Auto-Portability:  A Guide for Retirement Plan Sponsors

The following Q&A is geared for plan sponsors who are curious about the auto-portability process and how it might prove beneficial to their plan participants.  Auto-portability can prove especially useful in industries with lower wages and high employee turnover, which may include retail, transportation, hospitality, and restaurants, because this can often lead to numerous account balances of $5,000 or less being involuntarily rolled to default IRAs.  Note that SECURE 2.0 proposals could increase the involuntary cash-out threshold to $7,000, which could expand the potential market for auto-portability solutions.

    1. What is auto-portability?

    Auto-portability is a financial technology service that helps consolidate retirement savings accounts for individuals who have changed jobs, and who may have one or more default IRA accounts due to mandatory distribution of low-balance accounts in prior employers’ plans ($5,000 or less), or termination of their employer’s 401(k) plan. 

    2. How does auto-portability work?

      Industry leader Retirement Clearinghouse, LLC (RCH) devised a “locate, match, and transfer” process that coordinates among multiple recordkeeper systems to identify when an individual with a default IRA account has opened a new 401(k) account, and enable a “roll-in” of the IRA to the new employer’s plan.   Auto-portability can even be used by a plan to skip the default IRA step, and postpone distribution of small account balances until the former participant has established an account with a new employer’s plan.  Participant consent is requested at the time their default IRA account or small employer plan account balance is matched with an account under a new employer plan, and roll-in to the new plan becomes possible, but if consent is not provided within 30 days, a default roll-in transaction occurs.

      3. What problems does auto-portability help address?

      RCH flagged three main problems addressed by auto-portability, in a Question & Answer handout it prepared on the Portability Services Network.  [Sign up to obtain the Q&A here.]

      The first is cash out leakage, which is the phenomenon of workers cashing out small retirement account balances when they change jobs.  They cite Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) as estimating that of 14.8 million annual job transitions, 41%, or 6 million, will cash out of their retirement savings completely ($92.4 billion), with two-thirds of the cash outs being for reasons other than a financial emergency.  (This last detail strongly suggests that cash outs are taking place due to the inconvenience and the time required to process the transfer of a relatively small amount.)  The cash out percentage is higher – an estimated 55% – for participants with account balances under $5,000.  Research also points to cash out at the point of job transition as disproportionately impacting minority and low-income workers, thus undermining their ability to establish financial security for retirement. 

      Two other problems that can be addressed by auto-portability are the gradual erosion, through annual account fees and anemic money-market investment returns, of low-balance default IRA accounts, and missing participants.   Auto-portability reduces the first problem by moving money out of the low-balance IRA accounts to be consolidated with future savings under employer-sponsored plans.  Auto-portability reduces the prevalence of missing participants by tracking contact information established under a new employer’s plan, which is likely to be more accurate than old contact information maintained by prior employers.

      4. How does a plan sponsor connect with auto-portability services?

      RCH recently established a consortium with major 401(k) recordkeepers Alight, Fidelity and Vanguard, called the Portability Services Network (PSN).  PSN is expected to be up and running in the first quarter of 2023.  So if your plan uses one of those recordkeepers, auto-portability may be on offer to you in the new year.  The consortium is open to other recordkeepers joining as well.  Although RCH is currently the only direct provider of auto-portability services it is likely that there will be other providers offering these services in the future.  Finally, it is also possible for a plan to work directly with RCH, without going through its recordkeeper relationship, but this may be feasible only for fairly large plans.

      5. What do auto-portability services cost, and who pays for them?

      If you use the PSN consortium, there is no cost to plan sponsors.  Plan participants whose retirement accounts are transferred are charged a one-time transaction fee not exceeding $30.  Fees are disclosed in plan documentation, which will need to be amended to incorporate auto-portability language.  Other fees and disclosures apply if your plan contracts directly with RCH for auto-portability services.  The entry of other auto-portability service providers into the market to compete with RCH will hopefully result in lower transaction costs over time.

