IRS Plays Musical Chairs With Voluntary Correction Programs

Section 401(k) and other retirement plans are notoriously complicated to operate and no plan sponsor gets it 100% correct, 100% of the time. When problems arise, plan sponsors may correct certain errors – technically “failures” — under an IRS program called the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System, or EPCRS. Failures corrected this way cannot later be the basis for revoking the tax-qualified status of the plan, or imposing other tax penalties or interest. EPCRS is set forth in a Revenue Procedure that the IRS updates every few years. On July 16, 2021 the IRS published the latest EPCRS upgrade in Revenue Procedure 2021-30, in which, like musical chairs, some ground is gained while some is taken away. Below is a summary of some of the key changes.

Expansion of Self-Correction Period

Under the Self Correction Program, a plan sponsor may at any time, without IRS review or approval, correct “insignificant” failures in the way a plan has been operated (operational failures), and failures relating to plan documentation such as missed amendment deadlines (plan document failures). Further, a plan sponsor may self-correct “significant” failures of these types, provided that the significant failure is identified and fixed within a set “correction period.”

In the past, the correction period ended on the last day of the second plan year following the plan year for which the failure occurred. The EPCRS upgrade adds a whole additional year to the correction period. Now, self-correction of significant failures may be made by the end of the third plan year following the plan year in which the failure occurred. Thus, a plan sponsor with a calendar plan year and a significant operational error occurring in 2018 will have until the end of 2021 to correct the error.

There are two follow-on effects of this extension:

  • The three-year self-correction period for significant operational failures does not begin to run until after the statutory correction period for ADP and ACP testing failures, which is the 12-month period following the close of the plan year for which the test was failed. In effect there is four years to correct these errors – the original statutory period of 12 months, followed by the three plan year self-correction period.
  • For errors involving a failure to offer or implement elective deferrals, corrective contributions equal to 50% of what would have been deferred generally must be made to the plan. That percentage is reduced to 25% of what would have been contributed if certain requirements are met, including that the period during which the error occurred lasted more than three months, but not longer than the self-correction period for significant failures. That period has now been extended a year, from two to three plan years.

Plan sponsors wishing to use the Self-Correction Program should be mindful not just of the correction period deadline, but of several other pre-requisites. First, the plan sponsor must have established compliance practices and procedures in place, and the error must have arisen due to a lapse in their normal application. Plan document failures may only be self-corrected if a “favorable letter” for the plan exists. The plan sponsor must also assess a number of facts and circumstances in order to determine whether the failure is “insignificant” or “significant.” For those seeking more information, the IRS provides helpful online guidance on Self-Correction (but the two-year correction period had yet to be updated as of the date of this post), as well as Self-Correction FAQs.

Anonymous VCP Repealed after 2021

In addition to Self-Correction, EPCRS includes the Voluntary Compliance Program (VCP), which involves an online submission, IRS approval of the proposed correction method, and payment of a VCP fee. Normally the name of the plan sponsor and the plan involved are revealed in the VCP submission process. However the IRS has for some years maintained an Anonymous VCP process, particularly for plan sponsors whose proposed corrections do not fit within the preapproved or “safe harbor” methods outlined in EPCRS. In Anonymous VCP, a representative of the plan sponsor, such as a law firm, files the submission without identifying the plan sponsor or plan. If the IRS approves the proposed correction, the plan sponsor reveals is identity and the process converts to a conventional VCP submission. If the IRS rejects the proposed correction method, the plan sponsor remains anonymous and has the option of later participating in regular VCP with an alternative proposed correction.

For reasons that it does not explain, the IRS is retiring Anonymous VCP and will not accept any more Anonymous VCP submissions after December 31, 2021. In its place the IRS is introducing a new program effective January 1, 2022, which it refers to as an “anonymous, no-fee VCP pre-submission conference.” This new program is intended for proposed corrections that fall outside the safe-harbor correction methods set forth in Appendices A and B to the EPCRS Revenue Procedure. The VCP pre-submission conference is available only if the plan sponsor is eligible for and intends to submit a conventional VCP submission. Following a VCP pre-submission conference, the IRS will provide oral feedback on the failures and proposed correction method that is “advisory only, is not binding on the IRS.” The IRS will only confirm in writing that a VCP pre-submission conference took place but will not appear to provide anything substantive in writing about what was discussed.

