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VP of HR Sued Over 401(k) Operational Error

A proposed class action lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois involving a failure to follow the terms of a 401(k) plan personally names the Vice President of Human Resources for Conagra Brands, Inc. Karlson v. Conagra Brands, Case No. 1:18-cv-8323 (N.D. Ill., Dec. 19, 2018) as a defendant, and, as it happens, the lead plaintiff is the former senior director of global benefits at the company. Other named defendants included the benefits administrative and appeals committee of the Conagra board, both of which committees included the named VP of Human Resources among its members.

Generally, class action litigation over 401(k) plans has alleged fiduciary breaches over plan investments, such as unnecessarily expensive share classes, undisclosed revenue sharing, and the like. However a failure to follow the written terms of a plan document is also a fiduciary breach under ERISA § 404(a)(1)(D), which requires fiduciaries to act “in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan” insofar as they are consistent with ERISA.

In the Conagra case, the plan document defined compensation that was subject to salary deferrals and employer matching contributions to include bonus compensation that was paid after separation from employment provided that it would have been paid to the participant, had employment continued, and further provided that the amounts were paid by the later of the date that is 2 ½ months after the end of employment, or end of the year in which employment terminated. Post-severance compensation was included in final regulations under Code § 415 released in April 2007 and is generally an option for employers to elect in their plan adoption agreements.  Note that, when included under a plan, post-severance compensation never includes actual severance pay, only items paid within the applicable time period that would have been paid in the course of employment had employment not terminated.

Karlson was terminated April 1, 2016 and received a bonus check 3 ½ months later, on July 15, 2016, and noted that the Company did not apply his 15% deferral rate to the bonus check and did not make a matching contribution. Because the bonus check fell squarely within the definition of “compensation” subject to contributions under the plan, Karlson filed an ERISA claim and exhausted his administrative remedies under the plan before filing suit.

The complaint alleges that the failure to apply deferral elections and make matching contributions on the bonus check was not a mere oversight on Conagra’s part. Instead, until 2016 Conagra had allowed deferrals to be made from all post-termination bonus checks (provided they were paid by the end of the year in which termination occurred), but in 2016 it limited it to instances where the bonus check was paid within 2 ½ months of termination.  In claim correspondence with Karlson, Conagra referred to this as an “administrative interpretation” of the terms of the Plan that was within its scope of discretion as Plan Administrator, and did not require a plan amendment.

Karlson maintained that the “administrative interpretation” contradicted the written terms of the plan and pursued his claim through the appeals stage. Karlson alleged, in relevant part, that Conagra’s narrowed administrative interpretation coincided with a layoff of 30% of its workforce and was motivated by a desire to reduce its expenses and improve its financial performance.  This, Karlson alleged, was a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty to plan participants and of the exclusive benefit rule and hence violated ERISA.  In addition to the fiduciary breach claim under ERISA § 502(a)(2), Karlson also alleged a claim to recover benefits under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B).

As of this writing, per the public court docket the parties are slated for a status hearing to discuss, among other things, potential settlement of Karlson’s claims.

Although the timing of the layoff certainly adds factual topspin to Karlson’s fiduciary breach claim, the troubling takeaway from this case is that Conagra’s simple failure to follow the written terms of the plan is sufficient for a court to find that it violated its fiduciary duty. The other concern is that operational errors relating to the definition of compensation are among the IRS “top ten” failures corrected in the Voluntary Compliance Program and are also among the most frequent errors that the author is called upon to correct in her practice.

To limit the occurrence of operational failures related to the definition of compensation, plan sponsors should do a “table read” of the definition of compensation in their adoption agreement and summary plan description, together with all personnel whose jobs include plan administration functions (e.g., human resources, payroll, benefits, etc.) Reference to the basic plan document may also be required.  Most important, outside payroll vendor representatives should attend the table read meeting either in person, or by conference call.  All attendees should review, and be on the same page, as to the items that are included in compensation for plan contribution purposes, and on procedures relating to post-termination compensation.

If questions ever arise in this regard, benefit counsel can help.

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.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Online VCP Filing System Up and Running

The IRS Voluntary Correction Program, or VCP, generally must be used by plan sponsors who need to fix certain errors in their retirement plans, including document errors such as missed amendments, and “significant” errors in operation of the plan going back more than two years. VCP is a component program of the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System, the terms of which are outlined in a Revenue Procedure that the IRS updates every few years.  As previously reported, the most recent update, set forth in Revenue Procedure 2018-52, mandates online filing of VCP submissions starting April 1, 2019. The IRS opened the online filing system for voluntary use starting January 1 of this year.  Paper filing is optional through March 31, 2019.  This post reports on first experiences with the online filing system.

