Mat Sorensen


October 14, 2014

As we reach the end of the year it is time to start thinking about how to best maximize your annual retirement plan contributions. One of the most commonly used strategies for our clients is an s-corporation and 401(k). A properly structured s-corporation is utilized best for tax purposes when the business owner adopts and contribute to a 401(k) plan. Whether the business has only one owner/employee (or spouses only) or whether the business has dozens or even hundreds of employees. Simply put, a 401(k) plan can be used as a tool for putting the income of the business owner (and applicable employees) away for retirement with the added benefit of a tax deduction for every dollar that can be contributed. There are so many neat things about 401(k) plans and there are so many options.  For example, you can do Roth 401(k) plans, you can self direct a 401(k) plan, and you can even loan money to yourself from your 401(k) account. While books have been written about all of these options and benefits, one of the most misunderstood concepts of 401(k) plans is how s-corporation owners can contribute their income to the plan. That is the focus of this article.

In order to understand how s-corporations income can be contributed to a 401(k) plan, you need to understand the following three basic rules.

1. Only W-2 Salary Income can be Contributed to a 401(k). You cannot make 401(k) contributions from dividend or net profit income that goes on your K-1. See for more details. Since many s-corporation owners seek to minimize their W-2 salary for self-employment tax purposes, you must carefully plan your W-2 and annual salary taking into account your annual planned 401(k) contributions. In other words, if you cut the salary too low you wont be able to contribute the maximum amounts. On the other hand, even with a low W-2 Salary from the s-corporation you’ll still be able to make excellent annual contributions to the 401(k) (up to $17,500 if you have at least that much in annual W-2 salary).

2. Easy Elective Salary Deferral Limit of $17,500 or 100% of Your W-2, whichever is less. If you have at least $17,500 of salary income from the s-corporation, you can contribute $17,500 to your 401(k) account.  Every employee under the plan is allowed to make this same contribution amount. As a result, many spouses are added to the s-corporation’s payroll (where permissible) to make an additional $17,500 contribution for the spouse’s account. If you are 50 or older, you can make an additional $5,500 annual contribution.  Follow this link for the details from the IRS on the elective salary deferral limits. The elective salary deferral can be traditional dollars or Roth dollars.

3. Non-Elective Deferral of 25% of Income Up to a $52,000 total Annual 401(k) Contribution. In addition to the $17,500 annual elective salary contribution, an s-corporation owner can contribute 25% of their salary compensation to their 401(k) account up to a maximum of a $52,000 total annual contribution.  This non-elective deferral is always made with traditional dollars and cannot be Roth dollars. So, for example, if you have an annual W-2 of $100,000, you’ll be able to contribute a maximum of $25,000 as a non-elective salary deferral to your 401(k) account. If you have employees who participate in the plan besides you (the business owner) and your spouse, then the non-elective deferral calculation gets much more complicated. But for now, let’s assume there are no other employees and run through the examples.

Lets run through two examples. The first is an s-corporation business owner looking to contribute around $30,000 per year. The second is a business owner looking to contribute the maximum of $52,000 a year.


Example 1, Seeking a $30,000 Annual Contribution.

S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $50,000

Elective Salary Deferral = $17,500

25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $12,500 (25% of $50,00)

Total Possible 401(k) Contribution = $30,000


Example 2. Seeking Maximum $52,000 Annual Contribution

S-Corporation Owner W-2 Salary = $138,000

Elective Salary Deferral = $17,500

25% of Salary Non-Elective Deferral = $34,500 (25% of  $138,000)

Total Possible 401(k) Contribution  (maximum) = $52,000

As a result of the calculations above, in order to contribute the maximum of $52,000, you need a W-2 salary from the s-corporation of $138,000. Keep in mind that if you have other employees in your business (other than owner and spouse) that you are required to do comparable matching on the 25% non-elective deferral and as a result such maximization is often difficult to accomplish in 401(k)s with employees other than the owner and their spouse. Consequently, the additional 25% non-elective salary deferral is best used in owner only 401(k) plans.

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