Know the risks and rewards of a supplemental executive retirement plan

A supplemental executive retirement plan (SERP) is a non-qualified employer-provided benefit typically offered to high-level employees. How, when, and what options are available regarding receiving that potentially substantial amount has repercussions for retirement, taxes, and the ability to use it for various financial planning goals. The SERP can accumulate significant income, making it a valuable tool for building your nest egg.

Not to be confused with a Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plan (NQDC), when the employee defers their own compensation, the employer designates contributions to the executive in a SERP plan. Many employers often offer a combination of non-qualified deferred comp and SERP plans simultaneously. To learn the ins and outs of an NQDC, check out our blog post 7 questions to consider before you participate in a deferred compensation plan.

Who is eligible for a Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan?

A company can offer the SERP to as many employees as it likes. However, it is mainly used in two instances.

  1. To attract and retain executives already maxing out their contributions to a company’s qualified retirement plans. 
  2. To help an executive designated as a highly compensated employee (HCE). HCEs are subject to IRS restrictions on participating in a 401k. A SERP is used to help ease the pain of those restrictions, providing the HCE with some additional retirement support. You can learn more about HCEs in our blog on how to overcome being designated an HCE.

How does a SERP work? 

The SERP differs from regular retirement plans. First of all, it’s a non-qualified plan. Unlike a 401(k), it doesn’t have a contribution limit or rules requiring it to be open to all employees. The funds can be withdrawn, without penalty, before you turn 59½, nor do you need to begin required minimum distributions at age 73. Although most employers require distributions to begin at retirement or when you are no longer employed.

SERPs can be designed with many different options or configurations. At its root, the employer agrees to pay a certain sum to the employee in the future.  Typically, during the annual open enrollment period, the executive can choose when and how to receive the following year’s benefit – before retirement, after retirement, in a lump sum, or a series of payments. It all depends on the SERPs flexibility, which is up to the employer.


Employer contributions to a SERP are included in the executive’s income for FICA and FUTA taxes in the year they become vested. Income taxes, however, are deferred until you begin receiving distributions. SERP withdrawals are taxed as W-2 income in the year received.

What happens to the Funds?

Like the different payment options, employer contributions to the Supplemental Executive Retirement plan have various possibilities.

  • Life Insurance
  • Company stock bonds
  • Investment options

Typically, for only the top few executives, there are instances when corporations purchase a life insurance policy for the executives’ lives. When they retire, the company would either transfer the policy’s ownership to the employee or use its cash value to pay the employee their benefit at retirement.

The common scenario is that the funds are invested in the employer’s stock, bonds, or an interest-bearing account. Once vested, the employer often allows you to select from a menu of investment options, like a 401k, where the funds grow tax-free until you take distributions.

How to take advantage of a SERP  

Remember, there are no limits to SERP contributions. This benefit could grow into millions of dollars. Here are just a few of the situations when a SERP is helpful.

A SERP can supercharge your retirement savings if you’re a high earner and already max out your 401k. It may even allow you to retire early, providing much-needed cash flow for retiree health insurance until Medicare.

A SERP may also provide funding for pre-retirement purposes. If your employer allows in-service distributions, you could use them for college tuition, a vacation home, or any other non-retirement goal. 

Many plans have some flexibility to mix and match distributions. Save some for retirement and plan others for college tuition. If your plan has liberal distribution options, you can plan them out in advance to provide extra cash flow when needed.

A SERP can be negotiated. Top-level key executives can arrange a specific plan just for themselves. It can be used to create the famous “golden parachute.” A SERP is a common benefit for CEOs, CFOs, and COOs to protect themselves if the relationship goes south.

SERP Risks

It’s not all butterflies, kittens, and rainbows with a SERP. There is a dark side with several significant risks.

  1. SERP funds may not perform well if invested in company stock or bonds, reducing your future payout.
  2. Even worse than poor performance, you will lose the SERP if your company files for bankruptcy. A SERP is only a promise to pay in the future. Bankruptcy could void that promise.
  3. Vesting: Don’t you think you’ll work for this employer in the near future? There may be vesting requirements that you remain employed for a specific number of years before you can receive your benefit. 
  4. High tax potential: The potential of a significant SERP value is a double-edged sword. All of those funds have to be paid out eventually. 

You have to balance these risks versus the reward of participating in a SERP. This is where financial planning comes into play. You must design a tax-efficient strategy to receive your Supplemental executive retirement plan funds and work it into your financial plan.

SERPs are a valuable employer benefit. It can ramp up your retirement or provide for other financial goals. However, understanding the terms and risks and incorporating the SERP into your financial plan will serve you well.

Do you have a SERP Plan that you’re unsure about or don’t have a full grasp of? Contact us to make sure it’s incorporated into your overall financial plan and tax strategy.