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Using Retirement Plans to Benefit from the 20% Deduction on Pass-Through Income

Jun 12, 2024

One of the most significant provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“TCJA”) was the addition of IRC Section 199A, which provides up to a 20% deduction for qualified business income (“QBI”) received by taxpayers from a pass-through entity (sole proprietorship, S-corporation, partnership or limited liability company taxed as a partnership).  

This deduction may be limited for taxpayers who receive pass-through income from a specified service business, which includes performing services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business in which the principal asset is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees.  

For single taxpayers, the deduction is phased out beginning at $182,100 for 2023 and $191,950 for 2024 of taxable income and is completely phased out at $232,100 and $241,950 of taxable income. For those taxpayers married and filing jointly, the deduction is phased out beginning at $364,200 and $383,900 of taxable income and is completely phased out at $464,200 and $483,900 of taxable income. For most taxpayers whose pass-through income is not from a specified service business, the deduction is generally the lesser of  

  1. 20 percent of QBI 
  2. The greater of 50 percent of W-2 wages paid or the sum of 25 percent of W-2 wages paid, plus 2.5 percent of the unadjusted basis in qualified property. 

This deduction is limited to 20% of a taxpayer’s taxable income, more than any net capital gain. 

The Role of Retirement Plans in Qualifying for Section 199A 

Given the potential tax benefit for taxpayers whose income is from a specified service business, the goal will be to reduce taxable income below the 20% QBI deduction phase-out threshold. With the new limitation on the deduction for state and local taxes under the TCJA, taxpayers, especially those in high-tax states, will need to look to other deduction sources to reduce their taxable income. Tax-qualified retirement plans, both defined contribution (including 401(k) plans) and defined benefit plans (including cash balance plans), represent a potential source of substantial tax deductions for taxpayers.  

While retirement plans, as discussed below, are usually most beneficial for owners of entities with less than 50 employees, all affected business owners should ask their advisors whether they can increase their contributions to retirement plans sufficiently cost-effectively to take advantage of the QBI deduction. 

Defined Contribution Plans 

A substantial percentage of specified services businesses already sponsor either a simplified employee pension plan (“SEP”) or a 401(k)-profit-sharing plan. Assuming they have a plan, the first step to reducing taxable income is to make sure that the taxpayer makes the maximum deductible contributions to their existing defined contribution plan. In the case of defined contribution plans, this translates to $66,000 for a SEP plan for 2023 ($69,000 for 2024), and 401(k) profit sharing plans a maximum deduction of $66,000 for 2023 ($69,000 for 2024) for taxpayers under age 50 and $73,500 for 2023 ($76,500 for 2024) for taxpayers 50 or older* through any combination of employee contributions, employer matching contributions, and employer ‘profit sharing’ contributions (aka non-elective contributions).  

It’s important to note that a SEP,401(k) profit-sharing plan may still be established for 2023, provided the entity has not filed its 2023 tax return. This plan could provide the owner with a maximum deduction of $66,000, assuming the maximum income is earned. Employees will also need to receive a contribution at the same percentage of compensation as the owner. 

In the case of a SEP and 401(k) profit-sharing plan, the taxpayer will need to weigh the cost of additional employee contributions against the 20 percent QBI deduction tax savings. 

Defined Benefit Pension Plans 

Defined benefit pension plans, including cash balance plans, require annual contributions as computed by an actuary to fund an annual pension benefit for participants beginning at retirement age under the plan. It’s important to note that a defined benefit plan may still be established for 2023, provided the entity has not filed its 2023 tax return. 

The current maximum annual pension payable at retirement that may be funded for in 2023 is $265,000 ($275,000 for 2024). To fund the maximum annual pension benefit, taxpayers in their late thirties and early forties may be able to contribute close to $100,000 annually, those in their fifties may have annual contributions up to $200,000, and those in their sixties may have annual contributions in excess of $300,000. Thus, the deductions can be large, and that is good news for those looking for substantial deductions to meet the 20 percent QBI deduction threshold.  

The trade-off for the potentially significant tax deductions is that defined benefit plans are complex, resulting in higher annual administration costs. They require annual actuarial calculations to determine the contributions required to be made to the defined benefit plan to fund the annual pension benefits and (if also maintained) the maximum contribution to the employer’s defined contribution plan, which may be reduced because of having a defined benefit plan. Contributions to a defined benefit plan are required to be made each year under the minimum funding requirements of IRC section 412.  

If the employer has a down year, it will still need to have the cash available to fund the defined benefit plan. Further, the non-highly compensated employees, generally those earning less than $150,000 in 2023 ($155,000 for 2024), employees will need to receive a total contribution of about 7.5 percent of their compensation in either the defined benefit plan, the defined contribution plan, or a combination of the two for the taxpayer to make the maximum contributions allowed. If the taxpayer’s business currently sponsors a SEP plan, it may not be able to also contribute to a defined benefit plan if it has the SEP depending on whether it is a model SEP or an individually designed SEP.  

It’s important to note that the plan sponsor, not the plan participants, invests the assets the defined benefit plan holds. Thus, because the annual pension benefits are guaranteed, the plan sponsor bears the risk for the investment results of the plan trust.  

Despite the complexity and costs, when properly designed by a competent actuary, a defined benefit plan alone or combined with a defined contribution plan can help high-income taxpayers in a specified service business reduce their income sufficiently to meet the 20% QBI deduction threshold. 

Other Considerations for the QBI Deduction  

While not as valuable as the deduction amount, taxpayers with QBI should also consider looking at health savings accounts and medical deductions for self-employed individuals. 

Maximizing the QBI Deduction  

Taxpayers with income from a specified services business who are searching for ways to meet the income threshold for the 20% QBI deduction should consult with their tax advisor or retirement plan consultant to perform a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate whether changes or additions to their existing retirement plan(s) or adding additional plans can help them take advantage of the QBI deduction. 

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Peter Alwardt

Peter Alwardt is a Partner and the National Tax Leader of Employee Benefit Plans, specializing in employee benefits, tax and ERISA issues for domestic and international clients. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and NY State Society of CPAs.

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