What is a Cafeteria Plan?

A cafeteria plan is a benefit plan that an employer offers to its employees to choose from a variety of pre-tax benefits.

A cafeteria plan, also known as a flexible benefit plan or a Section 125 plan, is an employee benefits program that allows employees to choose from a menu of pre-tax benefits. It is called a "cafeteria" plan because it resembles selecting various items from a cafeteria menu.

Here are key features and components of a cafeteria plan:

1. Employee Choice: A cafeteria plan offers employees a range of benefit options, typically including health insurance, life insurance, retirement plans, flexible spending accounts (FSAs), dependent care assistance, dental or vision coverage, and other qualified benefits. Employees can choose the benefits that best meet their individual needs and circumstances.

2. Pre-Tax Contributions: One of the main advantages of a cafeteria plan is that employees can make their benefit elections with pre-tax dollars. Contributions are deducted from their salary before income taxes and, in many cases, also before Social Security and Medicare taxes are applied. This results in potential tax savings for employees.

3. Voluntary Participation: Employees typically have the option to participate or decline participation in the cafeteria plan. However, it is important to note that certain benefits, such as health insurance, may have eligibility requirements or coverage mandates that could impact an employee's decision to participate.

4. Employer Contributions: Employers may choose to contribute a certain amount towards employees' benefit selections. For example, an employer might provide a fixed dollar amount or a percentage match for health insurance premiums or retirement contributions.

5. Open Enrollment Periods: Cafeteria plans typically have designated open enrollment periods during which employees can review their benefit options, make changes, and enroll in or update their selections. Outside of the open enrollment period, changes to benefit elections are generally not allowed unless there is a qualifying life event, such as marriage, birth of a child, or loss of other coverage.

6. IRS Compliance: Cafeteria plans must comply with the regulations and requirements set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This includes ensuring that the plan is offered on a non-discriminatory basis, following plan document requirements, and adhering to rules regarding eligible benefits and contribution limits.

7. Benefits Portability: In most cases, employees can take their selected benefits with them if they change jobs within the same cafeteria plan sponsor or if they have a qualifying event that allows them to continue coverage under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act).

Cafeteria plans offer flexibility and choice to employees, allowing them to customize their benefits to better meet their individual needs. They also provide potential tax advantages for both employees and employers. However, it is important for employers to establish and administer cafeteria plans in compliance with relevant laws and regulations to ensure their proper functioning and tax treatment. Employees should carefully consider their benefit options and understand the implications of their choices to maximize the value of the cafeteria plan.