Qualified & Nonqualified Retirement Plans

One of the most effective benefits for attracting and retaining employees is a company-sponsored retirement plan. Most employer-sponsored pension and profit sharing plans are qualified retirement plans. That is, each employee's share of the plan's assets and its earnings are held until the employee leaves the company or retires. No taxes are due until the employee receives the money, and the employers are not taxed on contributions.

Pension plans usually define eventual benefits based on wages and length of service. Profit sharing plans typically define the employer's annual contribution. Benefits are determined by the size of the contributions and their earnings.

Two types of qualified retirement plans are SIMPLEs and 401(k) plans. To compare these popular plans, click here. For a full chart of contribution and benefit limits for qualified retirement plans, click here.

Because qualified retirement plans can restrict the amount of benefits a higher-paid employee can receive, nonqualified plans can be attractive. Nonqualified plans don't have to cover every employee. There are no limits on compensation, benefits, or contributions other than an overall reasonableness test. Plus, there are minimal bookkeeping and reporting requirements.

However, nonqualified plans do have their disadvantages:

  • The benefits are unsecured—they are merely "promises to pay." A company cannot formally set aside funds as future benefits. Any assets that may be intended for these benefits must remain general assets of the company, and therefore, may be subject to the claims of creditors.

  • Payroll taxes are generally due when services are performed, not when compensation is paid.

  • The employer doesn't receive a tax deduction until the benefits are actually paid to the covered employees or are included in their income.