Defined Benefit Plan Pros and Cons: Top Strategies [+ IRS Pitfalls]

Defined benefit plans can be confusing. That’s why before you set up a plan make sure you carefully review the pros and cons.

We know these plans come with large tax-deductible contributions. Many have called them the best retirement option for the self-employed.

In this guide, we will review some basic concepts and also point out a few tips along the way. The goal is to educate you so you some you can make an informed decision on plan design. Let’s jump in!

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Defined benefit plan pros and cons analysis

Many business owners see the advantages of defined benefit plans and dive right in. But before you do, analyze the downside. Let’s examine some of the advantages.

Large Contributions

This advantage is clear-cut. A defined benefit plan allows for much higher contributions compared to other types of plans.

The plans don’t have annual funding limits like 401(k) plans. The goal is to have a large amount (usually $3 million) at retirement. As a result, the plans allow contributions as high as $300,000 a year to achieve the end retirement goal.

If you are looking to get over $100,000 annually into retirement, you don’t have many other options. 

Funding Flexibility: Remember you have a range

Many people assume contributions are fixed. While plans can have set contributions, most plans allow for more flexible funding.

In reality, you have a range. The range itself will result in a targeted amount along with minimum and maximum contributions. 

This range offers a lot of flexibility. You can make higher contributions in a high-income year and lower contributions in a down year.

You have more funding flexibility than you might have thought. Also, with each year of service, the range tends to widen. 

Combining Plans: Nice way to turbocharge

Not only are you allowed higher contributions to a defined benefit plan, but you can also combine them with 401(k) plans. When you combine the plans, you can turbocharge your contribution. But there is one limitation.

401(k) plans (with profit-sharing contributions) will limit any profit sharing to 25% of compensation. The employee deferral is unchanged.

But when you combine a 401(k) plan with a defined benefit plan, the business is limited to a 6% profit-sharing contribution. This limitation is typically not an issue because the defined benefit plan contribution is so significant it makes up for the reduced profit sharing contribution.

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Combining plans is so popular that I would guess that 90% of the plans we do are combos. They allow you to get more significant contributions for a minimal additional cost. The is important to note when considering the defined benefit plan pros and cons.

Tax Deductible: The #1 tax strategy

Have I mentioned that plan contributions are tax-deductible? Just like 401k plans, these plans are “qualified” plans. Plan contributions are tax-deductible and then taxed once withdrawn.

However, upon termination, the balance can be rolled over into an IRA or other qualified plan to avoid taxation. 

Please review your tax bracket with your CPA. The higher your income and your tax rate, the more these plans make economic sense. This is the reason we do so many plans for people in states like California and New York.

Age-Weighted Funding: It helps to be older

The contributions under these plans are age-weighted, which is a huge benefit for most business owners. But it will be a little trickier for young people. 

When we get into our 40s and 50s, we tend to have higher incomes. We also get more focused on retirement. At a young age, we assume we will live forever. Also, we typically don’t have a lot of disposable income to contribute to retirement. 

Our typical client is probably around 50 years old with an income of over $300,000. Once people get into their mid-40s, retirement structuring is just as critical as saving money on taxes.

Most plans have a retirement age of 62. Since the plans aim for a retirement balance at age 62, the older we get, the closer to that age we become. For this reason, contributions are much higher for 60-year-olds compared to 30 years olds.

A closer look at the cons

You understand all the pros and why these can be significant tax and retirement structures by now. But what about the downside? Is there a catch?

There are downsides to everything. There are some cons. Bottom line: they are best suited for business owners with consistently high incomes 40 years of age plus.

Conservative Asset Allocation: Not as bad as you might have thought

One belief is that defined benefit plans should hold conservative asset classes. The thought is that you should sacrifice significant investment returns to prevent overfunding.

Well, this isn’t always correct. Plans do carry a stated interest rate credit, which is often around 5%. In theory, the goal is to aim for investment returns that will match this crediting rate.

Higher investment returns can lead to reduced future contributions. The goal is really to limit the volatility.

I often advise clients to use their 401k or IRA to make more speculative investments and keep the defined benefit plan assets more conservative. Since 401(k)s are defined contribution plans, the funding amount is established up front. Once the contribution is made, volatile investment returns do not impact future funding.

Higher Plan Fees: check around

We all know that 401(k) plans are inexpensive to set up and maintain. Many custodians and brokerages will charge a nominal fee (or no fee at all). But they typically will not file form 5500. 

There is no doubt that defined benefit plans are more expensive than standard 401(k) plans. This is because the plans need to have an actuary sign-off. 

But for the right business owner, these plans are a bargain. Annual administration fees typically run $2,000 to $2,000. 

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Our typical contribution is approximately $150,000. With federal and state tax rates running 40% or higher, it doesn’t make a six-figure contribution to more than justify any plan costs.

