Just Adopted a New 401(k) Plan?  Beware These Common Pitfalls

By June 30, 2022, businesses with 5 or more California employees must either enroll in CalSavers, a state-managed system of Roth IRA accounts, or establish their exemption from CalSavers by adopting 401(k) or other retirement plans of their own.  Other states have implemented or are rolling out similar auto-IRA programs.  Below are some potential pitfalls for new plan adopters that business owners should be aware of, and, where possible, take steps to avoid. 

  1. Immediate top-heavy status.  The “top-heavy” rules compare the combined plan account balances of certain owners and officers, called “key employees,” with the plan account balances of all other plan participants (non-key employees).  If the key employee account balances make up 60% or more of the combined plan account balances of all participants, the plan is top-heavy and the plan sponsor is required to make minimum contributions (generally equal to 3% of compensation) to the accounts of all non-key employees.  A plan can be top-heavy in its first year of operation, although it is more commonly a result of large account balances accumulated over time by long-term key employees, versus smaller accounts held by high-turnover, lower paid employees.   Top-heavy status is particularly likely to arise in a family-owned business, as family members of owners count as key employees, but the problem is not limited to this scenario.  Businesses that anticipate a potential top-heavy problem should consider adopting safe-harbor 401(k) plan designs, as a basic safe-harbor matching or non-elective contribution will satisfy minimum top-heavy contribution requirements.  A SIMPLE-IRA plan is also exempt from top-heavy requirements, provided you have 100 or fewer employees.
  2. ADP/ACP testing failure.     A similar and more common problem, failure of the Actual Deferral Percentage or ADP test, occurs when the average rate of elective deferrals made by Highly Compensated Employees exceeds the average rate of elective deferrals made by non-Highly Compensated Employees by more than a permitted amount.  (A related test, the Actual Contribution Percentage test, applies to matching contributions.)  Highly Compensated Employees (HCEs) are persons who own more than 5% of the company sponsoring the plan at any time during the current or prior year, or who, for the prior year, earned above a set dollar amount.  (For 2022, the amount is $135,000 and applies to 2021 earnings.)  Correcting testing failures will involve refunding amounts to HCEs, or making additional contributions to non-HCEs.  Fortunately there are a number of preventive measures to take, including using a safe harbor contribution formula, using a “top 20%” election to define HCEs, using automatic enrollment at a meaningful percentage of compensation (such as 5% or higher), and robust enrollment meetings and tools to engage employees with savings potentials under the plan. 
  3. Late deposit of elective deferrals.  When you run payroll and pull employee elective deferrals from pay, you have a deadline within which to invest them under your 401(k) plan, which is the point at which they are considered to be “plan assets” under ERISA.  Investment is generally is denoted as a “trade date” by your plan’s recordkeeper, whether Fidelity, Vanguard, or the like.   If you have under 100 participants as of the beginning of your plan year (counting those who are eligible to participate even if they don’t actively do so) you have seven business days to get from pay date, to trade date.  For larger plans, the normal deadline to invest is as soon as elective deferrals can reasonably be segregated from your general assets.  (An outside deadline of 15 business days after the end of the month following the month in which the elective deferrals would have been payable in cash applies in the event of extraordinary circumstances interrupting normal payroll functioning.)  If you fail to meet the seven business-day or “as soon as” deposit deadline, your retention of employee funds constitutes a “prohibited transaction” and an excise tax is payable to the IRS. Additionally, the Department of Labor views it as a fiduciary breach.  It is possible to seek relief from the excise tax and from potential fiduciary liability by participating in the Department of Labor’s Voluntary Fiduciary Compliance Program or VFCP.  Late deposits of employee elective deferrals (and loan repayments) must be disclosed each year on your Form 5500 Return/Report, which in turn could trigger further inquiry, so compliance with your applicable deposit deadline is important.
  4. Plan audit requirementAs we covered in an earlier post, a business sponsoring a brand new 401(k) plan may be required to obtain an audit report on the plan’s operations and finances, prepared by an independent qualified public accountant or IQPA, at an annual expense of $5,000 – $15,000 or more.  These reports generally are required for plans with 100 or more participants as of the first day of the plan year, counting those who are eligible to participate whether or not they actually do so.  Proposed regulations for Form 5500 might change that rule, to count only those with plan account balances, but they have yet to be finalized and put into effect.  Until that time, businesses sponsoring new plans that will cover 100 or more eligible participants need to prepare for the audit process, both in terms of budgeting dollars for the cost, and time to gather responses to the auditor’s questionnaires.  New auditing standards going into effect this year put increased responsibilities on plan sponsors to account for plan operations and documentation.

