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

Happy 10th Birthday, EforERISA

December 16, 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of our first post on this blog and this week EforERISA is debuting a fresh new look and redesign courtesy of Ashli Smith and her team at Spotted Monkey Marketing. We are always looking for ways to make this site better and more impactful so your constructive criticism and comments on the redesign are welcome. We also welcome suggestions on topics to cover in our future posts.

2021 promises to be a busy year on the benefits front, with a new administration in gear and light at the end of the tunnel for our economy as vaccination becomes more widespread. We look forward to keeping you posted on the benefits news you need to have, whether you are an employer sponsoring benefit plans for your employees, or a benefits broker or consultant for whom compliance is your stock in trade.

Photo Credit: Robert Anderson, Unsplash

California’s Dynamex Decision: What it Means for ERISA Plans

The California Supreme Court ruled on April 30, 2018 that, for purposes of coverage under California wage orders, employers must start with the presumption that a worker is a common law employee, and then may properly classify him or her as an independent contractor only if all of the following three criteria are met:

  1. The worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring business in connection with the performance of the work;
  2. The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
  3. The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

Although the Dynamex ruling is limited to classification of workers under the California wage orders, it’s practical effect is likely to be much broader, as employers are unlikely to use one definition of employee for wage and hour purposes, and another definition for, say, reimbursement of business expenses, or benefit plan eligibility.

Speaking of which, what is the likely impact of the Dynamex ruling on employee benefit plans? Will employers have to offer coverage retroactively to the hire date of the now-reclassified independent contractors? Must they offer coverage going forward?

ERISA plans look to the federal definition of common law employee, which in turn looks to federal case law and an IRS multi-factor test.   So the Dynamex decision does not itself create eligibility under an ERISA plan.   What if individuals who were reclassified as employees under the ABC test were to claim retroactive eligibility under an ERISA plan, however?  As a starting point, it is helpful to look at how most plan documents currently define “eligible employee” and how they treat the issue of workers who were engaged as independent contractors, but later are classified as common law employees.

Most prototype 401(k) plan documents – and some health plan documents in use by “self-insured” employers – contain what is commonly referred to as “Microsoft language” — under which plan eligibility will not extend retroactively to individuals who are hired as independent contractors, even if they later are classified as employees. The language came into common use after the Ninth Circuit ruling in Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 120 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied.522 U.S. 1098 (1998), which held that long-term, “temporary” workers, hired as independent contractors, were employees for purposes of Microsoft’s 401(k) and stock purchase plan.[1]

For example, a prototype 401(k)/profit sharing plan that is in wide use provides as follows:

“Eligible Employee” means any Employee of the Employer who is in the class of Employees eligible to participate in the Plan. The Employer must specify in Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement any Employee or class of Employees not eligible to participate in the Plan. Regardless of the provisions of Subsection 1.04(d) of the Adoption Agreement, the following Employees are automatically excluded from eligibility to participate in the Plan:

(1) any individual who is a signatory to a contract, letter of agreement, or other document that acknowledges his status as an independent contractor not entitled to benefits under the Plan or any individual (other than a Self-Employed Individual) who is not otherwise classified by the Employer as a common law employee, even if such independent contractor or other individual is later determined to be a common law employee; and  (2) any Employee who is a resident of Puerto Rico.

And a self-insured group health plan document from a well-known provider states as follows:

The term “Employee” shall not include any individual for the period of time such individual was classified by the Employer as an independent contractor, leased employee (whether or not a “Leased Employee” under the Code section § 414(n)) or any other classification other than Employee. In the event an individual who is excluded from Employee status under the preceding sentence is reclassified as an Employee of the Employer pursuant to a final determination by the Internal Revenue Service, another governmental entity with authority to make such a reclassification, or a court of competent jurisdiction, such individual shall not retroactively be an Employee under this Plan. Such reclassified Employee may become a Covered Person in this Plan at such later time as the individual satisfies the conditions of participation set forth in this Plan. (Emphasis added.)

The Microsoft language, if present, may resolve the issue of retroactive coverage. What about coverage going forward? If a worker has provided services as an independent contractor but cannot retain that status under the ABC test, and is hired as a common-law, W-2 employee, does the first hour of service counted under the plan begin the day they become a W-2 employee, or the date they signed on as an independent contractor? The Microsoft provisions quoted above would suggest that service would start only when the common-law relationship starts, however employers are cautioned to read their specific plan documents carefully and to consult qualified employment and benefits law counsel for clarification. If the desire is to credit past service worked as an independent contractor, it may be advisable to seek IRS guidance before doing so, as fiduciary duties require that plan sponsors act in strict accordance with the written terms of their plan documents.