      6. Will my company have fiduciary liability in relation to auto-portability services?

      Yes, with respect to choosing to use auto-portability services and electing to work either directly with RCH or a similar vendor, or with the PSN consortium.  Specifically, you would be responsible for ensuring that the auto-portability service is a necessary service, a reasonable arrangement, and that it charges no more than reasonable compensation for the services provided.  You would need to monitor the arrangement and periodically ensure that your plan’s continued participation in the auto-portability program is consistent with ERISA’s standards.  However, your company will not have fiduciary liability with respect to the decision to transfer a default IRA or small balance account into your plan (roll-in).  In the absence of written consent from the account holder, fiduciary liability for that decision lies with RCH.  Your plan will have fiduciary responsibility with respect to determining whether the roll-in to your plan is consistent with plan terms, and in allocating the rolled-in assets to investments under your plan (unless a QDIA is in effect, or subject to ERISA Section 404(a) if the participant has made investment elections under the new plan).  The Department of Labor addressed these issues in Advisory Opinion 2018-01A, dated November 5, 2018.

      7. What else should I be aware of, on the auto-portability front?

      The Advancing Auto-Portability Act of 2022 is a bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Senators Tim Scot (R-SC) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that would provide a $500 tax credit to employers who adopt auto-portability services, to help pay for the costs of implementation.  Representatives of the Department of Labor have also indicated that the Department is concerned about retirement account portability and cash-out leakage and recognize that auto-portability can helps preserve retirement security for many workers.  Thus, the problems that auto-portability is trying to address are apparent to members of Congress as well as to key personnel at the DOL, and plan sponsors should anticipate increased access to auto-portability in the future.

        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:  Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

        Lender Beware:  IRS Issue Snapshot on Third Party Loans

        The IRS recently published an Issue Snapshot meant to guide examiners who encounter third party loans among the investments of plans they are auditing.   Third party loans occur when a qualified plan trustee elects to loan plan funds to someone other than a plan participant, at a designated rate of return, in exchange for a promissory note, deed of trust, or other form of security. Below I summarize some of the key points in the IRS Snapshot and add some insights gleaned from third party loan issues I have encountered in my practice.   Note: this post is not intended as a “how to” for these risky investments, but as a roadmap for plan sponsors who may have entered into such transactions in the past and could find themselves in an audit setting.

        1. Don’t Assume Your Trust Agreement Permits Third Party Loans.   The Issue Snapshot notes that a plan document may limit the ability of a plan trustee or plan participant to invest in third party loans, and this is absolutely the case.  It is necessary to check plan trust language before making any such investment.   In my examination of plan trust agreements, I have seen language expressly permitting third party loans (e.g., allowing investments in “notes or other property of any kind, real or personal,” and I have seen language that cannot, even in broad “general powers” provisions, be construed to permit third party loans.  A loan made in the absence of plan language permitting the investment is a fiduciary breach.
        2. Avoid Prohibited Transactions.  The third party loan will be a prohibited transaction if the loan is either made directly to a “disqualified person” or indirectly benefits a disqualified person, for instance through rerouting the loan proceeds to them.  A disqualified person includes the employer, fiduciaries, persons providing services to the plan (the IRS gives the example of accountants and attorneys), and persons and corporations who own a 50% or more interest in the employer.   I sometimes see this issue arise in family-owned businesses, where the borrower is a family member who owns more than half of the plan sponsor entity.  The Issue Snapshot encourages auditors to be on the lookout for plan loan terms that disadvantage the plan, such as little or no interest rate or unsecured loans, as indicators that the loan may have been made for the benefit of a disqualified person.  I would add to that list, failure of the plan to enforce timely loan repayment, or frequent re-amortization of the loans on terms that are favorable to the borrower.  Prohibited transactions are subject to excise taxes under Code § 4975(a) and (b).
        3. Avoid Self-Dealing.  Self-dealing by a fiduciary violates the exclusive benefit rule articulated in both the Code and ERISA.   With regard to the Code, the Issue Snapshot notes that others may benefit from a transaction with a plan as long as the “primary purpose” of the investment is to benefit employees or their beneficiaries.  (Citing Shedco Inc. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1998-295.)  An IRS examiner who concludes that a third party loan fails the primary purpose test must refer the matter to the Department of Labor.  On the Department of Labor side, ERISA Section 406(b) prohibits a plan fiduciary from dealing with the assets of a plan “in their own interest of for their own account.”   In my experience, self-dealing types of third party loans arise more often than direct loans to disqualified persons.  It is not uncommon for there to be a pre-existing relationship between the plan sponsor or trustee, on the one hand, and the borrower, on the other hand, whether that of a business partner, friend, or family member, such that the loan benefits the fiduciary by assisting someone of importance to them.   If identified in an IRS audit and referred to the Department of Labor, or identified in a DOL audit, a loan of this type may result in civil penalties.
        4. Value Your Asset.  The Issue Snapshot cites Revenue Ruling 80-155 as requiring annual valuation of defined contribution plan assets and states that this rule applies to third party loans just like any other plan investment.  It also notes that plan documentation may also expressly mandate annual asset valuations, making failure to obtain them a breach of the plan’s written terms.  The Issue Snapshot does not specify that a professional valuation must be obtained but suggests that a fresh value must be assigned to the loan each year based on a number of factors including the discount/interest rate and the probability of collection.    One thing not to do is to report a static value for the loan across multiple years’ Form 5500 Return/Reports as this will indicate to the Service “that payments under the loan contract are not being made and/or that the true fair market value of the loan is not being appraised or reported.”
        5. Documentation Is Key.  This is not explicitly addressed in the Issue Snapshot but is something I observed in practice.  In one matter I was involved with, the Department of Labor audited a 401(k) plan and observed a portfolio of about a dozen third party loans.  All charged substantial rates of interest, resulting in returns that exceeded those realized by the Plan’s more conventional investments.  All were secured by deeds of trust on real property held by the borrowers.  Third party valuations of the real property parcels had been obtained at the time of the loan, and periodically updated.  Amortization and repayment schedules were up to date on all loans.  The borrowers had no relationship with the business that sponsored the plan or with the fiduciaries themselves.  The Department of Labor scrutinized the loan files and were unable to find any ERISA violations in the loans as an asset class or individually.   The plan sponsor had discontinued the practice of extending new third party loans even in advance of the audit, but by essentially operating with the procedural rigor of a commercial lender, it had maintained third party loans as successful plan investments for a number of years.

