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Having worked as a 401k plan consultant and investment adviser for more than 30 years, I have seen a wide variety of plan designs. For example, Apple, Trek Bikes, and IBM all have unique corporate cultures that are reflected in the 401k plan design of their plans.

Your firm has a culture that is expressed in its 401k plan design too. I don’t think you should lose that. However, you may want to look at some 401k plan design elements that have become standard in leading-edge 401k plans.

These features have been proven as best practices in helping participants achieve retirement-ready balances and are listed immediately below. Following is a section that includes what I believe will be the next wave in 401k plan design. Finally, I have shared 401k plan design features that limit plan sponsor liability that all plan sponsors should incorporate into their plans.

Current 401k Plan Design Best Practices


With opt-out rates of less than 10%, auto-enrollment has become the most effective way to combat employee inertia at enrollment. If you aren’t auto-enrolling new hires right now, you really need to think about starting soon. Initial default contribution percentages are increasing to around 5% or 6% (from what was the standard 3%).


Studies show that participants need to add at least 15% to their 401k accounts each year to accumulate a retirement-ready balance. Annual auto-escalation of 1% per year to at least 10% helps them get there. If you are auto-enrolling, you should be auto-escalating as well. They go hand-in-hand.

Immediate 401k contribution eligibility

Very few progressive employers make their participants wait to begin making 401k contributions. Immediate eligibility for both regular pre-tax and Roth 401k contributions is the norm now.

A stretched match

To encourage a higher level of participant contributions, many employers are stretching their matching contributions over a broader employee deferral. A traditional match had been 50% of the first 6% of employee deferrals (resulting in a 3% employer match). A stretched matching contribution will provide the same 3% matching contribution over a larger employee deferral — 25% of the first 12%, for example.

Roth 401k deferral option

Many young participants will benefit from a contribution strategy that includes the use of Roth 401k accounts. After five years, balances in these accounts may be distributed tax-free (for qualified distributions). Participants who contribute to Roth accounts for their entire careers may build an enormous tax-free balance. Also, your executive group will appreciate having the option to use these accounts to execute tax-planning strategies.

Leakage management

Protecting plan participants from themselves has become an important plan design feature. One way of doing that is eliminating opportunities for leakage by reducing or eliminating plan loan and withdrawal options (unless a hardship exists). Loan balances are often defaulted when participants change jobs, permanently removing assets from their retirement balances.

Participant investment advice

The time when all 401k participants have access to professional investment advice from multiple sources is here. Many recordkeepers now offer at least two types of investment advice: algorithm based (think robo-advisor) and a more personalized version (either a proprietary option or through a firm like Financial Engines, or both). Costs range from free to 100 basis points.

Professionally managed balanced option

This normally takes the form of a target date series in most plans. Remember, the vast majority of your 401k participants want someone else to manage their 401k account for them. Stay away from risk-based solutions, model portfolios, and customized target date series. Although sold as being less expensive, they usually aren’t and have a number of inherent problems.

The Next Wave of 401k Plan Design Best Practices

Annual re-enrollment

Many employers are re-enrolling non-participating employees each year and defaulting their investment choices into target date options. Use of annual re-enrollments typically increases plan participation to at least 90%.

HSA investment options

If you offer a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), then you should also offer Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to your employees. It is smart retirement planning for all employees to max out their HSA contributions each year. Since it is possible to carry HSA balances into retirement and use them to pay health care expenses, having investment options in HSAs to help the balances grow is becoming more important.

Less profit sharing and more matching

Progressive employers understand that profit sharing contributions are less valuable in terms of motivating participants to contribute than employer matching contributions. If possible, replace any employer profit sharing contributions with employer matching contributions.

Online education

Many progressive employers have realized that their employees need help with financial literacy. Not only will improved financial decision-making skills help them make better employee benefit decisions, but those skills will also help them do their jobs better. These employers are combining financial literacy/wellness education with 401k plan education and hiring firms to deploy online access to 10 or 15-minute modules. An online approach ensures that education opportunities are offered to millennial’s where and when they want them — on their smartphones at a time of their choosing.

Litigation Protection Elements

Elect to comply with 404(c)

By complying with ERISA section 404(c), employers can shield themselves from lawsuits brought by participants relative to the investment options offered in the plan. Ask your investment adviser to outline what you need to do to comply.

Designate a QDIA

Employers designating a Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA) receive protection from participant lawsuits relative to losses participants may suffer in the QDIA investment. Again, ask your investment adviser to explain.

Safe harbor plan design

If your employee group is small (100 employees or less), it is very likely your owners would benefit from using a safe harbor plan design. These plan designs provide exemptions from non-discrimination testing requirements if a mandatory level of employer contributions is made.

Keep in mind that progressive plan design supports plan objectives that you regularly communicate to your employees. Review your plan soon. Most of these features cost very little to implement.


About the Author

Robert C. Lawton, AIF, CRPS is the founder and President of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC. Mr. Lawton is an award-winning 401(k) investment adviser with over 30 years of experience. He has consulted with many Fortune 500 companies, including: Aon Hewitt, Apple, AT&T, First Interstate Bank, Florida Power & Light, General Dynamics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, IBM, John Deere, Mazda Motor Corporation, Northwestern Mutual, Northern Trust Company, Trek Bikes, Tribune Company, Underwriters Labs, and many others. Mr. Lawton may be contacted at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to 401(k) plan sponsors. The firm currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than $400 million in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com or visit the firm’s website at: https://www.lawtonrpc.com. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, a plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice, and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.