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An Overview of Defined Benefit Pension Plans

by Nehemiah Marcus

Employees who participate in defined benefit plans, also referred to as pension plans, are assured retirement benefits. Employers provide the majority of the funding for defined benefit plans, and retirement payouts are determined by a predetermined formula that takes an employee’s salary, age, and length of service into account. 

Despite the security and stability retirement plans can provide, defined benefit plans are dwindling in popularity in an era of defined contribution plans like 401(k)s.

Source Disclosure: This article was paraphrased from an article on Forbes and repurposed for educational use only. It is designed to encourage people to seek professional financial advice through our short Finance Quiz. You can access the original article link at the bottom of this page.

What Is the Process of a Defined Benefit Plan?

Defined benefit plans promise payments that resemble salaries and were traditionally provided to persuade employees to stay with a single business for years or even decades. However, defined benefit plans are currently considerably less common due to the growth of cheaper defined contribution plans. In 1980, defined benefit plans were an option for 83% of employees in the private sector. Only 17% of employees in the private sector had the choice in 2018.

A qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan is one that has defined benefits. This indicates that they are eligible for certain tax benefits provided by the legislation, such as investment growth that is tax-deferred or tax deductions for donations. 401(k)s and other qualifying employer-sponsored retirement plans are probably more recognizable to you (k). Defined benefit plans, unlike 401(k)s, are typically supported solely by employer contributions, however employees may occasionally be compelled to make some contributions.

A defined benefit plan’s retirement benefits are often determined by some sort of formula that takes into account things like how long you’ve worked for the employer, your pay, and your age. For illustration, a business may provide a plan that pays 1.5% of your average salary over the previous five years of employment for each year you worked there. Then, if you spent 20 years working for that company, you might receive a settlement equal to 30% of your annual average wage.

It’s significant to remember that different defined benefit plans apply different methods to determine employee benefits. The average wage for an employee’s most recent three or five years of employment with a corporation may serve as the basis for a formula. It may also be determined by the employee’s average annual wage during the course of their employment with the organization, or it may be a set financial amount, such as $800 for each year of service. If you qualify for a pension plan, be sure to research the formula used to determine your benefits.

Regardless of how well the underlying investments in a plan may perform, employers are still responsible for making the guaranteed payments to beneficiaries. Employers typically receive tax advantages for their contributions to these programs. One of the most important differences between pension plans and 401(k)s is that the former’s future benefits are totally dependent on uncertain investment performance. Additionally, federal insurance offered through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) safeguards the benefits in the majority of defined benefit plans, subject to certain restrictions.

Optional Payments for Defined Benefit Plans

When it’s time to take advantage of your retirement benefits, you often be paid in the form of a lump sum or an annuity that offers ongoing income for the rest of your life. It can be challenging to choose between the two, especially given the various annuity structures that are available:

  • Lifetime only payment. You will continue to get a monthly payment for the remainder of your life, and your beneficiaries won’t get any more payments if you pass away.
  • Lifetime only with fixed term. If you pass away before the agreed-upon term expires, your dependents will continue to receive payments for a predetermined number of years. You receive a monthly payment.
  • Joint and survivor at 50%. Your surviving spouse will get lifetime payments that are equal to 50% of your initial annuity after your passing.
  • Joint and survivor at 100%. Your surviving spouse will get lifetime payments that are equal to 100% of your initial annuity when you pass away.

Your annuity’s payouts will likely decrease if you add more conditions. However, you’ll often get the greatest benefits from selecting annuity payments if you’re in good health and anticipate living a long life. 

A lump sum can be the greatest option if you don’t have much time left in retirement and are in poor health. Another option is to receive a lump sum payment and invest it or use it to create your own annuity.

Contribution Caps for Defined Benefit Plans

Although there are yearly limits for defined benefit plans, employees typically have little control over their benefits. A worker’s yearly benefit in 2023 is limited to the lesser of $265,000 or 100% of the average of their best three calendar years’ earnings. It’s an increase from $245,00 in 2022.

Different Defined Benefit Plan Types

Pensions and cash balance plans are the two basic forms of defined benefit plans.


Most people consider a defined benefit plan to be a type of pension: a guaranteed monthly payout beginning upon retirement, calculated using a formula that takes into account the length of time a worker worked for a company and their earnings.

Employees often need to stay with a company for a specific amount of time in order to get pension benefits. The term “vested” refers to an employee who has reached the necessary tenure. There could be various vesting criteria for pension plans. For instance, an individual may be 20% vested after one year of employment, entitling them to retirement benefits equal to 20% of a full pension. 

Additionally a typical component of defined contribution plans are vesting timelines. A vesting schedule of some kind for employer contributions is present in about 50% of 401(k) plans.

