How a profit-sharing plan is different from a traditional 401(k)

LAST REVIEWED Nov 16 2021 20 MIN READ

By The Human Interest Team

Key Takeaways

  • Both 401(k) and profit sharing plans are employer-sponsored retirement plans.

  • In a profit-sharing plan, employees receive an amount from their employer based on company profits (rather than a specific amount outlined in a match formula).

  • All eligible employees are eligible to receive an employer discretionary profit sharing contribution.

  • It’s up to the employer to decide how much of its profits it wishes to contribute, and they’re capable of changing this amount.

What is a profit-sharing plan?

A profit-sharing plan is a defined contribution retirement plan that gives employees a share of the profits of their company. A profit-sharing contribution is not tied to an employee’s contribution to a retirement plan. This means all eligible employees, as defined by the plan, will receive a profit-sharing contribution.  

Profit-sharing plans are flexible and allow employers to contribute when they choose, as long as contributions are substantial and recurring. An employer can make a contribution in any year, even an unprofitable year. Any profit sharing contribution must be allocated to eligible participants using a definite, predefined allocation formula that’s stated in the plan document. 

For many organizations, profit-sharing plans can serve as a powerful incentive for employees and owners alike. The goal of these plans is to reward all eligible employees for their contribution to the business’ success and align their financial well-being with that of the company. Because of this, profit sharing may help businesses recruit and retain employees. 

Read on to learn more about if offering a profit-sharing plan is right for your organization.

Is profit-sharing the same as a 401(k)? 

The short answer? No. A 401(k) plan is a retirement plan that includes employee elective deferrals and may also include employer match contributions.  Unlike a profit-sharing plan, employer contributions are limited to only those employees who actively contribute towards their own retirement. Profit-sharing plans do not include employee deferrals. Employer contributions are made for all eligible participants.

There are different types of profit-sharing plans:

  1. Stand-alone plans that only have employer profit-sharing contributions 

  2. Plans that are combined with, and part of, a 401(k) plan

Stand-alone plans: In a stand-alone profit-sharing plan, only employer contributions are permitted (i.e., an employee cannot make any contributions). This plan design may best suit small employers with limited resources that still want to offer retirement plan benefits. If profit-sharing plans for small businesses are set up as stand-alone plans, employers can avoid the more costly, time-consuming administrative work related to maintaining a 401(k) plan. In the future, when it has the resources, the employer can then add the 401(k) component to the plan to enhance the employer’s retirement plan offering. 

Combination plans: A 401(k) plan may be designed to allow an employer to make profit-sharing contributions. Rather than a stand-alone profit-sharing plan, the employer is combining the benefits of a 401(k) and a profit-sharing plan into a single plan. This can lead to cost efficiencies and a reduction of administrative burden for the employer. This type of combined plan will have both employee elective deferrals and employer profit-sharing contributions. It may or may not have employer matching contributions as well, depending on the total investment the employer wants to make and how it wants to motivate employees with respect to retirement savings. 

Who can offer a profit-sharing plan?

Many companies are eligible to offer a profit-sharing plan, including: 

  • Companies of any size 

  • For-profit and nonprofit organizations (your company’s status is irrelevant) 

  • Companies that can offer 401(k) plans (you can offer a 401(k) or a profit-sharing plan—or both) 

  • Companies that are profitable—or not (profitability isn’t a requirement to offer this type of retirement savings plan)

A profit-sharing plan is available for a business of any size, and a company can establish one even if it already has other retirement plans. A company has a lot of flexibility in how it can implement a profit-sharing plan. 

How does a profit-sharing plan work?

A profit-sharing plan is a qualified plan subject to Internal Revenue Codes (IRC) Section 401(a) and its rules and restrictions. The first step to establishing a profit-sharing plan is determining the terms of the plan. Since a profit-sharing plan is a “qualified retirement plan,” they must also comply with all applicable rules under the IRC and ERISA. The employer has design discretion, within set parameters, when selecting discretionary provisions. 

Common types of profit-sharing plan formulas

A critical design decision for a profit-sharing plan is determining how to allocate profits among eligible employees. The IRC requires the allocation formula be stated in the plan document. There are many permissible profit sharing allocation formulas—including age-weighted, new comparability, integrated, cross-tested, flat dollar—but the most common allocation formula is the comp-to-comp method (also called pro-rata), which is calculated using the following formula: 

  • An employer first calculates the total of all the eligible employees’ compensation 

  • Each employee’s annual compensation is divided by the total eligible compensation to get a percentage 

  • The amount to be allocated to each employee is his or her percentage multiplied by the total profit sharing contribution being made to the plan 

Example of a comp-to-comp (pro-rata) allocation formula

In our example, we’ll highlight a business with three employees with varying salaries. The company shares 10% of the company’s annual profit of $50,000 (this is a $5,000 profit sharing contribution to be allocated).

