Quick Compensation Primer – The Basics

Posted on July 14, 2016

July 2018 Update:

When you’re a fiduciary of a retirement plan, understanding the basics of plan administration is one of the most critical and essential functions of your duties to oversee the plan. Below you will find information on how your plan design defines three basic compensation types that you should be aware of.

Having confidence that your plan meets compliance standards gives you the opportunity to spend your time focusing on plan performance in high impact areas, such as providing an outperforming investment lineup, lowering plan fees, and improving your workforces’ retirement readiness.

The more you understand about the basics of plan management, the less time you will spend correcting administrative errors, and the more time you have to focus on improving your workforces’ financial security. To learn more about what makes up a top-performing plan, and stay updated on performance-focused topics, check out our blog.

Compensation errors are one of the most common plan administration related errors that the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) find when auditing qualified retirement plans. One of the best ways to avoid compensation errors is to first truly understand what your plan’s definition of compensation actually provides. Understanding the basics is crucial because if you don’t know how your plan defines compensation, the risk of errors in operating the plan is sure to increase.

So, how exactly does your plan document define compensation? Is it clearly defined as “Code § 3401(a)”? “W-2 wages”? “415 simplified compensation”? Or is it more detailed than that, specifically detailing what is to be included/excluded in a long, difficult-to-decipher definition? If it’s the latter and you’re not entirely sure what your definition of compensation entails, be sure to seek guidance on the matter.

For purposes of this blog, we’ll keep it simple and go over the three basic kinds of compensation definitions used in plans as well as provide a chart that will serve as a useful guide in determining what should be included for purposes of your definition. Plan sponsors can choose from one of three safe-harbor definitions for IRC §§ 415 and 414(s)/non-discrimination purposes. These three safe harbors are as follows:

– Code §3401(a)1: This definition is the amount of compensation subject to tax withholding.

– W-2 Wages (Code §§ 6041, 6051 and 6052 Compensation)2: In this definition, W-2 wages are calculated for the year and include the additional amounts of compensation, if any, that do not have income tax withheld. So, all compensation included in 3401(a) wages would also be included in W-2 wages; however, because certain income is exempt from income tax withholding, not all W-2 wages should be included in 3401(a) wages.

– 415 Simplified Compensation3: This is a simplified definition of compensation; it only includes wages, fees for professional services, and amounts received for personal services to the extent that those amounts are includible in gross income.

With these basic definitions and not much more, it’s still quite difficult to understand the differences among these safe harbor definitions of compensation. To better explain the differences—at least with respect to what you should be including in your plan’s definition—use the following chart as a guide:


Compensation ItemCode §3401(a) CompensationW-2 Wages Compensation415 Simplified Compensation
Received from unfunded nonqualified planIncludeIncludeExclude
TipsGenerally include. Exclude noncash and tips < $20/monthInclude
Fringe Benefits (includible in income)Typically include (except those specifically excluded by definition)IncludeInclude
Accident & Health Plan (if taxable)Generally include.Exclude self-insured medicalIncludeExclude
Moving Expenses ReimbursementExclude if deductibleInclude (may modify to exclude without affecting safe harbor)Exclude
Group Term Life Insurance (more than $50,000)ExcludeIncludeInclude
Non-qualified stock option exerciseIncludeIncludeExclude
Qualified stock option exerciseExcludeExcludeExclude
Non-qualified option, when grantedIncludeIncludeExclude
83(b) ElectionIncludeIncludeExclude

This chart is a useful reference tool for the basics of compensation. For a more detailed look at compensation errors and how to avoid them, be sure to download our white paper . If you have any questions, please contact our Consultant Services team

Author: Melissa Travis, J.D., LLM, Originally published 03/11/14.
1See Treas. Reg. § 1.415(c)-2(d)(3).
2See Treas. Reg. §1.415(c)-2(d)(4).
3See Treas. Reg. §1.415(c)-2(d)(2).


PCI’s archived blog entries are dated, the rules and statutes referenced may have changed. The analysis or guidance within these blog entries may have become stale, dated, or no longer accurate. PCI will not update or change these entries to reflect the latest analysis or development.

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