IRS Prioritizes Guidance on Student Loan Repayment Contributions

On September 9, 2021 the Department of the Treasury issued its 2021-2022 Priority Guidance Plan listing guidance projects that are priorities for the Treasury Department and IRS during the twelve months ending June 30, 2022.  Among the Employee Benefits topics is “[g]uidance on student loan payments and qualified retirement plans and §403(b) plans.” This post reviews the state of the law on student loan repayments through retirement plans and briefly discusses what type of guidance might be forthcoming. 

Current State of the Law

The current state of guidance on using student loan repayments as a base for employer contributions to a qualified retirement plan or 403(b) plan is limited to a private letter ruling issued in 2018 to Abbott Labs.  In addition, proposed measures are contained in various pieces of federal legislation including the Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2021, commonly referred to as SECURE 2.0.

In the private letter ruling (PLR 201833012), discussed in our earlier post, the employer sought approval of an arrangement under which they made a 5% nonelective contribution on behalf of participants who contributed up to 2% of their compensation towards student loan repayments.  Those participants could still make elective deferral contributions under the plan, but would not receive a matching contribution (also equal to 5% of compensation) for the same pay periods in which they participated in the student loan repayment program.  Both the nonelective and matching contributions were made after the end of the plan year and only on behalf of employees who either were employed on the last day of the plan year or had terminated employment due to death or disability.  The nonelective contributions based on student loan repayments also vested at the same rate as regular matching contributions did.

 The PLR addressed whether the nonelective contribution made on behalf of student loan repayments violated the “contingent benefit rule.”  Under that rule, a 401(k) plan is not qualified if the employer makes any other benefit (with the exception of matching contributions) contingent on whether or not an employee makes elective deferrals.  The IRS concluded that the program did not violate the contingent benefit rule because employees in the program could still make elective deferrals, but simply would not receive the regular employer match on those amounts during pay periods in which they received the nonelective contribution based on student loan repayments.

Only Abbott Labs has reliance on the terms of the PLR, although the PLR may indicate the approach the IRS will take in any new guidance regarding student loan repayments as a basis for retirement plan contributions.  

Proposed Legislation

Congress has noticed the impact that student loan repayment obligations has had on employees’ ability to save for retirement.  As mentioned, the most significant bill that would address this issue is the Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2021, commonly known as SECURE 2.0.  Specifically, Section 109 of the Bill would treat “qualified student loan payments” equal to elective deferral contributions, for purposes of employer matching contributions under a 401(k) plan, a 403(b) plan, a governmental 457(b) plan, or a SIMPLE IRA plan, and would permit separate nondiscrimination testing of employees who receive the matching contribution based on student loan repayments.  “Qualified student loan payments” would be defined to include any indebtedness incurred by the employee in order to pay their own higher education expenses.   Under SECURE 2.0, total student loan repayments that are matched, plus conventional elective deferrals, would be capped at the dollar limit under Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 402(g) ($19,500 in 2021).   

What Future IRS Guidance Might Hold

Based on the Abbott Labs PLR and SECURE 2.0, we might hope or anticipate that any future IRS guidance on programs that condition employer retirement plan contributions on participant student loan repayments would include the following:

  • Guidance on how such programs may comply with the contingent benefit rule, including whether it will suffice simply that program participants may continue making elective salary deferrals (while likely foregoing regular matching contributions while student loan repayments are being matched).
  • Guidance on whether such a program, by nature limited to employees with student loans, is a “benefit, right or feature” that must be made available on a nondiscriminatory manner under Code Section 401(a)(4), and if so how it might satisfy applicable requirements.
  • Guidance on whether, and how, employers can confirm that loan repayments are being made, including whether (as SECURE 2.0 would permit), employers may rely on an employee’s certification of repayment status.
  • Guidance on nondiscrimination testing of contributions under a student loan repayment program, including provision for separate testing, as SECURE 2.0 would permit.

Additionally, plan sponsors would no doubt appreciate guidance on use of outside vendors for student loan repayment programs and how they might interact with conventional retirement plan record keepers and third party administrators.

Photo credit:  Mohammad Shahhosseini, Unsplash

The above information is a brief summary of legal developments that is provided for general guidance only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers are encouraged to seek individualized legal advice in regard to any particular factual situation. © 2021 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Beyond the 403(b) Plan: Top 5 Things to Know About Deferred Compensation for Non-Profit Executives

Tax-exempt employers may offer deferred compensation plans to their select executives to allow for retirement savings over and above the dollar limits applicable under a Section 403(b) plan. However the rules governing these arrangements, which fall under Section 457 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code), are complex and often misunderstood.  Below are five things top things to keep in mind in this area, to get the most that the law offers without unpleasant tax surprises along the way.

