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Defined benefit

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Defined benefit

A defined benefit pension plan is a type of § 414(j) specifies a defined benefit plan to be any pension plan that is not a defined contribution plan where a defined contribution plan is any plan with individual accounts. A traditional pension plan that defines a benefit for an employee upon that employee's retirement is a defined benefit plan.

The most common type of formula used is based on the employee’s terminal earnings (final salary). Under this formula, benefits are based on a percentage of average earnings during a specified number of years at the end of a worker’s career.

In the private sector, defined benefit plans are often funded exclusively by employer contributions. For very small companies with one owner and a handful of younger employees, the business owner generally receives a high percentage of the benefits. In the public sector, defined benefit plans usually require employee contributions.[3][4]

Over time, these plans may face deficits or surpluses between the money currently in their plans and the total amount of their pension obligations.[5] Contributions may be made by the employee, the employer, or both. In many defined benefit plans the employer bears the investment risk and can benefit from surpluses.[6]


When participating in a defined benefit pension plan, an employer/sponsor promises to pay the employees/members a specific benefit for life beginning at retirement. The benefit is calculated in advance using a formula based on age, earnings, and years of service. In the United States, the maximum retirement benefit permitted in 2011 under a defined benefit plan is $195,000 (up from $185,000 in 2008). Defined benefit pension plans in the U.S. currently do not have contribution limits.[7]

The liability of the pension lies with the employer/sponsor who is responsible for making the decisions. Employer and/or employer/employee contributions to a defined benefit pension plan are based on a formula that calculates the contributions needed to meet the defined benefit. These contributions are actuarially determined taking into consideration the employee's life expectancy and normal retirement age, possible changes to interest rates, annual retirement benefit amount, and the potential for employee turnover.[7]

Each jurisdiction would have legislation which has requirements and limitations for administering pension plans. Entitlements and limitations may also be based or established in common law. Employees are always entitled to the vested accrued benefit earned to date. If an employee leaves the company before retirement, the benefits earned so far are frozen and held in a trust for the employee until retirement age or in some instances the employee is able to take away a lump sum value or transfer the value to another pension plan.

In the U.S., a defined benefit pension plan must allow its vested employees to receive their benefits no later than the 60th day after the end of the plan year in which they have been employed for ten years or leave their employer. Employees who reach age 65 or the specified retirement age in their plan can also collect the benefits. Starting in 2002, the maximum benefit is now reduced for retirement prior to age 62, and increased for retirement after age 65.[7]

In the U.S., a defined benefit plan cannot force you to receive your benefits before normal retirement age. However, if the lump sum value of your benefit is less than $5,000, and you are vested, then the plan may simply pay your benefit as a lump sum soon after termination. The plan document has to allow for the automatic lump sum payment. However, you must begin to receive your benefits no later than April 1 of the calendar year next following the last year of employment or calendar year you reach age 70½, whichever is later.[7]

Defined benefit plans distribute their benefits through life annuities. In a life annuity, employees receive equal periodic benefit payments (monthly, quarterly, etc.) for the rest of their lives. A defined benefit pension plan allows joint distributions so a surviving spouse can still receive 50 percent of your payment.[7]

In the United States, 88 percent of public employees are covered by a defined benefit pension plan.[8]

In the United States, Federal public sector plans are governed by the Tax Code and Federal law, while state and local public sector plans are governed by the Tax Code and state law. Thus the funding requirements, benefits, plan solvency, and participant rights and obligations vary significantly. Private sector plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). This law contains provisions rooted in the Tax Code and enforced by the Internal Revenue Service, but, in Title I of ERISA, also provides a body of Federal law governing employee benefit plans that preempts state law. Rooted in the principles of trust law, Title I of ERISA governs the fiduciary conduct and reporting requirements of private sector employee benefits plans through a system of exclusively Federal rights and remedies. Title I is administered by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) at the United States Department of Labor. EBSA is led by the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits, a Sub-Cabinet level position requiring nomination by the President of the United States and confirmation by the United States Senate. The current Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits and head of the Employee Benefits Security Administration is the Hon. Phyllis Borzi. Past Assistant Secretaries include the Hon. Bradford P. Campbell, the Hon. Ann L. Combs and the Hon. Olena Berg-Lacy.

Benefit plan

Traditionally, retirement plans have been administered by institutions which exist specifically for that purpose, by large businesses, or, for government workers, by the government itself. A traditional form of a defined benefit plan is the final salary plan, under which the pension paid is equal to the number of years worked, multiplied by the member's salary at retirement, multiplied by a factor known as the accrual rate. The final accrued amount is available as a monthly pension or a lump sum.