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. © 2022 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo credit:  Goh Rhy Yan, Unsplash

What the Supreme Court’s Hughes Decision Means to Plan Sponsors

“The point is that you’re not insulated from making bad [investment] decisions in your — [ . . . ] plan by the fact that you’ve made some good [investment] decisions in your plan, are you?”[1]

The fiduciaries of two 403(b) plans maintained by Northwestern University were sued for ERISA fiduciary breach on the grounds that the plans paid excessive recordkeeping fees, in part because of the existence of multiple recordkeepers, offered retail share class mutual funds and annuities when cheaper and materially identical institutional class alternatives were available to a plan of Northwestern’s size, and had a too-large roster of investment options that confused participants (Northwestern made changes that corrected some of these issues by the time the Supreme Court heard oral argument.)  The Northwestern fiduciaries moved to dismiss these claims, in part, on the grounds that the participants could have chosen from among lower-priced investments offered by the plans, hence failed to successfully allege that a fiduciary breach occurred.

In a unanimous decision by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in Hughes v. Northwestern University, the Supreme Court addressed a narrow issue on the standard of pleading an ERISA fiduciary breach: 

  • Whether, if plaintiffs can allege the existence of overpriced or otherwise imprudent investment options or recordkeeping arrangements, their complaint will survive a motion to dismiss, and may proceed to trial, even if participants could have chosen from among other investments that were not similarly flawed.

The Supreme Court answered this question “yes,” and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit to determine whether fiduciary breaches were sufficiently alleged, notwithstanding that the Northwestern University 403(b) plans included some low-cost investment options which participants, in the self-directed arrangement, were free to choose over higher-priced options.

In reaching its conclusion the Supreme Court called out the Seventh Circuit for using “flawed” reasoning in its over-reliance on participant choice: “[s]uch a categorical rule is inconsistent with the context-specific inquiry that ERISA requires and fails to take into account respondents’ duty to monitor all plan investments and remove any imprudent ones.”  Hughes Opinion at p. 2, citing Tibble v. Edison Int’l, 575 U.S. 524, 530 (2015).

In other words, because ERISA fiduciaries must continually monitor investment options (and recordkeeping contracts, and other arrangements whose costs offset the growth of ERISA assets), the maintenance of some options that reflect fiduciary prudence does not excuse the continued presence of other options that do not. 

Reliance throughout the Hughes opinion on the Tibble case is instructive.  In that case, plaintiffs alleged in 2007 that the Edison 401(k) Savings Plan added mutual funds in 1999 and in 2002 with retail share pricing when materially identical, lower-priced institutional-class mutual funds were available.  The district court allowed the allegations regarding the funds added in 2002 to proceed but not the funds added in 1999, because more than six years had passed since the overpriced funds were added to the investment mix, and that exceeded the applicable statute of limitations for fiduciary breach.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that ERISA fiduciary’s continuing duty to monitor and remove imprudent investments meant that the statute of limitations with regard to the 1999 fund additions remained open, because imprudent retention of an investment was a fiduciary breach, separate and distinct from a breach that occurs at the point of selecting an investment. 575 U.S. at 529, citing, inter alia, A. Hess, G. Bogert, & G. Bogert, Law of Trusts and Trustees § 684, at 147-148.

While it does not provide bright-line answers to what constitutes a fiduciary breach, the Hughes decision does acknowledge the complexity that the duty of prudence encompasses, stating that examinations of fiduciary prudence “will necessarily be context specific,” turning on the factual circumstances that prevail at the time the fiduciary acts; that at times, the circumstances facing an ERISA fiduciary will implicate “difficult tradeoffs,” and that courts must give “due regard” to the “range of reasonable judgments a fiduciary may make based on her experience and expertise.” Hughes Opinion at p. 6.

