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401(k) Glossary of Terms

Retirement plans are full of jargon and technical terms, but don’t worry – we’ve got your back. Here’s an extended list that will help you better understand the sometimes-confusing world of retirement plans. This glossary is updated periodically to reflect changes in limits and legislation.

12(b)1 Fee

An annual marketing or distribution fee charged by a mutual fund. The legal maximum for this fee is 75 basis points (0.75%) of assets managed.

3(21) Fiduciary

A paid investment fiduciary that provides investment recommendations and advice. Commonly referred to as an Advisor.

3(38) Fiduciary

A fiduciary that has discretion over investments to select, monitor or replace.

401(k) Retirement Plan

Retirement savings plan offered by corporations to its employees. It is named after a section of the IRS revenue code and offers tax benefits to both the employer and employee.

403(b) Retirement Plan

A retirement plan for certain public school employees, other educational institutions and other tax-exempt organizations. These plans are not organized under ERISA law.


Participant disclosure rules under ERISA that require employers to provide information to employees at least annually regarding the fees they personally pay for their retirement plan.


Applies to 401(k) and 403(b) plans allowing individual participants to direct the investment of their accounts. Generally, diversified investment options with varying risk and return features are available from which the individual may choose.


Disclosure requirement under ERISA for fiduciaries. In brief, a service provider to an ERISA plan that claims to be a fiduciary must disclose such status as well as a description of its services and fees.


A nonprofit organization approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt charitable entity.

5500 – also known as Form 5500

An annual report provided to the IRS disclosing the financial condition of a covered retirement plan including investments and fund operations.

Active Investment Manager

A professional investment manager that is tracking portfolio performance and making buy, hold, and sell decisions.

Actual Contribution Percentage (ACP) Test

An annual test required by the IRS to compare the average employer contributions to highly compensated versus non-highly compensated employees. It is referred to as a non-discrimination test verifying that employer contributions do not favor highly compensated individuals. Together with the ADP Test, these are known as non-discrimination tests.

Actual Deferral Percentage (ADP) Test

An annual test required by the IRS to compare average salary deferrals of highly compensated versus non-highly compensated individuals. Together with the ACP Test, these are known as non-discrimination tests.


Manages the day-to-day processes associated with a retirement plan such as ensuring that funds are collected and distributed appropriately. The Administrator can be a person or Board of Trustees associated with the plan, but frequently a third party with specialized skills and knowledge of the retirement regulatory framework, known as a Third Party Administrator or TPA, is hired to perform these duties.

After-Tax Contribution

Money paid into a retirement account after income tax deductions.

ADV – also known as Form ADV

Mandatory form required for Investment Advisors to register with the SEC as well as states when applicable. The Form consists of three parts and details the firm, its officers, investments, and total assets under management. It is available as a public record.

Annual Defined Contribution Limits

The federal government limits the dollar amount an individual may contribute to their retirement accounts. These limits are typically increased each year.

Asset Allocation

The division of funds among a variety of securities (like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds) in order to achieve an investment objective.

Automatic Contribution Arrangement

Allows an employer to automatically enroll an employee into the company retirement plan unless the employee actively opts out. Also known as Automatic Enrollment.

Automatic Enrollment

Allows an employer to automatically enroll an employee into the company retirement plan unless the employee actively opts out. Also known as Automatic Contribution Arrangement.


A standard or unchanging portfolio used to compare a managed portfolio based upon risk and return parameters.


A person or entity you choose to receive your financial assets when you die.

Blackout Period

A time when participants cannot access their retirement funds or make changes. This may occur due to a company merger or retirement vendor change. It does not mean that retirement assets are unsecure.

Bond Investment

Bonds are debt securities that may provide principal and interest. Often thought of as “less risky” than equity securities, they have their own disadvantages and risks.

Cash Balance Plan

Even though cash balance plans fall under the defined benefit retirement category, they have similar characteristics to a defined contribution plan. A cash balance plan defines the retiree benefit in terms of an account balance as opposed to a benefit to be received.

Catch-Up Contribution

Additional retirement contribution limits the federal government allows for employees 50 and older. Also known as the Catch-Up Provision.

Cliff Vesting

A retirement vesting plan where employees receive full benefits from their retirement plan account at a designated time in the future rather than a gradual vesting over time.

Compliance Testing

ERISA-mandated annual plan reviews to ensure a qualified retirement plan is being fairly administered with respect to all employees regardless of compensation level.

Contingent Beneficiary

The person or entity that is next in line from the primary beneficiary to receive retirement benefits.

Contribution Limits

Annual employee limits on retirement contributions imposed by the government. Employers also have stated annual maximums to individual accounts.

Control Group

A set of companies with shared ownership that can pool the assets of the companies into one retirement plan. A control group is subject to non-discrimination testing.

Corrective Distribution

Occurs when the retirement plan has failed IRS annual testing. It is a taxable event for the participant.


In a cross-tested plan, contributions and benefits are based upon the future value of the benefit and in some cases may create a favorable outcome with non-discrimination testing.


