Defined Benefit Plans
Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution Plans
Instead of accumulating contributions and earnings in an individual account like defined contribution plans (profit sharing, 401(k)), a defined benefit plan promises the employee a specific monthly benefit payable at the retirement age specified in the plan. Defined benefit plans are usually funded entirely by the employer. The employer is responsible for contributing enough funds to the plan to pay the promised benefits regardless of profits and earnings.
Employers who want to shelter more than the annual defined contribution limit ($54,000 in 2017 and $55,000 in 2018), may want to consider a defined benefit plan since contributions can be substantially higher resulting in fast accumulation of retirement funds.
The plan has a specific formula for determining a fixed monthly retirement benefit. Benefits are usually based on the employee’s compensation and years of service which rewards long-term employees. Benefits may be integrated with Social Security which reduces the plan’s benefit payments based upon the employee’s Social Security benefits. The maximum benefit allowable is 100% of compensation (based on highest consecutive three-year average) to an indexed maximum annual benefit ($215,000 in 2017 and $220,000 in 2018). Defined benefit plans may permit employees to elect to receive the benefit in a form other than monthly benefits, such as a lump sum payment.
An actuary determines yearly employer contributions based on each employee’s projected retirement benefit and assumptions about investment performance, years until retirement, employee turnover and life expectancy at retirement. Employer contributions to fund the promised benefits are mandatory. Investment gains and losses decrease or increase the employer contributions. Non-vested accrued benefits forfeited by terminating employees are used to reduce employer contributions.
Cash Balance Plans
A cash balance plan is a type of defined benefit plan that resembles a defined contribution plan. For this reason, these plans are referred to as hybrid plans. A traditional defined benefit plan promises a fixed monthly benefit at retirement usually based upon a formula that takes into account the employee’s compensation and years of service. A cash balance plan looks like a defined contribution plan because the employee’s benefit is expressed as a hypothetical account balance instead of a monthly benefit.
Each employee’s “account” receives an annual contribution credit, which is usually a percentage of compensation, and an interest credit based on a guaranteed rate or some recognized index like the 30 year Treasury rate. This interest credit rate must be specified in the plan document. At retirement, the employee’s benefit is equal to the hypothetical account balance which represents the sum of all contribution and interest credits. Although the plan is required to offer the employee the option of using the account balance to purchase an annuity benefit, employees generally will take the cash balance and roll it over into an individual retirement account (unlike many traditional defined benefit plans which do not offer lump-sum payments at retirement).
As in a traditional defined benefit plan, the employer in a cash balance plan bears the investment risks and rewards. An actuary determines the contribution to be made to the plan, which is the sum of the contribution credits for all employees plus the amortization of the difference between the guaranteed interest credits and the actual investment earnings (or losses).
Employees appreciate this design because they can see their “accounts” grow but are still protected against fluctuations in the market. In addition, a cash balance plan is more portable than a traditional defined benefit plan since most plans permit employees to take their cash balance and roll it into an individual retirement account when they terminate employment or retire.