Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation Plan/SERP

What is it?

A contractual arrangement that calls for paying an individual executive or group of executives future benefits. These plans are characterized by flexibility, and plan design can reflect the goals and objectives of the employer and individual executive. They can be used as a key tool in designing executive compensation to recruit, retain, reward and retire key executives. These plans are limited to the “Top Hat” group of employees who are generally a select group of highly compensated or managerial employees. In general, a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan refers to a plan in which the executive is deferring his own compensation and a SERP is a plan in which the employer is allocating contributions to the executive. Many plans have a combination of executive and employer contributions.

The need: A Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan and/or Supplemental Executive retirement Plan (SERP) is indicated:

When a company does not have or cannot afford a qualified plan but wants to provide key executives with retirement income.

The employer wants to provide additional deferred compensation benefits to executives who have already received the maximum benefits or contributions under the company’s qualified retirement plans.

When the employer wishes to pick and chose the benefits to be given and the executives who will receive those benefits.

When the executive wishes to defer additional sums of money beyond the amounts deferred into a 401(k) plan.

When the executive wishes to accumulate funds on a tax-deferred basis for one or more events that will likely occur prior to retirement (i.e. college education, marriages, down payment for homes or any desired in-service distribution date).

Unfunded Plans & Financing Arrangements

To obtain the desired tax benefits (no tax to the executive until benefits are received), the plan must be considered “unfunded”. However, the company may informally “finance” its promise to pay and thereby increase the executive’s benefit security through the use of a Rabbi trust and/or corporate owned life insurance. Assets inside of a Rabbi Trust may only be used to pay benefits to plan participants with one exception. In the case of an adjudicated bankruptcy, assets in a Rabbit Trust may be used to settle debts owed to creditors and plan participants become creditors.

With life insurance funding, the policy cash value accumulates on a tax-deferred basis. The policy is owned by the company and can, as a part of the plan design, provide a substantial death benefit to the executive’s beneficiaries (see Split-Dollar Life Insurance Plans). When life insurance funding is used, the present value of the deferred deduction to the company for the executive’s deferred compensation may be designed to be equal to the present value of the deferred benefit when it is scheduled to be paid to the executive.


In general, an executive in a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan or SERP pays federal and state income tax at the earlier of the date the benefit is paid to the executive, the date the benefit amount is available to the executive, or the date the benefit is securitized to the executive. The employer is able to deduct the benefit amount in the same year it is included in the executive’s income. The executive includes deferred compensation in income for purposes of FICA and FUTA taxes in the year the compensation is deferred (the same as if the deferred compensation was part of a 401(k) plan. Employer contributions to a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan or SERP are included in the executive’s income for purposes of FICA and FUTA taxes in the year such contributions become vested.


  • Allows coverage of any group of executives or a single executive within the “top hat group,” without any nondiscrimination limitations

  • Can provide an unlimited benefit to any executive subject only to the “reasonable compensation” rules

  • Can provide different benefit amounts for different executives on different terms and conditions

  • Minimal IRS and ERISA regulatory requirements

  • Can provide deferral of taxes to the executive

  • Can be used as a form of “golden handcuffs” that helps to bind the executive to the company

  • Security to the executive can be provided through informal financing arrangements.


  • Employer’s “CASH” tax deduction deferred until the year in which the income is taxable to the executive either because the executive has received his benefit, has the constructive right to receive the benefit or when the benefit is securitized from the company’s creditors.

  • No formal security for the benefit and the executive must depend on the employers’ promise to pay even if the plan is informally financed by setting up a sinking fund to provide for the timely payment of the plan benefits.

  • Public companies may be required to disclose compensation arrangement.

  • No tax advantage to tax pass-through entities.