Tracks assets moving into and out of the retirement plan, securely holds assets, and values all assets within safekeeping on regular intervals.

Deferral Rate

The percentage of an employee paycheck that is contributed to their retirement plan.

Deferred Compensation Plan

A retirement plan that withholds a portion of employee pay and contributes it to a retirement plan.

Defined Benefit Plan

A pension retirement plan largely funded by employers that offers a guaranteed benefit to the employee upon retirement.

Defined Contribution Plan

A pension retirement plan that is typically co-funded by employers and employees. This type of retirement fund does not guarantee a specific benefit upon retirement, but rather allows contributions to be invested and grow over time on a tax-deferred basis.

Department of Labor (DOL) and Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA)

The DOL is responsible for regulating the provisions outlined by ERISA. EBSA is a division of the DOL tasked with enforcing ERISA.

Designated Roth Contribution

Roth contributions are after-tax contributions to a Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b) retirement plan.

Direct Rollover

Transfer of an individual’s retirement account from one employer to another.

Discrimination Testing

Testing required by the government to ensure a retirement plan is administered fairly to all qualifying employees regardless of compensation.


Investing in a variety of assets in an attempt to reduce risk for any given level of return.

Dollar Cost Averaging

The strategy of investing a fixed dollar amount into an asset portfolio at regular intervals.

Elective Deferral

Employee compensation that is withheld and invested in a retirement account.

Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS)

An IRS system that allows plan sponsors to correct certain retirement plan errors.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)

Federal law that outlines the minimum standards allowed for a voluntarily established retirement plan.

Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)

Gives employees ownership interest in their company with company stock shares.

Employer Matching Contribution

A contribution an employer chooses to make in their employees’ retirement plan.

Equity Security

Company ownership interest represented by stock shares.

ERISA Plan Audit

Many retirement plans subject to ERISA are required to have annual financial statement audits by an independent qualified public accountant.

Exchange Traded Fund (ETF)

A pooled investment similar to a mutual fund. ETFs can be traded on exchanges intraday similar to stocks.

Expense Ratio

The internal fees associated with owning a mutual fund or EFT expressed as a percentage of the investment.

Fiduciary – also see Named Fiduciary

Service provider who owes a duty of care and trust to the retirement plan and puts beneficiaries of service interests ahead of their own.

Force Out

A terminated employee with less than a $5,000 vested balance in their company retirement plan may be forced to take their money out of the plan.


Employees most frequently face a retirement forfeiture by leaving an employer prior to being fully vested in the retirement plan. Forfeited funds can be used by the employer to pay retirement expenses, reduce a future employer contribution, or increase employee contributions.

Frozen Plan

An inactive retirement plan whereby the employer is not making further contributions. Frozen plans are typically a defined benefit scheme.

Funding Contributions

Funds earmarked for retirement contribution.

Gap Analysis

A quantitative tool used to illustrate whether an employee is tracking with their retirement savings goals.


Profit sharing test threshold that needs to be satisfied prior to other qualifying tests.

Glide Path

Formula for calculating how a retirement investment portfolio should change over time as an individual moves towards retirement age.

Hardship Withdrawal

Participant distribution due to a financial burden. The funds are not expected to be paid back. Should the individual be able to pay back the distribution within 60 days, there are no financial penalties; otherwise, there may be penalties if the participant is under age 59 ½ as well as tax consequences.

Highly Compensated Employee (HCE)

Used for discrimination testing of retirement plans. The IRS defines HCEs by compensation, ownership, and sometimes by compensation ranking (within the top 20%). The objective of the IRS is to ensure those defined as HCEs are not benefitting more from a qualified retirement plan than their lower paid employees.

Income Fund

Mutual fund or ETF that emphasizes current income over capital appreciation.


Tracks the performance of a group of assets in a standardized way. They are typically used to capture the performance of a certain segment of the market.

Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

A retirement account that allows an individual to save money in a tax-advantaged way.

Individual Retirement Account Rollover

The act of transferring funds from either an employee-sponsored retirement plan or another IRA while preserving the preferential tax treatment of the funds.

In-Service Withdrawal

An employee withdrawal from their employer-sponsored retirement account while still employed by the employer.

Investment Advisor

Person or firm engaged in the business of providing investment advice and management. Registered Investment Advisors have registered with the SEC or state authority.

Keogh Plan

Tax-deferred pension plan for self-employed individuals.

Key Employees

Defined by the IRS based upon employee ownership and income. Key employees are used to test if a retirement plan is top heavy.

Longevity Risk

The risk that an individual outlives their retirement assets.

Lump Sum Distribution

Distribution of a participant’s entire retirement balance within a current tax year.

Matching Contribution

Employer contribution made to a sponsored retirement plan for the benefit of the employees.

Minimum Contribution

Although there are no minimum contributions required by law for employee contributions, the employer may require a minimum contribution to receive an employer match.

