Deferred comp plans: when they’re a great choice, and when they’re not

Nonqualified deferred compensation plans are a common feature of executive pay packages.  They’re a great choice in the right conditions, i.e. when:Which door to choose?

  • The executive’s share of company profits is very small, and
  • The executive is willing to shoulder the employer’s credit risk, and
  • Providing the benefits through a qualified plan would be too expensive.

But they’re not so great when any of these conditions are missing.  Let’s examine each in turn.

Small share of company profits:  Nonqualified deferred compensation isn’t deductible for the company until it becomes taxable for the executive.  If the executive is a substantial owner in a profitable enterprise, e.g. a law firm or medical group partner, any deferred income boomerangs right back as taxable profit.  In contrast, qualified retirement plan contributions are deductible for the company when they’re made, and not taxable to the employee until they’re received in cash.

Willing to shoulder the employer’s credit risk:  Funding vehicles like rabbi trusts can protect the executive from the employer’s unwillingness to pay, but not against its inability to pay.  In today’s economic environment where even large companies are struggling, this risk may be unacceptable.  Protection from both of these risks – and even from the executive’s personal creditors – is provided by a qualified plan.

Qualified plan too expensive:  This is usually the main reason for setting up a deferred compensation plan.  Qualified plans have many requirements that don’t apply to most nonqualified plans:  coverage, nondiscrimination, government filings etc.  But they’re more flexible than most people realize.  In a cross-tested profit sharing/401(k) plan, top executives can often reach the annual $49,000 defined contribution limit with a 5% staff contribution.  And if that’s not enough, a cash balance or other defined benefit plan can allow much higher deductions:  up to an additional $100k-200k per year.

So, are we biased toward qualified plans?   Oh, absolutely.  Nonqualified plans can be a great choice, but make sure you’ve maximized your qualified plans first.

2 thoughts on “Deferred comp plans: when they’re a great choice, and when they’re not

  1. Some good short thoughts on nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) compared to qualified plans. I would say the main reason to do an NQDC plan is that the qualified plans have limits on how much you can contribute and how much income you can base the contribution on. For many high-earners, this is just not enough to put away for retirement. Plus NQDC plans can allow distributions when you’re still working.

    You might be interested in looking at an independent site devoted to nonqualified plans at

    There is specific FAQ that goes through the comparison between qualifed and nonqualified retirement plan rules and flexiblity:

    How does NQDC differ from regular deferred compensation arrangements, such as 401(k) plans?

    link to it at:

  2. Bruce, thanks for your comments!

    Qualified plans do have the limits you describe, but they’re much higher than most people realize. With a base contribution of 5-7½% of pay for rank-and-file employees, deductions in excess of $200,000 are possible with a cash balance / profit sharing / 401(k) combination. See an explanation at

    401(k)’s are qualified plans, so they’re deductible with a 2011 limit of $16,500 plus $5,500 catchup at 50 and above. A match or profit sharing contribution is needed to reach the $49k defined contribution plan limit. NQDC is unlimited but not deductible.

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