What does this mean for plan sponsors, plan investment committees, and other fiduciaries of 401(k), 403(b) and other ERISA retirement plans?  Nothing that common sense did not already dictate, but seeing the issues addressed so succinctly by the country’s highest court should be an impetus for plan fiduciaries to take the proper steps, which include (but are not limited to):

  • They must regularly evaluate the performance and pricing of their entire universe of investment options, as well as their recordkeeping and other vendor relationship, in a regular benchmarking or other apples-to-apples comparison process.
  • They must also put those relationships out to competitive bid at the outset of the relationship and periodically thereafter.
  • The benchmarking and bidding process must be documented in the form of meeting minutes and resolutions as must the periodic, such as quarterly, review of investment performance.
  • Use of a carefully chosen ERISA 3(21) investment advisor or 3(38) investment manager will assist with this process, but the choice and retention of the fiduciary advisor or manager is itself subject to the fiduciary standard and failing to benchmark and bid out those relationships could lead to potential liability.
  • An investment policy statement that articulates the process through which fiduciaries fulfill their duties of prudence, loyalty, and diversification with regard to selection and retention of investments is also advisable. However, care must be taken to not create too specific a set of guidelines as drifting from them could itself give rise to fiduciary liability.

In summary, the Supreme Court has weighed in, and ERISA fiduciaries who can point to some prudent investment options will not defeat fiduciary breach allegations at the pleading stage if they have not also regularly monitored and pruned inefficient and overpriced investments and recordkeeping relationships from their plan lineup.  Plan sponsors and other fiduciaries who already have good fiduciary hygiene practices in place should have little to fear, but those who do not now have no comfort that some is good enough, for defeating allegations of fiduciary imprudence.

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. © 2022 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo credit: Bill Mason, Unsplash


[1] Justice Elena Kagan, Transcript of Oral Argument, Hughes v. Northwestern (19-1401), Retrieved at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2021/19-1401_d18f.pdf

Five Good Reasons to Correct Retirement Plan Errors

If your business sponsors a Section 401(k) or other retirement plan, it is governed by a lengthy plan document, often a separate trust agreement or custodial account agreement, and multiple other documents (salary deferral agreements, loan policy statement, investment policy statement, etc.)  Not surprisingly, most plan sponsors get something wrong somewhere along the way, whether with respect to the plan document, or operation of the plan.  Below are five reasons why taking prompt action to correct plan errors is in the best interests of your business, and your employees.   

  1. To preserve the tax-qualified status of your plan.

Contributions to your plan are deductible to your business and excluded from your employees’ taxable compensation (i.e., are “tax-qualified”) because the plan document, and operation of the plan, conform to certain requirements under the Internal Revenue Code.  Under the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System or EPCRS, the Internal Revenue Service permits plan sponsors to voluntarily correct a wide range of errors that, if left uncorrected, could result in a loss of the plan’s tax-qualified status and subject plan assets to taxation.   There are costs associated with participating in the EPCRS, including amounts that may be owed to the plan, attorneys’ fees, and program fees, but they are usually only a fraction of the potential expense of plan disqualification. 

  1. To correct prohibited transactions.

While the IRS monitors the tax-advantaged status of benefit plans, the Department of Labor policies the actions of plan fiduciaries, both with respect to plan assets, and in fulfilling reporting and disclosure duties.  When salary deferrals and loan repayments are withheld from employees’ pay and not promptly deposited in the plan’s trust account, the Department of Labor essentially views this as an interest free loan, by the employer, of employee money.  Technically speaking, it is a “prohibited transaction” that requires correction under the DOL’s Voluntary Fiduciary Correction Program.  Uncorrected prohibited transactions, if discovered on audit, can result in civil monetary penalties to the fiduciaries, and also triggers excise taxes payable to the Internal Revenue Service.  Prohibited transactions also must be disclosed on the annual Form 5500 Return/Report, potentially alerting the Department of Labor to initiate further inquiry or audit.  Timely participation in VFCP eliminates the fiduciary penalties and offers alternatives to payment of the excise taxes in some circumstances (e.g., if the same amount is paid to the plan). 

