top of page

Defined Benefit Plan: Understanding How It Works

Feature image that has a girl holding a growing investment represented by a pot with stems of investments for the article entitled “Defined Benefit Plan”.
Understand and learn more about defined benefit plans.

With ever-changing economic circumstances, how can an employer like you ensure that your employees, being your assets, stay with you in the long run?

One of the key factors in doing that is having a defined benefit plan.

A defined benefit plan is a retirement plan wherein employers give employees guaranteed retirement benefits based on a predetermined formula.

Defined benefits provide better protection than other retirement plans even if investments do not perform well because employers pay out predetermined benefits regardless.

Now, let’s jump to understand the significance of this plan and how it affects your staff and your business.

What is a Defined Benefit Plan?

Defined benefit plans are retirement plans under which you promise to pay a specified benefit to an employee upon retirement. Usually, this benefit is computed by considering factors such as the employee’s salary, length of service, and retirement age.

How does it work?

Under a defined benefit plan, you as the employer are responsible for funding the plan and assume the investment risk. Employers are required to contribute, and the actuary bases these payments' amounts on several hypotheses and estimates.

The formula specified in the retirement plan determines an employee's monthly benefits after retirement. This payment is typically adjusted for inflation to maintain the employee's purchasing power throughout retirement.

How are pension benefits calculated in a Defined Benefit Plan?

The image displays an infographic of the three common ways of calculating pension benefits in a defined benefit plan, represented by shapes like half circles and rectangles with circles in the middle, containing the main text: career average earnings benefit, final earnings benefit per year, and flat benefit per year.
Understanding the benefits of calculating your defined benefit plan is essential to ensure adequate retirement income for employees and compliance with legal requirements.

Career Average Earnings Benefit/Year

By multiplying the specified percentage (less than 2%) of the average monthly earnings over their career by the total number of years an employee has worked for the company, the benefit is determined.

(Defined%) * (Years of Service) * (Average Monthly Earnings Over Career)

Final Earnings Benefit per Year

To determine the benefit, multiply the number of years spent working for the company by the specified percentage (less than 2%) of the average monthly earnings over the previous five years.

(Defined%) * (Years of Service) * (Average Monthly Earnings for the Last Five Years)

Flat Benefit per Year

By multiplying a specified monetary amount by the number of years of service, the benefit is calculated.

Payment Options for a Defined Benefit Plan

You normally get distributions in the form of a lump sum or an annuity when it's time to retire. Making a choice between the two can be difficult, especially as other annuity structures could be used:

The image presents an infographic of the four common payment options of defined benefit plans, including single life payment, single life with term certain, 50% joint and survivor, and 100% joint and survivor, each with simple descriptions about the payment terms below the names.
When choosing your payment options, consider your business plans, as each option comes with its own set of benefits.

Single life payment

No more payments will be paid to your beneficiaries in the event of your death; instead, a monthly payment will be made to you for the balance of your life.

Single life with term certain

Your dependents will continue to receive payments for a predetermined period of years if you pass away before the term is over. Every month, you will be paid.

50% joint and survivor

Your surviving spouse will get lifetime payments that are equal to 50% of your initial annuity after your passing.

100% joint and survivor

Your surviving spouse will get lifetime payments that are equal to 100% of your initial annuity when you pass away.

Your annuity's payouts will likely decrease if you add more conditions. However, you'll often get the greatest benefits from selecting annuity payments if you're in good health and anticipate living a long life.

A lump sum can be the greatest option if you have little time left in retirement and are in poor health. Receiving a lump sum payment and investing it or using it to make your own annuity is an additional choice.

Types of Defined Benefit Plans

Pensions and cash balance plans are the two most prevalent varieties of defined benefit plans.


A pension is a set monthly payment that starts at retirement and is calculated using a formula that takes into account the length of an employee's employment as well as their salary.

Frequently, only employees who have been with the company for a set amount of time are eligible for pension benefits.

