The Frugal Fiduciary Small Business 401(k) Blog
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Safe harbor 401(k) plans are subject to employer contribution and participant disclosure requirements that don’t apply to traditional (non-safe harbor) 401(k) plans. In exchange, a safe harbor plan can automatically pass the ADP/ACP test and satisfy the minimum contribution requirement when the top heavy test fails. Because many small 401(k) plans (under 100 participants) have a hard time passing the ADP/ACP and top heavy tests, safe harbor plans are popular with small businesses.
As a business owner, you must operate your 401(k) plan according to the terms of a written plan document. Most plans use an IRS preapproved document for this purpose. All preapproved documents must be fully rewritten (or restated) every six years to reflect recent law changes. The last 6-year restatement cycle was called “PPA” after the Pension Protection Act. A new cycle - called "Cycle 3" - opened last year. Between August 1, 2020 and July 31, 2022, all pre-approved 401(k) plans must be restated from a PPA to a Cycle 3 plan document. That means now.
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Owners of a partnership or sole proprietorship (or an LLC taxed as either) are considered “self-employed individuals” for 401(k) plan purposes. 401(k) plans must allocate and test the annual contributions made to self-employed individuals using a special definition of plan compensation called earned income. When applicable, earned income is calculated by the plan’s Third-Party Administrator (TPA) based on information prepared by the employer’s Certified Public Accountant (CPA). The CPA, in turn, will use the TPA's calculation to finalize the employer’s year-end tax returns.
When two or more companies with common ownership meet the IRS’ controlled group definition, they are considered a single employer for 401(k) plan purposes. 401(k) plans must often benefit the employees of all controlled group members to pass the IRC section 410(b) “coverage” test annually. Put differently - overlooking a member can often mean a failed coverage test. Steep IRS penalties - including plan disqualification - are possible when a failure goes uncorrected for years. A basic understanding of the controlled group rules can help employers avoid this trouble.
401(k) plans must define a 12-month “plan year” for annual administration purposes. Most plans choose a calendar year for administrative ease. A new plan can specify a period that’s shorter than a full 12-months for its initial plan year by choosing a mid-year effective date. However, establishing a short plan year with a mid-year effective date is often a bad idea. Most plans are better off making their effective date retroactive to the first day of the normal plan year - January 1 in the case of a calendar-based plan – to establish a 12-month initial plan year.
Small businesses can have dramatically different goals for their 401(k) plan. The process of matching business goals to available 401(k) plan options is called plan design. Expert plan design can help a business minimize contribution expenses, improve employee participation, and/or avoid nondiscrimination test failures. As a business owner, you should settle for no less than expert plan design guidance from your 401(k) provider. The entire process can take 30 minutes or less.