Compensation Used In Plans -
Compensation Used In Plans
Categories:Defined Benefit Plan Issues   Defined Contribution Plan Issues   Qualified Retirement Plan Issues  
Updated: 17/Jun/06 14:24:21 by Joe Friberg
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Compensation is critical in determining the benefits payable and contributions required in most retirement plans.

The Importance of Compensation Records

In the money

Compensation is an important component in the equation that develops the contributions to both Defined Contribution Plans and Defined Benefit Plans, and the interplay between compensation and contributions can play an important role as the entrepreneur seeks to manage cash flow for the firm. Managing compensation for qualified plan benefit purposes can be a valuable tool in both weak and strong economies.

Digging up past W-2s for the owner of a corporation, or gathering figures from past Form 1040s for a Sole Proprietor, may at times take a bit of effort, the nuisance of the task can be w ell worth it in view of the maximum allowable contribution it may produce for the entrepreneur in their defined benefit plan.

Maintaining accurate records is always a must in order to sustain these contributions under potential IRS Plan Audits. Having c opies of relevant W-2s and 1040 Forms accessible for quick retrieval when needed to support contributions to a retirement plan is one more reason for entrepreneurs to keep them among their valuable papers . In addition, for Sole-Proprietors, copies of page 1 of 1040 Forms should be on file with the actuary so that he/she can support the contributions to these plans based on the numbers taken from these forms.

How Compensation is used in Plans

The definition and determination of compensation is important in Qualified Plans because most retirement plan benefits are directly related to a participant's compensation. This is true for both Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans.

Defined Contribution Plans

In Defined Contribution plans (such as Profit Sharing and 401(k) plans), the contribution to a person's account for the year is defined as a percentage of their compensation for the year.

  • Example: The PS Company has a Profit Sharing plan that allocates 20% of each participant's pay to their account. Two sample employees:
    Position and Name 2005 Pay % Allocation 2005 Contribution
    Vice President Perry
    $120,000 20% $24,000
    Technician Sullivan $20,000 20% $4,000

Defined Benefit Plans

In traditional Defined Benefit plans, the future retirement benefit is a percentage of their average compensation multiplied by years of service.

  • Example 1: The DB Company has a Defined Benefit plan that provides a monthly income at age 65 equal to 3% of a participant's high 3-consecutive year average pay multiplied by years of service. The following sample employee has an accrued benefit based on 3 years of service:
    Position, Name and
    Service (at End of Year)
    Pay History
    High 3-Year
    Average Pay
    Accrued Benefit based on
    Service to End of Year
    Receptionist Derry
    3 Years of Service
    2003: $22,000
    2004: $24,000
    2005: $26,000
    $24,000 annual
    average = $2,000
    monthly average
    3% x $2,000 x 3 years
    = $180 per month
    starting at age 65
  • Example 2: Taking the same DB Company and Defined Benefit plan as described above, but this time we are looking at the owner of the plan, whose pay may fluctuate from year to year. Since the plan formula uses the high 3-consecutive year average pay, it may not be the last 3-year average that determines the participant's benefit, but instead an earlier 3-year average:
    Position, Name and
    Service (at End of Year)
    Pay History
    High 3-Year
    Average Pay
    Accrued Benefit based on
    Service to End of Year
    President Berry
    17 Years of Service
    (prior years not shown)
    2001: $120,000
    2002: $110,000
    2003: $115,000
    2004: $135,000

    2005: $105,000
    $120,000 annual
    (for 2002-2004)
    = $10,000
    monthly average
    3% x $10,000 x 17 years
    = $5,100 per month
    starting at age 65


These examples also illustrate some essential differences between DCPs and DBPs. As a general rule, an entrepreneur must participate in a DCP for 25 years to achieve a good retirement income, while the same retirement income can be achieved in a DBP in 10 or fewer years. See article on Accumulation For Retirement Income.

For both types of plans, accurate compensation records are critical in order to:

  • calculate the benefit to be received by the participant
  • determine the sponsor's contribution to the plan

Compensation for an Entrepreneur

How an entrepreneur's compensation is determined depends on the legal organizational structure of the business. The basic principle is clear:

Only earned income , which is subject to FICA tax (or the equivalent Self-Employment Tax for Sole-Proprietors), can be used in a plan formula to determine the entrepreneur's benefit and contribution.