After reaching the necessary tenure, an employee is deemed vested. There could be various vesting criteria for pension plans. For instance, after five years of employment, a person might be 50% vested, entitling them to retirement benefits that are half the amount of a full pension.

Cash Balance Plans

Plans with cash balances are defined benefit plans that give employees a fixed account balance upon retirement or termination of employment as opposed to ongoing payments.

It is calculated by factoring in the employer's yearly contribution and the annual interest rate accumulated.

Cash balance programs sometimes provide lower benefits than pension plans, despite the fact that employers still share the risk of managing retirement funds. Instead of using the employee's highest earning period, the complete time spent working for the company is used.

Participants have the option of receiving their outstanding balance as a single payment or as an annuity, a series of regular installments.

Defined Benefit Plan vs Defined Contribution Plan

As the names imply, a defined-benefit plan, commonly known as the traditional pension plan, provides a specified payment amount in retirement.

A defined-contribution plan allows employees to contribute and invest in funds and other securities over time to save for retirement, which results in them bearing the investment risk. Defined-benefit programs don’t rely on investment returns, and the employees will know how much benefit they are expected to receive post-retirement.

Pros and Cons of a Defined Benefit Plan for the Employee

The infographic showcases the pros and cons of defined benefit plans, with three pros on the left side: income assurance, professional investment management, and tax benefits, and four cons on the right side: lack of flexibility, dependence on employer funding, vesting requirements, and the risk of inflation.
Reviewing these pros and cons can help you make an informed decision about whether a defined benefit plan is beneficial for your business and employees.

The following are some benefits and drawbacks of defined benefit plans for workers:


Income assurance: The defined benefit plan gives employees a certain retirement income guarantee, giving them a feeling of security and stability.

Professional investment management: The plan is typically run by investment professionals with the knowledge and skill to invest the money sensibly and earn profits.

Tax benefits: Employees may avoid paying taxes on their contributions and investment profits until they start receiving retirement income. Contributions to defined benefit plans are tax deductible.


Lack of flexibility: Because the plan administrator oversees the plan's investments, employees have no say in how their contributions are invested.

Dependence on employer funding: Since the company normally provides the funding for defined benefit plans, there is a chance that the employer won't be able to do so, endangering the retirement benefits.

Vesting requirements: Before receiving the full benefits of the plan, employees may need to satisfy certain vesting requirements, which may limit their ability to switch professions or occupations.

Risk of inflation: The defined benefit plan's guaranteed retirement income may not keep up with inflation, which might gradually reduce the retirement income's purchasing power.

Is Defined Benefit Plan a Good Option for You?

Under a defined benefit plan, an employee's retirement payout is fixed and predetermined. Employees do not contribute to the plan, and the employer is fully responsible for all investment-related responsibilities and risks. Because of this, many people who create defined benefit plans are either sole proprietors or employees of small companies.

Compared to the traditional IRA or 401(k), a defined benefit plan enables the business owner to save significantly more money for retirement. A defined benefit plan must be significant enough by the time an individual retires to provide the required yearly payout.

The annual contributions in the present are determined using actuarial assumptions based on age, investment performance, and other factors. In some circumstances, annual contribution ceilings can be very high.

With this quantity of annual contributions, a business owner can retire in ten years under a defined benefit plan. It should be possible for participants in a defined benefit plan to save between $100,000 and $150,000 a year for at least ten years.

The fact that all contributions are tax-deferred means that the financial advantages of the plan can quickly outweigh the higher administrative expenses.

Factors to consider when determining if a Defined Benefit Plan is a good fit for your retirement needs

When determining if a Defined Benefit Plan is a good fit for your retirement goals, there are a number of factors to consider:

Your Retirement Goals: Think about your retirement objectives and determine if a defined benefit plan could help you reach them. Defined benefit plans usually give a stream of guaranteed income to persons who place a high value on a reliable income in retirement.

