You Just Formed a New Business Entity. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What if a somewhat arcane area of tax law had potentially serious ramifications for attorneys and other tax advisors across a broad range of practices, but was not consistently identified and planned for in actual practice? That is an accurate description of the rules surrounding “controlled group” status between two or more businesses, which I have seen arise in business formation/transactions, estate planning, employment and family law settings.  The purpose of this overview is to briefly survey controlled group rules for non-ERISA practitioners, so that they can become aware of the potential complications that controlled group rules can create.

  1. Why Do Controlled Groups Matter?

The main reason they matter is because the IRS treats separate businesses within a controlled group as a single employer for almost all retirement and health benefit plan purposes. In fact, annual reporting for retirement plans (and for health and welfare plans with 100 or more participants) requires a statement under penalty of perjury as to whether the employer is part of a controlled group.  Therefore controlled groups are most frequently a concern where business entities have employees and particularly when they sponsor benefit plans, whether retirement/401(k), or health and welfare plans.  Note, however, that creation of a business entity that has no employees can still create a controlled group issue when it acts as a conduit to link ownership of two or more other entities that do have employees.

Being part of a controlled group does not always mean that all employees of the member companies have to participate in the same benefit plan (although it can sometimes mean that). However it generally means that separately maintained retirement plans have to perform nondiscrimination testing as if they were combined, which not infrequently means that one or more of the plans will fail nondiscrimination testing.  This is an event that usually requires the employer sponsoring the plan to add more money to the plan on behalf of some of the additional counted employees, or to pay penalty taxes in relation to same.  Similar complications can arise in Section 125 cafeteria or “flexible benefit plans,” and for self-insured group health plans, which are subject to nondiscrimination requirements under Code § 105(h).  Nondiscrimination rules are meant to apply to insured group health plans under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), so additional complications could arise in that context when and if the rules are enforced by the IRS, following publication of regulatory guidance.

Controlled group status can also mean that several small employers together comprise an “applicable large employer” subject to the ACA “pay or play rules,” and related annual IRS reporting duties. Small employer exceptions under other laws, including COBRA and the Medicare Secondary Payer Act, reference controlled group status when determining eligibility for the exception.

  1. How Do I Identify a Controlled Group?

 Determining controlled group status requires synthesizing regulations and other guidance across multiple Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) provisions and therefore is a task for a specialized ERISA or tax practitioner.  What follows are very simplified definitions aimed at helping advisors outside that specialized area flag potential controlled group issues for further analysis.

Strictly speaking, the term “controlled group” refers to shared ownership of two or more corporations, but this article uses the term generically as it is the more familiar term.  “Ownership” in this context means possession of the voting power or value of corporate stock (or a combination thereof).  Shared ownership among other types of business entities is described as “a group of trades or businesses under ‘common control.’”  Ownership in this context refers to ownership of a capital or profits interest in a partnership or LLC taxed as a partnership.   Controlled groups can also arise in relation to tax-exempt entities, for instance if they own 80% or more of a for-profit entity, or even between two tax-exempt entities where there is substantial overlap of board membership or board control.

Complex interest exclusion rules mean that not all ownership interests are counted towards common control; exclusion may turn on the nature of the interest held (e.g., treasury or non-voting preferred stock) or on the party holding the ownership interest (e.g, the trust of a tax-qualified retirement plan).

The two main sub-types of controlled group are: parent-subsidiary, and “brother-sister,” although a combination of the two may also exist.  A parent-subsidiary controlled group exists when one business owns 80% or more of another business, or where there is a chain of such ownership relationships. As that is a fairly straightforward test, I will focus on the lesser known, but more prevalent, brother-sister type of controlled group.

A brother-sister controlled group exists when the same five or fewer individuals, trusts, or estates (the “brother-sister” group) have a “controlling interest” in, and “effective control” of, two or more businesses.

