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Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan for Business Owners

Safe harbor 401(k)s are a special type of retirement plan that simplifies things for both businesses and employees. Companies offering this plan get a break from complex IRS regulations, while employees get a guaranteed employer contribution to their retirement savings. Whether you are a seasoned employer or just getting started with your small business, understanding the ins and outs of safe harbor 401(k) plans is crucial.

This post is here to break it all down for you and give you the scoop on everything you need to know about this remarkable retirement plan. Get comfortable, grab a cup of coffee, and let’s dive into the world of safe harbor 401(k) plans!

What are nondiscrimination tests and how do they affect your 401(k) plan?

To understand the significance of safe harbour, you first need to understand the nitty-gritty of this test. So, the non-discrimination tests provide highly compensated and non-highly compensated (NHCEs) employees with equal opportunities to save for the future.

These tests ensure everything stays fair. It also looks over how much a company contributes to the employee accounts and the asset percentage belonging to the highly compensated employees (HCEs).

To keep a check on whether the 401(k) plan is benefitting the owner and the employee, the nondiscrimination tests are divided into three main types:

  1. The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) Test: It is created to compare the salary deferrals of NHCEs with the HCEs. It shows how much the employees’ salary goes towards their benefit plan.
  2. The Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) Test: Almost the same as the ADP test, the ACP test compares the employer’s contribution to HCEs with everyone else.
  3. Top-Heavy Test: It measures the key employees’ asset values in their 401(k) accounts compared to the assets held in their 401(k) plan.

If there are any failures in these tests, you will have to face the consequences. This is where a safe harbor 401(k) can help! With a safe harbor, you are secured against the uncertainties of these annual tests.

What is a safe harbor 401(k) plan?

It’s essentially a scheme designed to ensure that all qualified employees get an employer contribution while also providing certain benefits to businesses. Employers can avoid the complex 401(k) non-discrimination criteria used by the IRS to determine whether a plan is fair to all employees. In a way, employees and their employers benefit equally from the safe harbor 401(k) plan!

How does a safe harbor 401(k) work?

Companies with the regular 401(k) plan must pass the nondiscrimination test every year. But the ones that follow the safe harbor structure already ensure they comply with the governmental requirements. Moreover, the ADP test cannot cap out the highly compensated employers.

Apart from the owners, even the employees can benefit. With a safe harbor 401(k) plan, everyone can contribute upto $23,000 in 2024. Individuals above 50 can contribute an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions.

In the traditional safe harbor 401(k) plan, the employer has to make contributions and vest them immediately. These contributions have three forms:-

The first two forms are called matching – here, the employees must defer their funds to receive contributions. While in the third form, a company has to contribute even if the employees do not defer their income.

  1. Essential Matching: Here, the company has to match 100% of all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 3% of their compensation, and a 50% match of the next 2% of their compensation.
  2. Enhanced Matching: In this form, the company has to match at least 100% of all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 4% of their compensation. The compensation cannot exceed over 6%.
  3. Non-elective Contribution: The company has to contribute 3% of each employee’s compensation. It does not matter whether the employee contributes.

The safe harbor plan provides flexibility. It can be inclined to any type of retirement or 401(k) plan. However, the plan participants should be educated on this and given written notice.

What are the Types of Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan?

You can set a safe harbor 401(k) plan either with or without a match. Here are all the 401(k) safe harbor match and contribution options available:

  1. Basic Safe Harbor: The plan matches 100% of contributions up to 3% of an employee’s compensation and then 50% of an employee’s additional contributions, up to 5% of pay. This plan is also known as the elective safe harbor.
  2. Non-elective Safe Harbor: Employers have to give 3% of retirement contributions to every employee, regardless of whether the employee has chosen to participate.
  3. Enhanced Safe Harbor: Yet another type of elective plan, this plan provides a 100% match of up to 4% of an employee’s compensation.
  4. QACA Safe Harbor: The QACA (Qualified Automatic Contribution Arrangement) plan sets aside 3% of an employee’s compensation in the 401(k) plan. Moreover, until the deferral rate reaches 6%, there’s an auto-increase of 1% compensation per year. Companies have to match 100% of the first 1% of contributions and 50% of deferrals between 1% and 6% of compensation.