Your employment history: Since defined benefit plans are frequently offered by employers, look into your employment history to discover if you've ever been employed by one. Joining a defined benefit plan might not be an option for you if you haven't.

Your Time Horizon: If you have a longer time horizon, defined benefit plans can be a good option because they are designed to provide lifetime retirement income. A defined benefit plan might not be as advantageous if you have a shorter time horizon or intend to retire soon.

Your Tolerance for Risk: Since defined benefit plans are frequently funded by employers, they bear the investment risk. A defined benefit plan may be a good option for you if you are risk-averse and don't want to take on investment risk.

Think about whether the retirement income offered by a defined benefit plan will be enough to fulfill your retirement income demands. A defined benefit plan may be used to supplement the retirement income you receive from Social Security or a retirement savings plan.

Given that Defined Benefit Plans provide lifetime retirement income, consider your health and life expectancy. If you hope to live a long time in retirement, the guaranteed income provided by a defined benefit plan may be useful.

Generally, you should carefully assess your retirement goals, job history, time horizon, risk tolerance, retirement income needs, health, and life expectancy to see whether a defined benefit plan is an appropriate fit for your needs in retirement.

Reasons to Set Up a Self-Employed Defined Benefit Plan

Self-employed defined benefit plans are retirement plans for sole owners and independent contractors. It is referred to as a "defined benefit plan" because the payments you would receive upon retirement are predetermined and based on a formula that considers your income and years of service into account, among other factors.

A SE-DBP is designed to give independent contractors access to retirement plans that are on par with those provided by major enterprises.

The infographic highlights the four main reasons to set up self-employed defined benefit plans, especially for sole owners, to secure retirement plans for the future.
Understanding the importance of setting up defined benefit plans provides a broader perspective of future financial security and allows for well-planned investments in the present.

There are several advantages to setting up a SE-DBP, including

Benefits in terms of taxes

Donations to a SE-DBP are tax deductible, which can minimize your tax liability by reducing your taxable income.

High contribution limits

SE-DBPs help you to save more for retirement because they offer larger contribution limits than other retirement plans like IRAs and Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans.

Guaranteed benefits

Benefits that are guaranteed and based on a formula that considers your pay and number of years of service provide stability and predictability.

Optional investments

SE-DBPs provide a range of investment choices, including equities, bonds, and mutual funds, enabling you to diversify your retirement assets and maybe generate higher returns.


The most crucial points about defined benefit plans are listed below.

Q: Who typically makes contributions to a Defined Benefit Plan?

A: The employer makes the majority of the contributions to a defined benefit plan. Employee contributions, however, might be compulsory, or they might be permitted.

Q: In a defined benefit plan, are there any restrictions on benefits and contributions?

A: The plan's benefits are indeed restricted. The deduction cap is any sum up to the present unfunded obligation of the plan. A registered actuary should be consulted for more information.

Q: What requirements are needed when filing a Defined Benefit Plan?

A: Annual filing of Form 5500 is necessary for a Defined Benefit Plan. Additionally, the Schedule

B of Form 5500 must be signed by an enrolled actuary.

Q: Is it possible for participants in a defined benefit plan to borrow money?

A: Yes, a Defined Benefit Plan may permit participant loans.

Q: Can participants withdraw funds from a Defined Benefit Plan before age 59 1/2?

A: A participant cannot often receive an in-service dividend from a defined benefit plan before becoming 59 1/2 years old.

Bottom Line

Although having a defined benefit plan through your workplace might be quite advantageous, it is vital to understand that this is not the only method of retirement savings you should use.

Even if it is fully paid and secured, it's essential to have a diversified retirement portfolio that includes a range of investments and retirement savings options.

If your employer's Defined Benefit Plan isn't as safe as it was previously, a Traditional IRA or a Roth can be excellent options for supplemental retirement savings.

14 views0 comments
bottom of page