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What Is a Cash Balance Plan?

What Is a Cash Balance Plan?

A cash balance plan is a defined benefit pension plan that has some characteristics of a defined contribution pension plan. Defined benefit pension plans provide participants with the specified benefit amount at retirement, while defined contribution plans provide for a specified amount to be contributed into the plan with no specified amount to be received at retirement.

In a cash balance plan, a participant’s account is credited each year with a “pay credit” and an “interest credit.” The “pay credit” is a specified percentage of the participant’s compensation that is deposited into the plan in accordance with the plan document. The “interest credit” is earnings applied to the participant’s account and is either based upon a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate that is linked to an index, such as the 30-year U.S. Treasury rate. This allows employers a greater ability to predict the cost of their contributions into a cash balance plan as opposed to a traditional defined benefit plan.

A cash balance plan resembles a defined contribution plan because the value of each participant’s benefit is based upon on individual account. The balances in these individual accounts are hypothetical because all of the plan’s assets are held in one large pool of investments and are not segregated between the individual participants, such as in a 401(k) plan. In addition, the value of the assets held by the cash balance plan can be greater than or less than the hypothetical balances assigned to each participant. This is due to the difference between the return on the investments in the plan as compared to the “interest credit” applied to each participant’s account. Like traditional defined benefit plans, the employer is still responsible for ensuring that there is adequate funding into the cash balance plan to ensure that all of the benefits can be paid.

When a participant becomes eligible to receive a distribution under the plan, the participant can receive the distribution in the form of either an annuity payment if the participant has reached retirement age or a lump sum payment, which can be rolled over into an IRA account, or another qualified pension plan. The distributions from a cash balance plan are calculated based upon the participant’s hypothetical account balance. Whereas, the distributions from a traditional defined benefit plan are based upon a defined benefit amount. As a result, there is less investment risk to the employer with a cash balance plan as opposed to a traditional defined benefit plan.

Cash balance plans differ from defined contributions plans in the following ways:

  1. The contributions into the plan are made by the employer.
  2. The investments are managed by the employer.
  3. Participants cannot borrow against their account balance.
  4. Cash balance plans are required to offer distributions in the form of a lifetime annuity option, whereas, this option is not required by 401(k) plans.
  5. The benefits in a cash balance plan are usually insured by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, while the benefits in a defined contribution plan are not insured.

Employee Benefit Plans
Author: Lisa Galinsky, CPA | lgalinsky@withum.com
The information contained herein is not necessarily all inclusive, does not constitute legal or any other advice, and should not be relied upon without first consulting with appropriate qualified professionals for your plan’s individual facts and circumstances.

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