Money Purchase Plan (MPP)

Qualified retirement savings plan where only the employer makes contributions. The contributions are required to be made annually at a fixed percentage regardless of company profitability.

Multiple Employer Plan (MEP)

Designed for smaller firms to share the costs of administering a retirement plan, a MEP is a tax-advantaged retirement plan offered by two or more unaffiliated companies in a related business.

Mutual Fund

A pooled investment vehicle.

Named Fiduciary

Person or entity responsible for managing a qualified retirement plan under ERISA.

Non-Discrimination Rules

Rules for tax-deferred retirement plans that are enforced by the IRS in an effort to ensure a retirement plan is equitable to all employees regardless of their compensation.

Non-Elective Contribution

Contribution employers direct to their sponsored retirement plans regardless of employee contributions.

Non-Highly Compensated Employee (NHCE)

Categorizing employees by their compensation level is used in discrimination testing to ensure employees are treated equally in qualified tax-advantaged retirement plans. The IRS adjusts the compensation levels for NHCE annually.

Non-Qualified Plan

Typically, an employer-sponsored tax-deferred plan that is not regulated under the provisions of ERISA.

Opinion Letter

A letter from the IRS verifying the status of a qualified retirement plan.


An employee taking part in a retirement plan.

Participant Contributions

Contributions made by employees into their retirement plan.

Participant Directed Account

Retirement account where participants have discretion to select their investment options, typically from a menu of investment choices.

Passive Investment Management

Refers to the use of index funds rather than active management strategies that try to beat an index.

Plan Administrator

See Administrator.

Plan Fiduciary

See Fiduciary.

Plan Sponsor

An employer or outside company that sets up a retirement plan for the employees. Responsibilities include determining who qualifies for participation and setting investment options and contribution levels.

Plan Trustee

The individuals or entity that has the primary fiduciary responsibility to ensure a retirement plan is being managed in the best interest of the participants.

Plan Vendor

Entities that are service providers to a retirement plan, serving at the discretion of the Plan Sponsor.

Pooled Employer Plan (PEP)

Similar in cost sharing strategy to a MEP, but employers do not need to be in related areas of business.


An employee’s legal right to retain their retirement benefit when changing employers.

Profit Sharing Plan

A retirement plan that allows employees to participate in the profitability of the firm through discretionary employer contributions.

Prohibited Transaction

Numerous transactions that are prohibited by law between a retirement plan and a party in interest.

Prudent Investor Rule

Codified in the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, fiduciaries must act as if the retirement investment was their own. It is a guideline for standard of care.

Qualified Automatic Contribution Arrangement (QACA)

An automatic retirement enrollment plan. Employees need to opt out of the plan rather than opt in.

Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA)

The automatic investment alternative for employee retirement funds if the employee fails to select an investment option.

Qualified Non-Elective Contribution

Funds an employer may elect to contribute to a retirement plan regardless of employee contributions.

Qualified Plans

Retirement plans described in the IRS tax code.


Keeps track of plan assets, contributions and investments. Additionally, they prepare various financial reports and participant statements.

Required Minimum Distribution (RMD)

Retirees may be required by law to take distributions from their retirement accounts when they reach a certain age. An actuarial formula is used to determine the amount of the annual distributions.


The act of moving funds from an employer-sponsored retirement account to an IRA.

Roth 401(k)

An employer-sponsored retirement plan that is funded with after-tax dollars, allowing withdrawals to be tax-free during retirement.

Safe Harbor 401(k)

A retirement plan that adheres to certain rules in exchange for avoiding IRS non-discrimination testing.

Salary Reduction Plan – Cash or Deferred Arrangement (CODA)

Cash or a salary percentage that employees elect to be deducted from their wages to be invested in the employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Service Provider

The host of vendors that may be involved in assisting the Plan Sponsor with administration of the plan.

Self-Directed Brokerage Account

A link to a brokerage account within a participant retirement account which allows an individual to select investments outside the scope of the employer’s core investment offerings.

Summary Plan Description

A detailed guide discussing how a retirement plan works and its benefits to the employee required by ERISA-governed plans to be distributed to participants.

Target Benefit

Contributions to a target benefit fund are based on retirement projections, but unlike a traditional defined benefit fund, the benefit is not guaranteed.

Target Date Fund

Typically, a mutual fund that will shift its asset mix over time as an individual ages towards retirement.

Tax-Free Rollover

The act of moving retirement assets within federal restrictions, thereby avoiding taxes on the distribution.

Third Party Administrator (TPA)

Manages the day-to-day processes associated with a retirement plan such as ensuring that funds are collected and distributed appropriately. The Administrator can be a person or Board of Trustees associated with the plan, but frequently a third party with specialized skills and knowledge of the retirement regulatory framework known as Third Party Administrator or TPA is hired to perform these duties.

Top Heavy Plan

Plans where the key employees own 60% or more of a retirement plan asset balance. ERISA retirement plans are required to test for Top Heavy plans annually.


The employer-dictated schedule of participant ownership of employer retirement contributions.

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