax-free if you do not have any existing Traditional IRAs.
Both Traditional and Roth IRAs are subject to a combined contribution limit of $5,500, or $6,500 if age 50 or older.
Interesting Fact: Thinking of rolling your old 401(k) to an IRA? Don’t do it if you might want to do a Back Door Roth in the future. Rolling to an IRA will eliminate your ability to do a tax-free Roth conversion. Instead, leave your old 401(k) where it is, or roll it into your new 401(k).
4) Stretch IRA, also called an Inherited IRA or a Beneficiary IRA. If you are named as the beneficiary of an IRA, the inherited account is taxable to you. If you take the money out in the first year, it will all be taxable income. With a Stretch IRA, you can keep the inherited IRA tax-deferred, and only take Required Minimum Distributions each year. Note that Stretch IRA RMDs are based on the original owner’s age, so you cannot use a regular RMD calculator to determine the amount you must withdraw.
Interesting Fact: a spouse who inherits an IRA from their deceased spouse does not have to do a Stretch IRA. Instead, he or she can roll the IRA into their own account and treat it as their own. This is especially beneficial if the surviving spouse is younger than the decedent.
5) SEP-IRA. SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension. A SEP is an employer sponsored plan where the employer makes a contribution of up to 25% of the employee’s compensation, with a contribution cap of $53,000. Since it is an employer plan, you cannot discriminate and must make the same contribution percentage for all employees. As a result, pretty much the only people who use a SEP are those with no employees. The SEP is most popular with people who are self-employed, sole proprietors, or who are paid as an Independent Contractor via 1099 rather than as an Employee via W-2.
Let’s say you have a regular job and also do some freelancing as an Independent Contractor. You can contribute to the 401(k) through your employer AND contribute to the SEP for your 1099 work. You can also do a SEP in addition to a Traditional or Roth IRA.
Interesting Fact: The SEP is the only IRA which you can fund after April 15. If you file a tax extension, you have until you file your taxes to fund your SEP. We can accept 2014 SEP contributions all the way up to October 15, 2015.
6) SIMPLE IRA is the Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees. It’s like a 401(k), but just for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Employees who choose to participate will have money withheld from their paycheck and invested in their own account. The employer matches the contribution, up to 3% of the employee’s salary. This is a great option for small businesses because the costs are low and the administration and reporting requirements are easy. The 2015 contribution limit is $12,500, or $15,500 if over age 50.
Interesting Fact: Traditional and SEP IRAs have a 10% penalty for premature distributions prior age 59 1/2. For a SIMPLE IRA, if you withdraw funds within two years of opening the account, the penalty is 25%. Contributions made by both the employee and employer are immediately vested, so the high penalty is to discourage employees from raiding their SIMPLE accounts to spend the employer match.
IRAs are a very important tool for wealth accumulation, yet a lot of investors miss chances to participate and maximize their benefits. Since the contribution limits are low, it can be tough to make up for lost years. Your best bet: meet with me, bring your tax return and your investment statements and we can discuss your options.
A regular employee has a steady paycheck which makes planning and budgeting easy. For a freelancer, your income may fluctuate greatly from month to month and be very difficult to predict from year to year. You may not know what work you will be doing six months from now and that’s likely to be a more immediate concern than retirement which could be 20 or 30 years away.
It’s often impractical for a freelancer to save up a large lump sum investment each year. What does work for freelancers is to “pay yourself first” by setting up a monthly automatic investment program into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). This forces you to budget for retirement savings just as you would do for any other bill, such as your car payment or rent. It is easier to plan for smaller monthly contributions and this creates the same regular investment plan as an employee who is participating in a 401(k).
The maximum annual contribution for an IRA in 2014 is $5,500, which works out to $458 per month. If you aren’t able to contribute the maximum, that’s okay, there are mutual funds that will let you invest with as little as $100 a month. The most important thing is to get started and not put it off for another year. You can always increase your contributions in the future as you are able. If you are over the age of 50, you can contribute an additional $1,000 a year into an IRA, a total of $6,500 a year, or $541 per month.
If you can use a tax deduction, open a Traditional IRA. If you don’t need the tax deduction, and meet the income limitations, select a Roth IRA. Additionally, there is another reason the Roth IRA is very popular with freelancers. Many freelancers worry about hitting a slow patch in their business and needing to tap into their savings. A nice benefit of the Roth IRA – which may help you sleep well at night – is that you can access your principal without tax or penalty at any time. So if you do have an emergency in the future, you would be able to withdraw funds from your Roth IRA. (Principal is the amount you contributed; if you withdraw your earnings (the gains), the earnings portion would be subject to income tax and a 10% penalty if you are under age 59 1/2.)
If you are able to contribute more than $5,500 (or $6,500 if over age 50), the SEP-IRA is your best choice. You could contribute as much as $52,000 into a SEP this year, if your net income is over $260,000. The contribution for a SEP is roughly 20% of your net profit each year, so it works great for freelancers who want to save as much as possible. Why not just recommend a SEP for all freelancers? The challenge with a SEP is that it is impossible to know the exact dollar amount you can contribute until you actually prepare your tax return each year. That’s why most SEP contributions are not made until March or April of the following year. For freelancers who are getting started with saving for retirement, your best bet is to first maximize your contributions to a Traditional or Roth IRA through automatic monthly deposits. Then if you want to make an additional investment, you can also fund a SEP at tax time. A lot of investors assume that you cannot do a SEP if you do a Roth or Traditional IRA, but that is not the case, you can do both.
Being a freelancer can be very rewarding and fulfilling, but it does carry some additional financial responsibilities. You don’t have an employer to pay half of your social security taxes or to provide any retirement or insurance benefits. Unlike traditional employees, however, many freelancers don’t go from working full-time one day to completely retired the next day. What I often see is that many freelancers choose to keep working but reduce their schedule and select only the projects which really interest them. In this manner, they are never fully retired, but still stay active and have multiple sources of income. Regardless of your plans or intentions for retirement, my job is to help you become financially independent, so you work because you want to and not because you have to.