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Differences of Qualified vs. Nonqualified Retirement Plans


Qualified retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and pensions, can offer significant tax advantages and are subject to strict regulations set forth by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). These plans are designed to provide a broad range of employees with the opportunity to save for retirement while enjoying tax benefits and employer contributions. On the other hand, nonqualified retirement plans, such as deferred compensation plans and supplemental executive retirement plans (SERPs), provide employers with greater flexibility in designing benefits for specific groups of employees, particularly highly compensated individuals or key executives. Let’s take a look at the importance of the major differences between the two.

Need help with your retirement planning? Consider working with a financial advisor.

What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan?

A qualified retirement plan is an employer-sponsored retirement plan that meets specific requirements set forth in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Sections 401(a) and 403(a). To qualify for favorable tax treatment, these plans must comply with various nondiscrimination, coverage and vesting rules.

Qualified retirement plans offer significant tax advantages, including:

  • Pre-tax contributions: Employee contributions to these plans are typically made on a pre-tax basis, reducing the participant’s taxable income for the year.
  • Tax advantaged growth: Any investment earnings within the plan grow on a tax-deferred or tax-free basis.
  • Employer matching contributions: Employers may offer matching contributions, further enhancing the tax benefits and retirement savings potential for employees.

The most common types of qualified retirement plans include 401(k)s, defined benefit pension plans and profit-sharing plans.

What Is a Nonqualified Retirement Plan?

A nonqualified retirement plan is a type of retirement savings arrangement that does not adhere to the strict rules and regulations governing qualified plans, such as 401(k)s or pensions. Unlike qualified plan assets, which are protected from creditors in the event of bankruptcy, nonqualified plan assets do not enjoy such protection. Despite these drawbacks, employers may choose to offer nonqualified plans to provide additional benefits to key employees or to supplement qualified plan offerings.

Eligibility for participation in nonqualified retirement plans is typically determined by the employer. These plans are often reserved for highly compensated employees or executives, as they can be used to provide additional benefits beyond the limits imposed on qualified plans. For example, an employer may choose to offer a nonqualified deferred compensation plan to employees earning over $150,000 per year, allowing them to defer a portion of their salary and potentially reduce their current tax liability.

Some of the most popular nonqualified retirement plans include:

  • Deferred compensation plans: These plans enable participants to postpone receiving a portion of their salary or bonuses until a later date, often retirement.
  • Executive bonus plans: Under an executive bonus plan, the employer pays a bonus to the employee, which is then used to fund a life insurance policy or annuity owned by the employee.
  • Supplemental executive retirement plans: These nonqualified plans can be customized to meet specific company objectives and can be structured in various ways, such as defined benefit or defined contribution arrangements.

Key Differences of Qualified and Nonqualified Retirement Plans

An advisor explaining the differences between qualified and a nonqualified retirement plans.

One of the key differences between qualified and nonqualified retirement plans lies in their eligibility requirements. Qualified plans must meet nondiscrimination rules, ensuring that they offer participation to a wide range of employees, not just highly compensated individuals. In contrast, nonqualified plans can be selective, often targeting high-earning executives or key personnel. This allows employers to provide additional benefits to valuable employees without extending the same perks to the entire workforce.

Another significant distinction is the contribution limits imposed on each type of plan. Qualified plans have annual contribution limits set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Nonqualified plans, however, have no statutory contribution limits, allowing for much larger contributions. This feature is particularly attractive to high-income earners who may have already maxed out their qualified plan contributions and are seeking additional tax-deferred savings opportunities.

The tax treatment of contributions and distributions also varies between qualified and nonqualified plans. In qualified plans, contributions are typically made on a pre-tax basis, reducing the employee’s current taxable income. The funds grow on a tax-deferred or tax-free basis until withdrawal, at which point they are taxed as ordinary income. Nonqualified plan contributions, on the other hand, are usually made with post-tax dollars. While the contributions themselves do not offer an immediate tax benefit, the investment growth within the plan is tax-deferred until distribution.

Regulatory oversight is another area where qualified and nonqualified plans differ significantly. Qualified plans are subject to strict ERISA rules, which govern various aspects of plan administration, such as vesting schedules, funding requirements and reporting obligations. Nonqualified plans, in comparison, face fewer regulatory constraints, providing employers with greater flexibility in plan design and administration. This flexibility can be advantageous for companies looking to tailor their retirement benefits to specific employee groups or unique business needs.

You may want to talk to your employer if you feel like you should be participating in a plan that is available to you. Consulting with a financial advisor, however, can help you find the right balance with your entire financial picture.

Bottom Line

A couple discussing their retirement plans.

While qualified plans are suitable for most employees due to their tax advantages and broad participation, nonqualified plans offer greater flexibility and benefits for high-income earners and key executives. Ultimately, the choice between a qualified and nonqualified plan depends on individual circumstances and what is available to you. Consulting with a financial professional can help you in making an informed decision.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • A financial advisor can help you make the right decisions to help your financial picture, especially as you’re trying to save enough for retirement. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Consider using a retirement calculator if you need to estimate how much money you might want to start saving for your golden years.

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