The benefit in a defined benefit pension plan is determined by a formula that can incorporate the employee's pay, years of employment, age at retirement, and other factors. A simple example is a Dollars Times Service plan design that provides a certain amount per month based on the time an employee works for a company. For example, a plan offering $100 a month per year of service would provide $3,000 per month to a retiree with 30 years of service. While this type of plan is popular among unionized workers, Final Average Pay (FAP) remains the most common type of defined benefit plan offered in the United States. In FAP plans, the average salary over the final years of an employee's career determines the benefit amount.

Frequently, as in Canadian government employees' pensions, the average salary uses current dollars. This results in inflation in the averaging years decreasing the cost and purchasing power of the pension. This can be avoided by converting salaries to dollars of the first year of retirement and then averaging. If that is done then inflation has no direct effect on the purchasing power and cost of the pension at the outset.

In the United Kingdom, benefits are typically indexed for inflation (specifically the Consumer Price Index and previously Retail Prices Index) as required by law for registered pension plans.[9] Inflation during an employee's retirement affects the purchasing power of the pension; the higher the inflation rate, the lower the purchasing power of a fixed annual pension. This effect can be mitigated by providing annual increases to the pension at the rate of inflation (usually capped, for instance at 5% in any given year). This method is advantageous for the employee since it stabilizes the purchasing power of pensions to some extent.

If the pension plan allows for early retirement, payments are often reduced to recognize that the retirees will receive the payouts for longer periods of time. In the US, (under the ERISA rules), any reduction factor less than or equal to the actuarial early retirement reduction factor is acceptable.[10]

Many DB plans include early retirement provisions to encourage employees to retire early, before the attainment of normal retirement age (usually age 65). Some of those provisions come in the form of additional temporary or supplemental benefits, which are payable to a certain age, usually before attaining normal retirement age.[11]

US laws and regulations

In the US, there are many laws and regulations concerning pension plans. For a defined benefit plan, the laws/regulations that most commonly affect defined benefit (DB) pension plans include:

  • IRC 401(a)(17): qualified DB plans must use pay that is the smaller of actual pensionable pay versus a dollar limit (called the 401(a)(17) limit) that changes yearly
  • IRC 415: qualified DB plans must limit the dollar amount of the benefit paid from the plan under certain circumstances
  • Non discimination rules: IRC 410(b), IRC 401(a)(4), IRC 401(a)(26) Broadly speaking, forbids qualified DB plans from giving large amount of benefit to highly compensated employees
  • Rules on distributions: lump sum must be no smaller than the lump sum calculated using mandated mortality and interest rate (IRC 417(e)), spouse consent necessary for any non joint and survivor form of benefit (joint and survivor percent must be 50% or larger)
  • Rules against assignment, garnishment
  • Top heavy rules (IRC 416): benefits for all non highly compensated employees must be increased if the benefits for highly compensated employees are too large

Basic premise behind most rules are you cannot use a qualified pension plan to give highly paid employees (or owners) a lot of money through a qualified plan (through this tax advantaged financial instrument).

Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans

Because pensions or defined benefit plans are limited in the amount of money contributed and distributed to be eligible for tax deductions (for example as of 2013 annual contributions to 401(k) plans are limited to $17,500),[12] firms have created something called Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans or SERPs for their executives. As of 2002, some 70% of firms surveyed provided non-qualifying SERPs to their executives, and 90% offer deferred compensation programs.[13]


Defined benefit plans may be either funded or unfunded.

In an unfunded defined benefit pension, no assets are set aside and the benefits are paid for by the employer or other pension sponsor as and when they are paid. This method of financing is known as Pay-as-you-go (PAYGO or PAYG).[14] In the US, ERISA explicitly forbids pay go for private sector, qualified, defined benefit plans.

In a funded plan, contributions from the employer, and sometimes also from plan members, are invested in a fund towards meeting the benefits. The contributions are set up so that if absolutely everything goes according to assumptions for all future years, then the full present value of future benefits (PVFB) is in the assets as each participant retires. Stated differently, if I am a participant in a funded plan, then the contributions are set up so that the full amount of money needed to pay my benefits for the rest of my life is in the trust assets by the time I retire. This is the biggest difference between funded and unfunded plans. For example, US Social Security is a pay as you go plan. In the past, there has been more money into the system than money paid out. This money has been accruing in two trust funds (OASI and DI). But US Social Security is not FUNDED. No calculation is done to ensure that the contributions are large enough so that the full amount of money needed to pay me my Social Security benefits is in the assets by the time I retire and start collecting my benefit.