  1. To minimize penalties in the event of a plan audit.

The IRS, on audit, may assess penalties for uncorrected errors in plan documentation and operation, that can reach many thousands of dollars, on top of the amounts owed to the plan in order to correct operational errors.  And, as mentioned, prohibited transactions trigger potential civil monetary penalties.  Participation in IRS and DOL voluntary correction programs protects plan sponsors from these potential large assessments.  Whatever the cost of taking part in the voluntary program, whether it be costs of corrective contributions and earnings, attorneys fees, and the program fee, it is a quantifiable cost and one that is much smaller than the cost of correcting under the supervision of the IRS or DOL.

  1. To ensure the saleability of your business.

Plan sponsors sometimes think that their uncorrected plan errors are only at risk of discovery if they are audited, and point to low levels of IRS and DOL audit activity as proof that they can safely play “audit roulette.”  However they are forgetting that, if they want to sell their business – particularly stock sales – or merge with another business, the due diligence process preceding the transaction will likely require them to identify any errors in plan documentation or operation within a 3 year or longer period.  An unresolved plan error could derail the transaction, or at best require correction under terms and conditions that are not as favorable, to the plan sponsor, as self-correction would have been.  If you envision your business as a purchase target or merger partner in the future you owe it to yourself to make sure that plan errors are corrected promptly and in advance of any due diligence inquiries. 

  1. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Your retirement plan document is a contract you have entered into for the benefit of plan participants and beneficiaries and you should take it as seriously as any contract you enter into with a third party.  It spells out the right way to do things, for the most part, and the IRS and DOL self-correction programs are there to minimize the downside when plan documentation or operation falls short of perfection.  Whether your goal is to sell your business without a hitch, or glide through an IRS or DOL audit with a minimum of fuss, fixing plan errors promptly is the right choice every time.

The above information is a brief summary of legal issues 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.

Photo credit:  Sasun Bughdaryan, Unsplash

IRS Announces 2022 Retirement Plan Limits

On November 4, 2021, the IRS announced 2022 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.  The maximum annual limit on salary deferral contributions to 401(k), 403(b), and 457(b) plans increased $1,000 to $20,500, but the catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and older stayed the same at $6,500.  That raises the total deferral limit for a participant aged 50 or older to $27,000.  The Section 415(c) dollar limit for annual additions to a retirement account was increased to $61,000 from $58,000, and the $6,500 catch-up limit increases that to $67,500 for participants aged 50 or older.   In addition, the maximum limit on annual compensation under Section 401(a)(17) increased to $305,000 from $290,000, and the compensation threshold for Highly Compensated Employees increased to $135,000, from $130,000.  Other dollar limits that increased for 2021 are summarized below; citations are to the Internal Revenue Code.  Unchanged were the annual deductible IRA contribution and age 50 catch-up limit ($6,000 and $1,000, respectively), and the age 50 SIMPLE catch-up limit of $3,000.  In a separate announcement, the Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2022 increased to $147,000 from the prior limit of $142,800 in 2021.

Photo credit: Atturi Jalli, Unsplash.

Scary Surprise for Some New 401(k) Sponsors: Plan Audit Costs

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

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.

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.

Summertime Blues for Your 401(k) Plan, P.2: Eligibility Failures

This is the second installment of several posts covering the most common 401(k) plan operational issues that arise during Form 5500 prep season for calendar year plans, which happens to be summertime: the season of outdoors fun and enjoyment for folks outside the ERISA bubble. This time around we will focus on a few selected errors related to eligibility under the plan – who gets to participate in the plan, and when. (More information on fixing eligibility errors in a 401(k) plan, courtesy of the IRS, is found here.) Note that the following discussion relates to plans in which participants must affirmatively enroll; a separate post will cover operational errors arising from auto-enrollment features.

Error No. 2: Eligibility Failures

Eligibility speaks to who gets to participate in a 401(k) plan, and entry dates signal when their participation must begin. These related areas can result in a host of plan errors.

