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What is new comparability profit sharing?

What is new comparability profit sharing?

Nicolle Willson, J.D., CFP®, C(k)P®

Companies like 401(k) profit sharing plans because they’re a great way to reward employees without increasing their taxable income. However, because of IRS requirements, most plans require that you contribute the same percentage of pay to each employee’s account to avoid discrimination, meaning business owners can’t pay more into their own accounts. That’s where new comparability plans come in.

New comparability plans are special because you can judge each employee separately, and essentially customize the profit sharing contribution for each one, so long as certain tests show that the contributions don’t discriminate against non-highly compensated employees, known as NHCEs, in the long run.

401(k) profit sharing

First, a refresher on how profit sharing plans work. In the context of retirement, profit sharing involves an employer making tax deductible contributions to employees’ 401(k) accounts.

Despite the name, they don’t necessarily have to do with company profits. Think of it as a bonus deposited directly into employees’ retirement accounts. Profit sharing comes with a slew of benefits for employers and employees alike—learn about those here.

There are a few different ways to calculate who gets what. For example, you can give everyone the same, flat dollar amount. If you want to give high-earners more, you can instead tie the contribution to a flat percentage of employee pay. But sometimes business owners and executives want an even bigger percentage of pay. In cases like these, neither method cuts it.

New comparability plans have a different way of calculating contributions, so you may be able to reward these critical employees without running afoul of nondiscrimination testing.

Guideline 401(k) plans


New comparability plans work because of cross-testing. Rather than gauge whether a profit share is discriminatory on the face value of the contribution, cross-testing uses a benefit accrual rate, which projects the future value of an individual's retirement portfolio when the individual reaches retirement age.

In many cases, NHCEs will have accrual rates that are similar or even higher to their high-earning peers, even if their current profit sharing allocations are significantly less.

Here’s a sample contribution setup where a small business owner is 50 years old with a high income. Using new comparability, the owner can receive a larger contribution than younger, lower income employees.

The image depicted is illustrative. It is not representative of any client account.

Whether or not this works depends on your company’s demographics. For example, having business owners that are the same age or earn a similar amount as other employees can throw off the results.

New comparability plans may be a great way to maximize tax and retirement savings for older, higher paid owners or employees. That’s especially true if they’re age 50 or older and eligible for “catch up” contribution limits.

Going further, new comparability profit sharing can be a great option for your small business if:

  • You’d like to maximize employer contributions made to owners or executives
  • Owners are generally older than non-owner employees
  • Owners have a higher salary than non-owner employees
  • You have a small number of employees (typically fewer than 50)

Gateway requirements

To become eligible for new comparability profit sharing and cross-testing, a minimum gateway requirement has to be met. You’ll need to first make a minimum contribution to all NHCEs amounting to at least:

  • One-third of the highest contribution rate given to any HCE, or
  • 5% of the participant’s gross compensation.

To count toward this gateway, it’s best for employers to have a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan where they contribute at least 3% of pay into all eligible participants’ accounts. Safe Harbor nonelective contributions not only count toward the minimum gateway, but also have the added benefit of allowing the plan to be exempt from some nondiscrimination tests.

A 401(k) plan that combines a 3% nonelective Safe Harbor contribution with a new comparability profit sharing component can help business owners maximize employer contributions to themselves (and other targeted employees) while still satisfying the minimum gateway requirements for most NHCEs. Keep in mind, some NHCEs may require more than the minimum gateway in order to pass the Average Benefits Test and/or coverage testing also required.

Once you satisfy these requirements, you can now make individualized profit sharing contributions, based on the individual’s benefit accrual rate–potentially increasing employer contributions for certain employees.

New comparability plans offer a lot of flexibility for small businesses looking to reward owners and other HCEs. But between the rigorous testing and maintenance, setting them up can seem daunting. You don’t have to do it by yourself.

Guideline 401(k) plans


The information provided herein is general in nature and is for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for specific tax, legal and/or financial advice that considers all relevant facts and circumstances.

You are advised to consult a qualified financial adviser or tax professional before relying on the information provided herein.