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Understanding Defined Benefit Plans

You may be counting on funds from a defined benefit plan to help you achieve a comfortable retirement. Often referred to as traditional pension plans, defined benefit plans promise to pay you a specified amount at retirement.

To help you understand the role a defined benefit plan might play in your retirement savings strategy, here's a look at some basic plan attributes. But since every employer's plan is a little different, you'll need to read the summary plan description, or SPD, provided by your company to find out the details of your own plan.

What are defined benefit plans?

Defined benefit plans are qualified employer-sponsored retirement plans. Like other qualified plans, they offer tax incentives both to employers and to participating employees. For example, your employer can generally deduct contributions made to the plan.

And you generally won't owe tax on those contributions until you begin receiving distributions from the plan (usually during retirement). However, these tax incentives come with strings attached--all qualified plans, including defined benefit plans, must comply with a complex set of rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code.

How do defined benefit plans work?

A defined benefit plan guarantees you a certain benefit when you retire. How much you receive generally depends on factors such as your salary, age, and years of service with the company. Each year, pension actuaries calculate the future benefits that are projected to be paid from the plan, and ultimately determine what amount, if any, needs to be contributed to the plan to fund that projected benefit payout. Employers are normally the only contributors to the plan. But defined benefit plans can require that employees contribute to the plan, although it's uncommon. You may have to work for a specific number of years before you have a permanent right to any retirement benefit under a plan. This is generally referred to as "vesting." If you leave your job before you fully vest in an employer's defined benefit plan, you won't get full retirement benefits from the plan.

How are retirement benefits calculated?

Retirement benefits under a defined benefit plan are based on a formula. This formula can provide for a set dollar amount for each year you work for the employer, or it can provide for a specified percentage of earnings. Many plans calculate an employee's retirement benefit by averaging the employee's earnings during the last few years of employment (or, alternatively, averaging an employee's earnings for his or her entire career), taking a specified percentage of the average, and then multiplying it by the employee's number of years of service. Note: Many defined benefit pension plan formulas also reduce pension benefits by a percentage of the amount of Social Security benefits you can expect to receive.

How will retirement benefits be paid?

Many defined benefit plans allow you to choose how you want your benefits to be paid. Payment options commonly offered include:

  • A single life annuity: You receive a fixed monthly benefit until you die; after you die, no further payments are made to your survivors.
  • A qualified joint and survivor annuity: You receive a fixed monthly benefit until you die; after you die, your surviving spouse will continue to receive benefits (in an amount equal to at least 50 percent of your benefit) until his or her death.
  • A lump-sum payment: You receive the entire value of your plan in a lump sum; no further payments will be made to you or your survivors.

Choosing the right payment option is important, because the option you choose can affect the amount of benefit you ultimately receive. You'll want to consider all of your options carefully, and compare the benefit payment amounts under each option.

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Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2015.