CASH BALANCE PLANS are defined benefit (DB) plans that have the look and feel of defined contribution (DC) plans.

Defined benefit is a descriptive term: the benefit is what’s defined in the plan. In traditional defined benefit plans, the benefit is a monthly retirement payment. In cash balance plans, the benefit is an account balance.

Defined contribution is also a descriptive term: the contribution is what’s defined in the plan. Common forms of these are 401(k), 403(b) and profit sharing plans.

The first cash balance plan was designed in the mid-1980s for Bank of America. It was to enhance employee appreciation of the pension plan: employees understood an account balance better than they understood a future monthly benefit. Cash balance plans are still used for ease of understanding, but most new plans are set up to increase business owners’ retirement savings.

Cash balance plans work better than traditional pension plans for multiple-owner firms like law firms and medical groups. In a traditional plan, one partner can end up paying for another’s benefit. That doesn’t happen in a properly designed cash balance plan:

What comes out of your taxable pay goes straight into your own cash balance account.

HERE’S A GRAPH of the contributions possible with a cash balance / profit sharing / 401(k) combination.  Deductible contributions to the cash balance plan can be much larger – and on top of – the $50,000 DC plan limit. Maximum cash balance credits reach a peak of more than $200,000 at age 62.

Cash balance / profit sharing / 401(k) maximum contributions

Cash balance plans are an excellent solution for professional firms that:

  • want to set aside (and deduct) more than $50,000 for owners or partners,
  • want to retain a link between owners’ contributions and benefits,
  • have a reliable earnings stream, and
  • can afford a generous contribution to employees (usually 5% to 7½% of pay).

CASH BALANCE PLANS need all the same actuarial services as traditional pension plans (annual valuations, government filings etc.) – and then some.

Above all, cash balance plans need to be designed well. This is especially true for professional firms, where big tax deductions and stable funding are a primary concern.

We’ll work with you to design a plan that meets your objectives while complying with all of the IRS rules: §401(a)(4) nondiscrimination testing (usually cross testing),  §401(a)(26) minimum coverage testing (the 40% / 50-employee “meaningful benefit” rule), and §411(b) accrual rule testing. It can look intimidating, but we love this stuff and will take care of the details.

For more information, follow current topics on the cash balance plan section of our retirement plan blog or contact us at