Pros and Cons of Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans

Pros and Cons of Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans

In your journey as a small business owner, considering the Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan (NQDC) can be a game-changer when you aim to motivate and retain your top talent. This type of plan can offer you and your dedicated employees a flexible deferral option tailored to your needs. However, like all financial instruments, the NQDC comes with its own set of pros and cons.

In this post, you’ll be taken through the ins and outs of the NQDC, highlighting its potential benefits for your business and the challenges you might face. Whether you’re newly considering an NQDC or seeking to deepen your knowledge, this guide is tailored to empower your decision-making for your business’s benefit.

What is a Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan (NQDC Plan)?

An NQDC plan allows you and select employees to defer a portion of their compensation until a future date, usually until retirement, termination, or another predefined event. This means that instead of receiving that income now and paying taxes on it, you and your employees can defer receiving it and thus delay the tax liability.

For your business, there’s a strategic advantage: this plan can serve as a powerful tool to motivate and retain key personnel without the funding obligations of a traditional pension plan. However, it’s crucial to understand that unlike 401(k) plans or IRAs, NQDC plans don’t offer the same tax protections.

If your company were to face financial difficulties, those deferred amounts could be at risk. Therefore, while considering this strategy for your business, it’s essential to consult with financial and legal experts to ensure it aligns with your company’s goals and risk profile.

Please Note: NQDC can provide payout in a variety of ways. Those receiving their deferred retirement income can receive it as a single lump sum distribution or in a series of scheduled installments. 

Advantages of Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans

When considering compensation strategies, a non-qualified deferred compensation plan (NQDC) stands out for the benefits it’s able to offer your small business. Here are some notable advantages:

Flexibility in Design: NQDCs stand apart due to their customizable nature. Traditional retirement plans come with rigid structures, but NQDCs are adaptable. Depending on your business landscape, financial outlook, and employee needs, you can tailor the plan provisions. This means that as your business grows or changes direction, your NQDC can evolve with it.

Selective Participation: Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, businesses that participate in an NQDC plan can selectively offer deferred compensation opportunities. This deferred compensation of NDQC plans can be instrumental in ensuring your top-performing employees or key personnel feel valued, leading to improved loyalty and decreased turnover.

Tax Deferral: For highly compensated employees, the ability to postpone tax payments on deferred income until it is actually received can have substantial financial benefits. This feature can assist in wealth management strategies and tax planning.

No Contribution Limits: Many retirement plans have caps on annual contributions. NQDCs, however, provide greater freedom, enabling businesses to offer more substantial deferred compensation amounts, thus creating a stronger incentive for top-tier performers.

Alignment with Business Goals: This unique feature allows you to link payouts to business performance metrics. It ensures that there’s a direct relationship between the growth of the company and the reward given to the employee, promoting a results-driven culture.

Simplified Administration: Without the strict ERISA testing and requirements that traditional retirement plans must adhere to, NQDCs are often simpler and more straightforward to manage, reducing administrative burdens.

Attract and Retain Talent: In a competitive job market, unique benefits can set your business apart. An NQDC signals that your company is invested in the long-term growth and well-being of its employees, making it an attractive opportunity for top industry talent.

Disadvantages of Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans

While Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans (NQDC) offer numerous benefits, it’s equally important to weigh their disadvantages to make an informed decision. Here are some potential drawbacks:

Credit Risk: One significant risk associated with NQDCs is the exposure to creditors. If a business runs into financial turbulence, the deferred compensation amounts, unlike those in a qualified retirement plan, might be up for grabs, jeopardizing an employer’s promise to pay their employees.

No Tax Protection: While deferring tax is an advantage, the lack of tax-free growth means potential gains in investments within the NQDC are taxable, unlike their counterparts in qualified plans.

Lack of Immediate Tax Deduction: From a business accounting perspective, not being able to claim tax deductions until payments are made to employees might not be ideal, especially when managing cash flows and profit margins.

Complexity in Implementation: Establishing an NQDC is not a straightforward endeavor. It often demands the expertise of financial consultants and legal professionals, adding to its initial setup cost.

No ERISA Protection: ERISA offers participants of retirement plans certain legal protections, but these don’t extend to NQDC participants, leaving them potentially more vulnerable.

Higher Potential Tax Burden: It’s crucial to structure NQDCs meticulously. When making decisions, the tax on the deferred compensation, understanding of income tax rates, and one’s tax bracket are essential considerations. Missteps could mean employees are hit with steeper income taxes when accessing their deferred funds.

Is a Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan Worth It?