Salary/total eligible compensationEmployee’s allocation percentage x Total profit sharing contributionFinal contribution amount
Employee A($50,000 / $200,000) = 25.00%25% x $5,000$1,250
Employee B($65,000 / $200,000) = 32.50%32.50% x $5,000$1,625
Employee C($85,000 / $200,000) = 42.50%42.50% x $5,000 $2,125

The math: The first step is to add together annual compensation paid to eligible employees (e.g., $50,000 + $65,000 + $85,000 = $200,000). Next, we divide the employee's annual compensation by the total compensation from step one to find a percentage for each employee  (e.g., $50,000/$200,000 = 0.25). Finally, we multiply this percentage by the total profit sharing contribution to be allocated ($5,000) for each employee’s final contribution amount (e.g., 0.25 x $5,000 = $1,250).

Discretionary options employers should consider when designing a profit-sharing plan 

Employee eligibility: Eligibility for participation in the profit-sharing plan can be limited to employees who have worked a stated number of hours (up to 100 hours of service in the applicable time period) or for a period of time (up to 12 months of service). An employer can also choose to exclude non-resident aliens without U.S source income, union employees, and employees under age 18. Other exclusions based on job classification may also be possible if certain testing requirements are met. 

Timing of contribution: The easiest and most common time to make a profit-sharing contribution is as a one-time, end-of-year contribution. After the year ends, the employer  determines the amount, if any, of the profit-sharing contribution. The contribution can be put in the plan at any time until the corporate tax filing deadline and be counted as an allocation (and deduction) for the previous plan year.

Loans and in-service withdrawals: The plan may permit loans and/or in-service withdrawals such as hardships. The employer should review its philosophy on retirement savings when selecting these options. Some employers like to lock down distributions to ensure money is available for retirement, while others think using the retirement savings as an emergency fund is acceptable. 

Distributions: The plan must state when distributions are available and what form those distributions can be made in. Unlike 401(k) contributions, profit-sharing contributions can be distributed when the employee reaches an age stated in the plan and has at least five years of service. (There will be a 10% penalty for early distribution if the employee is under 59 ½, unless an exception applies.) Forms of distribution an employer can select are:

  1. Lump-sum distribution 

  2. Periodic or installment distributions

  3. Ad-hoc (random) distributions

  4. Annuities

If a plan offers a lump-sum distribution, it does not have to offer any other forms of distribution. There are other rules that apply to profit-sharing plans as well including coverage testing and nondiscrimination testing

How much can an employer contribute to a profit-sharing plan?

The maximum amount that can be contributed to a participant's account in a defined contribution plan each year is the lesser of 100% of the participant's compensation, or $58,000 for 2021 ($64,500 for a plan that includes 401(k) contributions if the employee is eligible for catch up). The annual limit includes employee elective deferral contributions, employer contributions and any forfeitures that are allocated to a participant's account. Annual limits apply to all of an employee’s accounts in retirement plans maintained by the same employer.

In addition, an employer’s deduction for contributions to a profit sharing plan cannot be more than 25% of total compensation for the year for eligible employees. The maximum compensation that can be used per employee is $290,000 in 2021. (There’s a separate limit for deducting employee elective deferrals to a 401(k) plan).

Does profit-sharing count towards the 401k limit?

It depends. Keep in mind that the amount an employee can contribute to a 401(k) plan is limited by the IRC Section 402(g) limit, $19,500 in 2021 (plus $6,500 catch up for eligible employees).  This limit is specific to employee elective deferrals and does not apply to profit-sharing plans. The annual limit on total contributions, discussed above, includes employee elective deferral contributions. If the employer only has a stand-alone profit-sharing plan, the full limit can be used for that plan. If the employer also has a 401(k) plan, any 401(k) contributions made by employees, and any match made by the employer, count against the single limit. Therefore, profit sharing contributions will be limited based on these other contributions. 

Just like with other tax-advantaged retirement accounts, the IRS can change the contribution limits. But the profit-sharing plan contribution limits give employers plenty of room to customize a plan to match their interests and their employees’ needs. There’s no set amount that must be contributed each year—but there is a maximum amount that can be contributed, which fluctuates with inflation.

Will profit-sharing reduce my company’s or my employees’ tax bills?

Yes, profit-sharing plans will help reduce your company’s and employees’ tax bills. Contributions and earnings generally aren’t included in federal or state income tax until they’re distributed. The opportunity to take a tax deduction for a profit-sharing plan contribution can be a significant benefit for growing companies. Using a profit-sharing plan to reduce the company’s income can save significant tax dollars for small business owners.

Adding a profit-sharing contribution allows the company to make larger contributions to an employee’s retirement plan account when compared to a 401(k) plan, which is limited by caps on employee elective deferrals. With a profit-sharing contribution, the employer controls the amount it contributes, but has the flexibility to contribute up to the full amount permitted by law for the year ($58,000 in total contributions in 2021).  

Should I offer a profit-sharing plan to my employees?

There are several pros and cons to offering a profit-sharing plan, including whether you want or need flexibility in determining the size of the pool of money you’re going to pay out each year as well as how you might distribute money.