  • First, you file online at www.pay.gov, which is also how the applicable VCP user fee is paid electronically. You must have an account established in order to file. The online filing portal at pay.gov is titled “Application for Voluntary Correction Program.” Note that there is a different link at pay.gov called “Additional Payment for Open Application for Voluntary Correction Program” that should not be used for an initial filing. This link is only to be used to make an additional user fee payment for an existing VCP case, which generally would only be at the instruction of an IRS employee.   Plan sponsors and preparers should exercise caution because, when you enter “Voluntary Correction Program” into the pay.gov search engine, this alternative link for the additional payment tends to pop up before the correct link for an initial filing.
  • Form 8950, Application for Voluntary Correction Program, is completed online at www.pay.gov. This version of the form dates to January 2019. Note that the prior version of Form 8950 from November 2017 should not be used as part of the online submission. It can continue to be filed in hard copy through March 31, 2019. Preparers should be careful to follow the Instructions for whatever version of Form 8950 they are working with, as there are differences between them.
  • Any attachments to Form 8950, such as the statement required of Section 403(b) plans, should be part of a single PDF file that contains all portions of the submission (other than Form 8950) that formerly were filed in hard copy (e.g., Form 2848 Power of Attorney, Form 14568 Model VCP Compliance Statement, Schedules thereto, sample corrective calculations, relevant portions of the plan document). The application link at www.pay.gov lists the proper order in which items should go (as does Section 11.11 of Revenue Procedure 2018-52).
  • Items unique to the online filing process that must be included in the PDF file include a signed and dated Penalty of Perjury Statement from an authorized representative of the plan sponsor (formerly this was part of Form 8950), and an optional cover letter to the IRS.
  • Complications ensue when the PDF file exceeds 15 MB. If that is the case, you are to file online and upload as much of your application as fits within 15 MB limit. You and your Power of Attorney then will receive email confirmation of filing from pay.gov. Locate the Tracking ID number that is listed on the confirmation. You then need to prepare one or more fax transmittals that bear the Tracking ID number on the fax coversheet, as well as the EIN, applicant name, and plan name, and fax in the balance of your application to the IRS at (855) 203-6996. Note that the fax (or multiple faxes, if necessary), must be 25MB or smaller to go through the IRS system. Larger files will fail to transmit and no notice of failure will be provided.
  • Either the preparer can provide the PDF to the plan sponsor to upload at www.pay.gov (together with online completion of Form 8950 and payment of the VCP user fee), or the preparer can obtain written authorization from the plan sponsor to use the plan sponsor’s credit card to pay the VCP user fee online, and upload the submission itself. (Hat tip to Alison J. Cohen of Ferenczy Benefits Law Center for input on this latter method, and for other assistance with this post).

This is just a very brief overview of the filing process. More details are found in the January 2019 instructions to Form 8950, and at the online filing portal at http://www.pay.gov

Other than the unfortunate need to separately fax portions of larger VCP applications, the online system operates smoothly and is fairly user-friendly. Time will tell as to whether online filing allows the IRS to process the VCP applications more swiftly than has been possible with paper filings.

2019 COLA Adjustments: Let’s Do the Numbers

On November 1, 2019, the IRS announced 2019 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.   Salary deferral limits to 401(k) and 403(b) plans increased $500 to $19,000, and a number of other dollar limits increased.  Citations below are to the Internal Revenue Code.

In a separate announcement, the Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2019 increased to $132,900, from $128,400 in 2018.

IRS Weighs In on 401(k) “Match” to Student Loan Repayments

The IRS has approved an arrangement under which an employer “matches” employee student loan repayments by making non-elective contributions to its 401(k) plan on behalf of the employees paying the loans. The guidance is in the form of a Private Letter Ruling (PLR 201833012) that is only citable authority for the taxpayer who requested the ruling, but it is a promising development on the retirement plan front given the heavy student loan debt carried by current millennial employees and the generations following them. The program described in the ruling solves the problem of low 401(k) plan participation by employees who are carrying student loan debt, allowing them to obtain the “free” employer matching funds that they would otherwise forego.

