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In law, vesting is to give an immediately secured right of present or future deployment. One has a vested right to an asset that cannot be taken away by any third party, even though one may not yet possess the asset. When the right, interest, or title to the present or future possession of a legal estate can be transferred to any other party, it is termed a vested interest.


The concept can arise in any number of contexts, but the most common are inheritance law and retirement plan law. In real estate, to vest is to create an entitlement to a privilege or a right. For example, one may cross someone else's property regularly and unrestrictedly for several years, and one's right to an easement becomes vested. The original owner still retains the possession, but can no longer prevent the other party from crossing.


Some bequests do not vest immediately upon death of the testator. For example, many wills specify that an heir who dies within a set period (such as 60 days) is not to inherit, and further specify how the corresponding share is to be distributed. This is generally done to obviate disputes over the precise time of death, and to avoid paying taxes twice in rapid succession should multiple members of a family die in the wake of a disaster. Such a bequest does not vest until the expiration of the specified period, because the actual heir cannot be determined with certainty.

It is also possible to give a person, A, a life interest in a property, with the remainder to go to another person or persons, B. If the beneficiary of the remainder cannot yet be known, then the remainder is said not to have vested, and the remainder is said to be contingent. This may happen with entailed estates, or when property is left in trust to care for a child or relative without heirs. (See trust law for details).


Retirement plans

Vesting is an issue in conjunction with employer contributions to an employee stock option plan, deferred compensation plan, or to a retirement plan such as a 401(k), annuity or pension plan.

A vested right is "an absolute right; when a plan is fully vested, the employee has an absolute right to the entire amount of money in the account". [1] It is a "basic right that has been granted, or has accrued, and cannot be taken away"; for example. one has a right to a vested pension. [2]

Generally, the portion vested cannot be reclaimed by the employer, nor can it be used to satisfy the employer's debts. Any portion not vested may be forfeited under certain conditions, such as termination of employment. The portion invested is often determined pro-rata.[ citation needed ]

Generally, for retirement plans in the United States, employees are fully vested in their own salary deferral contributions upon inception. For employer contributions, however, the employer has limited options under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to delay the vesting of their contributions to the employee. For example, the employer can say that the employee must work with the company for three years or they lose any employer contributed money, which is known as cliff vesting. Or it can choose to have the 20% of the contributions vest each year over five years, known as graduated vesting.

Choosing a vesting plan allows an employer to selectively reward employees who remain employed for a period of time. In theory, this allows the employer to make greater contributions than would otherwise be prudent, because the money they contribute on behalf of employees goes to the ones they most want to reward.

Ownership in startup companies

Small entrepreneurial companies usually offer grants of common stock or positions in an employee stock option plan to employees and other key participants such as contractors, board members, advisors and major vendors. To make the reward commensurate with the extent of contribution, encourage loyalty, and avoid spreading ownership widely among former participants, these grants are usually subject to vesting arrangements.

Vesting of options is straightforward. The grantee receives an option to purchase a block of common stock, typically on commencement of employment, which vests over time. The option may be exercised at any time but only with respect to the vested portion. The entire option is lost if not exercised within a short period after the end of the employer relationship. The vesting operates simply by changing the status of the option over time from fully unexercisable to fully exercisable according to the vesting schedule.

Common stock grants are similar in function but the mechanism is different. An employee, typically a company founder, purchases stock in the company at nominal price shortly after the company is formed. The company retains a repurchase right to buy the stock back at the same price should the employee leave. The repurchase right diminishes over time so that the company eventually has no right to repurchase the stock (in other words, the stock becomes fully vested).

Beginning in the 1990s, vesting periods in the United States are usually 3–5 years for employees, but shorter for board members and others whose expected tenure at a company is shorter. The vesting schedule is most often a pro-rata monthly vesting over the period with a six or twelve month cliff. Alternative vesting models are becoming more popular including milestone-based vesting and dynamic equity vesting. [3]

In the case of both stock and options, large initial grants that vest over time are more common than periodic smaller grants because they are easier to account for and administer, they establish the arrangement up-front and are thus more predictable, and (subject to some complexities and limitations) the value of the grants and holding period requirements for tax purposes are set upon the initial grant date, giving a considerable tax advantage to the employee.

Profit sharing plans

Profit-sharing plans are usually vested in ten years, although in some cases a plan may serve essentially as a pension by allowing a limited amount of vesting should the employee retire or leave on good terms after an extended period of employment.

Vested rights doctrine in zoning law

The vested rights doctrine is the rule of zoning law by which an owner or developer is entitled to proceed in accordance with the prior zoning provision where there has been a substantial change of position, expenditures, or incurrence of obligations made in good faith by an innocent party under a building permit or in reliance upon the probability of its issuance.

Vesting arrangements and terminology

A "vesting period" is a period of time an investor or other person holding a right to something must wait until they are capable of fully exercising their rights and until those rights may not be taken away.

In many cases vesting does not occur all at once. Specific portions of the rights grant vest on different dates over the duration of the period of the vesting. When part of a right is vested and part remains unvested, it is considered "partly vested".

In cases of partial vesting, a "vesting schedule" is a table or chart showing the portion of a right that is vested over time; typically the schedule provides for equal portions to vest on periodic vesting dates, usually once per day, month, quarter, or year, in stairstep fashion over the course of the vesting period. Often there is a cliff by which the first few steps in the graph are missing, so that there is no vesting at all for a period (usually six or twelve months in the case of employee equity), after which there is a cliff date upon which a large amount of vesting occurs all at once.

