In speaking with a client recently, I was asked to describe the difference between Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contributions Plans. I was a bit taken a back because I assumed these were commonly understood concepts.
Investigating further, I discovered my assumption was wrong. The differences between Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans are not very well comprehended – even among many astute financial people.
DBP’s are typically thought of as “old school” pension plans. When you enroll in these plans, the employer makes a promise to make specific payments based on formulas with variables such as number of years with the company, wages, age at retirement etc.
Companies will then fund these plans according to their own formula. Some companies have 100% company contributions to fund these plans while others will require employee contributions.
One of the main differences between these plans and Defined Contribution Plans is that the burden of investment return is with the employer. Any shortfall in the contractually promised benefit must be made up by additional contributions in a defined benefit plan. Contrarily, any surplus can be utilized to reduce future contributions to meet these obligations. These plans are becoming less and less prevalent as employers look to avoid the extra liability of making up contributions if investment returns lag.
Defined Contribution Plans
DCP’s are the plans with growing popularity. An example of these types of plans would be: SIMPLE, 401(k), 403(b), and Section 457 plans. Employees are able to set aside a portion of their pay on a before tax basis. In some cases the employer will have a matching contribution that will be added in addition to the employer contribution.
The employee contributions are always 100% vested if that employee leaves employment. The employer contribution usually has a vesting schedule where a portion of the employer contribution will be forfeited by the employee if their years of service are not sufficient.
Defined Benefit Plans typically promise a lifetime of contractual income once you enter retirement. Defined Contribution Plans offer no such promises. Once your funds are depleted, your income stream is over. On the other hand, Defined Contribution plans will generally have a beneficiary designation where any remaining funds in the account can be passed to a beneficiary upon death.
Defined Benefit Plans provide choices as to how you prefer your lifetime income would be paid out. For example, you could receive the highest payout if you select a lifetime option with no provision for spousal continuation. You can also typically select a lesser amount with the remainder paid to a spouse if they survive you. These plans have no provision for leaving unused assets to non-spouse beneficiaries.
Retirees can select payment options as they see fit with Defined Contribution Plans. People can choose to take as little as is required by the IRS minimum distribution requirements all the way up to redeeming the entire account. Defined Contribution Plans offer the opportunity to pass assets along to beneficiaries for any unused balances.
The biggest difference between DBP’s and DCP’s lies in the responsibility for investment return. In a Defined Contribution Plan, the onus of return lies with the employee. If their returns are not sufficient, it is up to them to increase their contribution rate or have fewer funds available at retirement.
Minding today’s terminology is half the battle.
Kurt Rusch CLU, ChFC