The employer who obtained the ruling maintained a 401(k) plan that included a generous matching formula – 5% of eligible compensation for the pay period, provided that the employee made an elective deferral of at least 2% of compensation for the pay period. The employer proposed establishing a “student loan repayment (SLR) nonelective contribution” program with the following features:

Program Features
• It would be completely voluntary; employees must elect to enroll;
• Once enrolled, employees could opt out of enrollment on a prospective basis;
• Enrollees would still be eligible to make pre-tax or Roth elective deferrals, but would not be eligible to receive regular matching contributions while enrolled;
• Employees would be eligible to receive “SLR nonelective contributions” and true-up matching contributions, as described below; and
• If an employee initially enrolls in the program but later opts out of enrollment, the employee will resume eligibility for regular matching contributions.

SLR Nonelective Contributions
• If an employee makes a student loan repayment during a pay period that equals at least 2% of compensation for the pay period, the employer will make an SLR nonelective contribution equal to 5% of compensation for the pay period.
• Although based on each pay period’s compensation, the collective SLR nonelective contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year. (Because employees may stop and restart student loan repayments or regular elective deferrals, presumably it would not be possible for an employer to know, before the end of the plan year, precisely how much SLR nonelective contributions, and catch-up contributions, each program participant is due.)
• The SLR nonelective contribution is made regardless of whether or not the employee makes any regular salary deferrals throughout the year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the SLR nonelective contribution.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to all applicable plan qualification requirements: eligibility, vesting, distribution rules, contribution limits, and coverage and nondiscrimination testing.
• The SLR nonelective contributions will not be treated as a regular matching contribution for purposes of 401(m) testing.

True-Up Contributions
• In the event an employee does not make a student loan repayment for a pay period equal to at least 2% of the employee’s eligible compensation, but does make a regular elective deferral equal to at least 2% of compensation, the employer will make a “true-up matching contribution” equal to 5% of the employee’s eligible compensation the pay period.
• Although based on pay period compensation, the collective true-up matching contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the true-up matching contribution.
• The true-up matching contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The true-up matching contributions are treated as regular matching contributions for purposes of 401(m) testing.

The specific ruling that the IRS made was that the SLR nonelective contribution program would not violate the prohibition on “contingent benefits” under applicable Income Tax Regulations. Under this rule, an employer may not make other benefits, such as health insurance, stock options, or similar entitlements, contingent on a participant’s making elective deferrals under a 401(k) plan. There are a few exceptions, most notably employer matching contributions, which are expressly contingent on elective deferrals. Because the SLR nonelective contributions are triggered by employees’ student loan repayments, and not by elective deferrals, and because employees who receive them are still eligible to make regular elective deferrals, the IRS concluded that they did not violate the contingent benefit rule. The IRS stated that, in reaching this conclusion, it presumed that the taxpayer had not extended any student loans to employees who were eligible for the program and had no intentions to do so.

Closing Thoughts
Existing vendors who help employers contribute towards student loan repayments will probably move to establish and market versions of the SLR nonelective contribution program described in the private letter ruling, in which case additional, and more broadly applicable, IRS guidance would be welcome. In the meantime, employers wishing to put such a program in place should not assume that reproducing the facts in the ruling is a safe harbor from adverse tax consequences, and should consult legal counsel to assess potential liability.

Note:  The employer who obtained the Private Letter Ruling was later identified as Abbott Labs.

Using Forfeitures for Corrective Contributions: Look Before You Leap

When a 401(k) plan fails nondiscrimination testing that applies to employee salary deferrals, one way to correct the failure is for the plan sponsor to make qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) on behalf of non-highly compensated employees. The same approach may apply to matching contribution failures, but in that instance the corrective contributions are called qualified matching contributions or QMACs.   QNECs and QMACs must satisfy the same vesting and distribution restrictions that apply to employee salary deferrals – they must always be 100% vested and must not be allowed to be distributed prior to death, disability, severance from employment, attainment of age 59.5, or plan termination (i.e., they may not be used for hardship distributions).

Existing Treasury Regulations provide that QNEC and QMAC contributions must be 100% vested at when they are contributed to the plan, not just when they are allocated to an account.

Forfeitures are unvested employer contributions when originally contributed to the plan, and for this reason the IRS has taken the position that a plan sponsor may not use forfeitures to fund QNECs or QMACs. And in fact, the prohibition on using forfeitures to make QNECs or QMACs is reflected in the Internal Revenue Manual, and the IRS Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS) which outlines voluntary correction methods for plan sponsors.

