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What is the Difference Between Cash-Balance Plans and Other Retirement Plans?

What is the Difference Between Cash-Balance Plans and Other Retirement Plans?

Understanding the distinct types of retirement plans available is a crucial factor for financial planning. Retirement plans, such as Cash Balance Plans, Defined Benefit Plans, and Defined Contribution Plans, differ significantly in their structure, benefits, and requirements. This article seeks to elucidate the fundamental difference between Cash-Balance Plans and other retirement plans.

Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans: The Distinct Features

At the heart of retirement planning, we have two types of plans: defined benefit and defined contribution plans. In defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s and Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans, the contributions are certain. The emphasis is on the amount of money contributed to the plan, whereas the eventual benefit or account balance at retirement is unpredictable.

In stark contrast, defined benefit plans offer a structured approach. These plans guarantee a certain benefit at retirement, often through monthly income. Actuaries estimate the life expectancy of employees and determine the income to be paid based on several factors, including the employee's salary and length of service. Such Defined Benefit Plans are typically known as Pension Plans. However, the structure of a Cash Balance plan sets it apart from traditional Pension Plans.

Cash-Balance Plans: An Unconventional Defined Benefit Plan

Cash-Balance Plans, although a type of Defined Benefit plan, differ substantially from traditional Pensions. Unlike Pensions, Cash-Balance Plans are portable. Employees can roll the money into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) if they leave their jobs. This flexibility stems from the fact that the defined benefit in a Cash Balance Plan is a lump sum, as opposed to the continuous income stream offered by Pension Plans.

These plans are funded with contributions that are credited with a fixed interest rate. The benefit amount is certain, contingent on the contributions made into the plan. Unlike Pension Plans where the assets are pooled without specific allocations to each employee, Cash Balance Plans maintain 'hypothetical' accounts displaying personal balances, despite also having pooled assets.

Cash-Balance Plans vs. Money Purchase Plans: The Fundamental Contrast

Money Purchase Plans, often referred to as pensions, share similarities with Cash Balance Plans but fall under the umbrella of defined contribution plans. These plans require employers to contribute a fixed percentage of an employee's salary, applied uniformly across all employees.

However, a Cash Balance Plan presents a degree of flexibility in the contribution amount per employee. While this allows for discrimination in contribution amounts, it necessitates that an employer set up a safe harbor 401(k) to satisfy the nondiscrimination requirements set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Hence, it is critical for administrators to monitor contributions to Cash Balance Plans to avoid them becoming top-heavy.

The Role of Taxation in Retirement Planning

Taxation is a significant factor in retirement planning. Both Cash-Balance and other retirement plans can offer tax advantages, but the specific rules and benefits can vary. Qualified plans, those that meet specific IRS guidelines, are typically tax-deductible and grow tax-deferred. Any analysis of these plans should include a careful review of the taxation implications and the filing of relevant documents, such as Form 5500, which is mandatory for most tax-advantaged retirement accounts.

Retirement plans are a vital part of long-term financial planning. Understanding the nuances of each plan type, including Cash-Balance Plans, is key to making informed decisions that can optimize benefits and suit individual financial circumstances. Whether it's the structured promise of a defined benefit plan or the portability and flexibility of a Cash-Balance Plan, the right choice depends on the individual's financial goals and retirement objectives.


Cash Balance plans are Defined Benefit plans, but are not much like Pensions as you may know them, or other types of retirement plans, for that matter.

On one side of the retirement isle you have defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s and SEPs and so on, where the contributions are certain, or at least ascertainable, while the ending balance or benefit of each employee’s account is unknown, or at least does not have to be (and in most cases isn’t).

Defined Benefit plans, on the other side of things, are more structured because they are built around a promise and guarantee that a certain benefit will be payable to the employee when retirement comes. This is usually done with the help of actuaries who estimate the life expectancy of employees and help to figure our how much income can be paid to each employee for the rest of his or her life.

They base this income amount on the length of time worked for the employer, the employee’s salary, and other factors. Defined Benefit Plans like that are known as Pensions. Cash Balance plans are a different type of Defined Benefit plan.

Unlike Pensions, Cash-Balance Plans are mobile – if you leave your job, you can roll the money into an IRA, just like you can with a 401(k). That is partially because the defined benefit in a Cash Balance plan is a lump sum that waits for the employee, rather than an income stream, as in a pension.

Cash Balance plans are funded with contributions that may be adjusted every few years, but which are credited with a fixed interest rate, making the benefit amount down the road certain, depending on what contributions were put into the plan.

Also, in Pension Plans, the assets are all pooled and no particular amounts are separated into accounts for each employee. In Cash Balance plans, the assets are also pooled, but employees do have “hypothetical” accounts with their personal balances.

How Does a 401(k) Compare With Other Retirement Plans?
Will My Cash-Balance Payments Affect My Social Security payments?

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