What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan

A qualified retirement plan meets the requirements of Internal Revenue Code Section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and is therefore eligible to receive certain tax benefits, unlike a non-qualified plan. Such a retirement plan is established by an employer on behalf of and for the benefit of the company’s employees. Qualified retirement plans give employers a tax break for the contributions they make for their employees. Qualified plans that allow employees to defer a portion of their salaries into the plan can also reduce employees’ present income-tax liability by reducing taxable income. Qualified retirement plans are one tool that can help employers attract and retain good employees.

1:47

What's a Qualified Retirement Plan?

Breaking Down Qualified Retirement Plan

Qualified plans come in two main types: defined benefit and defined contribution, though there are also some other plans that are hybrids of the two, the most common of which is called a cash balance plan. Defined benefit plans give employees a guaranteed payout and place the risk on the employer to save and invest properly to meet plan liabilities. A traditional annuity-type pension is an example of a defined benefit plan. Under defined contribution plans, the amount employees receive in retirement depends on how well they save and earn through investment on their own behalf during their working years. The employee bears all the investment and longevity risk and is expected to be a financially savvy saver. A 401(k) is the most popular example of a defined contribution plan. Other examples of qualified plans include the following:

  • Profit-sharing plans
  • 403(b) plans
  • Money purchase plans
  • Target benefit plans
  • Employee stock ownership (ESOP) plans
  • Keogh (HR-10)
  • Simplified Employee Pension (SEP)
  • Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE)

Qualified Retirement Plan and Investing

Qualified plans only allow certain types of investments, which vary by plan but typically include publicly traded securities, real estate, mutual funds, and money market funds. Increasingly, alternative investments like hedge funds and private equity are being considered for defined contribution plans. Some are already available, packaged into target-date funds. They also specify when distributions can be made, typically when the employee reaches the plan’s defined retirement age, when the employee becomes disabled, when the plan is terminated and not replaced by another qualified plan, or when the employee dies (in which case the beneficiary receives the distributions).

Qualified Retirement Plan and Taxes

Workers may take distributions from qualified plans before one of these triggering events occurs, but they will be subject to taxes and penalties that might make it unwise to take an early distribution. Some plans also allow employees to borrow from the plan under strict rules about how the loan must be repaid. For example, they may require that the loan be repaid within a certain number of years, that the worker pay interest (which goes back into the plan) on the loan, and that the loan be repaid immediately if the employee leaves the job to which the qualified retirement plan is tied.