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What’s a Defined Benefit Plan?

In the landscape of retirement savings, Defined Benefit Plans (DBP) stand as one of the primary modes for employers to offer long-term financial security to their employees. This article will unpack the core attributes of a DBP, the mechanisms at work behind its operation, and the associated risks and rewards.

The Basics of Defined Benefit Plans

A Defined Benefit Plan is a type of employer-sponsored retirement plan. It promises employees a specified monthly benefit at retirement, or for a set number of years post-retirement. The guaranteed benefits are computed based on a formula incorporating the employee's salary, age, and years of service to the employer, among other factors. In stark contrast to Defined Contribution Plans, the employer bears the investment risk and the responsibility for ensuring sufficient funding in a DBP.

The Mechanics Behind Defined Benefit Plans

Defined Benefit Plans entail a commitment from employers to pay their employees a pre-determined "benefit" or income for the rest of their lives or for a specified number of years after retirement. To fulfill this commitment, employers must fund the necessary accounts. The calculation of the required contributions is typically carried out by actuaries, ensuring that the anticipated result aligns with the funds available.

This system operates under careful oversight and auditing to prevent underfunding. However, long periods of low interest rates have led to significant underfunding in many pension plans, including state government-level plans, sparking class action lawsuits across the country.

Once employees meet the requisite conditions, which usually includes a vesting period, they become entitled to the promised benefits. They may choose to receive these as a lump-sum settlement or in the form of pension payments, although there could be age restrictions to access the funds.

Risk Management in Defined Benefit Plans

One critical aspect to understand is that while the employee is promised a defined benefit, the investment risk lies squarely with the employer. As such, employers often hire external investment managers to handle the plan's investments. Poor investment returns or miscalculations can lead to funding shortfalls, legally obligating employers to make cash contributions to cover the deficit.

Tax Implications and Insurance

Contributions made to Defined Benefit Plans are not taxable to the employee. However, all distributions from the plan are taxed as income.

To safeguard the interests of the employees, pensions are insured to a degree by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a government agency. This insurance ensures some level of protection to employees if their employer encounters financial difficulties that impact the pension plan.

Defined Benefit Plans in the Retirement Landscape

Defined Benefit Plans offer a degree of security to employees, promising a pre-defined benefit at retirement. As the plan's name suggests, the retirement benefits are "defined" or known upfront, offering predictability and certainty. The surviving spouse is often entitled to the benefits if the employee passes away, providing additional family protection.

Historically, Defined Benefit Plans represented one of the most efficient ways to offer substantial deductible compensation to employees. Some plans still permit deductions as high as $200,000 a year per employee, provided the employee's income is sufficiently high.

Defined Benefit Plans offer a structured, predictable route to retirement savings. However, their complexity requires employers to engage in diligent planning, risk management, and ongoing oversight to ensure that the promised benefits can be delivered. Employees, in turn, enjoy the benefit of defined, predictable retirement income.


Defined Benefit plans guarantee a certain amount of retirement income to an employee based on the employee’s current salary, years at the employer, and other factors.

A Defined Benefit Plan involves a promise made to you by your employer to pay you a certain monthly “benefit” for the rest of your life, or for a certain number of years after retirement. The amount of the payment is pre-calculated using a formula which typically involves your age, your salary, the number of years you’ve worked for your employer, along with other factors.

If you satisfy the terms which entitle you to certain benefits, the employer bears the burden of funding the accounts necessary to be able to pay the benefit guaranteed to you. Actuaries must help an employer solidify the calculations and contributions necessary to achieve the anticipated result. Oversight and auditing keeps the plans from being underfunded.

Due to a long period of low interest rates, many pension plans, including ones at the state government level, have become drastically underfunded, and class action lawsuits have taken place all over the country. Benefits are vested after a certain period of time, and there is sometimes an option to take a lump sum settlement instead of pension payments, but you may have to wait until a certain age to access the funds.

Pensions are insured to an extent by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a government entity. Contributions are not taxable to the employee, but all distributions are taxed as income. Defined benefit plans were historically the best way to deduct the largest amount of compensation to employees, and some plans still allow for deductions as high as $200,000 a year per employee, if the employee’s income is high enough.

What’s the Difference between a Defined Benefit Plan and a Defined Contribution Plan?
Can Something Happen to My Defined Benefit Plan?

 Disclaimers and Limitations

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