On January 18, 2017, the IRS changed course by publishing a proposed regulation requiring that QNECs and QMACs be 100% vested only when they are allocated to an account, and need not be 100% vested when originally contributed to a plan. This means that forfeitures may be used to make QNECs and QMACs if the underlying plan document permits.  It would logically follow that other employer contributions that are not fully vested when made may be re-designated as QNECs to satisfy ADP testing for a plan year.

The proposed regulation is applicable for plan years beginning on or after January 18, 2017 (January 1, 2018 for calendar year plans) but may be relied upon prior to that date.

Caution is advised, however, for plan sponsors wanting to make immediate use of forfeiture accounts for QNECs and QMACs. First, they must confirm that their plan document does not prohibit use of forfeitures for this purpose.  In the author’s experience, master and prototype and volume submitter basic plan documents may expressly prohibit use of forfeitures for QNECs and QMACs.  The language below was taken from a master and prototype basic plan document:

7) Limitation on forfeiture uses. Effective for plan years beginning after the adoption of the 2010 Cumulative List (Notice 2010-90) restatement, forfeitures cannot be used as QNECs, QMACs, Elective Deferrals, or Safe Harbor Contributions (Code §401(k)(12)) other than QACA Safe Harbor Contributions (Code §401(k)(13)). However, forfeitures can be used to reduce Fixed Additional Matching Contributions which satisfy the ACP test safe harbor or as Discretionary Additional Matching Contributions.

Plan sponsors that locate a similar prohibition in their plan document should contact the prototype plan sponsor to determine whether they will be amending their plan document to permit use of forfeitures for QNECs and QMACs and when such an amendment will take effect.

In instances where there is no express plan prohibition, plan sponsors that are making use of EPCRS to correct plan failures should try to ascertain from the IRS whether or not they may use forfeitures to fund QNECs or QMACs as part of a self-correction or VCP application, as the most recently updated EPCRS Revenue Procedure (Revenue Procedure 2016-51, 2016-41 I.R.B. 465), expressly disallows this at Section §6.02(4)(c) and Appendix A §.03. Hopefully, the IRS will issue some guidance on this point without too much delay.

Webinar: Dept. of Labor 401(k) Audits – How Not to Get Selected (and How to Survive if You Do) UPDATED

 Please join Christine Roberts and former DOL investigator David Kahn for a free, one-hour webinar on Wednesday, Aug 24, 2016 at 10:00 AM PDT which will provide tips on how to reduce the risk of audit, and how to survive an audit if one occurs. We will cover investigation triggers and issues that the DOL targets once an audit is underway. This no-charge webinar qualifies for continuing education credits for California CPAs and ASPPA. Join us for a webinar. Register now! https://lnkd.in/b-58niA

For those of you who missed the event, the PowerPoint and audio file are found here.

IRS Announces Increased 2015 Retirement Plan Contribution Limits

On October 23, 2014 the IRS announced 2015 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.   A 1.7% rise in the September CPI-U over 2013 triggered $500 increases to the annual maximum salary deferral limit for 401(k) plans, and the catch-up limit for individuals age 50 or older. Citations below are to the Internal Revenue Code.

Limits That Increase for 2015 Are As Follows:

–The annual Salary Deferral Limit for 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans, currently $17,500, increases $500 to $18,000.

–The age 50 and up catch-up limit also increases $500, to $6,000 total. This means that the maximum plan deferral an individual age 50 or older in 2015 may make is $24,000.

–Maximum total annual contributions to a 401(k) or other “defined contribution” plans under 415(c) increased from $52,000 to $53,000 ($59,000 for employees aged 50 and older).

–Maximum amount of compensation on which contributions may be based under 401(a)(17) increased from $260,000 to $265,000.

–The compensation threshold for determining a “highly compensated employee” increased from $115,000 to $120,000.

–The compensation threshold for SEP participation increased from $550 to $600.

–The SIMPLE 401(k) and IRA contribution limit increased $500 to $12,500.

–The Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2015 increased from $117,000 to $118,500.

Limits That Stayed The Same for 2015 Are As Follows:

–Traditional and Roth IRA contributions and catch-up amounts remain unchanged at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively.

–The compensation dollar limit used to determine key employees in a top-heavy plan remains unchanged at $170,000.