One of the growing concerns with defined benefit plans is that the level of future obligations will outpace the value of assets held by the plan. This “underfunding” dilemma can be faced by any type of defined benefit plan, private or public, but it is most acute in governmental and other public plans where political pressures and less rigorous accounting standards can result in excessive commitments to employees and retirees, but inadequate contributions. Many states and municipalities across the county now face chronic pension crises.[15]

The future returns on the investments, and the future benefits to be paid, are calculated projections, so there is no full guarantee that a given level of contributions will be enough to meet the benefits. Typically, the contributions to be paid are regularly reviewed in a valuation of the plan's assets and liabilities, carried out by an actuary to ensure that the pension fund will meet future payment obligations. This means that in a defined benefit pension, investment risk and investment rewards are typically assumed by the sponsor/employer and not by the individual. If a plan is not well-funded, the plan sponsor may not have the financial resources to continue funding the plan. In many countries, such as the USA, the UK and Australia, most private defined benefit plans are funded, because governments there provide tax incentives to funded plans (in Australia they are mandatory). In the United States, private employers must pay an insurance-type premium to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a government agency whose role is to encourage the continuation and maintenance of voluntary private pension plans and provide timely and uninterrupted payment of pension benefits. When the PBGC steps in and takes over a pension plan, it provides payment of pension benefits up to certain maximum amounts, which are indexed for inflation. The PBGC receives its funding from several sources, including insurance premiums from sponsors of participating plans, assets of the plans it has taken over, recoveries from bankrupt companies’ estates, and investment earnings. The PBGC’s liabilities are not explicitly backed by the U.S. government.[16] The Social Security system in the United States is funded through a payroll tax (FICA) that is paid by employees and employers. The proceeds of this tax are paid into the Social Security Trust Funds[17] which had a balance of $2,654,496 million as of September 2011.[18]

Advantages and drawbacks

Traditional defined benefit plan designs (because of their typically flat accrual rate and the decreasing time for interest discounting as people get closer to retirement age) tend to exhibit a J-shaped accrual pattern of benefits, where the present value of benefits grows quite slowly early in an employee's career and accelerates significantly in mid-career: in other words it costs more to fund the pension for older employees than for younger ones (an "age bias"). Defined benefit pensions tend to be less portable than defined contribution plans, even if the plan allows a lump sum cash benefit at termination. Most plans, however, pay their benefits as an annuity, so retirees do not bear the risk of low investment returns on contributions or of outliving their retirement income. The open-ended nature of these risks to the employer is the reason given by many employers for switching from defined benefit to defined contribution plans over recent years. However the investment returns can exceed the actuarial estimate. Employees do not benefit from the resulting surplus. The risks to the employer can sometimes be mitigated by discretionary elements in the benefit structure, for instance in the rate of increase granted on accrued pensions, both before and after retirement.

The age bias, reduced portability and open ended risk make defined benefit plans better suited to large employers with less mobile workforces, such as the public sector (which has open-ended support from taxpayers).

Defined benefit plans are sometimes criticized as being paternalistic as they enable employers or plan trustees to make decisions about the type of benefits and family structures and lifestyles of their employees. However they are typically more valuable than defined contribution plans in most circumstances and for most employees, in part because employers now tend to pay higher contributions than under defined contribution plans, AND because the benefits received are annuitized amongst the employees as a group—so employees are not risking outliving their pension funds.

The "cost" of a defined benefit plan is not easily calculated, and requires an actuary or actuarial software. However, even with the best of tools, the cost of a defined benefit plan will always be an estimate based on economic and financial assumptions. These assumptions include the average retirement age and lifespan of the employees, the returns to be earned by the pension plan's investments and any additional taxes or levies, such as those required by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in the U.S. So, for this arrangement, the benefit is relatively secure but the contribution is uncertain even when estimated by a professional.


Many countries offer state-sponsored retirement benefits, beyond those provided by employers, which are funded by payroll or other taxes. The United States Social Security system is similar to a defined benefit pension arrangement, albeit one that is constructed differently than a pension offered by a private employer.

Individuals that have worked in the UK and have paid certain levels of national insurance deductions can expect an income from the state pension scheme after their normal retirement. The state pension is currently divided into two parts: the basic state pension, State Second [tier] Pension scheme called S2P. Individuals will qualify for the basic state pension if they have completed sufficient years contribution to their national insurance record. The S2P pension scheme is earnings related and depends on earnings in each year as to how much an individual can expect to receive. It is possible for an individual to forgo the S2P payment from the state, in lieu of a payment made to an appropriate pension scheme of their choice, during their working life. For more details see UK pension provision.

In recent years, some new approaches to 'defined benefit plans' have emerged, such as a cash balance plan which has become more prevalent for larger companies. Under a cash balance type of plan, benefits are computed as a percentage of each employee’s account balance. Employers specify a contribution—usually based on a percentage of the employee’s earnings—and a rate of interest on that contribution that will provide a predetermined amount at retirement, usually in the form of a lump sum. "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.".[19]

See also


External links

  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Division of Information Services
  • Goodyear
  • Citibank
  • Defined benefit plan, Business Dictionary
  • Defined benefit plan, Investorwords
  • New York Life
  • U.S. Department of Labor
  • Defined benefit plans continue to fall: Study, Business insurance
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