If it meets certain criteria, a qualified retirement plan is permitted to take advantage of special tax treatment. One key requirement for qualification is that the plan must not discriminate in favor of the employer's key employees. The special tax benefits include the following:

  • The employer may take a tax deduction for contributions made to the plan.
  • Employees may take a tax deduction on their own contributions to the plan.
  • Earnings on all contributions are tax-deferred until withdrawn.

For a primer on the types of qualified retirement plans, the tutorial 401(k) and Qualified Plans examines eligibility requirements, contributions, distributions and other features related to each.

There are two types of qualified plans: defined benefit, and defined contribution.

  1. Defined Benefit Plans
    Defined benefit plans are traditional pension plans, where benefits are based on a specific formula. Most formulas use the number of years of service times a salary factor (often an average of the highest three, or highest five, years of salary history). An age factor is used as well, so a worker retiring at 65 receives a higher monthly benefit than one retiring at 62.

    Defined benefit plans have these characteristics:

    • The employer may take a tax deduction for contributions made to the plan.
    • Employees may take a tax deduction on their own contributions to the plan.
    • Earnings on all contributions are tax-deferred until withdrawn.
  2. Defined Contribution Plans
    Rather than basing plan benefits on a specific formulaas defined benefit plans do, defined contribution plans allocate money to plan participants based on a percentage of each employee's earnings. The longer the employee participates in the plan, the higher the account balance grows, based on the amounts contributed and the investment earnings. Most defined contribution plans allow employees to choose their own investment mix from the specific funds made available through the employer.

    Defined contribution plans include the following:

    • Employer makes all contributions
    • Employer makes all investment decisions and bears the risk if investments perform poorly
    • Less popular since the rise of defined contribution plans
Look Out!
The main thing to know about the various defined contribution plans is that 403(b) plans are available only to employees of schools, hospitals and certain non-profit organizations. They are analogous to corporate 401(k) plans.


Important ERISA Issues

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