Key employee

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Key employee, in U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) terminology, is an employee classification used when determining if company-sponsored qualified retirement plans, including 401(a) defined benefit plans and 401(k)s, are considered "top-heavy" or, in other words, weighted towards the company's more highly compensated individuals.[1]

A key employee is defined by the IRS as an employee, either living or dead, who meets one of the following three criteria:

  • An officer making over $170,000 (2015 and 2016);
  • A 5% owner of the business (defined as one who owns more than 5% of the business), or
  • An employee owning more than 1% of the business and making over $150,000 for the plan year.

All other employees are referred to as non-key employees.[2]

There are some similarities between key employees and so-called highly compensated employees (HCE), but the compensation salary threshold is lower for HCEs, at only $120,000 versus $150,000 for key employees.[3]


  1. ^ "Key Employee". Retrieved 2016-04-01.
  2. ^ "401(k) Plan Fix-It Guide - The plan was top-heavy and required minimum contributions weren't made to the plan". 2015-10-23. Retrieved 2016-04-01.
  3. ^ "Definitions". 2016-10-26. Retrieved 2016-04-01.