Vesting Schedule: Definition, Types, and Examples

Oct 25, 2023 |

Understanding your company’s vesting schedule can help you better plan for your financial future.

Many companies offer employee stock options or restricted stock as part of their compensation package or as a reward for meeting performance quotas. When you’re gifted these investment options, however, you may not be able to feel their financial effects right away.

Your investment options will likely follow a vesting schedule in which your stock or retirement plan will “mature” in order for you to exercise your options. Here’s what that means and how it can impact your financial planning.

What is a vesting schedule?

A vesting schedule is a timeline that dictates when an employee or participant in a financial arrangement gains ownership of certain assets, typically stock options, retirement account contributions, or other forms of compensation provided by an employer or organization. The purpose of a vesting schedule is to incentivize individuals to stay with a company or fulfill specific requirements before fully acquiring the benefits.

Here’s a general idea of how vesting schedules work:

  1. Grant Date: This is the date when the assets (such as stock options) are awarded or granted to the individual.
  2. Vesting Commencement Date: This is the starting point for the vesting schedule. The individual begins to accumulate ownership rights over time.
  3. Vesting Period: The vesting period is the duration over which the individual earns ownership. It is often expressed in terms of years, with a common structure being a four-year vesting period.
  4. Cliff Period: Some vesting schedules include a “cliff” period at the beginning, during which no ownership is granted. At the end of the cliff period, a significant portion or all of the benefits may vest at once.
  5. Vesting Increments: After the cliff period (if applicable), ownership typically vests gradually over time. For example, a common schedule is to vest 25% after the first year and then an additional 6.25% each quarter thereafter until the fourth year when 100% ownership is achieved.
  6. Forfeiture: If the individual leaves the company or fails to meet certain conditions before the vesting is complete, they may forfeit all or part of the unvested benefits.

Vesting schedules are commonly used in stock option plans, retirement plans, and other forms of compensation to align the interests of employees with the long-term success of the company. They encourage loyalty and performance by ensuring that employees receive the full benefits of their compensation package over time. It’s important for individuals to be aware of the vesting terms when accepting a job or participating in such programs, as it can have a significant impact on their overall compensation

What does vesting mean?

By definition, vesting is a preset schedule that dictates when employees can take advantage of their stock options. For example, when you receive stock options on your grant date, you can’t exercise those options until they fully vest. Most vesting schedules follow a 3-5 year plan, though the structure can vary by employer.

Employers use vesting schedules as a tool to encourage employees to remain with the company for longer periods of time. When 100 percent of your assets vest, they are yours and cannot be taken away from you for any reason. However, if you leave the company before some stock is fully vested, you may forfeit some of your assets.

Vesting schedule types

Vesting requirements are applicable to both retirement accounts and stock options. Typically, three types of vesting schedules exist:

  1. Immediate Vesting Schedules: In this scenario, there is no waiting period or specific timeframe for employees to access their benefits. Ownership of the asset is granted immediately and in full.
  2. Graded Vesting: This approach allows incremental ownership of the asset over time, eventually leading to 100 percent ownership. For instance, you might gain 10 percent ownership in the first year, 25 percent in the second year, another 25 percent in the third year, and finally, 40 percent in the fourth year. According to regulations, vesting schedules for retirement plans cannot extend beyond six years.
  3. Cliff Vesting: With cliff vesting, employees receive a lump sum benefit at a specified date. For example, in a three-year cliff vesting schedule, no portion of the benefit is granted until the employee completes three years of service, at which point they attain 100 percent ownership of the asset.

Examples of vesting schedules

Vesting schedules can vary by company, both in terms of duration and the percentage of shares vested each year.

For example, Nike offers its employees a five percent match on their 401(k) contributions, which they vest immediately. There is no waiting schedule or other requirements to take advantage of the match.

Nike also offers restricted stock units (RSUs), which typically vest at 25 percent per year over four years. Once four years have passed from the stock grant date, you can choose to sell the stock immediately or keep it to grow your wealth.

Amazon approaches vesting a little differently. An example taken from a real Amazon job offer shows that company equity (RSUs) doesn’t equally vest each year. Rather, only five percent of the stock will vest during the first year. After year two, 15 percent of the stock units will be vested (or 20 percent total from years one and two). Year three will see a significant increase, where 40 percent of the RSUs will be vested (or 60 percent total from years one, two, and three), and the same will apply for year four when the RSUs will be 100 percent vested.

Why do stockholders care about a vesting schedule?

When you’re granted stock options subject to a vesting schedule, it’s crucial to comprehend the details of how and when you can capitalize on this benefit. Typically, departing the company prematurely might mean forfeiting unvested options, significantly impacting your financial strategy.

To illustrate using the Amazon scenario, if you decide to leave the company two years after obtaining your stock options, you’ll relinquish 85% of your stock. In monetary terms, this could translate to tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Consider a grant of 50 Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) valued at $2,000 each. In the initial year, you would only receive $5,000 in stock value (representing five percent vested shares). By the second year, your stock value would triple to $15,000 as 15% of your shares vest. Moving into the third year, you’d augment your annual compensation by an additional $40,000—twice the sum of the preceding two years combined!

For those who have received stock options as part of their compensation, gaining a clear understanding of the company’s vesting schedule is paramount. Our certified financial planners are available to address your inquiries and offer guidance, covering aspects such as tax implications upon vesting

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