  • A controlling interest exists when the brother-sister group members own, or are deemed to own under rules of attribution, at least 80% of each of the businesses in question.
  • Effective control exists when the brother-sister group owns or is deemed to own greater than 50% of the businesses in question, looking only at each member’s “lowest common denominator” ownership interest. (So, a group member that owed 20% of one business and 40% of another business would be credited only with 20% in the effective control test.)
  • In order to pass the 80% test, you must use the interests of the same five or fewer persons (or trusts or estates) used for purposes of the greater than 50% test.  See US v. Vogel Fertilizer, 455 US 16 (1982). Put otherwise, the two tests consider only owners with a greater-than-zero interest in each of the businesses under consideration. If, under this rule, you disregard shares adding up to more than 20% of a business, the 80% test won’t be met and that business generally won’t form part of the controlled group. (Although the remaining businesses may do so.)

The controlled group attribution rules are quite complex and can only be touched on here. Very generally speaking, an ownership interest may be attributed from a business entity to the entity’s owner, from trusts to trust beneficiaries (and to grantors of “grantor” trusts as defined under Code § 671-678), and among family members. Stock options can also create attributed ownership under some circumstances.  The attribution rules can have surprising consequences. For instance, a couple, each with his or her wholly-owned corporation, will be a controlled group if they have a child under age 21 together, regardless of their marital status, because the minor child is attributed with 100% of each parent’s interests under Code §1563(e)(6)(A).  Community property rights may also give rise to controlled group status. Careful pre-marital planning may be necessary to prevent unintended controlled group status among businesses owned separately by the partners to the marriage.

This is the first part of a two-part discussion that was first published as an article in the Santa Barbara Lawyer Magazine for October 2017.  The second half will address a variation of these rules that are specific to businesses formed by doctors, dentists, accountants, and other service providers.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, ADP and ACP Testing, Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, COBRA, Common Control Issues, Employer Shared Responsibility, ERISA, Health Care Reform, Nondiscrimination Rules for Insured Health Plans, Nondiscrimination Testing for Qualified Retirement Plans, Plan Reporting and Disclosure Duties

ACA Cheat Sheet for 2017 & 2018

On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that Republicans would abandon efforts to pass ACA repeal and replace legislation, namely the much-amended American Health Care Act of 2017, and on September 30, 2017 their chance to pass any other version of repeal and replace this year as a budget reconciliation measure, requiring only 51 votes, also expires.  For the remainder of 2017, then, applicable large employers and their brokers and advisers should refresh their familiarity with employer shared responsibility rules under the ACA.  Below is a cheat sheet with affordability safe harbor thresholds, applicable large employer penalty tax amounts, and out-of-pocket maximums for 2017 and for fast-approaching 2018.  Sources are Revenue Procedures 2016-24 and 2017-36, and the Final Rule on Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2017 and 2018.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, American Health Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Health Care Reform, Post-Election ACA, PPACA

Offer Opt-Out Payments? Don’t Get Snared in Overtime Liability

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If you are an employer within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and offer cash payments to employees who opt out of group health coverage (“opt-out payments”), what you don’t know about the court’s 2016 opinion in Flores v. City of San Gabriel may hurt you.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit court held that opt-out payments had to be included in the regular rate of pay used to calculate overtime payments under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In May 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the opinion, making it controlling law within the Ninth Circuit, and hence in the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington.

The Flores case arose when a group of active and former police officers in the City of San Gabriel sought overtime compensation based on opt-out payments they received between 2009 and 2012 under a flexible benefits plan maintained by the City.  The plan required eligible employees to purchase dental and vision benefits with pre-tax dollars; they could also use the plan to purchase group health insurance.  Employees could elect to forgo medical benefits upon proof of alternative coverage; in exchange they received the unused portion of their benefits allotment as a cash payment added to their regular paycheck.  The opt-out payments were not insubstantial, ranging from $12,441 annually in 2009 to $15,659.40 in 2012.  The City’s total expenditure on opt-out payments exceeded $1.1 million dollars in 2009 and averaged about 45% of total contributions to the flexible benefits plan over the three years at issue.

The court held that the City had not properly excluded the opt-out payments from the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes under the FLSA, as they were items of compensation even though not tied directly to specific hours of work, and further that the “bona fide” benefit plan exception did not apply, because, inter alia, the cash opt-out payments received under the flex plan comprised far more than an “incidental” portion of the benefits received.

