Types of Retirement Plans: Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) covers two types of retirement plans: defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans.
A defined benefit plan promises a specified monthly benefit at retirement. The plan may state this promised benefit as an exact dollar amount, such as $100 per month at retirement. Or, more commonly, it may calculate a benefit through a plan formula that considers such factors as salary and service - for example, 1 percent of average salary for the last 5 years of employment for every year of service with an employer. The benefits in most traditional defined benefit plans are protected, within certain limitations, by federal insurance provided through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
A defined contribution plan, on the other hand, does not promise a specific amount of benefits at retirement. In these plans, the employee or the employer (or both) contribute to the employee's individual account under the plan, sometimes at a set rate, such as 5 percent of earnings annually. These contributions generally are invested on the employee's behalf. The employee will ultimately receive the balance in their account, which is based on contributions plus or minus investment gains or losses. The value of the account will fluctuate due to the changes in the value of the investments. Examples of defined contribution plans include 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, employee stock ownership plans, and profit-sharing plans.
A Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP) is a relatively uncomplicated retirement savings vehicle. A SEP allows employees to make contributions on a tax-favored basis to individual retirement accounts (IRAs) owned by the employees. SEPs are subject to minimal reporting and disclosure requirements. Under a SEP, an employee must set up an IRA to accept the employer's contributions. Employers may no longer set up Salary Reduction SEPs. However, employers are permitted to establish SIMPLE IRA plans with salary reduction contributions. If an employer had a salary reduction SEP, the employer may continue to allow salary reduction contributions to the plan.
A Profit Sharing Plan or Stock Bonus Plan is a defined contribution plan under which the plan may provide, or the employer may determine, annually, how much will be contributed to the plan (out of profits or otherwise). The plan contains a formula for allocating to each participant a portion of each annual contribution. A profit sharing plan or stock bonus plan may include a 401(k) plan.
A 401(k) Plan is a defined contribution plan that is a cash or deferred arrangement. Employees can elect to defer receiving a portion of their salary which is instead contributed on their behalf, before taxes, to the 401(k) plan. Sometimes the employer may match these contributions. There is a dollar limit on the amount an employee may elect to defer each year. An employer must advise employees of any limits that may apply. Employees who participate in 401(k) plans assume responsibility for their retirement income by contributing part of their salary and, in many instances, by directing their own investments.
An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is a form of defined contribution plan in which the investments are primarily in employer stock.
A Cash Balance Plan is a defined benefit plan that defines the benefit in terms that are more characteristic of a defined contribution plan. In other words, a cash balance plan defines the promised benefit in terms of a stated account balance. In a typical cash balance plan, a participant's account is credited each year with a "pay credit" (such as 5 percent of compensation from his or her employer) and an "interest credit" (either a fixed rate or a variable rate that is linked to an index such as the one-year treasury bill rate). Increases and decreases in the value of the plan's investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. Thus, the investment risks and rewards on plan assets are borne solely by the employer. When a participant becomes entitled to receive benefits under a cash balance plan, the benefits that are received are defined in terms of an account balance. The benefits in most cash balance plans, as in most traditional defined benefit plans, are protected, within certain limitations, by federal insurance provided through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
Additional Web Pages on This Topic
Cash Balance Plans: Questions and Answers (PDF) - Provides answers to commonly asked questions about cash balance plans.
Consumer Information on Retirement Plans - Publications and other materials providing information about your rights as retirement plan participants under federal retirement law.
Compliance Assistance - Provides publications and other materials designed to assist employers and employee benefit plan practitioners in understanding and complying with the requirements of ERISA as it applies to the administration of employee pension and health benefit plans.
Choosing a Retirement Solutions for Your Small Business (PDF) - Provides information about retirement plan options for small businesses.
ERISA Filing Acceptance System (EFAST2) - EFAST2 is an all-electronic system designed by the Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service, and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to simplify and expedite the submission, receipt, and processing of the Form 5500 and Form 5500-SF.
QDROs: The Division of Retirement Benefits through Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (PDF) - QDROs are domestic relations orders that recognize the existence of an alternate payee's right to receive benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan. This publication provides questions and answers on QDROs.
Retirement and Health Care Coverage: Questions and Answers for Dislocated Workers (PDF) - Provides answers to commonly asked questions from dislocated workers about their retirement and health plan benefits.
SIMPLE IRA Plans for Small Businesses (PDF) - Provides information about the basic features and requirements of SIMPLE IRA plans.
SEP Retirement Plans for Small Businesses (PDF) - Describes an easy, low-cost retirement plan option for employers.
Understanding Retirement Plan Fees And Expenses (PDF) - Provides information about plan fees to help you evaluate your plan’s investment options and prospective providers.
401(k) Plan Fees Disclosure Tool - Model comparative chart for disclosures to participants of performance and fee information to help them compare plan investment options.
What You Should Know About Your Retirement Plan (PDF) - Provides information to help answer many of the most common questions about retirement plans.
Your Employer's Bankruptcy: How Will it Affect Your Employee Benefit? (PDF) - Provides information on bankruptcy's effect on retirement plans and group health plans.
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