There are two general types of pension plans — defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans. In general, defined benefit plans provide a specific benefit at retirement for each eligible employee, while defined contribution plans specify the amount of contributions to be made by the employer toward an employee’s retirement account. In a defined contribution plan, the actual amount of retirement benefits provided to an employee depends on the amount of the contributions as well as the gains or losses of the account.

A cash balance plan is a defined benefit plan that defines the benefit in terms that are more characteristic of a defined contribution plan. In other words, a cash balance plan defines the promised benefit in terms of a stated account balance.

How do cash balance plans work?

In a typical cash balance plan, a participant’s account is credited each year with a “pay credit” (such as 5 percent of compensation from his or her employer) and an “interest credit” (either a fixed rate or a variable rate that is linked to an index such as the one-year treasury bill rate). Increases and decreases in the value of the plan’s investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. Thus, the investment risks are borne solely by the employer.

When a participant becomes entitled to receive benefits under a cash balance plan, the benefits that are received are defined in terms of an account balance. For example, assume that a participant has an account balance of $100,000 when he or she reaches age 65. If the participant decides to retire at that time, he or she would have the right to an annuity based on that account balance. Such an annuity might be approximately $8500 per year for life. In many cash balance plans, however, the participant could instead choose (with consent from his or her spouse) to take a lump sum benefit equal to the $100,000 account balance.

If a participant receives a lump sum distribution, that distribution generally can be rolled over into an IRA or to another employer’s plan if that plan accepts rollovers.

The benefits in most cash balance plans, as in most traditional defined benefit plans, are protected, within certain limitations, by federal insurance provided through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

How do cash balance plans differ from 401(k) plans?

Cash balance plans are defined benefit plans. In contrast, 401(k) plans are a type of defined contribution plan. There are four major differences between typical cash balance plans and 401(k) plans:

  1. Participation – Participation in typical cash balance plans generally does not depend on the workers contributing part of their compensation to the plan; however, participation in a 401(k) plan does depend, in whole or in part, on an employee choosing to make a contribution to the plan.
  2. Investment Risks – The investments of cash balance plans are managed by the employer or an investment manager appointed by the employer. The employer bears the risks of the investments. Increases and decreases in the value of the plan’s investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. By contrast, 401(k) plans often permit participants to direct their own investments within certain categories. Under 401(k) plans, participants bear the risks and rewards of investment choices.
  3. Life Annuities – Unlike 401(k) plans, cash balance plans are required to offer employees the ability to receive their benefits in the form of lifetime annuities.
  4. Federal Guarantee – Since they are defined benefit plans, the benefits promised by cash balance plans are usually insured by a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If a defined benefit plan is terminated with insufficient funds to pay all promised benefits, the PBGC has authority to assume trusteeship of the plan and to begin to pay pension benefits up to the limits set by law. Defined contribution plans, including 401(k) plans, are not insured by the PBGC.