To raise private savings for workers' retirement, federal law provides tax incentives for contributions to pension plans. Company sponsors of private defined benefit (DB) pension plans can claim a tax deduction for their contribution amount to a tax-qualified pension plan, and employees' taxes on contributions and investment earnings are deferred until they retire and start receiving benefit payments. To achieve and maintain tax-qualified status, DB plans must comply with multiple federal requirements that are designed to ensure that executives and other highly compensated employees (HCE) do not receive excessively high benefits, both in an absolute sense and relative to nonhighly compensated employees (NHCE). These include limits on total benefit levels, limits on the amount of compensation that can be included in determining benefit levels, and limits on disparities in benefits between HCEs and NHCEs. The goal of the nondiscrimination requirements is to encourage expanded coverage and greater distribution of benefits between the highly paid and workers at lower earnings levels. To demonstrate compliance, plan sponsors may use an IRS preapproved plan or develop a customized plan, which must pass general nondiscrimination tests. These tests generally require a plan sponsor to perform mathematical calculations that compare the proportion of NHCEs who benefit under a tax-qualified plan with the proportion of HCEs who benefit, taking into account their respective benefit accrual rates. Due to the restrictions placed on benefits in a tax-qualified plan, some private sponsors of tax-qualified retirement plans provide additional nontax-qualified supplemental retirement benefits to certain HCEs as part of the HCE's total compensation. These benefits do not enjoy the tax advantages conferred upon qualified plans. In addition, any assets backing these benefits generally remain company assets and, depending on the funding arrangement, could be withdrawn by the sponsor or made available to creditors in the case of a sponsor bankruptcy. Utilizing flexibilities in the nondiscrimination rules, some plan sponsors have designed ways to indirectly transfer some of these nontax-qualified supplemental executive benefits into their existing tax-qualified DB plans. In effect, plans accomplish this by increasing the benefits under the qualified plan, with an offsetting reduction in the benefits under the nonqualified plan, which extends to the HCE the security of DB plan funding and the tax benefits of a qualified plan. These arrangements, commonly referred to as Qualified Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans (QSERP), can provide HCEs with a higher qualified benefit amount, the tax advantages provided by a qualified plan, as well as the increased benefit security provided by the backing of qualified plan assets. Since QSERPs are provided to HCEs, but are funded by the assets used to pay qualified plan benefits for all employees, some observers have questioned whether these arrangements affect the benefits promised to NHCEs.
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