What are Safe Harbor Contribution Limits?

The maximum limit for employee contribution for safe harbor 401(k) plans is identical to those for standard 401(k) plans. In 2024, these limits are $23,000 for those under 50 and $30,500 for those over 50.

Furthermore, safe harbor protections enable firm owners and highly compensated workers (HCEs) to maximize their deferrals without concern about non-discrimination problems.

Navigate your way to financial success with ease. Check out our comprehensive guide on 401(k) contribution limits and deadlines for 2024 & 2023 now!

What is the Safe Harbor 401(k) Deadline?

If you want to set up a safe harbor plan for 2024, you must ensure that the safe harbor letters are sent out by September 1. In this manner, the new plan goes into effect on October 1, and your employees are able to start saving in their accounts.

Don’t forget that current plans seeking to convert to a safe harbor for the next year must provide notification by December 1, 2024. It may be a good idea to discuss this with your provider around October or November.

What are the Major Benefits of Safe Harbor 401(k)?

Apart from being super convenient, having a safe harbor plan has various perks for both employees and employers. Some of them are:

  • It encourages your employees to save for their future. Usually, employer matches help increase employee participation rates.
  • It improves hiring and retention by eliminating limitations on contributions from highly compensated workers or firm owners, as well as monitoring contributions by non-highly compensated staff.
  • Businesses with 51-100 employees can still get the original SECURE Act’s administrative expense credits, capped at $5,000 per year for three years.
  • Small businesses can also benefit from tax benefits. With Secure Act 2.0 signed into law on December 29, 2022, small firms with up to fifty employees may be eligible for a significant tax credit covering all plan start-up expenses, up from fifty percent limited at $5,000 per employer yearly over three years.
  • Employer contributions that fulfill the ADP and ACP safe harbor requirements automatically pass non-discrimination and top-heavy scrutiny.
  • All employees can contribute the maximum amount to their 401(k).
  • Employer donations are tax-deductible.
  • Add automatic enrollment to your new or existing plan and receive an additional $500 annual credit over three years, saving up to $16.5k!

What are the Disadvantages of Safe Harbor 401(k)?

Although there are no significant disadvantages to a safe harbor plan, there are a few factors to think about. They are:-

  • First and foremost, these sorts of plans require sending out an annual notification at least 30 days before the new plan year begins.
  • Furthermore, with the safe harbor match, you are committed to the plan for one year.
  • Another thing to consider is that if you decide to discontinue supplying safe harbor, certain providers may charge you a termination fee.
  • Finally, depending on your employee’s salary, it might get rather expensive.

How Do You Establish a Safe Harbor 401(k)?

So, do you want to build a safe harbor 401(k) plan for your company? It’s absolutely straightforward! Consult with financial experts who are familiar with the intricacies of implementing these strategies. Previously, accounting firms and payroll providers handled these types of programs. But, online options are becoming increasingly popular these days.

There is also the option of seeking advice from an advisory firm, which may build a retirement plan to your company’s specific financial status and aspirations. Regardless of who assists you with it, whether it’s an accountant or a financial counselor, make sure everything is formally documented as a safe harbor.

Even if you don’t think you need one right now, keep an eye on things since several states are proposing retirement plan legislation. These accounts assist business owners in complying with federal regulations. They also ensure that employees pay the required retirement contributions. It’s a win-win for everyone involved!

401(k) Safe Harbor vs. Traditional 401(k) – What is the Difference?

Traditional 401(k)s and 401(k) safe harbor plans are two standard options, each with its perks. Now, in a traditional 401(k), there could be some pretty strict regulations about annual testing to make sure higher-earning employees aren’t benefiting more than lower-wage workers.

