Imagine you are a California business owner, with three fast-casual restaurant operations throughout the state. You employ over 100 employees, such that by September 30, 2020, you were either required to have a retirement plan in place, or to begin to participate in the CalSavers program by forwarding employee contributions to Roth IRAs managed by a state-appointed custodian.

Your decisions about whether to adopt your own retirement plan were made in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when business operations, cash flow, and staffing needs were chaotic and fast-changing. On balance, however, you decided to adopt your own plan and ultimately chose a deferral-only 401(k) plan as the best fit for your business. You adopted the plan by July 1, 2020 in advance of the September 30, 2020 CalSavers deadline for employers with over 100 employees.

Your restaurants pivoted to take out and food delivery services and you were lucky not to have to furlough or lay off any employees, but employee wages were lower than before the pandemic and you had high turnover. In June of 2020 you conducted enrollment meeting for the 401(k) plan but employee response was tepid. Only a few dozen employees actually enrolled in the plan, although most all employees (well over 100) were eligible to make salary deferrals.

Fast forward to the end of 2021. You find out that as part of your Form 5500 filing obligations you need to engage the services of an independent qualified public accountant (IQPA) to audit plan operations and finances. The cost of these services run about $10,000. This is a scary surprise for you. Did things have to end up this way?

In a word, no, although the 401(k) plan design may still have been the best fit for your business, and there may be light at the end of the tunnel for you, regarding the audit requirement.

Let’s break it down.  First, the audit requirement.  Under Section 103 of ERISA, a qualified retirement plan with 100 or more participants as of the first day of the plan year generally must provide an audit report prepared by an IQPA together with their “long form” Form 5500.  “Participants” means those employees who meet eligibility requirements under the plan, even if they don’t contribute to the plan or have an account under the plan (it also includes former employees who retain an account under the plan because they have not taken a distribution or rollover).  A special rule – the “80-120 rule” applies to plans that filed a Form 5500-SF (Short Form) in the prior year and have 120 or fewer participants as of the first day of the plan year in question, but if you adopt your plan in a year where you meet or exceed the 100 participant rule – again, counting those who are eligible regardless of participation status – you will be required to provide an audit report for your first Form 5500 filing.  That is the situation of the restaurant owner in our example.

Second, plan design. The restauranteur could have adopted a SEP-IRA, which is exempt from Form 5500 filing requirements, and with it, the requirement for an audit. However, SEP-IRAs require employer contributions and the 401(k) required only employee elective deferrals, so the cost of a SEP-IRA may not have worked for the business. The hiccup here is that the “no cost” 401(k) plan carried the hidden cost of a plan audit.

Lastly, a potential change to counting 100 participants for purposes of the audit requirement may be in the offing.  Proposed regulations from the Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would change the participant headcount methodology to look only at participants with account balances, and disregard those who are eligible but not participating.  If finalized and adopted, these regulations would generally apply to plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2022.  So for the restaurant owner in question it may be that another audit is required for the 2021-2022 plan year but that the audit requirement goes away if plan participation remains low. 

The hidden cost of a plan audit is also a concern for a wider group of employers, irrespective of state auto-IRA plan mandates, in 2024 when the SECURE Act rules for long-term, part-time employees go into full effect.  If the Form 5500 proposed regulations do become law, then the fact that part-time employees are eligible to make elective deferrals under their employers’ 401(k) plans will not trigger audit requirements unless they actually participate in the plan, and the plan’s active and former participant ranks meet or exceed 100 as of the first day of any given plan year.  The coming increase in participant ranks due to long-term, part-time employees increase in plan participant ranks was identified as one reason for the proposed change in headcount methodology.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose. © 2021 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo credit: Colton Sturgeon, Unsplash

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