Defined benefit pension plan

Defined benefit pension plan

In economics, a defined benefit pension plan is a major type of pension plan in which an employer promises a specified monthly benefit on retirement that is predetermined by a formula based on the employee's earnings history, tenure of service and age, rather than depending on investment returns. It is 'defined' in the sense that the formula for computing the employer's contribution is known in advance.[1] In the United States, 26 U.S.C. § 414(j) specifies a defined benefit plan to be any pension plan that is not a defined contribution plan where a defined contribution plan is any plan with individual accounts. A traditional pension plan that defines a benefit for an employee upon that employee's retirement is a defined benefit plan.

The most common type of formula used is based on the employee’s terminal earnings. Under this formula, benefits are based on a percentage of average earnings during a specified number of years at the end of a worker’s career.

In recent years, a new type of defined benefit plan, a cash balance plan, has become more prevalent for larger companies. Under this type of plan, benefits are computed as a percentage of each employee’s account balance. Employers specify a contribution—usually based on a percentage of the employee’s earnings—and a rate of interest on that contribution that will provide a predetermined amount at retirement, usually in the form of a lump sum.

In the private sector, defined benefit plans are typically funded exclusively by employer contributions. For very small companies with one owner and a handful of younger employees, the business owner generally receives a high percentage of the benefits. In the public sector, defined benefit plans often require employee contributions.[2][3]

Many companies with these plans face a deficit between the money currently in their plans and the total amount of their pension obligations.[4] Contributions may be made by the employee, the employer, or both. The employer bears the investment risk.[5]



When participating in a defined benefit pension plan, an employer promises to pay their employees a specific benefit for life beginning at retirement. The benefit is calculated in advance using a formula based on age, earnings, and years of service. In the United States, the maximum retirement benefit permitted in 2011 under a defined benefit plan is $195,000 (up from $185,000 in 2008). Defined benefit pension plans currently do not have contribution limits.[6]

The liability of the pension lies with the employer who is responsible for making the decisions. Employer contributions to a defined benefit pension plan are based on a formula that calculates the contributions needed to meet the defined benefit. These contributions are actuarially determined taking into consideration the employee's life expectancy and normal retirement age, possible changes to interest rates, annual retirement benefit amount, and the potential for employee turnover.[6]

Employees are always entitled to the vested accrued benefit earned to date and if an employee leaves the company before retirement, the benefits earned so far are frozen and held in a trust for the employee until retirement age. The defined benefit pension plan must allow its vested employees to receive their benefits no later than the 60th day after the end of the plan year in which they have been employed for ten years or leave their employer. Employees who reach age 65 or the specified retirement age in their plan can also collect the benefits. Starting in 2002, the maximum benefit is now reduced for retirement prior to age 62, and increased for retirement after age 65.[6]

The plan cannot force you to receive your benefits before normal retirement age unless you have less than $5,000 vested in the plan. However, you must begin to receive your benefits no later than April 1 following the last year of employment or age 70½, whichever is later.[6]

Defined benefit plans distribute their benefits through life annuities. In a life annuity, employees receive equal periodic benefit payments (monthly, quarterly, etc.) for the rest of their lives. A defined benefit pension plan allows joint distributions so a surviving spouse can still receive 50 percent of your payment.[6]

In the United States, 88 percent of public employees are covered by a defined benefit pension plan.[7]

In the United States, Federal public sector plans are governed by the Tax Code and Federal law, while state and local public sector plans are governed by the Tax Code and state law. Thus the funding requirements, benefits, plan solvency, and participant rights and obligations vary significantly. Private sector plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974. This law contains provisions rooted in the Tax Code and enforced by the Internal Revenue Service, but, in Title I of ERISA, also provides a body of Federal law governing employee benefit plans that preempts state law. Rooted in the principles of trust law, Title I of ERISA governs the fiduciary conduct and reporting requirements of private sector employee benefits plans through a system of exclusively Federal rights and remedies. Title I is administered by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) at the United States Department of Labor. EBSA is led by the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits, a Sub-Cabinet level position requiring nomination by the President of the United States and confirmation by the United States Senate. The current Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits and head of the Employee Benefits Security Administration is the Hon. Phyllis Borzi. Past Assistant Secretaries include the Hon. Bradford P. Campbell, the Hon. Ann L. Combs and the Hon. Olena Berg-Lacy.

Benefit Plan

Traditionally, retirement plans have been administered by institutions which exist specifically for that purpose, by large businesses, or, for government workers, by the government itself. A traditional form of a defined benefit plan is the final salary plan, under which the pension paid is equal to the number of years worked, multiplied by the member's salary at retirement, multiplied by a factor known as the accrual rate. The final accrued amount is available as a monthly pension or a lump sum.

The benefit in a defined benefit pension plan is determined by a formula that can incorporate the employee's pay, years of employment, age at retirement, and other factors. A simple example is a Dollars Times Service plan design that provides a certain amount per month based on the time an employee works for a company. For example, a plan offering $100 a month per year of service would provide $3,000 per month to a retiree with 30 years of service. While this type of plan is popular among unionized workers, Final Average Pay (FAP) remains the most common type of defined benefit plan offered in the United States. In FAP plans, the average salary over the final years of an employee's career determines the benefit amount.

In the United Kingdom, benefits are typically indexed for inflation (known as Retail Prices Index (RPI)) as required by law for registered pension plans.[8] Inflation during an employee's retirement affects the purchasing power of the pension; the higher the inflation rate, the lower the purchasing power of a fixed annual pension. This effect can be mitigated by providing annual increases to the pension at the rate of inflation (usually capped, for instance at 5% in any given year). This method is advantageous for the employee since it stabilizes the purchasing power of pensions to some extent.

