Understanding Your 401(k) Vesting Schedule for Retirement Planning

Cash in a jar marked 401k
Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/ Getty Images

You don't have to be concerned about your 401(k) vesting schedule when you make a contribution to your 401(k) plan. You won't forfeit your own contributions if you terminate your employment, either voluntarily or involuntarily. But the same isn't true when it comes to your employer's matching contributions.

Your right to these contributions often depends on staying with your employer for a prescribed period of time. This period of time can vary by company, although it's subject to some federal rules. Understanding the vesting schedule and rules at your company can reduce or even eliminate the possibility of forfeiting your employer matching contributions.

Key Takeaways

  • If your employer makes matching contributions to your retirement plan, it's important to know what vesting is and how it works.
  • Vesting means that you've earned the right to keep your employer's matching contributions to your retirement plan.
  • Some companies may offer immediate vesting, but many others offer vesting "schedules" based on your length of service to that company.

What Is Vesting?

Vesting in a retirement plan refers to owning the funds in that plan. You have a legal right to keep the contributions when you vest in your employer’s matching contributions. You've reached the point in time when you can leave or be fired by your company but retain that money.

Employees are always 100% vested in their own salary-deferral contributions to a retirement plan. The same concept applies to SEP and SIMPLE contributions made by an employer.

What Is Immediate Vesting?

Approximately 48% of the defined contribution plans administered by the investment management company Vanguard offered immediate vesting for matching contributions in 2020, according to Vanguard's report titled "How America Saves 2021" (20th Edition). An employee who is immediately vested in her account balance owns 100% of it from the time employer contributions are made.

The employer can't take it back for any reason. You can make a contribution today, and even if you leave your employer tomorrow, you'll be 100% vested in your contributions and your employer's match.

Your employer contributions might also be 100% vested if your company uses a “safe harbor match.” You'd be 100% vested in that part of the company's contribution. Other circumstances can demand that you become 100% vested immediately as well. The money is all yours by law if the plan terminates or when you reach the plan's retirement age.

Vesting Schedules

Although some employers do offer immediate vesting of their matching contributions, it's just as common that their rules force employees to vest according to a predetermined schedule. That prevents employees from quitting on Friday, taking with them the matching contribution money the company paid on Thursday.

There are two basic kinds of vesting schedules: graded vesting and cliff vesting.

The Graded Vesting Schedule

You vest in your employer’s contributions on certain anniversaries of your employment with a graded vesting schedule, typically becoming 100% vested after five or six years. Your schedule might be more generous than this example, but it can't be more stringent, thanks to the Pension Protection Act of 2006:

  • After one year of service: 0% vested
  • After two years of service: 20% vested
  • After three years of service: 40% vested
  • After four years of service: 60% vested
  • After five years of service: 80%vested
  • After six years of service: 100% vested

Companies are legally permitted to wait two to six years to fully vest an employee using this schedule.

The Cliff Vesting Schedule

A cliff vesting schedule is much like it sounds—you won’t be vested at all for a period of time, then, like going off a cliff, you'll become vested all at once, which usually occurs after one to three years of employment.

This type of schedule obviously favors the employer. Again, your company’s cliff vesting schedule might be more generous than this one, but vesting will occur at least this quickly:

  • After one year of service: 0% vested
  • After two years of service: 0% vested
  • After three years of service: 100% vested

Vesting of 100% is required after three completed years of employment.

Any employer can use either a cliff vesting schedule or a graded vesting schedule, but not both.

Be Safe, Not Sorry

Make sure you're aware of your employer’s vesting schedule before making any major career decisions. Saving for retirement is important, so you won't want to voluntarily leave your job just before you're about to vest in a significant sum of employer matching contributions.

Of course, there are always exceptions, such as that a far superior job offer is on the immediate horizon, making it more likely that you'll be better off in the long run.

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Vesting."

  2. Vanguard. "How America Saves 2021," Pages 18-19.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plan Overview."

  4. Congressional Research Service. "Summary of the Pension Protection Act of 2006," Pages 15-16.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Issue Snapshot - Vesting Schedules for Matching Contributions."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Issue Snapshot - Vesting Schedules for Matching Contributions."

Related Articles