THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DEFINED BENEFIT PLANS AND DEFINED CONTRIBUTION PLANS
Retirement plans may be divided generally into two basic categories: Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans.
Defined Benefit Plans:
A defined benefit plan (commonly referred to as a "pension" plan) promises to pay each participant a specific benefit at retirement. This basic retirement benefit is usually based on a formula that takes into account factors like the number of years a participant works for the employer and the participant's salary. The basic retirement benefit is generally provided in the form of periodic payments for the participant's life beginning at what the plan calls normal retirement age. This stream of periodic payments is generally known as an annuity. A participant's basic retirement benefit under a defined benefit plan may increase over time, either before or after the participant begins receiving benefits, due to a variety of circumstances, such as increases in salary or the crediting of additional years of service with the employer (which are taken into account under the plan's benefit formula), or through amendment to the plan's provisions, including some amendments to provide cost of living adjustments.
Defined benefit plans may promise to pay benefits at various times, under certain circumstances, or in alternative forms. Benefits paid at those times or in those forms may have a greater actuarial value than the basic retirement benefit payable by the plan at the participant's normal retirement age. Where one form of benefit has a greater actuarial value than another form, the difference in value is commonly known as a "subsidy." For example, it is not unusual for an employer to offer a supplemental payment to encourage early retirement. This is known as an early retirement subsidy. A QDRO may divide the early retirement subsidy between the parties.
Defined Contribution Plans:
A defined contribution plan, by contrast provides for an individual account for each participant. The participant's benefits are based solely on the amount contributed to the participant's account and any income, expenses, gains or losses, and any forfeitures of accounts of other participants that may be allocated to such participant's account. Examples of defined contribution plans include profit-sharing plans (like 401(k) plans), employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), and money purchase plans. A participant's basic retirement benefit in a defined contribution plan is the amount in his or her account at any given time. This is generally known as the participant's account balance. Defined contribution plans commonly provide for retirement benefits to be paid in the form of a lump sum payment of the participant's entire account balance.
All ERISA-qualified retirement plans - whether they are defined benefit plans or defined contribution plans - are subject to QDRO's.