Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan: What Is It? Is It for You?

By Ashley Kilroy · February 27, 2024 · 13 minute read

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Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan: What Is It? Is It for You?

Safe harbor 401(k) plans enable companies to avoid the annual IRS testing that comes with traditional 401(k) plans. With a safe harbor 401(k), an employer makes mandatory contributions to all employees’ retirement accounts, and those funds vest immediately.

Often a perk used to attract top talent, safe harbor 401(k) plans are a way for highly compensated employees, like company executives and owners, to save more than a traditional 401(k) plan would normally allow.

Keep reading to learn more about safe harbor rules, why companies use these plans, along with the benefits, drawbacks, and relevant deadlines.

Key Points

•   Like a traditional 401(k), a safe harbor 401(k) lets employees deposit tax-deferred funds from their paychecks into a retirement savings account.

•   Employers are required to contribute to employees’ safe harbor 401(k) accounts.

•   Employer contributions in a safe harbor 401(k) vest immediately. There is no waiting period.

•   Highly-paid employees can contribute more to a safe harbor 401(k) than a traditional 40(k).

•   Safe harbor 401(k) plans allow companies to skip the annual nondiscrimination regulatory testing required by the IRS for traditional 401(k)s.

What Is a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) safe harbor plan is similar to a traditional 401(k) plan — but with a twist. In both cases, eligible employees can use the plan to contribute pre-tax funds to a retirement account and employers may contribute matching funds.

But with a traditional 401(k) retirement plan, companies must submit to annual nondiscrimination regulatory testing by the IRS to ensure that the company plan doesn’t treat highly compensated employees (HCEs) — generally defined as earning at least $150,000 in the 2023 tax year and $155,000 in the 2024 tax year and being in the company’s top 20% in pay, or owning more than 5% of the business — more favorably than others. The testing process is complex and can be a burden for some companies.

An alternative is to set up a safe harbor 401(k) plan with a safe harbor match. This allows a company to skip the annual IRS testing — and avoid imposing restrictions on employee saving — by providing the same 401(k) contributions to all employees, regardless of title, salary, or even years spent at the company. And those funds must vest immediately.

This is an important benefit, because in many cases, employer contributions to traditional 401(k) plans vest over time, requiring employees to stay with the company for some years in order to get the full value of the employer match. Often, if you leave before the employer contributions or match have vested, you may forfeit them.

For smaller companies, it may be worth making the extra safe harbor match contributions in order to avoid the time and expense of the IRS’s annual nondiscrimination testing. For larger companies, giving all employees the same percentage contribution could be expensive. But the upside is that highly paid employees can then make much larger 401(k) contributions without running afoul of IRS rules, a real perk for company leaders. In addition, 401(k) safe harbor plans are typically less expensive to set up than traditional plans.

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Traditional 401(k) vs Safe Harbor 401(k) Plans

While safe harbor 401(k)s and traditional 401(k) plans are similar in many ways, there are some important differences that employers should be aware of.

For instance, with traditional 401(k) plans, contributions from highly compensated employees can’t comprise more than 2% of the average of all other employee contributions, in addition to other restrictions. However, with safe harbor 401(k) plans, those limits don’t apply.

Comparing Plan Features and Benefits

Here is a side-by-side comparison of a safe harbor 401(k) vs. a traditional 401(k)

Safe Harbor 401(k) Traditional 401(k)
Employer contributions are required. Employer contributions are optional.
Employer contributions are vested immediately. Employer contributions may vest over time.
Highly-paid employees can contribute up to the $22,500 maximum in tax year 2023 and up to $23,000 in 2024. Highly-paid employees can be limited in how much they can contribute.
Companies do not have to do annual nondiscrimination testing. Companies must do annual nondiscrimination testing.

Choosing the Right Plan for Your Business

A safe harbor plan may be beneficial for some smaller companies that can’t afford the expense of nondiscrimination testing. In addition, the plan is simpler with less administrative tasks.

A company might also choose a safe harbor 401(k) if it has some key high-earning employees that make up a large share of the workforce.

However, if your company is able to easily manage the nondiscrimination testing process, you may want to opt for a traditional 401(k). A traditional 401(k) could also be a good option for business owners who want to try to retain employees over the long-term. They could set up a vesting schedule for employer contributions that requires employees to be with the company for three years before becoming fully vested, for instance.

Setting Up a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan

For employers interested in using a safe harbor 401(k), there are some general rules and guidelines they will need to follow.

