Beyond Bulls & Bears


An attractive deal awaits small businesses when starting a workplace retirement plan

Small business owners without workplace retirement plans now may take advantage of expanded tax credits if they establish one, according to John Kutz, National Retirement Plan Strategist at Franklin Templeton. He outlines recent regulatory and legal developments.  

Wealth managers have historically struggled on how best to support clients that own small businesses. However, current regulation and enhancements in retirement plan structures make offering 401(k) plans to small businesses much easier and less expensive.

This is a win-win-win situation. It’s a win for our broker-dealer and advisor partners seeking to add “stickier assets” to their book of business by offering retirement plan services to their clients. It’s a win for the business owner as tax credits are now available to help mitigate the costs of a retirement plan. And it’s a win for the employees of the business that want an attractive retirement savings option.

Let’s dive into the tax deal that awaits small businesses…

Small business owners who do not currently offer a workplace retirement plan, now have an attractive tax deal to start one. By small, I mean businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Section 102 of the SECURE Act 2.0 of 2022 (SECURE 2.0) enhances and expands the tax credits available for your business if you establish a new simplified employee pension (SEP), savings incentive match plan for employees of small employers (SIMPLE) plans or qualified retirement plan like a 401(k) plan.

First, for businesses with up to 50 employees without a retirement plan that establish a SEP, SIMPLE IRA or 401(k) plan, Section 102 of SECURE 2.0 increases the small plan startup tax credit from 50% to 100% of eligible costs (capped at $5,000 per year) for the first three years the plan exists. (Prior rules still apply for those with 51-100 employees.)

More precisely, the enhanced credit is 100% of the eligible startup costs, up to the greater of:

$500; or

The lesser of

  • $250 multiplied by the number of non-highly compensated employees (non-HCEs) who are eligible to participate in the plan, or
  • $5,000.

Other eligibility rules include:

  • The business had at least one plan participant who was a non-HCE; and
  • In the three tax years before the first year the business is eligible for the credit, the covered employees were not substantially the same employees who received contributions or accrued benefits in another plan sponsored by the business.

Second, the new law also added an additional credit exclusively for defined contribution plans with 50 or fewer employees. The credit is equal to a percentage of the amount an employer contributes on behalf of employees, up to a per-employee cap of $1,000. Employees with compensation in excess of $100,000 are excluded from the calculation. This credit applies for five years and is phased out for employers with between 51 and 100 employees.

But don’t forget about the third potential plan startup credit that exists under the old rules, which are still applicable. An eligible employer that adds an auto-enrollment feature to its plan can claim a tax credit of $500 per year for a three-year period beginning with the first taxable year the employer includes an auto-enrollment feature.

Let’s talk numbers with an example. Consider the following scenario.

  1. In 2023, Biz Inc., sets up a new auto-enroll 401(k) plan with a 100% match up to 4% of compensation.
  2. The company has 19 employees: 17 are non-HCEs and two are HCEs.
  3. There are eight employees with compensation over $100,000 and there are 11 employees each with compensation of between $25,000-$100,000.
  4. Biz Inc.’s, total startup costs for year one = $7,500

Credit #1 Startup Credit

Biz Inc.’s credit is subject to a dollar limitation, which is the greater of $500 OR the lesser of A or B.

  1. $4,250 (i.e., $250 x 17 non-HCE participants)*
  2. $5,000

Result= $4,250

*20-50 non-HCEs would impose the $5,000 yearly cap

Credit #2 Auto Enrollment

Credit for auto enrollment feature = $ 500

Credit #3 Employer Contributions

11 employees with comp < $100K x $1,000= $11,000

Businesses will likely use an updated version of Form 8881, Credit for Small Employer Pension Plan Startup Costs and Auto-Enrollment to claim the credits.

What about businesses that will join or have joined multiple employer plans (MEPs) or Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs)? Fortunately, Section 111 of SECURE 2.0 ensures the startup tax credit is available for three years for employers joining a MEP or PEP, regardless of how long the MEP or PEP has been in existence.

The enhanced plan startup credit and credit for employer contributions for businesses with 50 or fewer employees is effective for the 2023 and later tax years. How do these changes impact plans started a year or two ago—are they simply out of luck? If a business established a plan within what we call “the establishment window” (i.e., three years to be eligible for the startup and auto enroll credit, and five years to be eligible for the employer contribution credit), and it meets the other eligibility criteria mentioned earlier, it would be eligible to claim the credits for the years remaining in the establishment window.

Returning to our prior scenario, let’s say that Biz Inc., had set up its plan in 2021. Biz Inc. would be able to claim the enhanced startup tax credit for one year—2023, and the new employer contribution credit for 2023-2025. If Biz Inc. was an eligible employer in 2021 under the startup credit rules in effect prior to the SECURE 2.0 Act changes, it would have applied 50% (rather than 100%) when calculating the maximum credit amount for 2021 and 2022. Biz Inc. would also have been able to claim the $500 auto-enroll credit for 2021 and 2022.

An enticing tax deal may await small businesses that do not currently offer workplace retirement plans. SECURE 2.0 enhances current plan startup tax credit rules and adds a new tax credit for employer-provided contributions. Plus, the $500 spiff for adding an auto-enroll feature may apply as a result of the prior rules that are still applicable.

Contributions provided by the Retirement Learning Center, LLC, a third-party industry consultant.


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