Despite the significant potential impact of getting this classification wrong, the City appears not to have sought a legal opinion on whether it could permissibly exclude the opt-out payments under the FLSA. Instead, a City employee testified that it followed its normal process of classifying the item of pay through joint decision by the payroll and human resources departments, without any further review of the classification or other due-diligence.  For this oversight, the court awarded liquidated damages against the City for failure to demonstrate that it acted in good faith and on the basis of “reasonable grounds” to believe it had correctly classified the opt-out payments under the FLSA.  Further, the court approved a three-year statute of limitations for a “willful” violation of the FLSA, rather than the normal two year period, on the grounds that the City was on notice of its FLSA requirements, yet took “’no affirmative action to ensure compliance with them.’”

Although Flores involved a benefit plan maintained by a public entity, there is nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that limits its scope to public entity employers.

Therefore employers within the Ninth Circuit who offer opt-out payments should review their payroll treatment of these amounts and seek legal counsel in the event there if potential overtime liability under the FLSA. They should also confirm that cash opt-out payments remain an “incidental” percentage of total flex benefits, which the Department of Labor has defined in a 2003 opinion letter as no more than 20% of total plan benefits.  In Flores the Ninth Circuit found the 20% threshold to be arbitrary, but suggested that it was likely lower than 40% of total benefits.  Finally, employers offering opt-out payments should also revisit the other legal compliance hurdles that these payments present under the ACA, which after its recent reprieve from repeal/replace legislation, remains, for now, the law of the land.

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Filed under Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, FLSA, Fringe Benefits, Health Care Reform, Overtime, Post-Election ACA, PPACA, Uncategorized

Beyond the 403(b) Plan: Top 5 Things to Know About Deferred Compensation for Non-Profit Executives

Tax-exempt employers may offer deferred compensation plans to their select executives to allow for retirement savings over and above the dollar limits applicable under a Section 403(b) plan. However the rules governing these arrangements, which fall under Section 457 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code), are complex and often misunderstood.  Below are five things top things to keep in mind in this area, to get the most that the law offers without unpleasant tax surprises along the way.

1.  It’s complicated……

First, there are two types of 457 plans: 457(b) plans and 457(f) plans.  A tax-exempt employer can use both for the same executives but careful planning is advised.  The (b) plans allow set-aside (in the form of employee deferrals or employer contributions) of only $18,000 (in 2017) per year, with no age 50+ catch-up allowance.  Amounts set aside under a (b) plan are not taxed until they are distributed to the executive, an event which must be delayed until termination of employment/retirement, or on the occurrence of unforeseeable circumstances (narrowly defined).  Taxation is delayed until distribution even though the amounts are generally “vested” (no longer subject to forfeiture) when they are contributed.  By contrast there is no dollar limit on the amount that may be set aside under a 457(f) plan (subject to item no. 4, below), but the amounts are taxable upon completion of a vesting schedule (e.g., from 3 to 10 years).  Therefore distribution in full almost always happens upon completion of vesting.  Put most simply, (b) plans are a good way to double an executive’s 403(b) deferral budget, and (f) plans are a good way to help an executive catch up on retirement savings when a retirement or other departure date is within a 3 to 10 year time horizon. Further, in order for an exemption from ERISA to apply, participation in these plans must be limited to a “select group of management or highly compensated employees,” comprising no more than 5% – 10% of the total workforce, referred to as the “top-hat” group.  In a small tax-exempt employer with 10 or 20 employees this may mean only 1 or 2 executives may participate.

2.  You (usually) can’t roll to an IRA.

Generally when an executive is ready to take distribution of benefits from a 457(b) or (f) plan a taxable cash distribution is required, and rollover to an IRA is not an option. (One exception is when the executive moves to a new employer that maintains a 457(b) plan that accepts rollover contributions).  Under a (b) plan, which may allow installment distributions over a period of years, the lack of an IRA rollover option is not so severe, but in a 457(f) plan setting, which generally calls for lump-sum distributions, the tax impact can be severe and the executives should be advised to do advance tax planning with their own CPAs or other tax advisors, well ahead of their planned retirement date or other vesting trigger.  In my experience, lack of the IRA rollover option often comes as an unwelcome surprise to the covered executives.