The two main criteria of plan eligibility are age and service, and a minimum age of 21 and one Year of Service (defined below) are common eligibility criteria, especially for receiving employer contributions. The minimum service requirements to make salary deferrals are commonly reduced to, say, three months of service or even a shorter period. Also, commonly, plans exclude employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and employees earning no U.S.-source income. These criteria are all fairly straightforward, but complications sometimes arise when plans exclude employees based on schedule or job category, such as part-time employees, temporary employees, and per diem employees. Applicable law requires that employees in these categories be allowed to participate once they have worked 1,000 hours in a 12-consecutive month period (“Year of Service”). This requirement is part of preapproved plan documentation (adoption agreement), but plan sponsors not infrequently fail to adhere to it in actual fact. So, it is not uncommon to find that a plan has been excluding employees classified as per diem, or part-time, even after they have attained 1,000 hours in a given plan year.

The correction for this error is generally to put the improperly excluded participant in the position they would have been in had the error not occurred, by making qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs), plus earnings, to replace the salary deferrals and matching contributions that they failed to receive while improperly excluded from the plan. Generally plan sponsors only need to replace 50% of the missed elective deferrals (lost opportunity cost), but in some cases when the error is caught and corrected quickly and a disclosure is made to affected participants, the lost opportunity cost is reduced to 25% of the missed elective deferral (period of failure exceeds three months, but is less than two years), or even 0% (period of failure is less than three months). 100% of the missed matching contribution or nonelective contribution needs to be replace, plus earnings.

Note that under the SECURE Act, Section 401(k) plans (other than collectively bargained plans) must cover “long-term, part-time employees” who work at least 500 but less than 999 hours in each of the last three consecutive years. Employers must start counting hours of service towards this standard in 2021, such that the first coverage of long-term, part-time employees will occur in 2024. Proposed legislation would reduce the three year measurement period to two years. A plan sponsor can be more generous than the minimum requirement and allow entry into their plan sooner than the SECURE Act deadline.

Entry dates add another area of potential error. Entry dates may be semi-annual (e.g., January 1 and July 1, for a calendar year plan) or more frequent, such as quarterly (January 1, April 1, July 1, October 1), or even monthly. Errors often occur when plans are amended to adopt a more frequent entry date schedule, but plan operation lags behind and continues to follow the old entry date schedule. Errors also arise because of the time period for counting the 1,000 hours (the initial eligibility computation period) is often misunderstood and thus misapplied. In most plans, but not always – check your Adoption Agreement! – the 1,000 hours are counted from the date of hire to the first anniversary of hire, and then the counting period switches to the plan year (in these examples, the calendar year). Sometimes plan sponsors keep using the anniversary date cycle and therefore don’t catch the correct point at which 1,000 hours is attained, and thus miss the correct entry date.

Other eligibility errors arise from permitting employees to participate before they have met eligibility criteria. Sometimes these errors can be corrected with a retroactive amendment permitting early participation by the otherwise eligible employee. However this might not be the correct approach if, for instance, most of the affected participants are highly compensated employees. In that scenario, return of contributions plus earnings may be appropriate.

Correction of eligibility errors is relatively straightforward, as noted. The real goal, however, is to avoid these operational errors in the first place. I’ll come back to my favorite recommendation to avoid unneeded plan interpretation mishaps – design your plan as simply as possible. Of course, “simplicity” will depend upon the sector your business is in and the rate of employee turnover you experience. Immediate eligibility may be simple to administer for a small shop of engineering professionals, but a six-month or longer eligibility period may make sense for a restaurant or other business that experiences high turnover. If immediate eligibility works for your business, keep in mind that there are other ways to incentivize employees to stay with you long term, for instance by way of a vesting schedule imposed on employer contributions.