1.  It’s complicated……

First, there are two types of 457 plans: 457(b) plans and 457(f) plans.  A tax-exempt employer can use both for the same executives but careful planning is advised.  The (b) plans allow set-aside (in the form of employee deferrals or employer contributions) of only $18,000 (in 2017) per year, with no age 50+ catch-up allowance.  Amounts set aside under a (b) plan are not taxed until they are distributed to the executive, an event which must be delayed until termination of employment/retirement, or on the occurrence of unforeseeable circumstances (narrowly defined).  Taxation is delayed until distribution even though the amounts are generally “vested” (no longer subject to forfeiture) when they are contributed.  By contrast there is no dollar limit on the amount that may be set aside under a 457(f) plan (subject to item no. 4, below), but the amounts are taxable upon completion of a vesting schedule (e.g., from 3 to 10 years).  Therefore distribution in full almost always happens upon completion of vesting.  Put most simply, (b) plans are a good way to double an executive’s 403(b) deferral budget, and (f) plans are a good way to help an executive catch up on retirement savings when a retirement or other departure date is within a 3 to 10 year time horizon. Further, in order for an exemption from ERISA to apply, participation in these plans must be limited to a “select group of management or highly compensated employees,” comprising no more than 5% – 10% of the total workforce, referred to as the “top-hat” group.  In a small tax-exempt employer with 10 or 20 employees this may mean only 1 or 2 executives may participate.

2.  You (usually) can’t roll to an IRA.

Generally when an executive is ready to take distribution of benefits from a 457(b) or (f) plan a taxable cash distribution is required, and rollover to an IRA is not an option. (One exception is when the executive moves to a new employer that maintains a 457(b) plan that accepts rollover contributions).  Under a (b) plan, which may allow installment distributions over a period of years, the lack of an IRA rollover option is not so severe, but in a 457(f) plan setting, which generally calls for lump-sum distributions, the tax impact can be severe and the executives should be advised to do advance tax planning with their own CPAs or other tax advisors, well ahead of their planned retirement date or other vesting trigger.  In my experience, lack of the IRA rollover option often comes as an unwelcome surprise to the covered executives.

3.  The assets belong to the organization.

Section 457 plans are non-qualified meaning in relevant part that they assets the plans hold belong to the tax-exempt organization that sponsors the plan until the date(s) they are paid out to the participants. The assets must be held in an account in the name of the organization “FBO” the 457 plan account for the name of the executive.  There is no form of creditor protection but it is possible to put in place a “rabbi trust,” so called because the trust format was first approved by the IRS on behalf of a synagogue for its spiritual leader.  The rabbi trust will not protect the 457 assets from the organization’s creditors, but it will prevent the organization from reneging on the deferred compensation promise to an executive.  This is particularly helpful for an organization that anticipates changes in its board structure after approval of a 457 arrangement.

4.  The normal “reasonable compensation” rules still apply.

Tax-exempt organizations must pay only reasonable compensation, in light of the services provided, to employees and other individuals who comprise “disqualified persons,” a category that includes executive directors and other “C-suite” members. Under the “intermediate sanction” regime the IRS imposes excise taxes on individuals who benefit under, and organization managers (e.g., board members) who approve, compensation arrangements that fail the reasonableness standard.  Deferred compensation arrangements must be reasonable in light of all other compensation and benefits provided to the executives in question and in most cases this will require a third-party compensation consultant’s evaluation and review.  This is a vitally important and often-overlooked piece of deferred compensation compliance in the tax-exempt arena.

5.  DOL notification is required.

As part of the ERISA exemption for top-hat deferred compensation plans, a tax-exempt organization must provide a “top-hat notification letter” to the Department of Labor within 120 days of implementing such a plan. Top-hat letters must be filed electronically.  Failure to timely file a top-hat letter could mean that your deferred compensation plan is liable for ERISA penalties for failure to file annual information returns (Form 5500), to hold plan assets in trust, to make certain disclosures to participants, and on a host of other compliance points.  The Department of Labor permits late filing of top-hat notification letters for payment of a modest fee.  If your organization has a deferred compensation plan in place you should have ready access to a copy of the top-hat notification letter (or confirmation of its online filing) and should consider the DOL correction program if you cannot do so.

Having practiced law in Santa Barbara, California, a haven for charitable organizations, for over 20 years I have had the privilege of working with these special deferred compensation plan rules in many different factual settings and would be happy to help your organization navigate them in order to best retain and reward your valued executives.