Retirement Accounts

Vesting Employer-Provided Assets

Vesting Employer-Provided Assets

When you start a new job that has a retirement plan, you’ll probably be given a date when those benefits will be vested. Once you reach that milestone, even if your employment doesn’t work out, the funds in that retirement account will be there, waiting for you to claim them on the day you reach official retirement age.

Stephanie Faris

Published January 8th, 2021

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • If your employer contributes to a savings account, stock options or restricted stock, you’ll need to look at the vesting requirements attached to it.
  • There are two types of vesting: graded and cliff.
  • Some employers attach no vesting requirements, which means you’ll have ownership of the assets from day one.

A vest is a sleeveless garment worn on the upper body. But “vest” is often used in the context of finance. If you’re asking what does vested mean while you’re considering your employer-provided benefits, chances are you’re talking about taking ownership of your retirement plan, stock options, or restricted stock.

What is vesting? When you start a new job that has a retirement plan, you’ll probably be given a date when those benefits will be vested. Once you reach that milestone, even if your employment doesn’t work out, the funds in that retirement account will be there, waiting for you to claim them on the day you reach official retirement age. It’s important to know your vesting schedule to ensure you’re taken care of in retirement.

What Does Vesting Mean?

The official Merriam-Webster vested definition is “to grant or endow with a particular authority, right, or property.” In employment terms, the vested meaning simply applies to the years you’ll need to work for an employer before any retirement savings or stock options will be yours at retirement. If your employment terminates before you’re fully vested, part or all of it will revert to the plan administrator.

A vesting schedule should be disclosed during the interview process, giving you the chance to turn it down if you choose. Some employers don’t have a vesting period, which means any stock options or retirement contributions your company makes will be yours to keep. If two companies are offering similar salaries and benefits, check into the vesting schedule to see if one is better than the other.

Basics of a Vesting Schedule

Often vesting schedules refer to 401(k) vesting, as well as other types of retirement accounts, but they can also apply to restricted stock or stock options. Basically, if your employer is making an investment in you, that employer is going to want you to stick around. If, for instance, your employer offers you shares in the company or matches your 401(k) contributions and you leave after a year or two, the employer will lose that money without vesting requirements. But most importantly, these perks are an incentive to keep you from leaving.

But it’s not always easy to define vested. Employers have flexibility when it comes to choosing a vesting schedule for its workers. There are two major types of vesting schedules:

  • Graded Vesting – With graded vesting, you’ll receive a certain percentage of ownership at each increment. In many cases, this is a five-year schedule that has you 20 percent vested at each anniversary.
  • Cliff Vesting – This type of vesting is an all or nothing proposition. You will be given a fixed date at which you’ll be 100 percent vested. If you don’t make it to that milestone, you’ll receive nothing.

Vesting Schedules for Retirement Accounts

You’ll most often see a vesting schedule with your retirement plan. If your employer contributes money toward your retirement savings, such as in a 401(k) match, the employer may put a schedule on it to make it more likely you’ll stick around.

With a retirement account, vesting refers to when the funds become yours. If you’re fully vested at five years on a cliff vesting schedule, and you leave after three years, none of the money your employer contributed will be yours. If you leave after the five-year mark, though, the money will be there for you when you retire, no matter what happens to the employer.

It’s important to note that the money you put in the retirement account is not subject to vesting. If you contribute funds to your retirement savings account, your portion of the funds will remain even if you don’t make it to the 100-percent vested milestone.

Vesting Schedules for Stock Options and Restricted Stock

If you’re given stock options or restricted stock as part of your employment, a vesting schedule will likely apply. Vested stock is similar to vested retirement savings in that you’ll need to meet a certain milestone for ownership of the stock to apply. Vested stock has the same types. With some you’re vested immediately, others award a certain percentage each year, and others give you nothing unless you work until you’re fully vested.

Unlike vested retirement savings, vested shares or options can be accessed before you retire. If you join the right company, you could boost your annual salary well beyond any raise you would ever get. But you’ll need to carefully review the vesting schedule to see at what point you’ll have ownership of your shares.

Special Considerations

Vesting doesn’t just apply to employment. You’ll also find that it shows up in other areas of life. One is estate planning. If two people share ownership in a property, the way the deed is written is very important. There are two options:

  • Joint tenants with rights of survivorship – In this scenario, the deed vests both owners equally in the property. If one dies, the surviving owner is automatically awarded full ownership. If there are multiple tenants, the shares are split equally among the surviving parties.
  • Tenants in common – Things get a little more complicated in this type of arrangement. It could be that both parties are roommates rather than spouses or life partners. The deed in this case vests each tenant as a separate interested party. When one dies, each surviving tenant gets a share. The property will go into probate and the deceased tenant’s share will be granted to the person as dictated by the will or, in the absence of a will, dictated by local laws.

Final Thoughts

What does it mean to be vested? It depends on the asset. With retirement savings and stock options, it means you’ve been with the company long enough to earn ownership over the assets your employer has promised. With real estate, it refers to the way your survivorship is set up. If you’re looking at a document that mentions vesting, we recommend consulting a financial planner to ensure it’s the best option for you.

Retirement Accounts

Understanding 401(k)s

401(k) Rules

Cashing Out your 401(k)

Understanding Roth 401(k)s

Roth IRA Basics

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Stephanie Faris

Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a writer for a credit card processing service and has written about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on Money Under 30, The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, E-commerce Insiders, and GoBankingRates.

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