3.  The assets belong to the organization.

Section 457 plans are non-qualified meaning in relevant part that they assets the plans hold belong to the tax-exempt organization that sponsors the plan until the date(s) they are paid out to the participants. The assets must be held in an account in the name of the organization “FBO” the 457 plan account for the name of the executive.  There is no form of creditor protection but it is possible to put in place a “rabbi trust,” so called because the trust format was first approved by the IRS on behalf of a synagogue for its spiritual leader.  The rabbi trust will not protect the 457 assets from the organization’s creditors, but it will prevent the organization from reneging on the deferred compensation promise to an executive.  This is particularly helpful for an organization that anticipates changes in its board structure after approval of a 457 arrangement.

4.  The normal “reasonable compensation” rules still apply.

Tax-exempt organizations must pay only reasonable compensation, in light of the services provided, to employees and other individuals who comprise “disqualified persons,” a category that includes executive directors and other “C-suite” members. Under the “intermediate sanction” regime the IRS imposes excise taxes on individuals who benefit under, and organization managers (e.g., board members) who approve, compensation arrangements that fail the reasonableness standard.  Deferred compensation arrangements must be reasonable in light of all other compensation and benefits provided to the executives in question and in most cases this will require a third-party compensation consultant’s evaluation and review.  This is a vitally important and often-overlooked piece of deferred compensation compliance in the tax-exempt arena.

5.  DOL notification is required.

As part of the ERISA exemption for top-hat deferred compensation plans, a tax-exempt organization must provide a “top-hat notification letter” to the Department of Labor within 120 days of implementing such a plan. Top-hat letters must be filed electronically.  Failure to timely file a top-hat letter could mean that your deferred compensation plan is liable for ERISA penalties for failure to file annual information returns (Form 5500), to hold plan assets in trust, to make certain disclosures to participants, and on a host of other compliance points.  The Department of Labor permits late filing of top-hat notification letters for payment of a modest fee.  If your organization has a deferred compensation plan in place you should have ready access to a copy of the top-hat notification letter (or confirmation of its online filing) and should consider the DOL correction program if you cannot do so.

Having practiced law in Santa Barbara, California, a haven for charitable organizations, for over 20 years I have had the privilege of working with these special deferred compensation plan rules in many different factual settings and would be happy to help your organization navigate them in order to best retain and reward your valued executives.

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Filed under 403(b) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, Section 457(b) Plans, Section 457(f) Plans, Tax-Exempt Organizations, Top-Hat Exemption

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: IRS Begins ACA Reporting Penalty Process

Repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by the American Health Care Act (AHCA) may be underway in Washington D.C., but until a final version of the AHCA is signed into law, the ACA is the law of the land. In fact, the IRS is currently issuing notices to employers that require them to disclose whether they complied with ACA large employer reporting duties, or their excuse for not doing so, where applicable. This post describes the notices and how to respond to them.

By way of background, the ACA required large employers to furnish employee statements (Forms 1095-C) and file them with the IRS under transmittal Form 1094-C, and the Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) imposes separate penalty taxes for failing to timely furnish and file the required forms. Large employer reporting was required for 2015 and 2016, even if transition relief from ACA penalty taxes applied for 2015. The potential penalties can be very large – up to $500 per each 2015 Form 1095-C statement ($250 for not furnishing the form to the employee and $250 for not filing it with IRS) – up to a total annual penalty liability of $3 million. The penalty amounts and cap are periodically adjusted for inflation.

Employers that failed to furnish Form 1095-C and file copies with Form 1094-C may receive the IRS notices, called “Request for Employer Reporting of Offers of Health Insurance Coverage (Forms 1094-C and 1095-C)” and also known as Letter 5699 forms. Forms may be received regarding reporting for 2015 or 2016. Employers that receive a Letter 5699 form will have only thirty days to complete and return the form, which contains the following check boxes:

  • Employer already complied with reporting duties;
  • Employer did not comply but encloses required forms with return letter;
  • Employer will comply with reporting duties within ninety days (or later, if further explained in the form);
  • Employer was not an Applicable Large Employer for the year in question; or
  • Other (requiring a statement explaining why required returns were not filed, and any actions planned to be taken).