Requirements, Contribution Formulas, and Deadlines

To fulfill the safe harbor 401(k) requirements, the employer must make qualifying 401(k) contributions (a.k.a. the safe harbor match) that vest immediately. The company contributes to employees’ retirement accounts in one of three ways:

•   Non-elective: The company contributes the equivalent of 3% of each employee’s annual salary to a company 401(k) plan, regardless of whether the employee contributes.

•   Basic: The company offers 100% matching for the first 3% of an employee’s 401(k) plan contributions, plus a 50% match for up to 5% of an employee’s contributions.

•   Enhanced: The company offers a 100% company match for all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 4% of a staffer’s annual salary.

Companies that opt for a safe harbor 401(k) plan have to adhere to strict compliance filing deadlines. These are the dates worth knowing.

October 1: That’s the deadline for filing for a safe harbor 401(k) for the current calendar year. This deadline meets the government criteria of a company needing to have a safe harbor 401(k) in operation for at least three months in a 12 month period, for the first year operating a safe harbor plan.

December 1: By this date, all companies — whether they’re rolling out a brand new safe harbor plan or are administering an existing one — must issue a formal notice to employees that a safe harbor 401(k) will be offered to company staffers.

January 1: The date that all safe harbor 401(k) plans are activated. For companies that currently have no 401(k) plan at all, they can roll out either a traditional 401(k) plan or a safe harbor 401(k) plan at any point in the year, for that calendar year.

Advantages of Implementing a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan

Safe harbor 401(k)s offer some distinct upsides for business owners and employees alike.

Benefits for Employers and Employees

By creating a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a business owner can potentially attract and maintain highly skilled employees. Employees are attracted to higher retirement plan contributions and the ability to optimize retirement plan contribution amounts, ensuring more money for long-term retirement savings.

Plus, a safe harbor 401(k) plan can also help business owners save money on the compliance end of the spectrum. For example, companies save on regulatory costs by avoiding the costs of preparing for a nondiscrimination test (and the staff hours and training that goes with it).

There are some additional upsides to offering a safe harbor 401(k) retirement plan, for higher paid employees and regular staff too.

•   Playing catch up. If a company owner, or high-level managers, historically haven’t stowed enough money away in a company retirement plan, a safe harbor 401(k) plan can help them catch up. The same may be true, although to a lesser degree, for regular employees.

•   The spread of profit. Suppose a company has a steady and robust revenue stream and is managed efficiently. In that case, company owners may feel comfortable “spreading the wealth” with not only high-profile talent but rank-and-file employees, too.

•   Encourage retirement savings. If a company is seeing weak contribution activity from its rank-and-file employees, it may feel more comfortable going the safe harbor route and at least guaranteeing minimum 401(k) contributions to employees while rewarding higher-value employees with more lucrative 401(k) plan contributions.

Disadvantages of Safe Harbor Plans

Safe harbor 401(k) plans have their downsides, too. Here are some drawbacks to consider.

Financial Implications for Employers

The matching contribution requirements for safe harbor 401(k)s can add up to a hefty expense, depending on employee salaries. And because employees are vested immediately, there’s no incentive to stay with the company for a certain period.

In addition, if a company introduces a safe harbor 401(k) plan, it must commit to it for one calendar year, no matter how the plan is performing internally. Even after a year, 401(k) plan providers (which administer and manage the retirement plans) may charge a termination fee if a company decides to pull the plug on its safe harbor plan after one year.

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Safe Harbor 401(k) Contribution Limits and Match Types

There are some different rules for employer contribution limits and matching with a safe harbor 401(k) vs. a traditional 401(k).

Understanding Contribution Limits

Just like traditional 401(k) plans, the maximum employee contribution limit for a safe harbor plan is $22,500 in 2023 and $23,000 in 2024. If you are over 50, you would be eligible for an additional $7,500 catch-up contribution, if your plan allows it.

But in a safe harbor plan, a company owner can reserve the maximum $22,500 (in 2023) and $23,000 in 2024 for their plan contribution and also boost contribution payments to valued team members up to an individual profit-sharing maximum amount of 100% of their compensation, or $66,000 in 2023 ($73,500 for those over age 50) — whichever is less. In 2024, that number is $69,000 (76,500 for those over age 50).

Regular employees are allowed the standard maximum contribution limit of $22,500 in 2023 and $23,000 in 2024, plus anyone over age 50 can contribute an extra “catch-up” amount of $7,500. Those are the same maximum contribution ceilings as regular 401(k) plans.

