What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan?

Definition & Examples of Qualified Retirement Plans

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A qualified retirement plan is one that meets the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) requirements for tax benefits. They may be offered through your job; they often allow for pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth.

Qualified plans are a great option for building retirement savings. Learn what these plans require and how to leverage the benefits of these unique savings accounts.

Key Takeaways

  • Qualified retirement plans are employer-sponsored plans that meet the requirements of the IRC for tax-free contributions and tax-deferred growth.
  • Qualified plans can take the form of defined-contribution or defined-benefit plans and can run the gamut from 401(k) plans to pension plans.
  • These plans offer one of the best ways to build retirement savings thanks to tax benefits and the fact that employers often make matching contributions.

What Is a Qualified Retirement Plan?

Qualified retirement plans meet all the stipulations laid out in the IRC to allow for tax-deferred contributions. For the most part, these plans include employer-sponsored plans such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and Keogh (HR-10) plans.

Voluntary, employer-based retirement plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). These are standards set in order to provide protection for employees investing in the plans. This includes regulations for tax-deferred contributions.

How Do Qualified Retirement Plans Work?

In order to be considered qualified, retirement plans have to meet certain criteria in the IRC. These pertain to participation, contribution limits, and other characteristics. Key plan requirements include:

  • Participation: Qualified plans generally must be made available to employees no later than the date on which they reach age 21 or finish one year of service with the employer.
  • Operation in accordance with the plan document: The employer has to prepare a plan document. It must state what types of contributions and benefits are available. The plan then has to work as it says it does.
  • Compensation limits: The maximum compensation for each employee that can be taken into account when calculating employee benefits is $290,000 in 2021.
  • Elective deferral limits: Elective deferrals must not exceed $20,500 in 2022 (or $27,000 if age 50 and older), up from $19,500 in 2021 ($26,000 if age 50 or older). This is the case for 401(k) and other qualified plans that allow them, including pre-tax and designated Roth contributions.
  • Total contribution limits: For 2022, the maximum contribution to a defined contribution plan is the lesser of $61,000 ($67,500 if age 50 or over) or 100% of compensation. For 2021, the maximum is the lesser of $58,000 ($64,500 if age 50 or older) or 100% of compensation. The most that each employee may receive in annual benefits and contributions under a defined benefit plan cannot exceed $245,000 in 2022, up from $230,000 in 2021.


Contribution limits are subject to cost-of-living adjustments; this means they may increase in the future.

What Are the Types of Qualified Retirement Plans?

A qualified plan can be either a defined benefit or a defined contribution plan. Defined contribution plans allow employers and employees to contribute to individual accounts that the employer establishes under the plan. The value of the account changes over time; you don't receive a fixed benefit upon retirement. Common examples include 401(k), 403(b), profit-sharing, employer stock ownership, or money-purchase plans.

Defined benefit plans pay a fixed monthly benefit in retirement. It is often based on a formula that takes into account years of service and salary history. Traditional pension plans have declined in popularity. But they remain good examples of defined benefit plans.

Non-Qualified Retirement Plan vs. Qualified

There are other employer-sponsored retirement plans that do not qualify under the ERISA. These are called non-qualified plans. They come in various forms. In general, they are based on deferred income in some way; they are also most often aimed at executives. Qualified plans cannot be based on deferred compensation.

Employer Benefits of Qualified Plans

These employer-sponsored plans provide perks for businesses large and small. Here are some of those perks.

Tax-Deductible Contributions

Employer contributions made to a qualified retirement plan on behalf of their employees are tax-deductible. If you're a sole proprietor, you can deduct the amount you contribute for yourself; it depends on the type of plan. Employers can deduct up to 25% of the compensation paid to eligible employees for a defined contribution plan. But the deduction for contributions to a defined benefit plan requires an actuary to calculate your deduction limit.

Tax-Free Growth

Assets in the plan grow tax-free. Employers generally aren't liable for taxes on contributions. For small business owners, this means that qualified plans allow you to make large investments. You can also reap the gains in your own retirement without paying taxes on these gains during your career.


Businesses may receive special tax credits and other incentives for starting a qualified plan. In most cases, qualifying employers with 100 or fewer employees and who had at least $5,000 in earnings can claim a tax credit. The amount is up to half the cost of setting up, running, and educating employees about qualified plans. The maximum is $500 per year.

Recruitment Value

The plans make employers more attractive to employees. Qualified retirement plans represent an investment in an employee's future. That means these plans can play an influential role in helping employers recruit and retain valuable employees.


Retirement contributions and earnings most often grow tax-deferred in qualified plans.

Benefits of Qualified Plans for Employees

A 401(k), 403(b), or similar retirement plan may be the single most effective way to fund your nest egg. Here are several reasons:

  • It offers convenience. You don't have to schedule contributions; you can make them automatically through deductions from your paycheck.
  • Employees get a quick tax break. Taxes on employee contributions can most often be deferred until distribution in retirement. By making contributions with pre-tax dollars, you could cut your final tax bill for the year by hundreds or thousands of dollars.
  • Assets grow tax-deferred. Employee contributions made to a qualified plan and any earnings will continue to grow; they'll be sheltered from taxes until you withdraw funds. Distributions will generally be taxed at your income tax rate at the time of withdrawal.
  • You could receive matching contributions. If your employer matches employee contributions, don't miss out. Treat those matching contributions as free money that you will receive every pay period. Aim to contribute at least as much to your qualified plan as needed to get the maximum match.
  • You get diverse investments. You'll have several investment options to choose from, potentially including collective investment funds. Plus, many plans provide low-cost investments with access to professional investment advice and guidance.
  • You get protection from creditors. Plan assets are often safe from collection actions under the ERISA.