The Letter also provides: “[i]f you are required to file information returns under IRC Section 6056, failure to comply may result in the assessment of a penalty under IRC Section 6721 for a failure to file information returns.”

Employers receiving Letter 5699 forms should contact their benefit advisors immediately and plan to respond as required within the thirty-day limit; it may be necessary to request an extension for employers that are just realizing that they have reporting duties and need to prepare statements for enclosure with their response. In this regard, the IRS offers good faith relief from filing penalties for timely filed but incomplete or incorrect returns for 2015 and 2016, but relief from penalties for failures to file entirely for those years is available only upon a showing of “reasonable cause,” which is narrowly interpreted (for instance, due to fire, flood, or major illness).

Large employers should not look to coming ACA repeal/replacement process for relief from filing duties and potential penalties. The House version of the AHCA does not change large employer reporting duties and it is unlikely the Senate or final versions of the law will do so. This is largely because procedural rules limit reform/repeal provisions to those affecting tax and revenue measures, which would not include reporting rules.   Thus the reporting component of the ACA will likely remain intact (though it may be merged into Form W-2 reporting duties), regardless of the ACA’s long-term fate in Washington.

Note:  a modified version of this post was published in in the Summer 2017 issue of Risk & Business Magazine (Carle Publishing).

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, American Health Care Act, Applicable Large Employer Reporting, Post-Election ACA, PPACA

5 Things California Employers Should Know About the Current State of Health Care Reform

by Amy Evans, HIP, President, Colibri Insurance Services and Christine P. Roberts, Mullen & Henzell L.L.P.

There is still a lot of debate going on at the federal and state levels about health care reform. In Washington, D.C., the Senate is working on a second round of revisions to the American Health Care Act (AHCA), but there is lack of alignment within the Republican party about the new plan, and the current administration is now occupied by other items. At the state level, a Senate bill proposing a state-wide single-payer health care system is making its way through the legislature and generating a lot of conversation about a complete overhaul of health care financing and delivery. With all of the uncertainty and political noise, it can be difficult for employers to know where to put their attention and resources. Here are five things California employers should know about the current state of health care reform.

1) California is leading the discussion about single-payer. California Senate Bill 562 is currently making its way through the state legislation. If enacted, SB 562 would eliminate the private health insurance system in California, including health insurance carriers, health insurance brokers and employer-sponsored health insurance benefits. It would replace them with a state-run, “single-payer” system called the Healthy California program, which would be governed by a 9-member executive board, and guided by a 22-member public advisory committee. At this juncture, funding measures for the bill are vague but include appropriation of existing federal funding for Medicare, Medi-Cal, CHIP and other health benefits provided to California residents, as well as an increase in payroll taxes. The estimated cost for this system is $400 billion annually, which is twice the size of the current budget for the entire state. SB 562 is widely popular in concept but also widely misunderstood, with many confusing it for a universal coverage system that would be supplemented by private and employer-sponsored coverage. The bill is currently in suspense with the Appropriations Committee in Sacramento. The committee chair (who is also the author of the bill) may wait for the results of a detailed study on the bill’s cost and impact, or he may choose to send it to the Senate for a vote. If the bill makes it through the Senate and the Assembly (which it is likely to do because it is such a popular concept), it is anticipated that it will be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, who has already expressed concerns about the bill’s financing. Alternatively, the legislature could vote on the bill and then table it until a new governor takes office in 2018. Either way, the bill would become a ballot measure to be approved by voters. Progress of the American Health Care Act in Washington, D.C. will impact SB 562 because the state bill would make use of state innovation waivers, which are slated to expand under the AHCA, but federal retooling of health care reform won’t impede SB 562’s progress to the Governor’s desk. Employers who offer health insurance as a benefit to attract and retain quality employees should be aware of the meaning and impact of this single-payer bill and should continue to track its progress.