In addition to a simple plan design, I also recommend the all-hands meeting among human resource and payroll personnel, whether in-house or outsourced, at which every attendee has a copy of the plan adoption agreement, and a description of employment categories such as full-time, part-time, temporary, per diem, etc. It may also be helpful to have a representative of the plan recordkeeper at the meeting. At this meeting, the key sections of the plan document are those on eligibility, hours of service, and entry dates. The attendees should review the age and service criteria for eligibility, the method of crediting hours of service (whether actual hours or elapsed time.), any exclusion categories, whether any exclusion categories are subject to the 1,000 hour exception, and how the eligibility computation period works. Walking through hypothetical new hires and whether and when they enter the plan is one way to make sure everyone is on the same page and to reduce the chances for misinterpretation of the plan documents. After the meeting, drinks with umbrellas in them may be in order!

Photo credit: A.J. Garcia, 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.

Summertime Blues for Your 401(k) Plan, Pt. 1

Summertime is for fun, relaxation and a break from work, but it is also a crucial period for calendar year 401(k) plans. Form 5500 Annual Return/Reports are due July 31 for these plans, and even if an extension to October 15 is obtained, the summer months are when plan operations and finances are under scrutiny.  This is particularly true for “large” plans – those with 100 or more participants on the first day of your last plan year. (Note that special transition rules apply when switching from small plan to large plan Form 5500 filing status and back again, under the “80/120 rule.”  A good explanation of the rule is found here.)   Sponsors of large plans must engage an independent qualified public accountant (IQPA) and attach the auditor’s report to their Form 5500. 

As a benefits attorney, I associate summer with calls from plan sponsors whose auditing CPAs have identified operational failures and other plan errors that require correction under Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor voluntary compliance programs, including self-correction, when available.  This is the first in a series of posts covering the 401(k) mishaps that are as reliable a feature of my summers as are the 4th of July, outdoor barbecues and sunscreen.

Error No. 1:  Mismatching Definitions of Compensation

Disconnects between payroll procedures, and the way that your 401(k) plan defines “compensation” for purposes of salary deferrals and employer contributions, generate a significant number of plan operational failures that I see. 

Examples include adding payroll codes to your system without applying participants’ deferral elections and employer contribution to those new payroll amounts, or carving out categories such as bonuses, commissions, and overtime from your plan’s definition of compensation, without stopping deferrals and employer contributions from those amounts.  Whole categories of pay – for instance, tips recorded on credit cards – can sometimes be overlooked in plan operations, as well.  These errors can be corrected fairly simply but the corrections can be expensive and/or time consuming if the errors cover multiple years. 

The best recommendation I can make to avoid compensation-based errors in operating your 401(k) plan is to use Form W-2, Box 1 as your plan’s definition of compensation, with no exclusions (other than gift cards or cash rewards, if your company uses them) and to regularly revisit your payroll codes and procedures to make sure that all pay items that appear in Box 1 are counted for purposes of participants’ salary deferrals and loan repayments. 

Specifically, you should consider holding a meeting each year, or more frequently, among human resources and payroll personnel (in-house or out-sourced) to review the definition of compensation in the Adoption Agreement, on the one hand, and a list of all payroll codes, on the other. Revisit this exercise every time you modify payroll practices, your payroll vendor or software, or of course any time you change the plan’s definition of compensation. 

If your plan defines compensation in a way that involves carve-outs, be especially careful to ensure that the salary deferrals and employer contributions are not applied to the payroll code amounts that correspond to the exclusions, whether bonuses, commissions, overtime, or other items. 

Be mindful, as well, that certain pay items may be excluded from “safe harbor” definitions of compensation, such as cash and/or non-cash fringe benefits, reimbursements or other expense allowances, and moving expenses, but that other exclusions, such as overtime, will trigger the need for annual testing of the definition of compensation under nondiscrimination rules. 

Lastly, there is a good bit of confusion over the scope of certain categories referenced in the safe harbor definitions of compensation, such as nontaxable fringe benefits, and differential wage payments.  As used in an adoption agreement, differential wage payments generally will relate to military service and are not the same as shift differentials.    When in doubt about any definition of compensation issue, check with your third party administrator, ERISA attorney or other benefits professional.  You want your only headache next summer to be from an ice cream cone, not your 401(k) plan.

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.

Photo credit:  Krissara Lertnimanorladee, Unsplash

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