VCP pre-submission conferences are held only at the discretion of the IRS and “as time permits.” Given limited IRS funding and significant understaffing in recent years, one wonders how widely and promptly available this program will be. It is also unclear whether or not the introduction of the VCP pre-submission conference means that VCP coordinators at IRS will no longer informally discuss proposed corrections with attorneys and other practitioners, as has been the practice in the past.

Other Changes

  • EPCRS generally requires full correction of operational errors, but makes an exception for certain de minimis amounts. Effective July 16, 2021, the de minimis threshold increases from $100 to $250, and erroneous contributions (plus earnings) of $250 or less will not need to be pulled from a participant’s account or recouped after distribution to a participant.
  • In the past, when a participant received a lump sum distribution of a more than de minimis amount (“Overpayment”), the plan was required to seek recoupment in a lump sum repayment. Now, repayment in installments is also an option. For defined benefit plans, the Revenue Procedure describes certain conditions under which recoupment of Overpayments may be avoided altogether.
  • The Revenue Procedure restores a safe harbor correction method for failures arising from automatic contribution arrangements, which had expired on December 31, 2020. The new expiration date is December 31, 2023; until then no corrective contributions are required for certain automatic contribution failures that do not extend beyond 9 ½ months following the end of the plan year of the failure. Other correction criteria apply including provision of written notice to affected employees.
  • The Revenue Procedure substantially liberalizes self-correction of certain operational failures through a plan amendment that retroactively reflects how a plan has been operated. Such retroactive amendments must increase benefits, rights or features under the plan, rather than reduce them. In the past it has been required that the benefit increase or enhancement apply to all eligible participants under the plan, which made many proposed corrections unaffordable. The new Revenue Procedure lifts the universality requirement, so that a retroactive amendment may increase benefits only for those participants affected by the operational error. This will make this form of correction much more flexible and attainable for plan sponsors.

Photo credit: Federica Campanaro, 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.

IRS Lists Solo 401(k) Plans as Audit Target

If your business sponsors a “solo 401(k)” plan, it may be in the crosshairs of the Internal Revenue Service.  The Service’s TE/GE (Tax Exempt and Government Entities) division has identified one-participant 401(k) plans as among its current audit initiatives.  In its web posting announcing the initiative, TE/GE states:  “[t]he focus of this strategy is to review one-participant 401(k) plans to determine if there are operational or qualification failures, income and excise tax adjustments, or plan document violations.”

By way of background, a solo 401(k) plan is a traditional 401(k) plan covering a 100% business owner with no employees, or that person and their spouse.  As this handy IRS info page describes, solo 401(k) plans are subject to the same rules and requirements as any other 401(k) plan, however because no common law employees participate, you do not have to worry about minimum coverage and nondiscrimination testing, top heavy rules, or most of the requirements of Title I of ERISA.  Solo 401(k) plans can be a great fit for some businesses, but those that stray outside the strict eligibility requirements for these plans have potentially high exposure to correction costs and sanctions in an audit setting.    

Below we list some common solo 401(k) compliance pitfalls.   If you are a solo 401(k) sponsor, check your plan design and operations to determine if these might be issues for you.  Take steps now to correct any compliance failures through use of EPCRS and other voluntary compliance programs, where applicable, so that, if an IRS audit does occur, it is resolved without incident.

  1. Employees Eligible for Benefits: One of the most frequent errors with solo 401(k) plans is that they lose their solo status when the business sponsoring them acquires employees, and the employees work the necessary number of hours required for eligibility under the plan.  (These generally cannot exceed 1,000 hours in a year of service.)  This will trigger application of minimum coverage, nondiscrimination, and top heavy rules, as well as ERISA reporting and disclosure requirements (Summary Plan Description, Form 5500-SF, etc.).  Failure to meet requirements under any of these sets of rules will be fodder for the IRS in an audit setting.  Business owners who need employees should probably avoid solo 401(k) plans unless they can be certain that the employees’ work hours never reach or exceed 1,000 hours in a year.   
  2. Controlled Group/Affiliated Service Group: This issue is related to the first in that, if the business that sponsors the solo 401(k) plan is under common control with a business that has common law employees, the answer to the question “who is the employer” — and who has employees — will be both businesses under common control, not just the business that sponsors the solo 401(k).  Generally, solo 401(k) status will be lost as a result.  The same potential coverage, testing, and top-heavy issues listed above can apply. Potentially, employees of the other business could be eligible for benefits under the (formerly) solo plan.
  3. Form 5500 Filing Duties: Solo 401(k) plans are exempt from filing Form 5500-EZ so long as plan assets remain under $250,000.  If plan assets exceed this threshold and a Form 5500-EZ is not filed, significant penalties could be assessed by IRS and by Department of Labor.  Participation in the Department of Labor Penalty Relief Program for Form 5500-EZ Late Filers should be considered in such instances. 
  4. Exceeding Contribution and Deduction Limits: The contribution and deduction limits that apply to group 401(k) plans apply to a solo 401(k) plan.  Employee salary deferrals cannot exceed the applicable dollar limit under Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) § 402(g) ($19,500 in 2021, plus $6,500 for those 50 and older).  The 415(c) limit equal to the lesser of 100% of compensation or $58,000 (in 2021) applies (and is increased by the age 50 catch-up limit, for a total of $64,500).  The maximum Code § 404(a) deduction of 25% of eligible plan compensation also applies, but in general the 415(c) limit will be reached first.  Failure to observe any of these dollar limits could be picked up on audit.
  5. Plan Document Errors: Businesses that sponsor a solo 401(k) need to update their plan document periodically to comply with the law just like any plan sponsor, meeting the adoption deadlines for preapproved plan remedial amendment cycles (the next one falls on July 31, 2022). Voluntary plan amendments also have to be properly documented and timely adopted.  Failure to meet these document requirements may be able to be corrected under EPCRS. 

