Differences Between Typical Cash Balance Plans and 401(k) Plans

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.

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 and rewards 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.

Life Annuities. Unlike many 401(k) plans, cash balance plans are required to offer employees the ability to receive their benefits in the form of lifetime annuities.

Federal Guarantee. Cash balance plan benefits 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.

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