–The maximum annual benefit under a defined benefit plan remained at $210,000.

 

IRS Announces 2014 Benefit Limits

On October 31, 2013 the IRS announced 2014 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.  The announcement had been delayed until the September 2013 Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers (CPI-U) was available, which in turn was delayed by the government shutdown over the budget and debt ceiling debate.   A modest 1.2% rise in the September CPI-U over 2013 left a number of the dollar limits unchanged for 2014, although a few limits have increased (citations are to the Internal Revenue Code).
Some limits that did not change for 2014 are as follows:
–Salary Deferral Limit for 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans remains unchanged at $17,500. The age 50 and up catch-up limit also remains unchanged at $5,500 for a total contribution limit of $23,000.
–The compensation threshold for “highly compensated employee” remained at $115,000 for a second year in a row.
–Traditional and Roth IRA contributions and catch-up amounts remain unchanged at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively.
–SIMPLE 401(k) and IRA contribution limits remain at $12,000.
Limits that did increase are as follows:
–Maximum total contribution to a 401(k) or other “defined contribution” plans under 415(c) increased from $51,000 to $52,000 ($57,500 for employees aged 50 and older).
–Maximum amount of compensation on which contributions may be based under 401(1)(17) increased from $255,000 to $260,000.
–Maximum annual benefit under a defined benefit plan increased from $205,000 to $210,000.
–Social Security Taxable Wage Base increased from $113,700 to $117,000.
–The dollar limit defining “key employee” in a top-heavy plan increased from $165,000 to $170,000.

Roundup of DOMA Guidance re: Benefit Plans

The Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor have in recent months issued initial guidance to employers on the benefit plan consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), which ruled Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) to be unconstitutional on equal protection grounds.  That now defunct DOMA provision limited the federal law definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” to refer only to unions between members of the opposite sex.

The recent guidance, which I summarize below (and have separately addressed in earlier posts), represents early stages in the process of fully implementing the US v. Windsor holding within ERISA’s extensive compliance regime.  Please note that this post focuses on the federal tax consequences of same-sex benefits; state taxation of such benefits, and those provided to domestic partners, depends upon the revenue and taxation laws of each state.

IRS and DOL Adopt “State of Celebration” Rule

In U.S. v. Windsor the Supreme Court held that federal law will recognize all “lawful marriages” between members of the same sex, but left open the question of which state’s law will determine whether a same-sex marriage is lawful:  the state of domicile (where the married couple lives), or the state of “celebration” (where the marriage took place).

This is an important question because the Supreme Court decision left intact Section 2 of DOMA, under which a state, territory or Indian tribe need not give effect to another state’s laws regarding same-sex marriage.  The “state of domicile” rule, if it determined whether or not a same-sex couple was legally married, could cause benefits chaos.  For instance, an employer with operations in multiple states would be required to track where each employee in a same-sex relationship lived, and possibly modify their benefit offerings if they moved from a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, to a “non-recognition” state.

Note:  As of the date of this post, the District of Columbia and 14 states recognize same-sex marriage: California (since June 28, 2013, also prior to November 5, 2008); Connecticut; Delaware (eff. 7/1/2013); Iowa; Maine; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota (eff. Aug. 1, 2013); New Hampshire; New Jersey (eff. October 21, 2013); New York; Rhode Island (eff. Aug. 1, 2013); Vermont; and Washington.  (Follow updates to this list here.)

The U.S. v. Windsor ruling also gave rise to some confusion over the status, under federal law, of domestic partnerships, civil unions, and other formalized same-sex relationships that fall short of marriage.

Fortunately, both the IRS and the DOL have resolved these issues in separate guidance released in September 2013.

Specifically, in Revenue Ruling 2013-17, the IRS announced that:

  • The IRS will recognize, as a legal marriage for all federal tax purposes, a marriage of same-sex individuals that was validly entered into in a domestic or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes same sex marriage, regardless of where the couple lives.
  • Under federal tax law, the terms “husband,” “wife,” “husband and wife,” “marriage” and “spouse” includes lawful same-sex marriages and individuals in such marriages.
  • “Marriage” for federal tax purposes does NOT include domestic partnerships, civil unions, or other formal relationships falling short of marriage.

To reach these conclusions the IRS invoked a prior Revenue Ruling from 1958 (Rev. Rul. 58-66) that held that individuals who became common-law spouses under state law were entitled to be treated as legally married spouses for federal income tax purposes regardless of where they later resided.