        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: Evgeniya Litovchenko, Unsplash

          Who Should Be Trustee of Your 401(k) Plan?

          When a company establishes a 401(k) plan it is necessary to name a trustee of the plan. This is a very important decision that is not always given the careful deliberation that it deserves. This post covers why it is such a crucial decision and outlines some of the options for naming a plan trustee.

          Why it Matters

          The trustee is responsible for the plan assets. Every 401(k) plan involves a tax-qualified trust established under Section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code and all plan assets are nominally held in that trust, so the trustee of that trust is in charge of all plan assets. That includes collection of contributions, their investment while held by the trust, and their ultimate disbursement to plan participants and beneficiaries. In most 401(k) plans, even though participants take on responsibility for choosing among plan investment options under Section 404(c) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the plan trustee is responsible for selecting the menu of options from which participants choose. If problems are identified with plan investment performance, or with the amounts paid to plan service providers, the plan trustee may be called to answer in court.

          The standard of care is one of the most stringent known under law. A plan trustee is a fiduciary under ERISA. The fiduciary standard of care, often referred to as the “prudent expert” standard, is set forth under ERISA § 404(a)(1). It requires that plan trustees consistently do all of the following:

          • Act solely in the interest of plan participants and their beneficiaries and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them;
          • Carry out their duties prudently;
          • Follow the terms of the plan documents (unless doing so is inconsistent with ERISA);
          • Diversify plan investments; and
          • Pay only reasonable plan expenses to service providers, with “reasonableness” being measured in light of the services provided to the plan.

          More information about fiduciary duties under ERISA is set forth in a booklet titled “Meeting Your Fiduciary Responsibilities” that is published by the Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration. Every person who is serving as an ERISA plan fiduciary or who is in a position to appoint a plan fiduciary should familiarize themselves with the contents of the booklet and should seek out qualified ERISA counsel to assist in applying the concepts in the booklet to their particular factual situation.

