Cash Balance Pensions: Pros and Cons for Small Business

If you're a small business owner and retirement is looming in the not-too-distant future, you might consider a cash balance pension plan. It could fit your retirement savings goals as well as meeting the needs of your employees.

This type of employee retirement plan requires you to contribute a percentage of each employee's annual wages, typically 5% plus an interest credit, for investment towards retirement. The employee can contribute on their own behalf as well.

Key Takeaways

  • The cash balance pension has its greatest appeal for owners of small businesses dominated by high earners, such as doctors' offices and legal firms.
  • It is notable for high limits on contributions and favorable tax treatment.
  • It has some attributes of a 401(k) but the payment owed in retirement is not subject to market fluctuations.

How a Cash Balance Pension Works

At retirement, a cash balance pension plan offers employees (and their employers) a choice. They can take the money that has been put aside for them in a lump sum or opt for a monthly payment based on the balance. The monthly payment is based on years of service and highest three consecutive years of salary as well as individual life expectancy.

The good part, especially for older workers, is that the allowable amounts that can be deposited are essentially unlimited. The limit is placed on the maximum allowable payout. For 2023, the limit for a pension payout is $265,000 a year. For 2024, the limit increases to $275,000 a year. Working back from there, an older professional could put in above $300,000 a year. Working back from there, an older professional could put in above $300,000 a year.

Similarities to a 401(k)

Cash balance pension plans are defined benefit pension plans with a bit of a 401(k) twist. The employer credits each participant’s account with a set percentage of their annual compensation, plus a set interest rate.

A 65-year-old professional could pay in as much as $330,000 in 2023 and $345,000 in 2024 and still fund a 401(k) or IRA account.

But, as with any defined benefit pension plan, the investment risk is all on the employer. Participants cannot be adversely affected by fluctuations in the stock market.

High Contribution Limits

One aspect of a cash balance plan that makes it attractive to a small business owner, especially one who is nearing retirement age, is the high contribution levels that increase as you get older.

For example, for a 65-year-old, the maximum contribution could be as high as $330,000 in 2023 ($345,000 in 2024). In addition, they can still contribute up to $30,000 to a 401(k) plan with catch-ups included ($31,000 in 2024). That is, for tax year 2023, the IRS annual contribution limit is $22,500, but those who are 50 or over are allowed to contribute an additional $7,500 as a catch-up provision. (For 2024, the contribution limit is $23,000, and the catch contribution is $8,000).

For a business owner who is behind on saving for retirement, wants a maximum tax deduction, and has the available cash flow, a cash balance plan can be an excellent solution.

Growing in Popularity

Cash balance plans now account for about 50% of all defined benefit plans, according to pension consultants FuturePlan.

They have been growing in popularity in recent years. Much of this growth is being fueled by solo business owners and high-earning professionals such as doctor groups, law firms, and other professionals. For high-earning baby boomers, the cash balance plan can be the best of all worlds.

Cash balance plans, however, are not cheap for businesses with employees. The employer contributions in a typical 401(k) plan could be around 3% to 6% of compensation. The costs overall might run up to 12% for defined benefit plans. Participant accounts will receive an annual interest credit, which may be a fixed rate of 5% or a variable such as the interest rate on the 30-year Treasury.

Initial setup costs will generally run between $2,000 and $5,000. Each year an actuary must certify that the plan is properly funded. This could bring annual administration costs into the range of $2,000 to $10,000.

Participant Accounts

Each participant has an individual account, much like in a 401(k) plan. At retirement, participants can take their payments as an annuity though, in some plans, there is an option to take a lump-sum distribution that can be rolled over to an IRA.

The plans ramp up retirement savings while providing a higher tax deduction than most of the alternatives.?The benefits for older professionals who may not have saved enough are tremendous.

The professional practice must have the cash flow to fund these plans on a consistent basis and must be willing to make contributions for their other employees. Cash balance plans offer a degree of portability for employees who leave the company as long as they are vested in the benefit.

As in any pension plan, the benefits due to participants are insured by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) in the event that the employer defaults on the payments.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Frequently Asked Questions on the Cash Balance Pension Plans Compliance," Pages 1-3.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "COLA Increases for Dollar Limitations on Benefits and Contributions.”

  3. U.S. Department of Labor. "Frequently Asked Questions on the Cash Balance Pension Plans Compliance," Page 1.

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. "Frequently Asked Questions on the Cash Balance Pension Plans Compliance," Page 2.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) Limit Increases to $23,000 for 2024, IRA Limit Rises to $7,000.”

  6. FuturePlan. "National Cash Balance Research Report," Page 3.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. “Operating a 401(k) Plan.”

  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employer Costs for Employee Compensation News Release: Table 1. Employer Costs for Employee Compensation by Ownership."

  9. Journal of Accountancy. “The Rise of the Cash Balance Pension Plan.”

  10. U.S. Department of Labor. "Cash Balance Pension Plans," Page 3.

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