The IRS just announced the 2017 retirement plan benefit limits, and there are some notable changes from 2016. What does it all mean for employer-sponsored retirement plans? Here is a table summarizing the primary benefit limits, followed by our analysis of the practical effects for both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans.

Qualified Plan Limit 2015 2016 2017
415 maximum DC plan annual addition $53,000 $53,000 $54,000
Maximum 401(k) annual deferral $18,000 $18,000 $18,000
Maximum 50+ catch-up contribution $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
415 maximum DB “dollar” limit $210,000 $210,000 $215,000
Highly compensated employee (HCE) threshold $120,000 $120,000 $120,000
401(a)(17) compensation limit $265,000 $265,000 $270,000
Social Security Taxable Wage Base $118,500 $118,500 $127,200


Changes affecting both DB and DC plans

  • Qualified compensation limit increases to $270,000. High-paid participants will now have more of their compensation “counted” towards qualified plan benefits and less towards non-qualified plans. This could also help plans’ nondiscrimination testing if the ratio of benefits to compensation decreases.
  • HCE compensation threshold remains at $120,000. For calendar year plans, this will first affect 2018 HCE designations because $120,000 will be the threshold for the 2017 “lookback” year. When the HCE compensation threshold doesn’t increase to keep pace with employee salary increases, employers may find that more of their employees become classified as HCEs. This could have two direct outcomes:
    • Plans may see marginally worse nondiscrimination testing results (including ADP results) if more employees with large deferrals or benefits become HCEs. It could make a big difference for plans that were previously close to failing the tests.
    • More HCEs means that there are more participants who must receive 401(k) deferral refunds if the plan fails the ADP test.

DC-specific increases and their significance

  • The annual DC 415 limit increases from $53,000 to $54,000 and the 401(k) deferral limit remains at $18,000. A $1,000 increase in the overall DC 415 limit may not seem like much, but it will allow participants to get a little more “bang” out of their DC plan. Since the deferral limit didn’t increase, this means that any additional DC benefits will have to come from higher employer contributions. Individuals can now receive up to $36,000 from match and profit sharing contributions ($54K – $18K).
  • 401(k) “catch-up” limit remains at $6,000. Participants age 50 or older still get a $6,000 catch-up opportunity in the 401(k) plan, which means they can effectively get a maximum DC deduction of $60,000 ($54K + $6K).

DB-specific increases and their significance

  • DB 415 maximum benefit limit (the “dollar” limit) increases to $215,000. This limit finally increased after being static for three straight years. The primary impact is that individuals who have very large DB benefits (say, shareholders in a professional firm cash balance plan) could see a deduction increase if their benefits were previously constrained by the 415 dollar limit.
  • Social Security Taxable Wage Base increases to $127,200. This is a big jump from the prior $118K limit and effectively reflects two years of indexing (the limit couldn’t increase last year because the Social Security COLA was 0% and caps the wage base increase rate). With regards to qualified retirement benefits, a higher wage base can slightly reduce the rate of pension accruals for highly-paid participants in integrated pension plans that provide higher accrual rates above the wage base.