If the business is a Corporation (C-Corp) or a Subchapter S Corporation (S-Corp), the owner's compensation is reported on W-2 statements. Providing a complete pay-history is a simple matter of providing a list of W-2 earnings for past years.


Pass-through income or dividends in an S-Corp is not earned income, and cannot be used by a qualified plan in its benefit or contribution formula. Only W-2 earnings are considered as compensation from an S-Corp. Frequently, in order to increase or maximize benefits and contributions under a retirement plan, it is desirable to increase the salary paid to the S-Corp shareholder(s). If the owner of an S-Corp has always had $0 W-2 compensation, they cannot benefit from a qualified pension plan.

Sole Proprietors

For Sole Proprietors, the owner's compensation is more complex, determined by a formula using three interrelated amounts from his/her personal tax return:

  1. Net Schedule C earnings - gross business income, less expenses - called "Net profit" at the bottom of Schedule C and "Business Income" on Form 1040; MINUS
  2. 1/2 of the Self-Employment Tax; MINUS
  3. Retirement Contributions Deducted - that portion of plan contributions made on behalf of the owner. This includes the total of contributions to the current plan, any other qualified retirement plan, and any SEPs.

Considered Compensation = Net Schedule C - 1/2 SE Tax - Contribution

Compensation History

For past years, this is a simple arithmetic calculation with all 3 items taken straight off of page 1 of the owner's Form 1040 return.

  • Example:The following excerpts show the relevant lines for the 2004 Form 1040:
    • line 12 - Net Schedule C earnings
      line 12 - Business income or (loss). Attach Schedule C or C-EZ
    • line 30 - 1/2 SE Tax
      line 30 - One-half of self-employment tax. Attach Schedule SE
    • line 32 - Contributions
      line 32 - Self-employed SEP, SIMPLE, and qualified plans
    • 2004 Considered Compensation = $221,763 - 8,419 - 118,978 = $94,366

The specific line numbers may change from year-to-year, but the basic placement of these lines on the Form 1040 and the labeling of these lines remains pretty constant.

Download For your convenience, you may download the attached worksheet to summarize a Sole-Proprietor's Compensation history.

Current Year Compensation

For the current year, since the Contribution to be made for the owner is dependent in whole (for DCPs) or in part (for DBPs) on their Considered Compensation, which in turn is caclculated using the Contribution amount , we have a bit of a circular formula that must be solved by computer using successive iterations. The picture is even more complex if there are other employees to be considered because the contribution cost for these other employees is one of the business expenses that are deducted on Schedule C.

Additional Considerations

  • As mentioned above, the contribution cost associated with other employees is deducted as a business expense on Schedule C at (about) line 19 - Pension and profit-sharing plans. This expense is quite similar to the deduction on (about) line 26 - Wages paid to the other employees. See highlighted sample of 2003 Schedule C.
  • Note that line 31 - Net profit comes after the deduction of all expenses (see sample of Schedule C), and that this is the number that
    • is carried forward to Form 1040 as Business income
    • is the "Net Schedule C earnings" that form the first component of Considered Compensation defined above
    • is carried to Schedule SE to determine the Self-Employment Tax
  • Because the contribution cost for the owner's benefit is deducted on Form 1040 after the Self-Employment Tax has already been calculated, Self-Employment Tax is in fact paid on the owner's contribution. This is a disadvantage for the Sole-Proprietor who sponsors a retirement plan as compared to an incorporated sponsor since under corporate sponsorship the contribution would be paid and deducted by the corporation and would not be subject to FICA tax. To the extent that the Sole-Proprietor's contribution cost falls below the current Taxable Wage Base ($90,000 for 2005 - see reference table) the tax rate on the contribution is 15.3%; to the extent that the contribution is taxed above the Taxable Wage Base level, the SE tax rate on the contribution drops to 2.9%.
  • If Form 1040 summarizes earnings from more than one Schedule C business (such as for both husband and wife), it will be necessary to get the individual components for calculating Considered Compensation from the actual Schedule C's, Shcedule SE's, and other supporting documents for Form 1040.
  • We strongly recommend providing the actuary with a copy of page 1 of your finalized Form 1040 for each tax year in order to maintain accurate records of your compensation history.

