As you may know, one of the primary advantages offered by employer-sponsored plans, such as 401Ks, is the employer match.

Simply put, a match is money that is put into your account by your employer-based off of your own contributions, and a formula that was established when the plan was drafted.

Let’s say that your plan offers a match of 100% of the first 3% of your salary that you defer and 50% of the next 2% of your salary. If you defer 3% of your salary into the plan, your employer will match that contribution dollar for dollar. After 3%, your employer will match $0.50 on the dollar until you defer 5% of your salary in total. In simpler terms, your employer will match 100% of the first 4% of your salary that you defer in this example.

The dollars that your employer contributes on your behalf can greatly assist in building a solid base of principal in your retirement account. That principal, coupled with compounding interest and tax-deferred growth can really snowball with time.

However, if you’ve ever logged into your employer plan’s online account, you may have noticed two “balances”: a “vested” balance and an “unvested” balance.

This article will explain vesting in detail, along with some important considerations to keep in mind as you continue to build your retirement assets.

What Is Vesting?

Vesting refers to the dollars that are “yours” outright in your employer’s account. In other words, this is the money that you could walk away with if you separated from employment.

It’s important to note that the money that you contribute to an employer’s plan is ALWAYS fully and immediately vested to you. Your employer can never take claim over those assets because they were yours, to begin with.

Vesting ONLY applies to funds that were contributed to your account by your employer including: employer match, profit sharing, etc.

Participants in a “Safe Harbor 401(k)” usually do not have to worry about vesting because employer contributions are always immediately vested due to IRS guidelines.

However, if your plan is not a “Safe Harbor” 401(k), you need to be aware of how vesting works, and how it applies in your specific case.

What Goes Into Vesting?

When it comes to vesting, there are two important variables that you should understand:

  • Length of Service Requirements
  • Your Plan’s Vesting Schedule

We will cover these separately.

Length of Service

If your employer’s contributions are subject to vesting, that means you have to satisfy a minimum amount of time in service with the employer in order to be able to claim the right to the funds that were contributed for you.

Plans are set up this way in order to incentivize employees to stay with an employer longer.

Length of service is usually measured in years. If you have questions about how your employer measures length of service, check with your HR department or Plan Administrator.

Vesting Schedule

Vesting schedule refers to the amount of years you must have in service in order to be vested in your employer’s contributions. Each plan is different in how it sets up this schedule.

Generally, there are two types of vesting schedules that you should be aware of:

  • Graded Vesting
  • Cliff Vesting

Graded vesting schedules usually stretch out over a period of 5 to 6 years. 6 years is typically the maximum amount of years that a graded vesting schedule can extend. The employee must first satisfy a minimum amount of time in service (usually a year). Then, they will start being vested in a percentage of their employer’s contributions.

A typical graded vesting schedule looks as follows. You meet the minimum service requirement. That grants you 20% vesting in your employer’s contributions. Then on each anniversary of your initial service date, you are vested another 20% until you finally reach 100% vested status.

As you can probably see, this vesting schedule type is designed to provide employees with incentive to stay with the company longer.

Cliff vesting is not “stretched out” like that. If your plan is subject to cliff vesting, you must be employed for a minimum amount of time before owning any portion of the employer’s contribution.

The good news is, however, that you own the entire amount that the employer contributed as soon as you meet the requirements for cliff vesting. Typically, the maximum cliff vesting schedule for a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k), is 3 years.

In other words, if you are with the employer for 3 years, you are fully vested in their contributions versus having to stay employed for 5-6 years as with graded vesting.

The maximum years of service requirement for cliff vesting in defined benefit plans (like pensions) is typically 5 years.

The trade-off with cliff vesting is that you do not have a right to claim the employer contributions until you meet the cliff vesting length of service requirement. Cliff vesting takes longer for you to be fully vested, but you start vesting after the initial service period is satisfied.

If you are currently weighing out job offers, you may want to inquire on the vesting schedule type for each employer’s plan, as that may be material in your decision.

What Happens If I Separate From Service?

If you separate from service and have “unvested” dollars in your employer’s retirement account, your employer has the right to rescind the money, or take it back in other words. The official term for this is a “forfeiture”, because you are forfeiting the right to take claim of the money that was contributed on your behalf.

Employers use forfeitures for several things like: helping employees with plan costs, providing active employees with contributions, etc.

A common misconception about vesting is that it is reliant on the amount of time that the account has been open. As discussed earlier, that is not the case. Vesting is strictly tied to length of service, regardless of how long the account has been open after you have separated from the employer.

If you join an employer that offers a retirement plan, you can process a rollover of your vested plan balance to the new plan. You can also roll the vested dollars into an IRA if you prefer to not have the assets associated with an employer’s plan.

In either case, when you separate, you can walk away with what has vested to you. The rest goes back to the employer.

If you feel like you are entitled to dollars that have not vested to you, the best place to go would be your Human Resources department. They are in constant contact with your Plan Administrator. They can walk you through your official length of service on file and help you dispute any claims that you may have.

Should I Stay Until I’m Fully Vested?

This is a common question asked by employees once they learn that they are subject to a vesting schedule of any kind, including equity awards like Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) or Non-Qualified Stock Options (NQSOs).

As with anything related to your financial picture, it depends. There will always be opportunity costs in life that you have to measure.

If you are happy with your employment, and see yourself continuing to have a future with the firm, it’s probably an easy decision to stay. However, if the work environment is toxic, or you’ve received an opportunity elsewhere that is too good to turn down, you may want to give the decision some careful consideration.

However, if you are just a few months away from being fully vested in the plan balance, you may want to think about that before jumping ship.

Weigh out the pros and cons of leaving versus staying. If one option has clear benefits above the other, that may take precedence.

Conclusion

A major part of navigating your financial picture is understanding the terms of your employer-sponsored benefits. Vesting is usually an area that is highly overlooked by individual investors.

Knowing your vesting schedule can help you from a career planning and financial planning perspective.

If you have questions related to your employer’s matching provisions, contact your HR or Plan Administrator. Typically all of this information can be found on the Summary Plan Description (SPD), which is a document that highlights the benefits of your plan.

Have questions about vesting? Let us know!

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