Retirement plan leakage and retirement readiness

Tedesco-KaraThe title alone proves opposites don’t always attract. “Leakage” means outflow and outflows in retirement plans are not easily controlled. Worse yet, the impact on a participant’s retirement readiness is a big problem. Where money goes once it leaves a retirement plan is a question with many answers, some of which lead to plan sponsors feeling concerned about plan design and the choices available to participants.

In defined contribution (DC) plans such as the 401(k), participants defer money from their paychecks into the plan. The employer may make matching or other employer contributions. Most 401(k) plans are designed to allow participants to access these deferrals, as well as their other vested monies, while actively working. This access occurs through loans, hardship withdrawals, and other in-service distributions. When participants take a loan, they pay themselves back over time. In some instances, however, a participant defaults on the loan, which automatically reduces the account balance. In the case of in-service distributions, once the money is paid to the participant, it does not come back into the plan, similarly reducing the participant account balance.

Of greater concern may be the preretirement withdrawal of an account balance upon termination of employment. Participants terminate employment for a myriad of reasons, such as to start a new career path. In a defined benefit (DB) plan, it is not uncommon to see a lump-sum window option offered to participants. Plan sponsors benefit from participants choosing the lump-sum window option just as they do when terminated participants take their money from 401(k) plans. The plan sponsor’s administrative costs associated with either type of plan are reduced.

The problem? Participant account balances that are cashed out and not rolled over to an IRA or another qualified retirement plan are subject to immediate income tax and potentially burdensome tax penalties, depending upon their age. But many participants don’t know what to do with the money and will often use it right away to satisfy an immediate financial need rather than save it for retirement. An even greater, more glaring problem is that the participant’s total projected retirement savings has been compromised. Does this mean that a participant will not achieve the suggested 70% to 80% income replacement rate? Most likely, the answer is yes, especially if the participant has no other savings outside the former retirement plan.

There is no clear answer to the leakage problem in plans. A good retirement plan design can greatly influence the behavior of its participants. It has to include and encourage regular employer and employee contributions to help build retirement accounts. Withdrawal provisions and loans in plans don’t signify poor plan design, but tighter administrative controls around the plan provisions, such as allowing only one in-service withdrawal per year, helps keep money in the plan. In addition, increased participant education has to remain a focus for employers, with a special emphasis on the benefits of taking a rollover instead of a lump-sum cash distribution.

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