Cash Balance Plans

When an employee retires or leaves the company under a cash balance plan, they get a fixed account amount rather than a fixed monthly payment. Because of this, many individuals consider them to be a cross between regular pensions and 401(k)s. 

Employers continue to assume all investment risk related to managing retirement funds, but they do not ensure ongoing benefit payments. As an alternative, you are secured up to a specific cash balance.

As a result, some employees may receive lower benefits if their employers transition from a pension plan to a cash balance plan because cash balance plans often compute benefits based on your entire number of working years with an employer, not simply your most recent or best earning period. 

Employers normally use two components when determining the cash balance: salary credits and interest credits. An employee’s account often receives a pay credit (such as 3% of their employer’s income) once a year. Additionally, they will be credited with interest on the balance of the account (usually a fixed or variable rate linked to a benchmark such as the 30-year Treasury bond).

Participants have a yearly account balance that they get upon vesting and when they leave the company each year. They will typically have the option of taking the benefit as a lump amount, which they might roll over to an individual retirement account (IRA), another employer’s plan, or receiving their balance in the form of an annuity that makes periodic payments over time.

Plan types: Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution

Consider defined benefit plans as the seasoned veteran and defined contribution plans as the new kid on the block. While many employers may opt to make some matching contributions, a defined benefit plan often expects employees to make the majority of the contributions, while a defined benefit plan primarily requires employers to make nearly all contributions.

Defined contribution plan payouts are not guaranteed; they are based on employee contributions and the performance of the underlying investments, whereas defined benefit plans typically guarantee either a monthly payment or a predetermined lump sum payout, depending on your salary or how long you remain with a company. Defined benefit plans provide more certainty regarding some returns, while managing your own retirement accounts could result in higher earnings.

Compared to defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans are far more prevalent, with 43% of employees in the private sector, state government, and local government participating. Defined benefit plans are still prominent in state and local governments, with 76% of public employees enrolling in a pension plan, even if they are less frequent in private businesses.

Advantages of Defined Benefit Plans

  • Secure Retirement Paycheck: Employee benefits are guaranteed in a defined benefit plan, providing employees with the security of a consistent retirement income.
  • Market swings have no impact on payments: irrespective of the performance of the underlying investments, the employee retirement benefit remains constant.
  • Possibility of spousal support: In the event of the employee’s passing, the spouse may be able to continue receiving regular payments.
  • Tax advantages for employers: Employers can typically deduct their contributions to defined benefit plans from their taxes.
  • Improved employee retention: Employees who participate in defined benefit plans may stay with the company for a long time while they wait to vest and receive the maximum retirement benefits.

Disadvantages of Defined Benefit Plans

  • No choice of investment: Employees have no input into the investments made with their funds.
  • Vested benefits take time: If a corporation requires five years of service before a benefit becomes vested, and an employee quits after three, all of their earnings remain with the company.
  • Portability lack: Although it may be simpler with cash balance plans, it may be challenging to transfer funds from one plan to another as a person moves jobs. You will still receive your full share of the collective benefits in retirement, despite this. You’ll merely need to manage several income streams.
  • No opportunity to maximize your benefit: There is no way for an employee to increase their retirement income because the benefit formula is the benefit formula. Employees might invest more aggressively or contribute more money to defined contribution plans to increase their returns. Using IRAs, which are covered in greater detail below, those with defined benefit plans can also improve their retirement savings.
  • Costly maintenance: Defined benefit plans are more expensive to maintain for employers than defined contribution plans since they offer guaranteed payments regardless of market circumstances.

Retirement Strategies Outside of Defined Benefit Plans

Some employees might not receive high enough compensation under a defined benefit plan. Calculate your retirement needs using our guide to check if your pension will be sufficient to support you throughout retirement.

Subtract your anticipated contributions from your defined benefit plans and Social Security from the amount you need to maintain your standard of living. Then, develop savings objectives to aid in bridging the gap. 

You can still save in tax-deferred accounts like regular IRAs or after-tax accounts like Roth IRAs even if you have a pension. You can contribute up to $6,000 to an IRA in 2022, or $7,000 if you’re 50 years old or older. That amount rises to $6,500 in 2023, or $7,500 if you’re 50 or older.

Additionally, you can utilize your defined contribution plan—a 401(k) or 403(b), for example—to buy an annuity that will provide a consistent stream of income payments in retirement if you don’t have a defined contribution plan but still want some of the security they offer. 

However, annuities aren’t for everyone and can include exorbitant costs or convoluted terms. Make careful to discuss the potential role annuities could play in your retirement plan with a financial counselor.


Disclosure: This article was paraphrased from an article on Forbes and repurposed for educational use only. It is designed to encourage people to seek professional financial advice through our short Finance Quiz. Click below to access the original article.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/advisor/retirement/what-is-a-defined-benefit-plan/

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