Different Types of Employer Matching Contributions

As mentioned earlier, with a safe harbor 401(k), an employer must make qualifying 401(k) contributions that vest immediately in one of these ways:

•   Non-elective: The company contributes the equivalent of 3% of each employee’s annual salary to a company 401(k) plan.

•   Basic: The company matches 100% for the first 3% of an employee’s 401(k) plan contributions, plus a 50% match for the following 2% of their contributions.

•   Enhanced: The company provides a 100% company match for all employee 401(k) contributions, up to 4% of a staffer’s annual salary.

IRS Compliance Testing and Safe Harbor Provisions

To help understand the benefit of safe harbor plans, it helps to see what employers with traditional 401(k) plans face in terms of following IRS rules and submitting to the annual nondiscrimination tests.

Navigating Non-Discrimination Testing

Each year, a company must conduct Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP), Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP), and Top Heavy tests to confirm there is no compensation discrimination.

If the company fails one of the tests, it could mean considerable administrative hassle, plus the expense of making corrections, and potentially even refunding 401(k) contributions.

Before explaining the details of each test, here’s a refresher on how the IRS defines highly compensated employees (HCEs) and non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs).

To be a HCE:

•   The employee must own more than 5% of the company at any time during the current or preceding year (directly or through family attribution).

•   The employee is paid over $150,000 in compensation from the employer for 2023 and $155,000 in 2024. The plan can limit these employees to the top 20% of employees who make the most money.

Employees who don’t fit these criteria are considered non-highly compensated. The nondiscrimination tests are designed to assess whether top employees are saving substantially more than the rank-and-file staffers.

•   The Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) test measures how much income highly paid employees contribute to their 401(k), versus staff employees.

•   The Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) test compares employer retirement contributions to HCEs versus the contributions to everyone else.

According to the IRS, the terms of the ADP test — which compares the amounts different employees are saving in their 401(k)s — are met if the ADP for highly compensated employees (HCE) doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the deferral percentage for ordinary, i.e., non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs)

Or the lesser of:

•   200% of the deferral percentage for the NHCEs

•   or the deferral percentage for the NHCEs plus 2%.

The ACP test is met if the deferral percentage for highly compensated employees doesn’t exceed the greater of:

•   125% of the deferral percentage for the NHCEs,

Or the lesser of:

•   200% of the deferral percentage for the group of NHCEs

•   or the deferral percentage for the NHCEs plus 2%.

Last, the top-heavy test measures the value of the assets in all company 401(k) accounts, total. If the 401(k) balances of “key employees” account for more than 60% of total plan assets, the 401(k) would fail the top heavy test. The IRS defines key employees somewhat differently than highly compensated employees, although both groups are similar in that they earn more than ordinary staff.

As you can see, maintaining a traditional 401(k) plan, and meeting these requirements each year, can be a burden for some companies. Fortunately, by setting up a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a company can avoid the annual nondiscrimination tests and still provide a 401(k) savings plan for employees.

The Takeaway

Companies that don’t want the regulatory obligations of a traditional 401(k) plan, and would like to prioritize talent acquisition and employee retention may want to consider safe harbor 401(k) plans.

However, a business owner needs to weigh the pros and cons of a safe harbor 401(k) plan because, in some cases, it can be expensive for a company to maintain.

But no matter what type of 401(k) an employer decides to go with, having a retirement plan in place, with different savings and investment options, can help employees — and business owners themselves — save for the future.

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FAQ

Is a safe harbor 401(k) worth it?

Whether a safe harbor 401(k) is worth it depends on the goals of the business owner. A safe harbor 401(k) allows a company to skip the expense of nondiscrimination testing. And by creating a safe harbor 401(k) plan, a business owner may be able to attract and maintain highly skilled employees because of the higher contributions. However, the matching employer contribution requirements can add up to a high expense. A business owner needs to weigh the pros and cons of these plans.

Can I cash out my safe harbor 401(k)?

You can withdraw safe harbor 401(k) funds without penalty at age 59 ½ or if you leave your job. However, hardship withdrawals for immediate and heavy financial need may be allowed in certain circumstances. You can learn more at irs.gov.

Why would a company use a safe harbor 401(k)?

A company might use a safe harbor 401(k) to avoid the expense of nondiscrimination testing and to simplify the administration of a 401(k) plan. They might also use a safe harbor 401(k) to help attract and keep highly skilled employees.

What is an example of a safe harbor 401(k) match?

If an employer with a safe harbor 401(k) chooses to offer non-elective matching contributions, that means they contribute at least 3% of each employee’s annual salary. So if an employee makes $70,000 a year, for example, the employer would contribute $2,100 to their safe harbor 401(k) account.


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