 2) “Play or Pay” is still in play. The Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s “play or pay” penalties are still in place, so Applicable Large Employers are required to offer affordable, minimum value health insurance to eligible employees or pay a penalty. The current administration has suggested that they will reduce the penalties to $0 retroactive to 2016, but that has not happened yet. The 1094/1095 reporting requirements also remain in place. There has been some recent talk that penalty notices for 2015 and 2016 may be going out soon, perhaps first to the employers who have the largest penalty assessments.†  However, the Internal Revenue Service is also significantly understaffed so the availability of resources to enforce these penalties remains in doubt. Applicable Large Employers should continue to assess their play or pay options, track employee hours and offers of coverage, and complete 1094/1095 reporting for 2017. They should also address any penalty notifications from the IRS in a timely manner.

3) If there are no penalties, revenue has to come from another source. The extremely unpopular revenue-generating pieces of the ACA, including the individual mandate, the employer mandate, and the Cadillac Tax (currently delayed to 2020) are likely to be cut from the new AHCA, but that would create a shortfall in revenue that would need to made up elsewhere. The employer exclusion is a popular target in current discussions – this is the tax benefit that allows employer contributions to health insurance to be considered separate from employee income. If the employer exclusion is capped or eliminated, it will effectively increase taxes on the approximately 50% of U.S. residents who receive health insurance through their employers, and deliver a huge blow to the employer-sponsored health insurance system. Employers who offer health insurance as a benefit to attract and retain quality employees should be aware of the meaning and impact of capping or eliminating the employer exclusion.

4) 2018 Health insurance renewals will be business as usual. Insurance carriers filed their health insurance plan designs and rates with the regulatory agencies (Department of Insurance and Department of Managed Health Care) for 2018, so any substantive changes to plans (for example, removing Essential Health Benefits) won’t happen until 2019. For employers offering coverage, this means business as usual for 2018 health insurance renewals. Expect increases to premiums to average 10-15%. Also expect lots of plan changes – some plans may be discontinued and participants will be mapped to new plans; benefits many change even if plan names remain the same; carriers may reduce networks and pharmacy benefits and increase deductibles and out of pocket maximums to keep premiums in check.

5) Cost-containment tools are gaining in popularity. As out of pocket costs continue to increase for health insurance participants, we will continue to see a move towards consumer-driven health care, where participants are encouraged to be more involved in the spending of their health care dollars. Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) are growing in popularity again, carriers are providing tools to promote transparency for comparison shopping, and alternative delivery systems like telehealth, nurse on call, minute clinics, free-standing urgent care centers, and even flat-fee house calls are gaining in popularity. Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), self-funding arrangements and cash-benefit policies can also be effective tools for cost containment. Employers should work with their health insurance brokers and other benefit advisers to assess the value of these tools in their current employee benefits programs.

In closing, employer-provided health benefits rest on shifting legal sands and that is likely to remain the case for some time.   Planning opportunities, and pitfalls, will arise as the reform process moves forward and the informed employer will be in the best position to navigate the changes ahead.

†Hat tip to Ryan Moulder, Lead Counsel at Accord-ACA for this detail.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, American Health Care Act, Applicable Large Employer Reporting, Benefit Plan Design, California Insurance Laws, California SB 562, Employer Shared Responsibility, Health Care Reform, Post-Election ACA, Single Payer Health Systems

The Emerging Benefit Trend of Student Loan Assistance

Employers are by now familiar with the scary statistics on mounting student loan indebtedness, including that approximately 71% of 2015 college seniors graduated with a student loan, and almost 80% of millennials believe that student loan debt will make it harder for them to meet their financial goals.  Per Mark Kantrowitz of Cappex.com, the average student loan balance increased by almost 50% between 2005 and 2015, and now hovers around $35,000 per graduate.

Large student loan debt impacts current employees and prospective new hires in many ways: it may cause rejection of a desired position or promotion due to income needs, it may postpone retirement plan participation due to cash flow needs, and it may delay or even rule out home ownership or starting families, leading to a less stable and community-involved workforce.

Employers want to be able to help mitigate some of the downside of high student loan debt among their employees, but their efforts are hindered by the fact that employer loan payments on behalf of an employee are currently taxable to the employee.