The DOL also adopted the “state of celebration” rule for purposes of defining same-sex marriage under ERISA benefit plans, including retirement plans, in Technical Release 2013-14.  In this guidance, published September 18, 2013, the DOL also specifies that the terms “spouse” and “marriage,” for ERISA purposes, do not include domestic partnerships or civil unions, whether between members of the same sex or opposite sex, regardless of the standing such relationships have under state law.

The IRS ruling takes effect September 16, 2013 on a prospective basis.  The DOL Technical Release should be treated as effective immediately on a prospective basis.  The DOL will issue further guidance explaining any retroactive application of the U.S. v. Windsor ruling under ERISA, for instance with regard to previously executed beneficiary designations, plan distribution elections, plan loans and hardship distributions.

Other Tax Guidance from Revenue Ruling 2013-17 and FAQs

Revenue Ruling 2013-17 also contains guidance on prospective and retroactive tax filing aissues resulting from the U.S. v. Windsor decision, including refund/credit opportunities.  More specific guidance for taxpayers is set forth in separate IRS FAQs for same-sex married couples, and for couples in registered domestic partnerships.

In order to understand  the tax refund/credit procedures it is helpful first to review the federal tax consequences of providing employment benefits to same-sex spouses while Section 3 of DOMA remained in effect.

Through Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 105(b), Federal law has long allowed employers to provide health and other benefits on a tax-free basis to employees, their opposite-sex spouses and dependents.  However, under DOMA § 3, the same benefits provided to same-sex spouses and other partners generally resulted in “imputed incometo the employee for federal tax purposes, in an amount generally equal to the value of the benefits provided.  Similarly, employees could not use Sec. 125 cafeteria plans to pay premiums for same-sex spouses/partners on a pre-tax basis.  Only in rare instances where the same-sex spouse was a dependent of the employee spouse as a result of disability, did same-sex spousal coverage not result in an additional federal tax burden to the employee spouse.

Note that benefits provided to domestic partners and partner in civil unions are still treated this way for Federal tax purposes.  For benefits provided to employees who are lawfully married to same-sex spouses, however, the new rules effective September 16, 2013 and prospectively are as follows:

  • Individuals in lawful same-sex marriages must file their federal income tax returns for 2013 and subsequent years as either married filing jointly, or married filing separately.
  • Employer-provided benefits provided to an employee’s lawfully-married same-sex spouse are excludable from the employee’s income for federal tax purposes.
  • As a consequence, employers must stop imputing income to employees, for federal tax purposes, based on same-sex spousal benefits, and must adjust affected employees’ Form W-2 income for 2013 to remove imputed income amounts.
  • The tax-qualified benefit plans that are affected are:
    • health, dental and vision coverage;
    • qualified tuition reduction plans maintained by educational organizations;
    • meals and lodging provided to employees on business premises (other specific conditions apply);
    • fringe benefit including qualified transportation fringe benefits, moving expenses, employee discounts, and work-related expenses; and
    • pre-tax participation in Section 125 cafeteria/flex plans, including health flexible spending accounts and dependent care flexible spending accounts.
  • Employees in lawful same-sex marriages can file amended personal income tax returns for “open” tax years (generally 2010, 2011, 2012) to recoup over-withheld federal income taxes resulting from imputed income and after-tax cafeteria plan participation.
  • However, if they re-file, they must re-file as married for all tax purposes, not just to obtain the refund or credit.  In many cases, the income tax adjustment will not warrant the loss of other deductions.  Employees must consult their individual CPAs and other tax advisors for answers; employers must refrain from offering any specific advice or guidance in this regard.

Corrective Payroll/Withholding Steps for 2013 and Prior “Open” Tax Years

IRS Notice 2013-61, published September 23, 2013, sets forth optional, streamlined ways for employers to claim refunds of over-withheld “employment taxes” (FICA and federal income taxes) applied to imputed income/same sex spouse benefits in 2013, and prior “open” tax years.

The “normal” over-withholding correction process – which remains available to employers in this instance – varies slightly depending on whether or not the employer is seeking an adjustment of withholding taxes, or a refund of withholding taxes, but generally includes the following steps:

  • identify the amount of over-withholding;
  • repay the employee’s portion to the employee in cash (or “reimburse” them by applying the overpayment to FICA taxes for current year);
  • obtain written statements from affected employees that they will not also claim a refund of over-withheld FICA taxes, and if an employer is seeking a refund of over-withheld taxes, obtain affected employees’ written consent to the refund; and
  • file IRS Form 941-X for each quarter affected, to recoup the employer portion of the tax.