On the other hand, 401(k) safe harbor rules can offer a way around those tests. This means more flexibility for you and your team. Want to see the details side by side? Check out the table below for a quick comparison between the two options:

FeaturesTraditional 401(k)401(k) Safe Harbor
Roth ContributionAllowedAllowed
Employer ContributionOptionalContribution of 3% of the employee payment or 100% match contribution up to 3% of the payment and 50% of the next 2%
Profit Sharing Plans CompatibilityAvailableAvailable
Loan FacilityAvailableAvailable
Maximum Employee Deferral$23,000$23,000
Investment ProvidersChoice availableChoice available
VestingOptionalImmediate and optional
ADP/ACP TestingYesNo
Catch-up contributions are allowed for people aged 50 or above$7,500$7,500
Top-heavy TestingYesUsually satisfactory

When Must Your Organization Consider a Safe Harbor Plan?

So, when is a safe harbor strategy something your company should really consider? Let’s get started with it. Safe harbor strategies can be especially useful in the following situations:

  • When highly paid employees (HCEs) wish to increase their contributions to the 401(k) plan while avoiding testing failure.
  • You have had new employer contribution rules placed on you to ensure that you pass tests and comply.
  • If your current plan is “top-heavy,” meaning that essential personnel receive 60% or more of the assets.
  • If your company’s 401(k) plan recently failed non-discrimination or compliance testing and you want to improve future performance.
  • Your present 401(k) has low involvement among non-HCEs due to personal financial uncertainty or an inability to contribute effectively.

Are you considering a safe harbor 401(k) plan for your company? Seek tailored financial advice from the experts at Self-directed Retirement Plans LLC! Our team can help you understand the benefits for both employers and employees, ensuring you make informed decisions for the future.

Contact us today for personalized guidance and unlock the full potential of your retirement plan!


What does a safe harbor 401(k) cost?

The cost of a safe harbor 401(k) plan varies based on the provider and the exact features offered. It is advised that you speak with your financial adviser or the provider directly to have a more detailed knowledge of the fees involved.

Can I make changes to the safe harbor plan requirements in the middle of the year?

Yes, it is feasible to amend the safe harbor plan terms in the middle of the year. Still, it is critical to verify that any modifications conform with IRS laws and that plan members receive adequate notice.

Can I suspend safe harbor contributions?

In certain circumstances, safe harbor contributions can be suspended during a plan year. However, it’s essential to follow IRS guidelines and provide the required notices to employees.

Can I switch from a traditional 401(k) plan to a safe harbor plan?

Yes, it is possible to switch from a traditional 401(k) plan to a safe harbor plan. Still, it’s essential to follow the necessary procedures and communicate the change effectively to your employees.

Can I make additional contributions to a safe harbor 401(k) plan?

Additional contributions beyond the safe harbor requirements can be made to a safe harbor 401(k) plan, subject to IRS limitations and regulations.

Can I cancel a safe harbor plan?

Yes, a safe harbor plan can be terminated; nevertheless, it is critical to follow IRS standards, notify members, and meet any outstanding obligations.

When may I make Safe Harbor contributions?

Safe harbor contributions should be made according to the timeframes set by the IRS. It is critical to follow these deadlines in order to remain compliant.

Why is non-discrimination testing necessary?

Non-discrimination testing is critical to guarantee that the 401(k) plan does not unjustly favor highly compensated workers over non-highly compensated employees, as required by IRS requirements.

Can non-elective contributions, in addition to safe harbor contributions, be made to a safe harbor 401(k) plan?

Yes, non-elective contributions can be made in addition to safe harbor contributions. However, it’s important to understand and adhere to IRS requirements for such contributions.

Can a match in addition to safe harbor contributions be made to a safe harbor plan?

Match contributions can be made in addition to safe harbor contributions. At the same time, it’s mandatory to comply with IRS regulations and plan documents regarding matching contributions.

Is a safe harbor 401(k) plan always exempt from top-heavy testing?

While safe harbor 401(k) plans are generally exempt from top-heavy testing, there are specific criteria that must be met to maintain this exemption. It’s advisable to consult with a qualified professional for detailed guidance.

Are notices required for safe harbor 401(k) plans using non-elective contributions?

Yes, notices are required for safe harbor 401(k) plans that utilize non-elective contributions. It’s vital to provide these notices to employees within the specified timeframes to remain compliant with IRS regulations.

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