What Is a Cash Balance Pension Plan?

A cash balance pension plan is a pension plan with the option of a lifetime annuity. For a cash balance plan, the employer credits a participant's account with a set percentage of their yearly compensation plus interest charges.

A cash balance pension plan is a defined-benefit plan. As such, the plan's funding limits, funding requirements, and investment risk are based on defined-benefit requirements. Changes in the portfolio do not affect the final benefits received by the participant upon retirement or termination, and the company bears all ownership of profits and losses in the portfolio.

Key Takeaways

  • A cash balance pension plan is one in which participants receive a set percentage of their yearly compensation plus interest charges.
  • The benefit of such plans is that contribution limits increase with age.
  • People 60 years and older can save well over $200,000 annually in pretax contributions compared to a 401(k) where total employer and employee contributions for those 50 and older are limited to $56,000.

Understanding Cash Balance Pension Plans

Although a cash balance pension plan is a defined-benefit plan, unlike the regular defined-benefit plan, the cash balance plan is maintained on an individual account basis much like a defined-contribution plan. The cash balance plan acts similarly to a defined-contribution plan because changes in the value of the participant's portfolio do not affect the yearly contribution.

The added features of a cash balance pension plan resemble those of 401(k) plans. As in a traditional pension plan, investments are managed professionally, and participants are promised a certain benefit at retirement. However, the benefits are stated in terms of a 401(k)-style account balance rather than the terms of a monthly income stream.

Having a cash balance pension plan, in addition to a 401(k), can help a retirement saver slash their tax bills and bolster their nest egg. However, those who depend on generous traditional pension plans are less enthusiastic.

Many older business owners seek out these types of plans to turbocharge their retirement savings because of the generous contribution limits that increase with age. People 60 years and older can sock away well over $200,000 annually in pretax contributions.

With a 401(k), total employer and employee contributions for those 50 and older are much more limited. For the 2019 tax year, the maximum combined contribution is $62,000. That figure includes a $6,000 "catch-up" allowance for those age 50 and over.

How Cash Balance Pension Plans Work

Cash-balance employer contributions for rank-and-file employees usually amount to roughly 5% to 8% of pay compared with the 3% contributions that are typical of 401(k) plans. Participants also receive an annual "interest credit." This credit may be set at a fixed rate, such as 5%, or a variable rate, such as the 30-year treasury rate. At retirement, participants can take an annuity based on their account balance, or a lump sum, which can then be rolled into an IRA or another employer's plan.

Cash balance pension plans can be more costly to employers than 401(k) plans, in part because an actuary must certify each year that the plan is properly funded. Typical costs include $2,000 to $5,000 in setup fees, $2,000 to $10,000 in annual administration fees, and investment-management fees ranging from 0.25% to 1% of assets.