Timing deferred compensation

How to schedule distributions from nonqualified deferred compensation plans.

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Key takeaways

  • Timing of NQDC distributions is important. When and how to receive that money can potentially impact your tax liabilities many years—or even decades—into the future.
  • An "in-service" distribution can provide flexibility and offer a tax-advantaged way to save for a child's education, a new house, or other short- and mid-term goals.
  • Work with your financial and tax advisor to develop a clear picture of the role deferred compensation can play in achieving a comfortable retirement or other financial goals.

When you sign up for a nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan, you agree to set aside a portion of your annual income until retirement or another future date. But people may not spend sufficient time on when and how to receive that money and how it affects their taxes.

Deferred comp and you

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

That job can be confusing. It involves assessing potential cash flow needs and tax liabilities many years—or even decades—into the future. You need a clear picture of the role deferred compensation will play in achieving a comfortable retirement or other financial goals. So before you enroll in an NQDC plan, consider these factors to help you make the most of your distributions, whenever you decide to take them.

Planning retirement distributions

NQDC plans must provide for when and how you will receive the compensation you have deferred, as well as any applicable earnings. Still, distribution rules for deferred compensation are considerably different from those governing distributions from other retirement plans, such as 401(k)s or IRAs.

For example, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) allows for 401(k) withdrawals to begin penalty-free after age 59½—but the IRC also requires that you start taking distributions at age 73.1 By contrast, there are no IRC age restrictions on distributions from a deferred compensation plan.

Deferred compensation plans don't have required minimum distributions, either. Based upon your plan options, generally, you may choose 1 of 2 ways to receive your deferred compensation: as a lump-sum payment or in installments. Here are a few considerations:

  • Lump-sum distributions: Choosing a lump-sum distribution gives you immediate access to all your deferred compensation upon the distributable event (often at retirement or separation from service). That may be important if you’re not comfortable with your former employer controlling your previously deferred compensation. Once you receive a lump sum, you're also free to reinvest it how you see fit, free from the restrictions of your company's NQDC plan.

    However, you will owe regular income tax on the entire lump sum upon distribution. That can result in a larger tax bill than if you were to choose installment distributions (see below), in part because it may push you into a higher tax bracket. You also lose the benefit of tax-deferred compounding when you withdraw money from the plan.
  • Installment distributions: With an installment plan, you take smaller distributions over time—typically on a yearly, quarterly, or monthly schedule. The remainder of your deferred compensation remains in the account, where it can continue to grow tax-deferred. Spacing distributions over several years may reduce your overall tax bill, especially if your personal income tax rate declines. However, if you choose an installment plan, you must be comfortable remaining one of the company’s unsecured creditors.

    You also may have the option of taking a special state tax benefit when payments are made over 10 years or more.2 Payments structured this way are taxed in the state of residence when paid, not in the state in which the income was earned. This is a tax benefit for those planning to move to a state with lower income tax rates. You also must plan your distributions around other sources of income, such as mandatory minimum IRA withdrawals, to accommodate your cash flow needs and tax situation.

    Whatever form of distribution you choose, be sure to consider the timing of those distributions relative to other company benefits, such as the vesting of restricted stock and the exercise of stock options, as well as income from other retirement plans.

Planning preretirement distributions

Some NQDC plans allow you to schedule distributions based on a specific date—also known as an “in-service” distribution. For some participants, this flexibility is one of the biggest benefits of a deferred compensation plan. It offers a tax-advantaged way to save for a child’s education, a new house, or other short- and mid-term goals.

In-service distributions also can help you partially mitigate the risk that your company could default on its obligations. If you’re not comfortable leaving deferred compensation in the hands of your employer, consider shorter deferral periods.

Scheduling in-service distributions requires more up-front work than simply deferring all compensation until retirement. Here is a strategy for scheduling preretirement distributions:

  • The class-year approach: This strategy—also known as "laddering"—involves scheduling distributions for specific years and establishing separate accounts and investment portfolios for each one. For example, if you have a child starting college in 2022, you could schedule distributions for 2022, 2023, 2024, and 2025 (the years you’ll need to pay tuition). You also can schedule a distribution for your anticipated retirement date.

    If you elect to defer your compensation each year and the plan tracks your deferred compensation for each class year, you may be eligible to schedule a different payment for each year. For example, if your plan allows for installment as a form of payment, you could elect for 1 class year to be paid as a 4-year installment payment beginning in 2022. The other class years you elect to defer compensation could be paid at separation from your employer.

    Depending on your plan provisions, the payment of the deferred compensation can also be structured to reduce your tax liability based on a series of installment payments or lump sum payments based on a specified time. By spreading out the payments, you potentially could reduce your income for each applicable year.

Distribution strategies and tax planning

In addition to the tax-efficient strategies outlined above, you should keep in mind that there is always the potential that federal law or your income may affect your tax rate down the line. Also, the state you live in may make a difference in how you want to schedule your distributions, because certain states may have lower or higher income tax rates than others.

One important note: No matter which distribution strategies you choose, it's difficult to change the schedule once you've created it. A subsequent distribution election, if allowed by the plan, cannot permit the payment to be paid earlier than originally elected except in cases of extreme hardship, death, or disability—so you can’t simply change your mind and ask for your deferred compensation a year or two earlier than your scheduled distribution date.

Tip: You can postpone a distribution as long as you follow strict "redeferral" rules: The request to push back a distribution must be made at least 12 months before the planned date, and you must defer the compensation for at least 5 additional years beyond the original distribution date.

For example, say you scheduled a distribution for May 2028 to help pay for a second home. Then your plans change, and you decide you'd rather put the money toward retirement. You must make the change before May 2027, and you can't receive the money until May 2033 or later.

These restrictions on changing your distribution schedule are another reason why careful, up-front planning is essential to get the most out of your NQDC plan.

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