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:  Markus Spiske, Unsplash

IRS Questionnaire Sent to College, University Plans Does Not Put Plans “Under Examination” but EPCRS Availability Remains Unclear

The IRS Employee Plans Compliance Unit (“EPCU”) is in the process of sending over 300 written questionnaires to a random sample of small, medium, and large institutes of higher education, including private and public colleges, universities, and trade and vocational schools. The questionnaire – on IRS Form 886-A – contains 18 separate questions but mainly focuses on one issue: whether the organization’s Section 403(b) plan satisfies the “universal availability” requirement. Under that rule, if one employee has the opportunity to defer a portion of salary under the plan, then generally all employees must be offered the same opportunity. (Very limited exceptions apply.) The questionnaire seeks to identify plans that are not making the deferral opportunity universally available, either because the limited exceptions are misapplied, or the employer imposes additional conditions on deferring that are not permitted under law. A number of the questions refer specifically to exclusion of groups of employees unique to educational organizations, such as medical residents, and different categories of instructors, professors or lecturers. An IRS announcement on the project as well as links to the questionnaire, instructions for filling out same, and a glossary of terms, can be found here.

Organizations have 25 days to complete and return the questionnaire by fax, mail or e-mail. Upon review of the questionnaire, the IRS will either deem a plan to be compliant and issue a “closing letter,” or will request additional information from the organization. If a problem is found the IRS will work with the organization to correct it, for instance by making fully vested employer contributions to restore the lost opportunity to make tax deferrals in prior plan years. (Generally the employer contribution requirement is equal to half of the deferral the employee would have made (the “lost opportunity” cost), but specific correction methods are not set forth in the questionnaire or in the IRS announcement of the program. Correction methods will be specified in a follow-up letter sent to organizations whose initial responses require follow-up.

Receipt of the questionnaire will not mean that a plan sponsor is “Under Examination” and thus barred from using the Voluntary Correction Program under the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (“EPCRS”) to correct 403(b) operational errors currently identified in EPCRS (for instance, failure timely to implement an employee’s salary deferral election). This was confirmed by the IRS, with regard to a similar 401(k) questionnaire project, in a recent issue of Employee Plans News. That said, the current version of EPCRS, set forth in Revenue Procedure 2008-50, does not provide as many corrections for Section 403(b) plans as are available to other types of qualified plans, largely because Rev. Proc. 2008-50 was drafted before Section 403(b) plans were required to be set forth in writing. For instance, VCP is not available for sponsors that lack a written Section 403(b) plan document or that have failed to operate the plan in accordance with its written terms, nor is it available for employer eligibility failures. The IRS is expected later this year to release an updated version of EPCRS that covers Section 403(b) corrections in greater detail. However, it is not known whether or not the new Revenue Procedure will contain relief for sponsors that failed to timely put a plan document in place or failed to operate a plan in accordance with its written terms.

Tax-exempt employers who receive a questionnaire strongly are advised to consult with their professional tax advisors before submitting a response to the IRS. An incorrect response – or an accurate response – could trigger potential contribution and tax liability on a significant scale, and the availability of EPCRS is uncertain. Such discoveries are better made – and resolutions discussed – with private advisors before the IRS is part of the conversation. If additional time to complete the questionnaire is necessary, employers should request it of the IRS before reaching the 25-day deadline.