Non-Qualified Plans in Exit Planning

September 15, 2021
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Awake at 2 o'clock | A blog for business owners.


When I talk to business owners about “non-qualified plans,” their first reaction is often “Hold on there. I don’t want to get in trouble!”

The term “Non-qualified” merely refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, more commonly known as ERISA. As the title indicates, it is the basic set of regulations for retirement plans. If your company offers a 401K or SEP IRA, it has a Qualified Plan. If you have an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), that is also an ERISA plan.

Under the terms of ERISA, a plan must be made available to all employees. In return, the company can deduct contributions as benefit expenses, and the employee can contribute pretax income to the plan.

A non-qualified plan doesn’t comply with ERISA requirements.  It is discriminatory in nature, meaning it is not offered equally to all employees. The employee cannot make contributions, and the employer usually can’t deduct the costs of funding the plan (which is built around future benefits,) as current expenses.

Most non-qualified plans are designed as Deferred Compensation, thus the common acronym NQDC. The concept is to offer key employees a carrot for long-term retention. It can be enhanced retirement funding, insurance, or one of many forms of synthetic equity in the business.

Non-qualified Plan Types

We can start with the simplest example of NQDC. If an employee remains with the company until retirement, he or she will receive an additional year’s salary upon retiring. This benefit is not sequestered in a secure account anywhere, it’s just a promise by the company. It’s known as an “unfunded” benefit. There is no annual statement, just a guaranty (typically in writing,) by the business.

Non-qualified plansOften, an NQDC is funded by an insurance policy with a death benefit and an increasing cash value. It is owned by the company, which pays the premiums. At retirement, the employee receives the paid-up policy. This approach has the added benefit of lending confidence to the process, as the employee can see the funding and growth of the future benefit.

Synthetic equity may be stock options, phantom stock, or Stock Appreciation Rights (SARs.) In most forms, it is the right to future compensation based on any increased value of the business. For example, if the business is valued at $2,000,000 today, the employee may be given a contractual right to 10% of the difference in value at the time of retirement. If the company is worth $3,000,000 then, the employee would receive $100,000. ($3,000,000 minus $2,000,000 times 10%.)

Valuation, Vesting, and Forfeiture

Non-qualified plans based on equity should have a formula for valuing the benefit. It may be any financial measure such as revenue, pre-tax profit, or EBITDA. The objective is to make it clear to both parties how the benefit will be measured.

Vesting is an opportunity to be really creative. The benefit can vest gradually, or all at once at a specific point in the future. An employee may be able to collect once fully vested or, in the case of synthetic equity, may have the right to “let it ride” for future growth if other conditions are met.

Regardless of how attractive a benefit may be, no employment relationship lasts forever. Pay special attention to how you construct acceleration and forfeiture clauses. Of course, no one wants to pay out to an employee who has been terminated for cause, but the employee deserves some protection against being let go just because a promised benefit has gotten too expensive.

Similarly, provisions for accelerated valuation in the case of a change in ownership are common. You also may want to consider rolling the NQDC into a stay bonus agreement if you sell the business. If there are options on actual stock involved, you will need to determine the handling of them if they could pass into the hands of someone other than the employee. That would be triggered by bankruptcy, divorce, or death.

Benefits of Non-Qualified Plans

As I described in my book Hunting in a Farmer’s World, incentives for employees should match their level of responsibility. Production workers have incentives based on their production. Managers have incentives based on their ability to manage.

Your very best people, the ones you want to stay with you through their entire careers, should be able to participate in the long-term results of their efforts for the company. Non-qualified plans are a way to single them out and emphasize your interest in sharing what you are building together.

As always. check with your tax advisor. Setting a plan up incorrectly could result in unwanted or phantom taxation for the company or the employee.