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Long considered to be at the forefront of providing benefits to employees who take family and medical leave, California recently enacted a new law aimed at increasing the benefits paid out to employees who take time off to care for an ill or injured family member or for new child bonding. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Board

On July 21, the IRS announced that it is eliminating its current determination letter program for tax-qualified retirement plans. (IRS officials had been sending signals that this was coming for several months. It is now official.) Starting in 2017, the IRS will accept determination letter applications in only three circumstances:

  1. Initial qualification for a new plan. The IRS will still review any plan that has not previously received a determination letter.
  2. Plan termination. The IRS will still accept applications for a determination upon termination of a plan.
  3. Other limited circumstances to be determined by the Treasury Department and IRS. The Announcement says that Treasury and the IRS intend periodically to request public comments on what circumstances should be included in this category.

For plan sponsors, favorable IRS determination letters provide protection against disqualification for a “plan document failure”–for example, if the IRS later determines that a plan provision does not comply with the tax-qualification requirements or the IRS determines that a required provision is missing. Given the significant potential costs of a plan being disqualified, third parties often rely on determination letters to confirm that a plan is qualified. For example, buyers in corporate transactions, plans and IRAs accepting rollovers, and lenders often request to see copies of a plan’s favorable determination letter.


Continue Reading Changes to IRS Determination Letter Program Raise Practical Questions

by Seth Safra and Jonathan Goldberg

A recent appellate court decision, Cottillion v. United Refining Co. et al. (3d Cir. Mar. 18, 2015), is a good reminder of the high cost that a drafting error can have for a plan’s sponsor.  Although courts have recognized a “scrivener’s error” doctrine, the bar for establishing a scrivener’s error is high and the outcome can be unpredictable.  The Cottillion case illustrates that the sponsor’s intent will not always win the day–even where the outcome does not make sense economically.
Continue Reading Recent Case Illustrates Importance of Careful Plan Drafting

A recent post in the IRS’s Employee Plans News has two important tips for employers who sponsor 401(k) and similar plans:

  1. The plan sponsor is ultimately responsible for maintaining records that document compliance with tax-qualification requirements. Many employers rely on third-party administrators to maintain records of day-to-day transactions, such as loans, hardship withdrawals and distributions. It is important to confirm with the third-party administrators that the records are being kept and that the sponsor will have access to the records–in a usable format–including after the sponsor changes administrators.
  2. The IRS expects the administrator to collect documentation in support of any hardship withdrawal–saying “[i]t’s not sufficient for plan participants to keep their own records of hardship distributions.”

In an effort to streamline plan administration, some third-party administrators have promoted a simplified procedure that would allow employees to get hardship withdrawals without submitting documentation.
Continue Reading IRS Issues Warning on Documentation Requirements for 401(k) Plans

A recent Supreme Court decision, Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, highlights two important points about the authority of the U.S. Department of Labor, IRS, and other administrative agencies to interpret rules:

  1. U.S. courts will generally follow administrative interpretations of statutes and an agency’s regulations, except in rare circumstances. This deference extends to “sub-regulatory” guidance, like opinion letters, rulings, notices, amicus briefs, and probably even FAQs posted on a website; and
  2. Agencies have wide latitude to change their minds on interpretive guidance, without any obligation to consult with the public.

The decision illustrates the practical importance of getting involved in the regulatory process, and advocating for important clarifications before regulations are finalized. Although agencies may change interpretive guidance unilaterally, unambiguous regulations generally cannot be changed without advance notice and an opportunity to comment.

Background.  This case involved whether mortgage-loan officers are eligible for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Ruling on Agency Flip-Flopping Affects Rules for Benefit Plans

Two cases decided in January—one by the Sixth Circuit and another by the District Court for the District of Columbia—offer a cautionary tale to plan sponsors who rely on a statute or regulation that allows retroactive amendments to tax-qualified plans. Both cases involved a change to the interest and mortality assumptions that pension plans use to calculate the minimum amount of a lump sum distribution. The change was expressly authorized by a statute, but the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation said “not so fast”—leaving the plan sponsors responsible for several million dollars in additional liabilities.

The cases offer a cautionary tale for plan sponsors: practices that are permitted in one context will not necessarily be accepted in other contexts. For this reason, it is important to conduct a thorough analysis before relying on agency guidance or accepted practice.


Continue Reading Two Recent Cases Offer Cautionary Tale to Plan Sponsors Relying on IRS Guidance

An eight-year transition period for U.S. tax-qualified retirement plans covering Puerto Rico residents is set to end in 2015.  Employers that cover Puerto Rico residents under U.S. tax-qualified plans should consider spinning off the Puerto Rico portion of the plan in 2015, to avoid subjecting Puerto Rico residents to U.S. federal income tax.


Continue Reading Action Required for Retirement Plans Covering Puerto Rico Residents

The tax extenders legislation (formally called the “Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014“) signed into law on December 17 included a one-year extension of “parity” for the limits on tax-exempt mass transit and parking benefits.  The change retroactively increases the limit on pre-tax mass transit benefits, which means that it affects the information that must be reported on Form W-2 for 2014 (generally due January 31, 2015) and tax refunds are available.

Employers with transportation benefit programs should watch for guidance and consider adjustments that might be required before filing Form 941 for the fourth quarter and issuing Forms W-2 for 2014.


Continue Reading Increase to Transit Reimbursement Limits Might Necessitate Corrective Tax Filings

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) recently finalized its rule on insurance for amounts rolled over from a defined contribution plan to a defined benefit plan.  Although amounts rolled over will be subject to greater protections than apply for most other benefits (i.e., benefits derived from employer contributions), the full rollover benefit will not necessarily be protected if the plan terminates with insufficient assets. Employers should assess the impact of the limitations on PBGC protection for their plans and consider updating participant communications to better explain the potential risks from a rollover to a defined benefit plan.
Continue Reading Understanding Limits on PBGC Protection for Amounts Rolled Over From a Defined Contribution Plan

A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Gabriel v. Alaska Elec. Pension Fund, offers useful insight for deciding how to fix a pension overpayment.

Virtually every employer that administers a pension plan has experienced (or will experience) discovering a calculation error after incorrect payments have been made for several years–resulting in thousands of dollars of overpayments.  Fixing these overpayments is often difficult.  On the one hand, plan fiduciaries have an obligation to stop overpayments and restore losses from excess payments.  IRS guidance instructs plan administrators to recover overpayments from the affected participants.  On the other hand, participants who have received overpayments inevitably claim that they have relied on the incorrect benefit and that correcting the error would result in undue harm to them.  The affected participants often recognize that an incorrect benefit cannot be paid by the plan, but they argue that the cost of the correction should be borne by the administrator who made the error, rather than by the affected participant.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Cigna Corp. v. Amara (and even before that decision), many participants who received overpayments have alleged that an equitable remedy like “reformation,” “equitable estoppel,” or “surcharge” entitles them to keep overpayments.


Continue Reading Judges Disagree on Remedies for Pension Mistake