Several pieces of new legislation proposed for the 2017-2018 Congressional term encourage or facilitate employer assistance with student loan repayments through tax incentives. A survey of some of these measures follows:

The Higher Education Loan Payments (HELP) for Students and Parents Act (H.R. 1656)

  • This measure would permit employers to make up to $5,250 per year in tax-free student loan repayments on behalf of employees, and provide an employer tax credit based on 50% of contributions made within that dollar limit.
  • It would also permit employers to make up to $5,250 per year in the form of “qualified dependent 529 contributions” direct to employees’ tax-exempt tuition savings accounts set up on behalf of their children (up to age 19; students up to age 24), and would provide a corresponding 50% employer tax credit.
  • If passed it would thereby double the current $5,250 limit on employer education assistance under Internal Revenue Code (“Code) § 127.
  • Significant for smaller employers, the HELP for Students and Parents Act would treat sole proprietors and partners as employees for purposes of the excludible contributions.

The Student Loan Repayment Act (H.R. 615)

  • This bill would offer employers a 3-year business tax credit equal to 50% of startup costs for a student loan program (up to $500 per participating employee) under which the employer matches employees’ student loan repayments, up to $2,000 per year.
  • The startup costs are program creation costs, not amounts used for employer matching contributions.
  • The bill would also allow employers who hire “qualified student loan repayers” to claim the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which encourages hiring of select populations such as veterans and recipients of certain types of public assistance. A “qualified student loan repayer” must have at least an associate’s degree, and outstanding education loans of at least $10,000.

The Student Loan Repayment Assistance Act (H.R. 108)

  • This bill would amend the Code to allow businesses a tax credit for employer-paid student loan repayments made direct to the lender, equal to 10% of the amounts that the employer pays on behalf of any employee, not to exceed $500 per employee per month.
  • The credit would be refundable for small businesses and non-profits who cannot use the credit against taxes.
  • The bill would require a written plan document, notice to employees, annual reporting to IRS and must be made “widely available” to employees (not discriminate in favor of “highly compensated employees”).

The Retirement Improvement and Savings Enhancement (RISE) Act of 2016

  • This measure took the form of a discussion draft in the 2014-2016 Congress but likely will be re-introduced in the current 115th Congress.
  • It would permit employers to make matching contributions to an employee’s 401(k) or SIMPLE IRA account based on his or her student loan repayments, essentially treating employee student loan repayment as equivalent of a 401(k) salary deferral.
  • Its retirement provisions would also curtail currently permissible IRA strategies including “mega Roth IRAs” and stretch IRAs, and would permit IRA contributions after reaching age 70 1/2.

As legislative efforts progress, vendors are already stepping in to the breach. Tuition.io provides a software interface that permits employer money to go direct to repay student loans, without going through employee pay.  The average employer contribution per paycheck is $50 – $200.   Other vendors include Student Loan Genius, PeopleJoy, Peanut Butter, and Gradifi.

One compliance question that these programs raise is whether student loan repayment programs would comprise ERISA plans, subject to trust and reporting requirements, or simply be viewed as “payroll practices” exempt from Title I of ERISA.  They do not provide retirement income or defer compensation to retirement age, thus would not likely be an ERISA pension plan, and do not provide benefits within the definition of ERISA “health and welfare” plans, so probably would not fall within ERISA’s scope.  This should help encourage formation of these programs by employers, as ERISA compliance burdens can be complicated and costly. Employers may still need to meet certain requirements in order to ensure tax-qualified status, however, as in the case of the Student Loan Repayment Assistance Act, which imposes documentation, notice and reporting duties.

Employers that want to address their employees’ student loan debt through workplace financial assistance can take the following steps to help select the program or policy that best suits their needs:

  • Talk to your recruiters and use other methods to estimate the student loan burden faced by your staff and new hire candidates.
  • Carefully evaluate various student loan aid vendors and identify those with the best fit for your organization.
  • Invest time in plan design and scheduling a roll out.
  • Remember that communication and ease of use are both key success factors.
  • Continue to monitor legislation for new assistance options.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, IRA Issues