If the pension plan allows for early retirement, payments are often reduced to recognize that the retirees will receive the payouts for longer periods of time. In the US, (under the ERISA rules), any reduction factor less than or equal to the actuarial early retirement reduction factor is acceptable.[9]

Many DB plans include early retirement provisions to encourage employees to retire early, before the attainment of normal retirement age (usually age 65). Some of those provisions come in the form of additional temporary or supplemental benefits, which are payable to a certain age, usually before attaining normal retirement age.[10]


Defined benefit plans may be either funded or unfunded.

In an unfunded defined benefit pension, no assets are set aside and the benefits are paid for by the employer or other pension sponsor as and when they are paid. This method of financing is known as Pay-as-you-go (PAYGO or PAYG).[11]

In a funded plan, contributions from the employer, and sometimes also from plan members, are invested in a fund towards meeting the benefits. The future returns on the investments, and the future benefits to be paid, are not known in advance, so there is no guarantee that a given level of contributions will be enough to meet the benefits. Typically, the contributions to be paid are regularly reviewed in a valuation of the plan's assets and liabilities, carried out by an actuary to ensure that the pension fund will meet future payment obligations. This means that in a defined benefit pension, investment risk and investment rewards are typically assumed by the sponsor/employer and not by the individual. If a plan is not well-funded, the plan sponsor may not have the financial resources to continue funding the plan. In many countries, such as the USA, the UK and Australia, most private defined benefit plans are funded, because governments there provide tax incentives to funded plans (in Australia they are mandatory). In the United States, private employers must pay an insurance-type premium to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government agency whose role is to encourage the continuation and maintenance of voluntary private pension plans and provide timely and uninterrupted payment of pension benefits. The Social Security system in the United States is funded through a payroll tax (FICA) that is paid by employees and employers. The proceeds of this tax are paid into the Social Security Trust Funds[12] which had a balance of $2,654,496 million as of September, 2011.[13]

Advantages and drawbacks

Traditional defined benefit plan designs (because of their typically flat accrual rate and the decreasing time for interest discounting as people get closer to retirement age) tend to exhibit a J-shaped accrual pattern of benefits, where the present value of benefits grows quite slowly early in an employee's career and accelerates significantly in mid-career: in other words it costs more to fund the pension for older employees than for younger ones (an "age bias"). Defined benefit pensions tend to be less portable than defined contribution plans, even if the plan allows a lump sum cash benefit at termination. Most plans, however, pay their benefits as an annuity, so retirees do not bear the risk of low investment returns on contributions or of outliving their retirement income. The open-ended nature of these risks to the employer is the reason given by many employers for switching from defined benefit to defined contribution plans over recent years. The risks to the employer can sometimes be mitigated by discretionary elements in the benefit structure, for instance in the rate of increase granted on accrued pensions, both before and after retirement.

The age bias, reduced portability and open ended risk make defined benefit plans better suited to large employers with less mobile workforces, such as the public sector (which has open-ended support from taxpayers).

Defined benefit plans are sometimes criticized as being paternalistic as they enable employers or plan trustees to make decisions about the type of benefits and family structures and lifestyles of their employees. However they are typically more valuable than defined contribution plans in most circumstances and for most employees (mainly because the employer tends to pay higher contributions than under defined contribution plans), so such criticism is rarely harsh.

The "cost" of a defined benefit plan is not easily calculated, and requires an actuary or actuarial software. However, even with the best of tools, the cost of a defined benefit plan will always be an estimate based on economic and financial assumptions. These assumptions include the average retirement age and lifespan of the employees, the returns to be earned by the pension plan's investments and any additional taxes or levies, such as those required by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in the U.S. So, for this arrangement, the benefit is relatively secure but the contribution is uncertain even when estimated by a professional.


Many countries offer state-sponsored retirement benefits, beyond those provided by employers, which are funded by payroll or other taxes. The United States Social Security system is similar to a defined benefit pension arrangement, albeit one that is constructed differently than a pension offered by a private employer.

Individuals that have worked in the UK and have paid certain levels of national insurance deductions can expect an income from the state pension scheme after their normal retirement. The state pension is currently divided into two parts: the basic state pension, State Second [tier] Pension scheme called S2P. Individuals will qualify for the basic state pension if they have completed sufficient years contribution to their national insurance record. The S2P pension scheme is earnings related and depends on earnings in each year as to how much an individual can expect to receive. It is possible for an individual to forgo the S2P payment from the state, in lieu of a payment made to an appropriate pension scheme of their choice, during their working life. For more details see UK pension provision.

See also


  1. ^ "defined benefit plan". definition. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  2. ^ "BLS Information". Glossary. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Division of Information Services. February 28, 2008. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  3. ^ "Glossary". Bahrain Investment Center:Glossary of Terms. Citibank. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  4. ^ "Glossary of Terms". Quick Facts. Goodyear. Retrieved 2009-05-08. [dead link]
  5. ^ "defined benefit plan". definition. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  6. ^ a b c d e "What is a Defined Benefit Pension Plan?". Channels:Tax center. New York Life Precision Information, LLC. 2009.,3254,11545,00.html. Retrieved 2009-05-09. 
  7. ^ "City employees' golden years start too soon". Opinion: EDITORIAL. Thursday, May 07, 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  8. ^ The Pensions Advisory Service.
  9. ^ Early Retirement Provisions in Defined Benefit Pension Plans. Ann C. Foster
  10. ^ Qualified Domestic Relations Order Handbook By Gary A. Shulman pp. 199-200 Published by: Aspen Publishers Online, 1999 ISBN 0735506655, ISBN 9780735506657.
  11. ^ "Unfunded Pension Plans" OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms (retrieved 26 January 2009).
  12. ^ Social Security FAQ's
  13. ^ Social Security Investments

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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