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Here's a closer look at Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans.

A supplemental retirement plan may be offered to a broad range of employees. But supplemental executive retirement plans (SERPs) are reserved for the company’s elite. A SERP is a non-qualified deferred compensation plan offered to a company’s key employees, including CEOs, CFOs and high-ranking officials. They are typically used to retain talent, but are tied to both employee and company performance. When taking a job, it’s important to understand the complete compensation package and may even be a good idea to discuss with your financial advisor.

Supplemental Retirement Plan Basics

A SERP is additional compensation offered to qualified employees as part of their benefits. It is typically packaged with health insurance, life insurance, or stock options.

While the value this supplemental retirement plan varies by company, it often represents a percentage of an employee’s three-year average compensation. Performance reviews, metrics, time employed by the company, and other benchmarks may affects the amount of a SERP offered. Those metrics also determine if an employee can cash out their SERP upon retirement.

A company will fund a SERP either through cash flow or by taking out a life insurance policy in an employee’s name. If the employee is eligible to withdraw funds once they retire, they can do so either in a lump sum or through monthly disbursements.

Who Can Get a SERP?

SERPs are generally offered to high-level, usually C-suite employees. However, a company is free to offer this supplemental retirement plan to as many or few of those elite employees as it likes.

A SERP is typically offered to employees with many years of experience. But high-level employees looking to change companies or enhance their current deal may be able to negotiate a SERP into their benefits package.

Why Offer a SERP?

Here's a closer look at Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans.

To retain top talent. SERPs are additional compensation to help entice valuable, high-level employees to stick around. With CEO tenure down a full year since 2013 and turnover on the rise, this supplemental retirement plan can help convince executives to stick around. That stability can help a company’s overall health and financial standing.

SERPs are usually offered in tandem with other retirement savings options like 401(k)s or IRAs. Highly compensated employees may be subject to IRS restrictions and could receive this supplemental retirement plan in lieu of other plans.

Supplemental Retirement Plan Benefits

Since SERPs are non-qualified plans, SERP funds aren’t subject to the 10% tax penalty if you withdraw before age 59.5. There are also no required minimum distributions once you hit 70.5. This supplemental retirement plan can amass benefits of up to 70% of pre-retirement income, making it a valuable tool for building a nest egg.

SERP withdrawals are taxed as regular income, but taxes on that income are deferred until you start making withdrawals. Much like other tax-deferred retirement plans, SERP funds grow tax-free until retirement.

If you withdraw your SERP funds in a lump sum, you’ll pay the taxes at all once. If you decide to take those funds in monthly distributions, taxes will be deducted from each payment.  

SERPs also can be used as a way to fund retirement once you’ve maxed out contributions to your IRA or 401(k). For 2021, the maximum allowable 401(k) contribution is $19,500, while the maximum IRA contribution is $6,000. Both allow for a catch-up contribution for those aged 50 and older; $6,500 for 401(k)s and an additional $1,000 for IRAs. Highly compensated employees can reach those marks quickly, making this supplemental retirement plan a welcome addition to a plan.

If a company funds a SERP with a cash-value life insurance policy, beneficiaries can withdraw those benefits either all at in the event of an executive’s premature death. However, an employer can forego the life-insurance plan and make regular contributions to an employee’s account. That arrangement works like a pension, with money invested on an employee’s behalf until they retire or die.

Potential Drawbacks

Unlike other retirement plans like 401(k)s or IRAs, SERP funds aren’t protected in the event that a company goes bankrupt.

Since SERPs are often pegged to performance benchmarks and time spent employed at the company, they also aren’t guaranteed. Many SERPs require executives to be employed with a company for a specific amount of years. If you leave the company or don’t meet your goals, you may not qualify for the supplemental retirement plan. Executives who don’t want to be tied to one company for a long time may want to consider more diverse retirement options.

The Bottom Line

Here's a closer look at Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans.

SERPs are a great added incentive to high-level employees. SERPs offer a bit more flexibility in accessing funds during retirement, but also are not insured should the company encounter financial difficulty or if an employee fails to meet SERP requirements. In short, they are a great added savings vehicle to help fund retirement, but shouldn’t be your only option.

Retirement Tips

  • If you’re still struggling to figure out your retirement needs, a financial advisor can help. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • While you may want to know what average retirement savings look like throughout the U.S., your retirement may require a different strategy. SmartAsset’s retirement calculator can help you determine what you’ll need for retirement.

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Rachel Cautero Rachel Cautero writes on all things personal finance, from retirement savings tips to monetary policy, even how young families can best manage the financial challenges of having children. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Balance, LearnVest, SmartAsset, HerMoney, DailyWorth, The New York Observer, MarketWatch, Lifewire, The Local: East Village, a New York Times publication and The New York Daily News. Rachel was an Experian #CreditChat panelist and has appeared on Cheddar Life and NPR’s On Point Radio with Meghna Chakrabarti. She has a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University and a master's in journalism from New York University. Her coworkers include her one-year-old son and a very needy French bulldog.
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