Is Safe Harbor Right For Your Company?

401k safe harbor laws
Determining the right type of 401(k) plan for your business can be challenging. With so many options and so much to consider, a key decision could be whether to go with a traditional or a safe harbor plan design. This is important as your choice can have long-range implications for your employees and your company.
As an employer, you could be limited in the amount you can personally contribute to the plan under a traditional 401(k) plan. On the other hand, a safe harbor plan allows an employer to make a minimum contribution to their employees’ accounts while giving the owner/employees the ability to maximize their personal contributions to the plan. This added benefit may be well worth the potential higher cost of a safe harbor plan. For small companies, the popular safe harbor plan design can be a win-win for both owners and employees. 
Although traditional plans allow for both employee and employer contributions to employee accounts, the amounts for employees who are considered highly compensated may be restricted by maximum income and discrimination testing limits. A traditional plan is required to be tested ensuring employees considered highly compensated are not disproportionately advantaged in the plan.
With a safe harbor plan design, employers can match employee contributions or make non-elective safe harbor contributions without many of the Department of Labor/IRS regulations that come with traditional plans.
A safe harbor plan is an attractive alternative for the business that wants the benefits of a 401(k) plan but does not want to, or is not able to satisfy the required annual compliance testing. It’s a very good option for family-based businesses that can meet the required criteria.


Safe harbor plans can have several advantages:

  • Allow owners and other highly compensated employees to contribute the maximum annual deferral amount into their own accounts.
  • Under a safe harbor plan, top-heavy rules and discrimination testing are avoided for salary deferrals and employer contributions meeting the safe harbor provisions. This limits the effects from IRS non-discrimination testing and top-heavy.
  • May be able to reduce your business taxes AND help your employees build a larger nest egg. 

As attractive as a safe harbor plan sounds, there are some downsides when considering a safe harbor plan versus a traditional 401(k) plan.


Other considerations:

  • If your business has inconsistent revenue streams, it may be difficult to maintain year-round matching or Non-Elective contributions.
  • Safe harbor plans can be more expensive than a traditional plan.
  • To get the advantages, a safe harbor plan must meet several criteria in order to qualify such as required employer contributions, mid-year amendment restrictions, and notice requirements.  Make sure you review these criteria before selecting safe harbor.
  • Safe harbor matching or Non-Elective contributions are vested 100% immediately.
  • A safe harbor plan must be set up 3 months prior to the plan year end date which means the October 1, 2017 deadline is fast approaching.
Advance preparation and planning is always necessary in order to establish a new tax-qualified plan or redesign an existing one. The same holds true for safe harbor plan design. Making an informed choice starts with asking the right questions and understanding the benefits and drawbacks of your retirement plan options. Not sure if Safe Harbor is right for your company? Let us help you with a needs assessment to help you determine the best path. Contact us now.