What Are the the Different Types of Pension Plans?

Pension plans are distinguished for financial reporting purposes in two ways.

  1. Plans are classified by whether the income or other benefits that the employee will receive at or after separation from employment are defined by the benefit terms (a defined benefit plan)
  2. Whether the pensions an employee will receive will depend only on the contributions to the employee’s account, actual earnings on investments of those contributions, and other factors (a defined contribution plan).
In addition, defined benefit plans are classified based on the number of governments participating in a particular pension plan and whether assets and obligations are shared among the participating governments.

Categories include plans where only one employer participates (single employer); plans in which assets are pooled for investment purposes, but each employer’s share of the pooled assets is legally available to pay the benefits of only its employees (agent employer); and plans in which participating employers pool or share obligations to provide pensions to their employees and plan assets can be used to pay the benefits of employees of any participating employer (cost-sharing employer).

Defined Benefit Pension Plans

The Statement requires governments that participate in defined benefit pension plans to report in their statement of net position a net pension liability. The net pension liability is the difference between the total pension liability (the present value of projected benefit payments to employees based on their past service) and the assets (mostly investments reported at fair value) set aside in a trust and restricted to paying benefits to current employees, retirees, and their beneficiaries.

The Statement calls for immediate recognition of more pension expense than is currently required. This includes immediate recognition of annual service cost and interest on the pension liability and immediate recognition of the effect on the net pension liability of changes in benefit terms. Other components of pension expense will be recognized over a closed period that is determined by the average remaining service period of the plan members (both current and former employees, including retirees). These other components include the effects on the net pension liability of (a) changes in economic and demographic assumptions used to project benefits and (b) differences between those assumptions and actual experience. Lastly, the effects on the net pension liability of differences between expected and actual investment returns will be recognized in pension expense over a closed five-year period.

Statement 68 requires cost-sharing employers to record a liability and expense equal to their proportionate share of the collective net pension liability and expense for the cost-sharing plan.

The Statement also will improve the comparability and consistency of how governments calculate the pension liabilities and expense. These changes include:
  • Projections of Benefit Payments. Projections of benefit payments to employees will be based on the then-existing benefit terms and incorporate projected salary changes and projected service credits (if they are factors in the pension formula), as well as projected automatic postemployment benefit changes (those written into the benefit terms), including automatic cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs). For the first time, projections also will include ad hoc postemployment benefit changes (those not written into the benefit terms), including ad hoc COLAs, if they are considered to be substantively automatic.
  • Discount Rate. The rate used to discount projected benefit payments to their present value will be based on a single rate that reflects (a) the long-term expected rate of return on plan investments as long as the plan net position is projected under specific conditions to be sufficient to pay pensions of current employees and retirees and the pension plan assets are expected to be invested using a strategy to achieve that return; and (b) a yield or index rate on tax-exempt 20-year, AA-or-higher rated municipal bonds to the extent that the conditions for use of the long-term expected rate of return are not met.
  • Attribution Method. Governments will use a single actuarial cost allocation method – “entry age,” with each period’s service cost determined as a level percentage of pay.

Defined Contribution Pension Plans

The existing standards for governments that provide defined contribution pensions are largely carried forward in the new Statement. These governments will recognize pension expenses equal to the amount of contributions or credits to employees’ accounts, absent forfeited amounts. A pension liability will be recognized for the difference between amounts recognized as expense and actual contributions made to a defined contribution pension plan.

Special Funding Situations

Certain governments are legally responsible for making contributions directly to a pension plan that is used to provide pensions to the employees of another government. For example, a state is legally required to contribute to a pension plan that covers local school districts’ teachers.

In specific circumstances called special funding situations, the Statement requires governments that are nonemployer contributing entities to recognize in their own financial statements their proportionate share of the other governmental employers’ net pension liability and pension expense.