Navigating the complex world of financial strategies is no small task for any business owner. When considering a Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan (NQDC) for your business, the question of its value hinges on your specific objectives and circumstances. 

An NQDC can be a powerful tool for retaining and motivating top talent, offering them the ability to defer income in a tax-advantaged way might be attractive in a competitive job market. For you, this means a chance to strategically reward key players, keeping them invested in the long-term success of your enterprise.

However, the merits of an NQDC also come with associated risks and commitments. Since the plan isn’t protected by ERISA regulations, there’s potential exposure to creditors, which can be concerning if your business faces financial challenges. Moreover, setting up and maintaining such a plan requires expertise, potentially adding to operational costs. It’s essential to thoroughly weigh the advantages against the complexities and potential vulnerabilities.

In essence, whether an NQDC is worth it for your business largely depends on your specific needs, financial health, and long-term vision. Engaging with financial and legal professionals can offer clarity, ensuring that if you opt for an NQDC, it’s tailored to bolster your business strategy and safeguard both your interests and those of your valued employees.

How to Set Up a Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan

Setting up a Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan (NQDC) requires careful planning and execution to ensure its effectiveness and compliance. Here’s a step-by-step guide tailored for small business owners like you:

Define Your Objectives: Begin by determining what you aim to achieve with the NQDC. Is it to retain key employees, reward performance, or a combination of both? Pinpointing your goals will shape the plan’s structure and features.

Consult Professionals: Due to the complexities involved, seek advice from tax, legal, and financial professionals. They’ll help you navigate the regulatory landscape and ensure the plan’s design meets both compliance and strategic objectives.

Draft the Plan Document: Once you’ve sought professional guidance, draft a detailed plan document. This will define all aspects of the plan, such as eligibility criteria, timing and method of deferrals, distribution events, and potential vesting schedules.

Determine Funding Approach: While NQDCs aren’t required to be funded, some businesses use corporate-owned life insurance policies or set aside assets in a trust (typically a “rabbi trust”) to support the plan’s liabilities. This can reassure participants that funds will be available when distributions are due.

Implement the Plan: After finalizing the details, introduce the plan to eligible employees. Clearly communicate its benefits, terms, and conditions to ensure participants fully understand their commitments and potential rewards.

Regularly Review & Update: Financial strategies and business needs evolve. Periodically review your NQDC with professionals to ensure it remains aligned with your objectives and any changes in tax or legal landscapes.

Remember, while setting up an NQDC can be complex, the potential benefits in talent retention and performance rewards can be significant. Prioritize transparency and diligence throughout the process to maximize the plan’s value for both you and your employees.

Let Us Help You With Your NQDC Plan

At Fischer Investment Strategies, we understand the myriad of decisions small business owners face daily. The world of financial planning, especially the intricate domain of Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plans, is laden with potential benefits and challenges. It’s essential for your success to be guided by seasoned expertise that’s tailored to your business’s unique needs and objectives.

While NQDCs offer a promising avenue for employee retention and motivation, they also bring with them a set of risks and requirements. As we’ve detailed throughout this post, whether you’re contemplating the introduction of an NQDC, evaluating its pros and cons, or navigating its implementation, every step requires informed decision-making. 

Our role at Fischer Investment Strategies is to provide you with that critical insight, ensuring that the financial strategies you adopt are not only compliant but also genuinely beneficial for your business’s long-term growth and success.

The journey of leveraging an NQDC’s potential doesn’t have to be taken alone. Armed with the right expertise and a commitment to your business’s well-being, it can lead to enriched employee relations and robust financial health. As your financial planning team, we’ll be at your side as you go through this journey yourself. 

Don’t hesitate to take your business to the next level. Reach out to us directly at our Westlake office at (805) 418-7686, or our San Clemente office at (949) 433-7768. You can also schedule a complimentary consultation for retirement plan services at a time that works best for you. 


This commentary reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC or performance returns of any Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing in this commentary constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Financial Advisor at Fischer Investment Strategies | Website

Ted Fischer is a Fee-Only Certified Financial Planner® & fiduciary, and the founder of Fischer Investment Strategies.

Drawing from more than 25 years of experience in the financial services industry, Ted's expertise includes retirement planning, investment analysis, tax planning, estate planning, and insurance.

Ted has an extensive academic background. He received his Certified Financial Planning (CFP®) designation from UCLA in 2011. He became a Qualified Plan Financial Consultant (QPFC®) and an Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF®). Ted has a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, with a minor in Finance, from San Diego State University.


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