Defined Benefit/Cash Balance Plans


A defined benefit plan is an employer sponsored retirement plan providing a predetermined benefit to the participants. Once the retirement benefit objective is set, the employer contributions needed to meet the benefit objective are determined actuarially on an annual basis. The benefit objective is the controlling force and the contributions are simply a factor of that controlling force.

If the investments perform poorly, the employer must contribute an increased amount in subsequent year to counteract the poor investment performance to ensure the plan is able to satisfy the predetermined benefit objectives.

Defined benefit plans provide a fixed, pre-established benefit for employees at retirement. Employees often value the fixed benefit provided by this type of plan. On the employer side, businesses can generally contribute (and therefore deduct) more each year than in defined contribution plans. However, defined benefit plans are often more complex and, thus, more costly to establish and maintain than other types of plans.

If you establish a defined benefit plan, you:

  • Can have other retirement plans
  • Can be a business of any size
  • Need to annually file a Form 5500 with a Schedule SB
  • Have an enrolled actuary determine the funding levels and sign the Schedule SB
  • Can’t retroactively decrease benefits
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Pros and cons

  • Substantial benefits can be provided and accrued within a short time – even with early retirement
  • Employers can contribute (and deduct) more than under other retirement plans
  • Plan provides a predictable benefit
  • Vesting can follow a variety of schedules from immediate to spread out over seven years
  • Benefits are not dependent on asset returns
  • Plan can be used to promote certain business strategies by offering subsidized early retirement benefits
  • Most costly type of plan
  • Most administratively complex plan
  • An excise tax applies if the minimum contribution requirement is not satisfied
  • An excise tax applies if excess contributions are made to the plan

Who contributes
Generally, the employer makes most contributions. Sometimes, employee contributions are required, or voluntary contributions may be permitted.

Contribution and benefit limits
Benefits provided under the plan are limited. Deduction limit is any amount up to the plan’s unfunded current liability (see an enrolled actuary for further details).

Filing requirements
Annual filing of Form 5500 is required.  An enrolled actuary must sign the Schedule B of Form 5500.

Participant loans
A defined benefit plan may permit participant loans.

In-service withdrawals
Generally, a defined benefit plan may not make in-service distributions to a participant before age 59 1/2.

For Further Reading: https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/defined-benefit-plan

This information is not intended as authoritative guidance or tax or legal advice. You should consult your attorney or tax advisor for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does advisor assure that, by using the information provided, plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations.

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What is a Cash Balance Plan?
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.

How do cash balance plans work?
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 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. For example, assume that a participant has an account balance of $100,000 when he or she reaches age 65. If the participant decides to retire at that time, he or she would have the right to an annuity based on that account balance. Such an annuity might be approximately $8500 per year for life. In many cash balance plans, however, the participant could instead choose (with consent from his or her spouse) to take a lump sum benefit equal to the $100,000 account balance.

If a participant receives a lump sum distribution, that distribution generally can be rolled over into an IRA or to another employer's plan if that plan accepts rollovers.

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.

How do Cash Balance Plans differ from traditional pension plans?
While both traditional defined benefit plans and cash balance plans are required to offer payment of an employee's benefit in the form of a series of payments for life, traditional defined benefit plans define an employee's benefit as a series of monthly payments for life to begin at retirement, but cash balance plans define the benefit in terms of a stated account balance. These accounts are often referred to as "hypothetical accounts" because they do not reflect actual contributions to an account or actual gains and losses allocable to the account.

How do Cash Balance Plans differ from 401(k) plans?
Cash balance plans are defined benefit plans. In contrast, 401(k) plans are a type of defined contribution plan. There are four major differences between typical cash balance plans and 401(k) plans:

  • Participation - Participation in typical cash balance plans generally does not depend on the workers contributing part of their compensation to the plan; however, participation in a 401(k) plan does depend, in whole or in part, on an employee choosing to make a contribution to the plan.
  • Investment Risks - The investments of cash balance plans are managed by the employer or an investment manager appointed by the employer. The employer bears the risks of the investments. Increases and decreases in the value of the plan's investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. By contrast, 401(k) plans often permit participants to direct their own investments within certain categories. Under 401(k) plans, participants bear the risks and rewards of investment choices.
  • Life Annuities - Unlike 401(k) plans, cash balance plans are required to offer employees the ability to receive their benefits in the form of lifetime annuities.
  • Federal Guarantee - Since they are defined benefit plans, the benefits promised by cash balance plans are usually insured by a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a defined benefit plan is terminated with insufficient funds to pay all promised benefits, the PBGC has authority to assume trusteeship of the plan and to begin to pay pension benefits up to the limits set by law. Defined contribution plans, including 401(k) plans, are not insured by the PBGC.

Is there a federal pension law that governs these plans?
Yes. Federal law, including the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), provides certain protections for the employee benefits of participants in private sector pension plans.

For further reading: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/fact-sheets/cash-balance-pension-plans

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