What Is an Opt-Out Plan?

An opt-out plan is an employer-sponsored retirement savings program that automatically enrolls all employees into its 401(k) or SIMPLE IRA. Companies that use the opt-out provision enroll all eligible employees into a default allocation at a set contribution rate, usually around 3% of gross wages.

Employees can change their contribution percentages or opt-out of the plan altogether. They also may change the investments their money goes into if the company offers choices.

Key Takeaways

  • An opt-out plan automatically enrolls new employees into a company's retirement savings plan.
  • A set percentage of gross salary is paid into a retirement account, along with the company's matching contribution, if it has one.
  • The employee can choose to "opt-out" of the retirement plan, or change the percentage deducted.

Understanding the Opt-Out Plan

Employers set some of the rules for opt-out plans.

Some allow employees to withdraw their automatic contributions, including any earnings, within 90 days of their first automatic contribution. Some also permit employees to effectively borrow some of their own money and repay it over time in order to avoid tax penalties for early withdrawals from retirement funds.

Employers may also automatically increase the default contribution rate every year that an employee participates in the plan, up to a maximum of 10%. This also may be changed by the employee.

Matching Contributions

An employer may offer a matching contribution. This is a substantial employee benefit. For example, the employer may match the employee's contribution dollar-for-dollar up to a certain percentage. A 3% employer match is the average among employers who choose to offer one.

Employers need to abide by certain federal rules when offering these types of plans. For example, all employees must be 100% vested after no more than two years of service. Employees need to be offered opportunities to change their investment choices periodically.

An opt-out plan must spell out all rules to employees, provide notifications and disclosures, and execute the plan uniformly among all those who are eligible. 

Pros and Cons of an Opt-Out Plan 

Many workers in the U.S. do not sock away nearly enough for retirement, and some save nothing. Knowing this, some companies enact opt-out plans in an effort to boost the number of employees who save.

The amount deducted in an opt-out plan, typically about 3%, is a good start but too low to build a significant retirement account.

Opt-out plans tend to raise participation rates. However, they are set at contribution levels that are too low to meaningfully help the employees in retirement. Employees who don't proactively change their contribution levels may under-invest over the long term. Without a periodic reminder that a 3% contribution, for example, is just a starting point, many may not save enough in the long run. 

For this reason, some argue that opt-out plans may encourage wider participation in retirement savings plans, but they tend to lower their total retirement contributions. To counter this possibility, some employers raise the employee contribution rate by 1% each year, with 10% being the usual maximum.

There are other ways employers can encourage retirement contributions. Raising the company match is one of them. Most employees who have retirement savings plans know that failing to save enough to take advantage of the full company match is just "leaving money on the table."