Compensation from Multiple Businesses

Many entrepreneurs operate more than one business. These may form a Controlled Group (controlling ownership is held by 5 or fewer people) or an Affiliated Service Group (having some common ownership and operated in conjunction with each other to provide related services). In either case, both (or all) businesses are treated as a single employer for many purposes. Generally, both (or all) businesses will sponsor the same plan, and compensation will be combined. The compensation from the different entities is simply added together, including situations where one business is incorporated while a related business is a sole-proprietorship.

  • Example: Fred Garza is a real estate agent operating as a sole-proprietor and is also 100% owner of a real estate management service, Apartment Managers, Inc. He sponsors a Defined Benefit plan for both businesses. His compensation for 2002 to 2005 is developed as follows:
    Year Apartment
    Schedule C
    1/2 SE
    2002 88,000 100,150 1,341 12,000 86,809 174,809
    2003 93,000 98,756 1,322 12,500 84,934
    2004 94,500 88,654 1,187 13,000 74,467
    2005 62,250 121,740 3,351 30,000 88,389
    • The Plan Contributions from 2002 to 2004 were to a Sep. For 2005 the contribution was made to a Defined Benefit Plan.
    • Contributions were also made and deducted from Apartment Managers, Inc., but these are not shown on this chart since they do not affect the calculation of compensation.
    • The total contributions are subject to the basic 415 Benefit Limits and the 404 Deductibility Limits, which are discussed further in separate articles.
    • Note that the average pay from 2002 to 2004 is higher than from 2003 to 2005, and it is the former average that is used to establish his projected Defined Benefit retirement benefit. See additional discussion in the article on 3-Year Average Pay.

The same principle of counting compensation from different businesses within a Controlled Group also applies to former businesses that were owned by the entrepreneur. Suppose that a physician previously practiced as a sole-proprietor for 10 years and has recently decided to incorporate. In the process of incorporating, he also decides to establish a Defined Benefit plan. The Considered Compensation (calculated as described above) from the 10 years of practice as a sole-proprietor can be used to immediately establish a high 3-year average pay on which the benefit under the new Defined Benefit plan, which is sponsored by the new corporation, is based.

Download For your convenience, you may download the attached worksheet to summarize an owner's Compensation history from two or more businesses.

If the businesses do not form a Controlled Group (or Affiliated Service Group), compensation is to be counted separately. Each business can establish its own retirement plan, and contributions for each business are determined separately based on the compensation received from that business. The limitations on benefits and contributions imposed on plans are imposed separately on each Controlled Group, so the entrepreneur may be able to benefit by "double-dipping"--getting the maximum benefit under two separate plans.

Similarly, if an entrepreneur is also an employee of another business (his or her "day job"), he or she can establish a retirement plan for the side-business that they control. There is no interaction of limits between plans sponsored by these different Controlled Groups. In other words, no limitations are imposed on an employer by the fact that one of their employees (or even the only employee!) happens to be a participant in the plan of an unrelated employer.

  • Example: Addie Moore works for a corporate giant for her "day job", but also runs several convenience stores as a "moonlighting" endeavor. Her stores are incorporated as an S-Corp named A+, Inc. Until recently she was only taking a salary of $20,000 from A+, but she has now assumed new responsibilities since her business manager quit on her. She now decides to increase her salary to $60,000 for 2004 and to establish a Defined Benefit plan for the employees of A+, Inc. She is to be included in the Defined Benefit plan. Her past years of service (up to 5 years) can be counted towards plan benefits, and her new salary of $60,000 is projected to future years as the compensation level on which her future benefits are projected. She can continue to participate in her 401(k) and a Defined Benefit plan at her "day job". There is no interaction between the limits on benefits and contributions imposed on the plan she sponsors and the plans of which she is a participant at her "day job".

More Information

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  39533 bytesSchCeeCost.gifSchedule C showing employee pension deduction  
  2340 bytesf10402004ln30.gifline 30 - One-half of self-employment tax. Attach Schedule SE  
  2499 bytesf10402004ln32.gifline 32 - Self-employed SEP, SIMPLE, and qualified plans  
  2108 bytesf10402004ln12.gifline 12 - Business income or (loss). Attach Schedule C or C-EZ  
  2434 bytesmoneyman.gifIn the money  
  20480 bytesCompensation History.xlsCompensation History Worksheet