“Vesting” in a retirement plan means ownership. This means that each employee will vest, or own, a certain percentage of their account in the plan each year. An employee who is 100% vested in his or her account balance owns 100% of it and the employer cannot forfeit, or take it back, for any reason. Amounts that are not vested may be forfeited by employees when they are paid their account balance (for example, when the employee terminates employment) or when they don’t work more than 500 hours in a year for five years. Employee contributions An employee's own contributions to the plan (for example, employee elective deferrals deducted from salary) are always 100% vested, or owned, by the employee. Employer contributions Different vesting requirements apply to employer contributions depending on the type of plan the employer sponsors. SEP and SIMPLE IRA (and other IRA-based) plans require that all contributions to the plan are always 100% vested. Qualified defined contribution plans (for example, profit-sharing or 401(k) plans) can offer a variety of different vesting schedules that are determined by the plan document. These can range from immediate vesting, to 100% vesting after 3 years of service (as defined by the plan, generally 1,000 hours worked over 12 months), to a vesting schedule that increases the employee’s vested percentage for each year of service with the employer. This sounds easy enough, but it can get complicated. Employers can choose to use different methods of counting service. Years of Service Cliff Vesting Graded Vesting 1 0% 0% 2 0% 20% 3 100% 40% 4 100% 60% 5 100% 80% 6 100% 100% Example: Employer A sponsors a profit-sharing plan. The plan only has employer contributions, uses a 6-year graded vesting schedule and counts hours of vesting service based on a calendar year. John began working for Employer A in June 2007 and quit in August 2011. John worked at least 1,000 hours (the minimum number of hours of service required to be credited with a year of service under the terms of the plan) in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. He had 5 years of vesting service and is 80% vested in his account. When 100% vesting is required All employees must be 100% vested by the time they attain normal retirement age under the plan or when the plan is terminated. If you have questions about your vesting, ask your employer or human resources department, read the Summary Plan Description or refer to your annual benefits statement. Additional resources Minimum Vesting StandardsPDF When can a retirement plan distribute benefits?