Finally, what about insured group health and welfare documents, such as fully insured medical, dental, vision, disability or life insurance? The policies and benefit summaries that govern these benefits probably won’t contain Microsoft language and may define eligible status as simply as “you are a regular full-time employee, as defined by your [Employer].”

Employers that are “applicable large employers” under the Affordable Care Act must count individuals who have been re-classified as common-law employees under the ABC test toward the group of employees to whom they offer minimum essential coverage; this group must comprise all but 5% (or, if greater, all but 5) of its full-time employees.  Unfortunately, there is potential ACA liability for failing the 95% offer on a retroactive basis. Public comments on the final employer shared responsibility regulations requested relief from retroactive coverage when independent contractors were reclassified as common-law employees, but the Treasury Department specifically failed to grant such relief, noting in the preamble to the final regulations that doing so could encourage worker misclassification.  Whether the customary 3-year tax statute of limitations would apply in such situations is not entirely clear; also unclear is whether employers could successfully argue that workers that fail the ABC test still somehow could classify as non-employees for federal common-law purposes.

Bottom line? Every California employer paying workers other than as W-2 employees should be re-examining those relationships under the ABC test and should be consulting qualified employment law counsel, and benefits law counsel, about the consequences of any misclassification, both on a retroactive basis (particularly with regard to the ACA), and going forward (all benefit plans).

[1] Another Ninth Circuit case, Burrey v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 159 F.3d 388 (9th Cir. 1998), essentially followed the Microsoft ruling, but with specific regard to “leased employees” as defined under Internal Revenue Code § 414(n). A discussion of leased employees is beyond the scope of this post.

401(k) Fee Disclosure Deadlines Extended Three Months; Other Changes Made in Final Regulations Under ERISA 408(b)(2)

On February 2, 2012 the Department of Labor issued a final rule under ERISA Section 408(b)(2), governing disclosures that plan service providers must make to plan fiduciaries to allow them to confirm that the providers receive only “reasonable” amounts of compensation from plan assets in exchange for their services. The types of providers affected include Registered Investment Advisors, certain broker-dealers, third party administrators, and other service providers receiving $1,000 or more in direct or indirect compensation from plan assets. The rule extends the deadline for the initial disclosure three months, from April 1, 2012 to July 1, 2012.

The plan-level fee disclosure rules originally issued in July 2010 with a one-year deadline for implementation deadline, but that deadline was extended to April 1, 2012 last July. This is probably the last such extension (though anything is possible in an election year).

There is no prescribed manner of providing the required disclosures other than that it is in writing. Because compensation information may be conveyed through multiple or complex documents, the final rule includes a placeholder for rules on a “guide or similar tool” that would help fiduciaries locate information in disparate sources. An appendix to the final rule also includes a Sample Guide to get service providers working towards a disclosure roadmap.

Another significant change in the final rule is that it carves out, from plans that are covered by the disclosure rule, “pre-2009” 403(b) annuity contracts or custodial accounts that meet all the requirements set forth in DOL Field Assistance Bulletins 2009-02 and 2010-1 providing limited relief from Form 5500 reporting duties. More information on how to identify a pre-2009 contract or account is found in the FABs.

Failure to comply with the fee disclosure requirements constitutes a prohibited transaction (PT) for the responsible fiduciary, whereas compliance qualifies the fiduciary for a PT exemption. The final rule changes one of the conditions for the PT exemption when a service provider has failed to provide compensation information and also has not responded to the fiduciary’s written request for the information within 90 days. If the information relates to futures services and is not disclosed promptly after the 90-day period, the final rule requires the fiduciary to terminate the service arrangement “as expeditiously as possible.”

The final rule cuts service providers some slack, however, allowing them to provide “reasonable and good faith estimates” of compensation or cost amounts that are difficult to itemize, so long as the service provider explains the methods and assumptions it used to arrive at the estimate.

Additionally, disclosures of indirect compensation paid by third parties to the service provider must be accompanied by a description of the arrangement between the service provider and the third party pursuant to whom the payments are made.

The three-month extension of the plan-level fee disclosure rule triggers an equal extension of the participant-level fee disclosure rules under ERISA Section 404(a)(2). Technically plan sponsors (employers) must make these disclosures to plan participants, but for practical purposes institutional investment providers will provide most of the content. The deadline to distribute the initial written disclosure has moved from May 31, 2012 to August 30, 2012, and the deadline to distribute the first quarterly statement under the rule has moved from August 14, 2012 to November 14, 2012.