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Managing deferred executive compensation

Key takeaways

  • You have to decide how much income to defer prior to the beginning of the compensation performance period (usually 12 to 24 months before you receive it)—and you generally can't change your mind midyear if your circumstances change.
  • The money in your corporate NQDC plan is not really invested in your own account. Rather, you make notional investment selections, which are simply for accounting purposes.
  • Your time horizon plays a big role in determining your payout strategy. You may opt for growth-oriented investments if you have decades to continue working. Or you might select less volatile investments if you choose preretirement distributions that will begin relatively soon.

A nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan can be a tax-efficient way to save for specific goals, particularly retirement. But like any financial tool, an NQDC plan takes proper planning—often decades in advance—to be effective.

Two of the most important decisions to be made are how to fund your NQDC plan and how to invest the money within it. You first need to determine whether to defer a portion of your salary, bonuses, or other forms of compensation. Then you need to implement an investing strategy that complements your other assets, including existing retirement accounts, and also works within the unique limitations imposed by NQDC investing rules.

Deferred comp and you

Explore our 4-part series on making the most of nonqualified deferred compensation plans.

Making deferral elections

When you are first offered an NQDC plan, you typically have just 30 days to enroll. Depending on plan rules, you may be able to defer part of your salary, bonuses, and cash payments under long-term incentive plans or grants of restricted stock units. If your plan allows preretirement distributions, you also must specify on the enrollment form when you wish to receive the money. (We discuss options for your distribution strategy in detail in Part 3 of this series on NQDC plans.)

Adding to the pressure, you have to decide how much income to defer the year before you receive it—and you generally can't change your mind midyear if your circumstances change. So when making a deferral election, it's essential to first examine the following factors:

  • Your income picture for the coming year: Some plans let you set up an "evergreen" deferral election that rolls over every year. Going that route might make sense if you have a very stable annual income. Alternatively, many plans require you to adjust deferral elections year to year based on the ways you expect your compensation to change. For example, if you're expecting a large bonus payout, you may want to defer the entire bonus and not defer any salary that year.
  • How deferrals affect your taxes: Deferred compensation doesn't count as taxable income until you begin to take distributions (except that FICA taxes are still immediately due on the deferred income). For some executives, deferring income may keep them out of the highest tax bracket.
  • Deferral time period: Decide how many years you want to defer income. Do you want payments to begin when you retire? In 5 years? In 10 years? In 20 years?
  • Re-deferrals: Does your plan allow you to make future changes in your distributions? If so, what is the time frame for making changes?
  • Investment buckets: Consider splitting deferred amounts for different goals, e.g., 30% for college in 10 years and 70% for retirement in 30 years.

Shailendra Kumar, director of Fidelity Financial Solutions, adds: "If you expect to retire in the next few years and anticipate an increase in taxes, then NQDC deferral may not be a good option for you. Even in a rising tax scenario though, the longer the period until participants take distributions, the more likely that it could potentially make sense to defer compensation."

Investing your deferred compensation

Bear in mind that the money in an NQDC plan is not really invested; rather, your employer promises—not guarantees—to pay you the compensation you defer at a later date, along with the earnings you would have received if your assets had matched the return of a particular investment or index. In actuality, you make notional investment selections, which are simply for accounting purposes.

Your plan might offer you several options for the benchmark—often, major stock and bond indexes, the 10-year US Treasury note, the company's stock price, or the mutual fund choices in the company 401(k) plan. Consider the following factors to ensure that your NQDC investment strategy complements your overall financial plan:

  • Your financial goals and time horizon: When are you planning to receive your deferred compensation? If you have decades until you'll draw on the money, you may opt for growth-oriented investments, to increase your potential returns. If you choose preretirement distributions that will begin relatively soon, you might select less volatile investments.
  • Your diversification needs: Look for opportunities to use your NQDC plan to diversify your overall portfolio, paying close attention to special investments available only through such plans. For example, your plan may offer access to non–mutual fund investment options, or a more attractive fixed-income fund than you can get through your 401(k) plan. If you take advantage of options like these, remember to adjust your other portfolio allocations accordingly.
  • Your risk tolerance: Ask yourself how much investment risk you're willing to take with your deferred compensation. You may wish to review how different investments—different asset allocations—have performed historically.
  • Remember that market volatility isn’t the only risk posed by an NQDC plan: These accounts are not guaranteed or protected from creditors in the case of a company bankruptcy. So if you're concerned about the company's long-term health, you may want to choose relatively short deferral periods, limit the amount deferred to a small percentage of your compensation, or simply do not participate.

According to a 2021 survey,1 most NQDCs offer participants a menu of investment options, with more than half (57%) offering the same as the menu offered in their qualified deferred compensation plan. "There are typically dozens, if not hundreds of investments options to choose from," advises Shailendra Kumar, "so keep an eye on diversification and work with your advisor to look at your overall portfolio and risk tolerance holistically."

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1. 2021 Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan Survey, Plan Council Sponsor of America

Diversification and asset allocation do not ensure a profit or guarantee against loss.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.

Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments or its affiliates. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

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