Notice 2013-61 sets forth two streamlined correction methods permitting use of one single Form 941 or Form 941-X for all of 2013.  Under the first method, the employer takes the following steps before the end of the current year:

  • identify and repay/reimburse employees’ share of excess income tax, FICA tax withholdings resulting from same-sex spousal benefits on or before December 31, 2013; and
  • make corresponding reductions in affected employees’ wage and income-tax withholding amounts on the 4th quarter 2013 Form 941.

The second method is available if the employer does not identify and repay/reimburse employees’ share of excess income tax, FICA tax withholdings until after December 31, 2013.  In that case the employer:

  • Files one single Form 941-X in 2014 seeking reimbursement of employer’s share of tax with regard to imputed income for same-sex spouse benefits reported in all quarters of 2013.
  • In addition to the regular Form 941-X filing requirements, including obtaining written statements and/or consents from employees, employers must write “WINDSOR” at the top of the Form 941-X and must file amended Form W-2s (IRS Form W-2c) for affected employees, reporting the reduced amount of wages subject to FICA withholding.

Note:  This second correction method can apply only to FICA taxes.  Employers cannot make adjustments for overpayments of income tax withholding for a prior tax year unless an administrative error (e.g., wrong entry on Form 941) has occurred.

Employers may also recoup their share of FICA taxes for earlier open tax years (generally, 2010, 2011 and 2012) using one Form 941-X for all four calendar quarters that is filed for the fourth quarter of each affected year.  In addition to marking the Form “WINDSOR” the employer must also file amended Form W-2s for affected employees, reporting the reduced amount of wages subject to FICA withholding.

Employers making use of the correction methods set forth in IRS Notice 2013-61 for 2013 or earlier open years must take account of the Social Security Wage Base in effect for applicable years.  For employees whose 2013 compensation exceeds the taxable wage base ($113,700) even after imputed income is eliminated, no corrections for the Social Security component of FICA taxes can be made.  If retroactive corrections are made, you must observe the SS wage base limitations in effect in prior years:  $106,800 for 2010 & 2011, and $110,100 for 2012.

One final note:  many employers that provide benefits to employees’ domestic partners and/or same sex spouses have followed a practice of grossing up the employees’ taxable compensation to account for the additional federal taxes they must pay on imputed income.  The IRS guidance on recouping over-withheld taxes apply only to imputed income amounts, not to the gross-up amounts.  “Normal” over-withholding correction procedures using Forms 941 and 941-X should apply to 2013 gross-up amounts but employers should consult their payroll and tax advisors for specific advice.  Note also that California recently adopted a law that will exclude gross-up amounts from employees’ taxable compensation for state personal income tax purposes.  AB 362 takes immediate effect and is slated to expire January 1, 2019.  You can find a fuller discussion of the measure here.

COLA Increases Raise 2013 Contribution Limits

An almost 3.3% cost of living increase in the Social Security wage base for 2013 has triggered increases in annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans, the Internal Revenue Service announced on October 18, 2012.  Here are some of the key changes for 2013 (citations are to the Internal Revenue Code):

–Salary Deferral Limit for 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans increased from $17,000 to $17,500. (The age 50 and up catch-up limit remains unchanged at $5,500, however.)

–Maximum total contribution to a 401(k) or other “defined contribution” plans under 415(c) increased from $50,000 to 51,000 ($56,500 for employees aged 50 and older).

–Maximum amount of compensation on which contributions may be based under 401(1)(17) increased from $250,000 to $255,000.

–Maximum annual benefit under a defined benefit plan increased from $200,000 to $205,000.

–Social Security Taxable Wage Base increased almost 3.3% from $110,100 to $113,700.

–The IRA contribution limit increased from $5,000 to $5,500.  The catch-up limit remains at $1,000, however.

–Note also that the annual exclusion from gift taxes will increase in 2013 from $13,000 to $14,000.

Some limits that did not change for 2013 are as follows:

–The compensation threshold for “highly compensated employee” remained at $115,000.

–The dollar limit defining “key employee” in a top-heavy plan remained at $165,000.