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Can Something Happen to My Defined Benefit Plan?

Defined Benefit Plans, colloquially known as pension plans, have long been a cornerstone of retirement savings for many. These employer-sponsored plans provide employees with guaranteed income during retirement, calculated based on factors like length of service and salary history. However, the question of whether these plans are entirely secure often lingers in the minds of many. Can something happen to your Defined Benefit Plan? Let's delve into this important topic.

Defining a Defined Benefit Plan

A Defined Benefit Plan is a type of retirement scheme in which an employer commits to pay a specific retirement benefit that is determined based on variables like the employee's salary, age, and years of service. Unlike other retirement savings plans, where the payout amounts depend on investment returns, the Defined Benefit Plan assures a pre-set benefit. Hence, the term, 'defined benefit.'

The employer is responsible for managing the plan's investments and absorbing the associated risks. As such, the employer, rather than the employee, is primarily responsible for ensuring the plan's solvency. Typically, employees cannot simply withdraw funds from these plans as they might with a 401(k) plan. Instead, they are eligible to receive their benefit as a lifetime annuity or, in some cases, as a lump sum at an age determined by the plan's guidelines.

Potential Risks and Uncertainties

Despite the inherent security of Defined Benefit Plans, they are not immune to potential risks and uncertainties. For example, if a plan’s investments yield poor returns or if the initial assumptions and calculations were flawed, this can result in a funding shortfall. Legally, the employer is obliged to rectify this shortfall through a cash contribution.

Another concern arises if the company responsible for the plan faces financial difficulties or goes bankrupt. While the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insures thousands of pensions across the country, the entire benefit of your Defined Benefit Plan is not entirely guaranteed. The PBGC insures each person's benefit only up to a certain limit; beyond that, the employee could potentially face a loss.

Moreover, corporations can "freeze" pensions, essentially halting the accrual of benefits. This means the employer stops counting the number of years you’ve worked, which then affects the calculation of your monthly payments. Such a scenario usually arises when a pension plan is underfunded or the company is struggling financially.

The Role of Trade Unions and Legislation

If you belong to a trade union, your pension generally has an added layer of protection. Trade unions negotiate on behalf of their members and provide a level of security. However, over the past few decades, trade unions have been in decline, and certain legislative changes have impacted Defined Benefit Plans. For instance, provisions in a 2015 bill allowed the renegotiation of defined benefits to extend the lifespan of struggling plans, leading to a reduction in benefits payments for some.

Planning for the Future

Considering the potential risks to Defined Benefit Plans, careful planning and strategic saving become paramount. Depending solely on your pension to navigate retirement may not be the wisest strategy. It is often recommended to have a diverse portfolio of retirement savings that may include other investment vehicles like 401(k)s, IRAs, and personal savings.

Consulting with a financial advisor can be beneficial in making informed decisions about your retirement. An advisor can guide you through the various payment options and help you understand how each choice may impact the total benefit you receive.Defined Benefit Plans provide a valuable source of retirement income for many employees. Yet, they are not without risks, and changes in a company's financial health or wider economic conditions can potentially impact these plans. Therefore, it is essential to have a diverse retirement strategy and regularly review your pension and other retirement savings to ensure you are on track to achieve your financial goals in your golden years.


The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will insure benefits up to a point, but it may not replace the full value of a pension if a plan goes belly-up. While the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insures thousands of Pensions across the country, the entire benefit of your Defined Benefit Plan is in no way guaranteed.

Some corporations can “freeze” your pension, meaning they stop the counter on the number of years you’ve worked, and use that as the number to calculate your monthly payments. Many pensions today are struggling after the long period of low interest rates on fixed instruments like government bonds.

Many pensions at the state level, for instance, are drastically underfunded, and even the PBGC, has called on Congress to find a way to assist them, since they have had to bail out so many plans in recent years. The PBGC only inures each person’s benefit up to a certain amount; in 2016 this was $60,000 a year.

For this reason, careful planning and smart saving are crucial – you can’t rely on your Pension alone to get you through retirement. If you belong to a trade union, generally speaking, you are more protected since the trade union would negotiate on your behalf (they have a lot of clout). Their pensions are known as multi-employer pensions.

However, in the past 20 years, trade unions have been gradually disappearing. A Teamsters Union pension was unfortunately the first pension to have their benefits reduced by definition in 40 years, through provisions in an omnibus bill enacted in 2015 that allowed renegotiation of defined benefits for the sake of increasing the longevity of struggling plans.

Participants had their benefits payments reduced by as much as 25%. UPS pulled out of that plan nearly ten years before for a settlement amount because it was concerned about the liability it would incur if the plan became any more unstable.

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