          At this juncture it is appropriate to discuss specialized types of ERISA fiduciaries who can be engaged to assist plan trustees in various ways. Perhaps the most prevalent is the ERISA 3(21) fiduciary, a paid investment advisor that assists the plan trustee in selecting plan investments, reviewing investment performance, and providing recommendations about investments to the plan fiduciary. They bear fiduciary liability, but the plan trustee carries ultimate liability for acting, or not acting, on the 3(21) fiduciary’s recommendations. An ERISA 3(38) investment manager, rather than merely making recommendations, directly selects and monitors the plan’s investment option menu, changing out funds and providers as it finds appropriate. The plan trustee is regularly advised about the investment manager’s decisions and retains fiduciary liability over the selection and monitoring of the 3(38) investment manager. An ERISA 3(16) fiduciary primarily has an administrative role, rather than having to do with plan investments. They can take over responsibility for signing and filing Form 5500 return/reports and other tasks that plan trustees would otherwise have to fulfill. (This is just a very brief overview of these various roles; there is more information about these three types of fiduciaries here and here.) Each of these types of fiduciary will charge fees for their services; selection of any of them is itself a fiduciary act and their fees must be reasonable in light of the services provided.

          401(k) litigation continues apace. Litigation against 401(k) plan trustees and other fiduciaries have been trending for almost 20 years. The lawsuits, most of which have been brought in class action format and have settled out of court, generally allege that plan fiduciaries have selected overly expensive investments or and/or are overpaying service providers such as investment managers, record keepers and third-party administrators. A recent Supreme Court opinion did not, as had been hoped, articulate a pleading standard that would have made it easier to eliminate an excessive fee lawsuit at the pleading stage. Although generally the lawsuits are directed at 401(k) plans with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, there is nothing preventing class action counsel from targeting smaller plans.

          Who to Name as Plan Trustee

          Against that background, exercising extreme care in choosing a plan trustee is essential. There are two main options, and the sub-options within those two main categories.

          The first consideration is whether or not to choose an institutional or third-party trustee such as a bank or trust company. An institutional or “corporate” trustee will have fiduciary liability for plan assets under investment, but they often serve as “directed” trustees who take investment direction from the plan sponsor or from an ERISA 3(38) investment manager, rather than as discretionary trustees who call the investment shots themselves. It is also possible to name a discretionary corporate trustee. Corporate trustees of either variety charge fees, usually in the form of a small percentage of plan assets, with a minimum fee for start-up plans. The fees must be reasonable in light of the services performed, and as with the choice of a fiduciary advisor or manger, selection of a corporate trustee is itself a fiduciary act.

          Start-up and smaller plans often select an individual who is an executive or owner of the company sponsoring the plan to serve as plan trustee. That individual will potentially be personally liable for plan losses that are the result of their negligence or malfeasance. It is important that the individual named as a plan trustee be aware of this fact. It is also not uncommon for the company that sponsors the plan, to be named as the plan trustee. In this instance the company can only act by and through its board of directors, managers or partners (if an LLC or partnership), so if the company is named it is recommended that the board (or managers, or partners) form a plan committee to fulfill plan trustee duties. The committee should be comprised of individuals who have experience with investments and financial matters and who would be equipped to interview, select among, and monitor the performance of plan service providers such as ERISA 3(21) fiduciaries, 3(38) investment managers, record keepers, and third party administrators. Any individual serving as a plan trustee should also be comfortable performing those duties.

          Whether an individual or board committee carries out plan trustee functions, the individual(s) serving in this role should commit to introductory and ongoing fiduciary training. This would include information about the standard of care applicable to, and duties of, an ERISA fiduciary and would break down how those duties translate into tasks such as regular meetings to review plan investment performance, protocol for documenting decisions made during such meetings (e.g., minutes and resolutions), selection and monitoring of plan service providers, and the like. In addition to undergoing training, individual fiduciary(ies) will need to be diligent in fulfilling their appointed tasks.

          One further consideration is the purchase of fiduciary liability insurance. This is specialized liability coverage that is separate and different from the fiduciary bond required under ERISA Section 412(a). Fiduciary liability coverage acts like errors and omissions coverage, but with respect to a company or individual’s role as a fiduciary under an ERISA plan. 401(k) plan fee litigation has impacted the fiduciary liability insurance market, but coverage remains affordable and should be evaluated by individuals and board committees serving as plan trustees.

          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: Joshua Hoehne, 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