As employers have moved away from traditional defined benefit plans toward defined contribution plans as the primary retirement savings vehicle for their employees, much has been written about the risks of shifting the retirement savings burden from the employer to the employee. One widely-recognized consequence of this shift in retirement savings methods is that many employees are not contributing enough of their income, or earning high enough returns on their investments, to provide sufficient funds to meet their retirement needs through defined contribution plans. Many plan sponsors have responded to this concern by adding features to their defined contribution plans, such as automatic enrollment, automatic annual increases of employee deferral percentages and increased matching contributions, in order to encourage employees to save more for retirement.
Another consequence of this shift to defined contribution plans that has received less attention is that employees who suffer long-term disability are left without the retirement safety net that often has been provided under defined benefit plans. Employees typically lose the ability to continue making contributions to a defined contribution plan upon becoming disabled and often rely on their retirement savings under a defined contribution plan to meet their current income needs. While the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) and the regulations thereunder provide a framework for incorporating long-term disability benefits into defined contribution plans, these benefits have yet to become widely adopted by plan sponsors, perhaps partially due to inconsistent guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS) and uncertainly on the part of plan sponsors regarding how such benefits can be implemented in practice. However, as employers continue to limit, and in some cases terminate, defined benefit plans, it will become more pressing to turn these theoretical frameworks into workable solutions to provide an important benefit for disabled employees.
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