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 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.