Just don’t establish a defined benefit plan if you only want to contribute $10,000 or $20,000. Stick with a basic 401(k) plan. That is unless your tax bracket is so high that you want to ring out all the tax savings you can.

Permanency: Not as big of a problem as you might think

Defined benefit plans are meant to be permanent plans. But what does this mean? Do you have to have the plan set up for the lifetime of the company?

The IRS has stated that permanent does not mean forever. The plan should be maintained open for at least a few years. They don’t want you to start and stop plans. You should make sure that you have some visibility over the next few years. Any defined benefit plan pros and cons must consider IRS scrutiny.

But you don’t have to terminate your plan if your income is down in the current year. You can always freeze or amend the plan to lower the interest crediting rate or change the formula. You have options.

Non-Elective Contributions

One of the best parts of 401(k) plans is that contributions are elective. If your income is down, you don’t have to contribute. But if you have a good year, you can max fund the deferral and the profit sharing. The critical point is that contributions are not mandatory.

But defined benefit plan contributions are generally non-elective. Unless you have an overfunded plan, you will have to contribute.

Even though there is a contribution range, you must make the minimum contribution or assess an excise tax. This is an important step in any defined benefit plan pros and cons analysis.

Non-elective contributions tend to concern business owners. But they typically aren’t such a big deal. Even in a down year, many businesses have funds on hand that were earned (and taxed) in prior years.

You also have a lot of time to make your contributions. Remember that contributions can be made up to the date you file your tax return (including tax extensions). You have plenty of time to make your contribution even in a down year. 

More Complexity: This is a given

The tax-deductible contributions come at a price. The plans can be challenging to understand and administer. You should carefully coordinate with your CPA, third-party administrator, and financial advisor. Most CPAs and advisors don’t know how the plans work. 

Defined benefit plan pros and cons
Defined benefit plan pros and cons

We have found that the first year can be tough on business owners. But once you get through year one, you should be OK.

Eligible for QBID (Section 199)Large mandatory contributions
Flexible funding levelsHigher fees compared to 401(k)
Tax-deductible contributions 👉Conservative returns
Custom plan design 👉Permanent plan structure

Defined benefit plan pros and cons

Here are the five steps to analyzing the pros and cons:

  1. Examine the cost of setting up a plan compared to other retirement options

    Defined benefit plans will carry higher setup and annual maintenance costs. The cost of cash balance plan administration fees can vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the size of the plan, the complexity of the plan design, the level of services required, and the plan administrator selected. Generally, cash balance plans may have higher administrative fees than other types of retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, due to their complexity.

  2. Determine if you should combine with another plan

    Defined benefit plans work well in combination with a 401(k). It is possible to combine a cash balance plan with a 401(k) plan, which is known as a “cash balance/401(k) combo plan.” This type of plan design allows employers to provide both a defined benefit component, in the form of a cash balance plan, and a defined contribution component, in the form of a 401(k) plan, to their employees.

    In a cash balance/401(k) combo plan, the employer makes contributions to both the cash balance plan and the 401(k) plan on behalf of the employees. The contributions to the cash balance plan are typically based on a formula that takes into account the employee’s age, salary, and years of service, while the contributions to the 401(k) plan are typically made as a percentage of the employee’s salary.

  3. Take a close look at what your plan contributions are over the next several years.

    Remember that contributions are deemed non-elective so make sure you have the income to support the contributions. If your retirement goals include accumulating a substantial amount of retirement savings and receiving a guaranteed income stream in retirement, a cash balance plan may be a good fit. Cash balance plans provide a predictable benefit at retirement age and can help supplement other retirement savings vehicles, such as a 401(k) plan or individual retirement account (IRA).

  4. Make sure you review with your CPA.

    Your CPA will know your tax bracket and calculate any tax savings. Your CPA will be able to give you good insight into your tax savings and how a plan will work given your tax and entity structure.

    Ultimately, the decision to participate in a cash balance plan should be based on your individual financial situation and retirement goals. It is important to carefully consider the benefits and drawbacks of the plan, as well as any associated costs, before making a decision. You should also consult with your financial advisor or tax professional to determine if a cash balance plan is a good fit for your retirement savings strategy.

  5. Make timely contributions. 

    The IRS requires that contributions be made before filing your tax return. It is important for employers to work closely with their plan administrator and tax advisor to determine the exact deadline for funding their cash balance plan. Missing the deadline to fund the plan can result in penalties and other negative consequences for both the employer and the employees participating in the plan.

The Takeaway

When considering retirement plans, the goal is to maximize your contribution and save on taxes. A defined benefit plan can be a great plan that offers significant contributions.

I have talked at length about the advantages of defined benefit plans. There are many. But what about the disadvantages? These are not often discussed.

Take a look at the defined benefit plan pros and cons to make the best decision for your business.

Paul Sundin

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