The Ins and Outs of a Defined Contribution Pension Plan

How to make your pension work for you

When faced with pension decisions, how do you know what is best for your circumstance? Understanding your how your pension benefit works will help you plan for your future.

What is a pension?

A pension is simply a source of income that you draw during your retirement. There are two main types of pension plans: Defined Benefit Plans (DB Plans) and Defined Contribution Plans (DC Plans). This article will focus on Defined Contribution Plans.  To learn about Defined Benefit Plans read this blog post.

Defined Contribution (DC) Plan

The Basics

A Defined Contribution Plan is simply that. At the outset of the plan, the plan sponsor (an employer, government, or union) defines what contribution they promise to pay, usually based on a percentage of the employee’s salary. These funds are in placed in the employee’s individual pension accounts and invested.

How much benefit will I receive?

Unlike Defined Benefit Plans where you can calculate your pension benefit based on a predetermined formula, it is difficult to predict the retirement benefit in a Defined Contribution Plan. The employer typically establishes the plan and contributes a fixed or variable amount to the employees’ pension accounts based on limits governed by pension legislation. Once the employer has made their retirement contribution to the fund, the investment risk falls largely on the employee. There is no obligation for the employer to make up for investment losses.

How is a Defined Contribution Plan different from a Group RRSP?

These plans are similar in many ways with a few key differences.

The Role of the Employer – In a DC Plan the employer contributions are mandatory based on the percentage of the employees’ salary subject to legislative limits. For a Group RRSP the employer contributions are voluntary. Employers often choose to match employee contributions but there is no obligation for them to do so.

Contribution Limits – In a DC plan there are more restrictions and limits on employer and employee contributions. For a Group RRSP the limits follow the RRSP limits established by CRA.

Vesting – Vesting is the point at which you have ownership of the employer’s contribution to your plan. In some jurisdictions employers can have vesting provisions in their DC Plans where if an employee leaves within the vesting period they will lose the employers contributions. All Group RRSP contributions are immediately vested although the employer may choose not to contribute to the Group RRSP until a certain time has passed.

Portability – Moving funds from DC plans can be more restrictive (see the following section) whereas Group RRSPs can generally be transferred to individual RRSPs.

Investment Options – DC plans typically have the employees pension funds professionally managed as directed by a group of trustees with some investment options offered to the employee. Group RRSPs usually have a wide range of investment fund options the employee can chose from.

Defined Contribution Plan and Group RRSP differences

Exit Strategies: What if I leave the pension plan before retirement?

Taking a lump sum benefit

In most cases if you are under 55 years old and leaving the pension plan you will have the option to transfer your DC pension funds to a Locked-in Retirement Account (LIRA). A LIRA is a locked-in retirement account with withdrawal restrictions meant to keep the money earmarked for retirement. Most provinces let you unlock up to 50% of your LIRA if you’re age 55 or older and transfer these funds to an RRSP account to provide more flexibility. You can covert your LIRA to Life Income Fund (LIF) and begin receiving annual or monthly income (subject to legislated minimums and maximums) as early as age 55 or as late as age 71.

Taking the monthly pension

Once the retirement date is known, the DC Plan will offer some options for pension payment. Typical options include:

  • Purchasing an annuity – With the funds accumulated in your DC Plan you can purchase a guaranteed fixed income for a specific period or the remainder of your life with options to continue payments to your spouse, similar to options a Defined Benefit Pension would provide. The amount of annuity offered will depend on annuity prices and the value of funds in your DC at the time of retirement.
  • Guaranteed withdrawal options – Sets up regular withdrawals from your plan while keeping the remaining funds invested for growth to sustain retirement.
  • Transfer fund out to a LIRA and convert to a LIF –Similar to the description in Taking a lump sum benefit

A Financial Planner can help

A Defined Contribution Benefit Plan can be a valuable piece of your retirement planning, offering market upside during the accumulation years and flexibility at retirement. If you have a DC Plan a financial planner can bring clarity to how your DC Plan fits in to your overall retirement planning and goals.

Connect Wealth is an independent financial planning firm that offers holistic advice to clients based on their current goals and future aspirations. We use well-established workflows and cutting-edge technology to maximize planning efficiencies while simplifying the process for clients. Learn how you can maximize your financial opportunities at

Watch the Video

Watch our August 2023 Money Minute with Julia Friesen and Cassandra San to learn about the advantages of a Defined Contribution Benefit Plan for retirement planning, including market growth and flexibility.

Watch or Read Our Past Blog Posts

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