Pros of a profit-sharing plan:

  • A company can have a profit-sharing plan along with other retirement plans.

  • Contributions are discretionary; businesses don’t have to commit to certain dollar amounts, which can be helpful during volatile years.

  • A profit-sharing plan can be a good option for employers with cash flow issues.

  • Employers can change how much they contribute each year.

  • Businesses can save on corporate taxes, especially small business owners.

  • Plans are flexible by design.

  • There are NO restrictions on business size.

  • Profit-sharing income helps employees prepare for retirement.

Cons of a profit-sharing plan:

  • Profit-sharing plans are qualified plans under the IRC and require certain annual requirements, such as filing a Form 5500, providing participant notices, and conducting nondiscrimination testing.

  • Admin costs can be higher than other retirement plans (e.g., SIMPLE IRAs).

  • Stand-alone profit-sharing plans allow for employer contributions only; an employee can’t contribute.

Questions for employers to consider when setting up a profit-sharing plan

The U.S. Department of Labor provides a helpful list of questions for employers to consider when thinking about setting up a profit-sharing plan:

  • Have you decided to hire a financial institution or retirement plan professional to help with setting up and running the plan?

  • Have you adopted a written plan that includes the features you want to offer?

  • Have you notified eligible employees and provided them with information to help in their decision-making regarding making their 401(k) contributions?

  • Have you arranged a trust for the plan assets?

  • Have you decided how much to contribute to the plan this year?

  • Are you familiar with the fiduciary responsibilities?

  • Are you prepared to monitor the plan’s service providers?

A note on compliance

Compliance is an important part of running a profit-sharing plan. Having an ongoing compliance review program makes it easier to spot and correct mistakes in plan operations. Keep in mind that to preserve the tax benefits of a profit-sharing plan, the plan must provide substantive benefits for rank-and-file employees, not just business owners and managers. Profit-sharing plans face requirements called nondiscrimination rules that compare both plan participation and contributions of rank-and-file employees to owners/managers. If you allocate a uniform percentage of compensation to each participant, no testing is required (because your plan automatically satisfies the nondiscrimination requirement).

How can I start a profit-sharing plan?

Keep in mind that profit sharing isn’t a one-year endeavor. Plans must be established with the intention of continuing indefinitely.

1. Determine profitability 

The first step to figuring out what type of 401(k) plan to offer is to make sure you’re profitable, and that you’re confident you’ll continue making money for at least the next few years. You don’t want to create and announce a plan one year, only to not be able to contribute the next!

Even though an employer isn’t required to contribute every year, contributions must be recurring and substantial. The IRS presumes contributions have been completely discontinued when the employer fails to make substantial contributions for at least three years in a five-year period. If this happens, the IRS treats the plan as terminated for vesting purposes, meaning the plan is required to make all affected employees 100% vested no later than the end of the taxable year following the taxable year in which the last substantial contribution was made. 

2. Create a plan document

Once you’re ready to begin the process, it’s wise to contact legal and financial advisors who have experience creating profit-sharing plans and who can help you navigate the regulatory requirements and fiduciary responsibilities. They can help in creating a written plan document outlining the terms and day-to-day operations of the plan. The plan document must identify:

  • The formula you will use to calculate contributions

  • How contributions are deposited

  • How you determine employee eligibility

  • The vesting schedule, etc.

3. Choose a trustee

Employers need to arrange a trust for the plan’s assets. A plan’s assets must be held in a trust to ensure they’re used solely to benefit the participants and their beneficiaries. The trust must have at least one trustee to handle contributions, plan investments, and distributions. Selecting the right trustee is important, as they’ll ensure profit-sharing plans are financially secure.

4. Choose a recordkeeping system

Employers must develop a recordkeeping system to help track participants and properly attribute contributions, earnings and losses, plan investments, expenses, and benefit distributions. A recordkeeping system will help you, your plan administrator, or your financial provider prepare the plan’s annual 5500. With a provider like Human Interest, we offer profit-sharing plans that include recordkeeping services.

5. Contact employees

The next step is to provide plan information to eligible employees about the specific benefits, rights, and features of the plan. A Summary Plan Description (SPD), a plain-language explanation of the plan that helps make this information clear. Any time there’s a change to the plan, all participants must receive an individual benefit statement reflecting:

  • The total plan benefits earned by a participant

  • Vested benefits

  • The value of each investment in the account

  • Information describing the ability to direct investments, and

  • For plans under participant direction, an explanation of the importance of a diversified portfolio

Terminating a profit-sharing plan

Sometimes profit-sharing plans need to be terminated, e.g. if you want to establish another type of retirement plan instead of a profit-sharing plan. Human Interest offers both regular 401(k)s as well as profit-sharing plans. If you’re interested in setting a profit-sharing plan up at your organization—or just have questions about plan design—feel free to reach out to our team!

We believe that everyone deserves access to a secure financial future, which is why we make it easy to provide a 401(k) to your employees. Human Interest offers a low-cost 401(k) with automated administration, built-in investment advising, and integration with leading payroll providers.

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