Some arrangements provide for "accelerated vesting", by which all or a major portion of the unvested right vests all at once upon the occurrence of a specified event such as a termination of employment by the company or acquisition of the company by another. Less commonly, the vesting schedule may call for variable grants or subject to conditions such as reaching milestones or employee performance. "Graded vesting" (vesting after each year until the employee is fully vested) may be "uniform" (e.g., 20% of the compensation vested each year for five years) or "non-uniform" (e.g., 20%, 30%, and 50% of the compensation vested each year for the next three years). [4]

See also

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A pension is a fund into which a sum of money is added during an employee's employment years and from which payments are drawn to support the person's retirement from work in the form of periodic payments. A pension may be a "defined benefit plan", where a fixed sum is paid regularly to a person, or a "defined contribution plan", under which a fixed sum is invested that then becomes available at retirement age. Pensions should not be confused with severance pay; the former is usually paid in regular installments for life after retirement, while the latter is typically paid as a fixed amount after involuntary termination of employment prior to retirement.

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An employee stock option (ESO) is a label that refers to compensation contracts between an employer and an employee that carries some characteristics of financial options.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 U.S. tax and labor law

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) is a federal United States tax and labor law that establishes minimum standards for pension plans in private industry. It contains rules on the federal income tax effects of transactions associated with employee benefit plans. ERISA was enacted to protect the interests of employee benefit plan participants and their beneficiaries by:

A retirement plan is a financial arrangement designed to replace employment income upon retirement. These plans may be set up by employers, insurance companies, trade unions, the government, or other institutions. Congress has expressed a desire to encourage responsible retirement planning by granting favorable tax treatment to a wide variety of plans. Federal tax aspects of retirement plans in the United States are based on provisions of the Internal Revenue Code and the plans are regulated by the Department of Labor under the provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Thrift Savings Plan

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a defined contribution plan for United States civil service employees and retirees as well as for members of the uniformed services. As of December 31, 2018, TSP has approximately 5.5 million participants, and more than $558 billion in assets under management; it is the largest defined contribution plan in the world. The TSP is administered by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, an independent agency.

Incentive stock options (ISOs), are a type of employee stock option that can be granted only to employees and confer a U.S. tax benefit. ISOs are also sometimes referred to as statutory stock options by the IRS. ISOs have a strike price, which is the price a holder must pay to purchase one share of the stock. ISOs may be issued both by public companies and private companies, with ISOs being common as a form of executive compensation for public companies, and common as a form of equity compensation in private start-up companies.

Deferred compensation is an arrangement in which a portion of an employee's income is paid out at a later date after which the income was earned. Examples of deferred compensation include pensions, retirement plans, and employee stock options. The primary benefit of most deferred compensation is the deferral of tax to the date(s) at which the employee receives the income.

Restricted stock, also known as letter stock or restricted securities, is stock of a company that is not fully transferable until certain conditions (restrictions) have been met. Upon satisfaction of those conditions, the stock is no longer restricted, and becomes transferable to the person holding the award. Restricted stock is often used as a form of employee compensation, in which case it typically becomes transferable ("vests") upon the satisfaction of certain conditions, such as continued employment for a period of time or the achievement of particular product-development milestones, earnings per share goals or other financial targets. Restricted stock is a popular alternative to stock options, particularly for executives, due to favorable accounting rules and income tax treatment.

A defined contribution (DC) plan is a type of retirement plan in which the employer, employee or both make contributions on a regular basis. Individual accounts are set up for participants and benefits are based on the amounts credited to these accounts plus any investment earnings on the money in the account. In defined contribution plans, future benefits fluctuate on the basis of investment earnings. The most common type of defined contribution plan is a savings and thrift plan. Under this type of plan, the employee contributes a predetermined portion of his or her earnings to an individual account, all or part of which is matched by the employer.

Stock appreciation rights (SAR) is a method for companies to give their management or employees a bonus if the company performs well financially. Such a method is called a 'plan'. SARs resemble employee stock options in that the holder/employee benefits from an increase in stock price. They differ from options in that the holder/employee does not have to purchase anything to receive the proceeds. They are not required to pay the (options') exercise price, but just receive the amount of the increase in cash or stock.

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Stock option expensing is a method of accounting for the value of share options, distributed as incentives to employees, within the profit and loss reporting of a listed business. On the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement say that the loss from the exercise is accounted for by noting the difference between the market price of the shares and the cash received, the exercise price, for issuing those shares through the option.

Phantom stock is a contractual agreement between a corporation and recipients of phantom shares that bestow upon the grantee the right to a cash payment at a designated time or in association with a designated event in the future, which payment is to be in an amount tied to the market value of an equivalent number of shares of the corporation's stock. Thus, the amount of the payout will increase as the stock price rises, and decrease if the stock falls, but without the recipient (grantee) actually receiving any stock. Like other forms of stock-based compensation plans, phantom stock broadly serves to align the interests of recipients and shareholders, incent contribution to share value, and encourage the retention or continued participation of contributors. Recipients (grantees) are typically employees, but may also be directors, third-party vendors, or others.

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A defined benefit pension plan is a type of pension plan in which an employer/sponsor promises a specified pension payment, lump-sum or combination thereof on retirement that is predetermined by a formula based on the employee's earnings history, tenure of service and age, rather than depending directly on individual investment returns. Traditionally, many governmental and public entities, as well as a large number of corporations, provided defined benefit plans, sometimes as a means of compensating workers in lieu of increased pay.

An employer matching program is an employer's potential payment to an employee's 401(k) plan dependent on the extent of an employee's participation in the plan.

Employer compensation in the United States refers to the cash compensation and benefits that an employee receives in exchange for the service they perform for their employer. Approximately 93% of the working population in the United States are employees earning a salary or wage.


  1. Lectric Law Dictionary
  2. Ballentine's Law Dictionary, p. 577 (1991).
  3. "Perfect Equity Splits for Bootstrapped Startups". Slicing Pie. Retrieved 2017-09-29.
  4. Graded Vesting