How Defined Contribution Pension Plans Work in Canada

Among the various types of pension plans available, the Defined Contribution (DC) pension plan is increasingly common, offering a blend of employer & employee contributions, plus personal investment choices. Let’s delve into what a DC pension plan is, how it works, and the key aspects you need to know as an employee.

  • Guaranteed Contributions: DC plans ensure a specific contribution amount. Your employer might match up to 5% of salary.
  • No guarantee of payout amount: Growth of funds is dependent on your choice of investments.
  • Employee and Employer Contributions: Both parties regularly contribute to the plan.
  • Investment Responsibility: Employees are responsible for choosing how to invest these contributions.
  • Variety of Investment Options: Plans often offer a range of investment funds with varying risk profiles.

What is a Defined Contribution Pension Plan?

A defined contribution pension plan is a type of retirement plan where both the employer and employee make regular contributions. Unlike Defined Benefit plans, where retirement income is predetermined, DC plans guarantee the contribution amount but not the retirement income. The value of your pension at retirement depends on the total contributions made and the investment returns earned. This structure makes DC plans similar to a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), with a significant emphasis on personal investment decisions.

Joining a Defined Contribution Pension Plan

Joining a DC plan is often a straightforward process. Many employers automatically enroll full-time employees, either upon hiring or after a certain period. Part-time employees may also be eligible, with specific criteria such as working a minimum number of hours or earning a certain income level. It’s important to check with your plan administrator for the exact eligibility requirements.

Managing Your Defined Contribution Pension Plan

As a member of a DC plan, you play a key role in managing your pension. You’re responsible for choosing how to invest the contributions made to your account. Employers typically offer a range of professionally managed investment funds, each with different risk profiles and growth potentials. Your choice should align with your investment risk tolerance and proximity to retirement. Some plans offer single fund portfolio options like target date funds and target risk funds, simplifying the investment process by adjusting the asset mix as you approach retirement or based on your risk tolerance.

Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs)

PRPPs are a subset of DC plans, offered by financial institutions for employees and self-employed individuals who might not have access to traditional workplace pension plans. They are available in certain regions and industries, providing a pooled investment platform with potentially lower management fees due to the collective nature of the plan.

Leaving Your Defined Contribution Plan Before Retirement

If you leave your employer before retirement, you typically have several options in Ontario and other provinces:

  1. Transfer to a Locked-In Retirement Account (LIRA): Similar to an RRSP, but with restrictions on withdrawals.
  2. Buy a Deferred Annuity: A contract guaranteeing future income.
  3. Transfer to Another Pension Plan: Your new employer might or might not accept the transfer.

Options at Retirement

When you retire, you can either transfer your DC plan funds to a Locked-In Income Fund (LIF) or buy an annuity. A LIF has minimum and maximum withdrawal limits, ensuring income throughout retirement, while an annuity provides a guaranteed income for life without the need for ongoing management.

Protection of Your Defined Contribution Pension Plan

Your contributions, along with your employer’s, are managed by a plan administrator, typically an insurance company or financial institution. These funds are held in trust, safeguarding them from being accessed by your employer in financial distress.


Defined contribution pension plans are a vital component of retirement planning, offering flexibility and control over your investment choices. While they guarantee contribution amounts, the retirement income depends on investment performance, making personal investment decisions crucial. Understanding the nuances of your DC plan, from joining to managing investments and knowing your options upon leaving or retiring, is key to maximizing your retirement benefits.

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