2020 COLA Adjustments Announced

rodney-the-architect-Fqn4hiQ-Rnk-unsplash.jpgOn November 5, 2019, the IRS announced 2020 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.  The maximum limit on salary deferral contributions to 401(k) and 403(b) plans increased $500 to $19,500 and a number of other dollar limits increased.  Citations below are to the Internal Revenue Code.

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In a separate announcement, the Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2020 increased to $137,700 from $132,900 in 2019.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, COLA Increases, ERISA, IRA Issues, Profit Sharing Plan, Section 457(b) Plans

CalSavers: Employers Should Remain Compliance-Ready, Despite Court Challenges

Effective June 30, 2020, California employers with 100 or more employees, that do not maintain or contribute to a retirement plan, must participate in the CalSavers Program, by forwarding salary deferral contributions to the Program on behalf of most employees.  The CalSavers Program expands to employers with between 50 and 99 employees on June 30, 2021, and to employers with 5 or more employees on June 30, 2022, again presuming that the employer does not have a retirement plan in place  Employers of any size may voluntarily participate in CalSavers at the current time, and self-employed individuals, including those in the gig economy, may enroll effective September 1, 2019.

How do business owners count employees in order to determine their applicable CalSavers effective date?  What is the impact, if any, of being part of a “controlled group” of businesses, or of using a staffing or payroll agency?  What about out-of-state employers, or California-based employers with out-of-state employees? Below we do a “deep dive” on these and other CalSavers employer coverage issues.  For more information, you can also check our prior post on CalSavers.

Before we get to the details, CalSavers has not cleared all legal obstacles in its path as of this writing. The U.S. Department of Justice has stated that it is considering intervening in the federal court case over whether ERISA preempts CalSavers, and has asked for additional time, to September 13, 2019, to make its decision. CalSavers earlier survived a preemption challenge brought by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, succeeding in having the complaint dismissed, but the Association filed an amended complaint. The court’s decision on the amended complaint was pending when the Department of Justice got involved. We will continue to track the pending court challenge to CalSavers and update you on future developments.

  1. How do I count employees to determine when my business is subject to CalSavers? To determine employee headcount, take the average number of employees that your business reported to EDD for the quarter ending December 31 and the previous three quarters, counting full- and part-time employees.  California Code of Regulations Title 10, § 1001(a) (2019). So, for example, if you reported over 100 employees to EDD for the quarter ending December 31, 2019 and the previous three quarters, combined, you would need to register your business with CalSavers on June 30, 2020.
  2. What if my business is part of a controlled group of corporations? The CalSavers regulations do not address this issue. They appear to require each business with a separate federal EIN/California payroll tax account number to register or opt-out of the program.   So, for example, if your business has 25 employees but you are part of a controlled group that includes over 100 employees, and there is no controlled group plan in place, you would not need to register with CalSavers on June 30, 2020. This would also be the case if your business is part of a group of trades or businesses under common control (e.g. business types other than corporations), or an affiliated service group.
  3. What if my business contributes to a controlled group 401(k) plan or other retirement plan? Does my business qualify for the CalSavers exemption? If your business is part of a controlled group and contributes to the controlled group retirement plan on behalf of its employees the CalSavers exemption should apply, as it includes businesses that either “maintain” or “contribute to” a retirement plan. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 10, § 1000(m) (2019). The answer is the same if you are part of a group of trades or businesses under common control, or affiliated service group, that sponsors the retirement plan.
  4. What if my business is part of a controlled group, and the controlled group maintains a plan, but the plan excludes my business and my employees cannot participate? CalSavers personnel have informally stated that the CalSavers exemption applies even in this situation, because the business is still part of a controlled group that maintains a plan. Businesses that maintain their own plan, but that exclude a subset of employees from the plan (within the requirements of minimum coverage and nondiscrimination testing), even a majority of employees, are also exempt, per informal CalSavers commentary.  In such situations, an exempt employer cannot enroll their business in CalSavers voluntarily but can forward employee contributions on behalf of employees who have established a CalSavers account through prior employment.
  5. How do I do the employee headcount if my business uses a staffing agency or payroll company? Whether the staffing agency/payroll company or its “client” – your business – is the employer for headcount purposes depends upon what type of agency is involved. The CalSavers regulations refer to a“Tri-Party Employment Relationship,” which means that the employer enters into a service contract with a third-party entity for services including, but not limited to, payroll, staffing (both temporary and non-temporary), human resources, and employer compliance with laws and regulations. That category is further sub-divided into four categories.
  6. What categories of staffing/payroll companies do the CalSavers rules identify? The CalSavers rules refer to the following: Temporary Agencies, Leasing Agencies, Professional Employer Organizations or PEOs, and Motion Picture Payroll Services Companies. The basic rule is that the agency is the employer if you use a temporary agency or leasing agency, but your business is the employer for CalSavers headcount purposes if you use a PEO or Motion Picture Payroll Services Company. However, conditions apply! More details are provided in following questions.

Important Note: the Tri-Party Employment Relationship categories overlap to some degree, but not entirely, with federal rules governing who an employer is under ERISA employment benefit plans. The discussion here applies only to determining coverage under the CalSavers Program. For more information on ERISA benefit plan coverage issues raised by staffing agency and payroll company workers, see S. Derrin Watson’s treatise, Who’s the Employer esource, chapters 3, 5, and 6.

  1. What is a temporary agency or leasing agency for purposes of the CalSavers rules? California Unemployment Insurance Code § 606.5 (b) defines a temporary services employer or leasing employer as a business that does all of the following:
  • Negotiates with clients or customers for such matters as time, place, type of work, working conditions, quality, and price of the services.
  • Determines assignments or reassignments of workers, even though workers retain the right to refuse specific assignments.
  • Retains the authority to assign or reassign a worker to other clients or customers when a worker is determined unacceptable by a specific client or customer.
  • Assigns or reassigns the worker to perform services for a client or customer.
  • Sets the rate of pay of the worker, whether or not through negotiation.
  • Pays the worker from its own account or accounts.
  • Retains the right to hire and terminate workers.

If your business uses a temporary or leasing agency you should review the terms of your services agreement with them and confirm that it meets all of these requirements. If it does not, please see the response to Question 10.

  1. What is a PEO for purposes of the CalSavers rules? The CalSavers rule incorporate the definition found in Section 7705(e)(2) under the Internal Revenue Code, which describes a PEO as a business that does all of the following:
  • assumes responsibility for payment of wages to such individual, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from the customer for such services,
  • assumes responsibility for reporting, withholding, and paying any applicable taxes [ . . . ] with respect to such individual’s wages, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from the customer for such services,
  • assumes responsibility for any employee benefits which the service contract may require the certified professional employer organization to provide, without regard to the receipt or adequacy of payment from the customer for such benefits,
  • assumes responsibility for recruiting, hiring, and firing workers in addition to the customer’s responsibility for recruiting, hiring, and firing workers,
  • maintains employee records relating to such individual, and
  • agrees to be treated as a certified professional employer organization for purposes of section 3511 with respect to such individual.

If your business uses a PEO you should review the terms of your services agreement with them and confirm that it meets all of these requirements. If it does not, please see the response to Question 10.

  1. What is a Motion Picture Payroll Services Company for purposes of the CalSavers rules? If a payroll services company in the motion picture industry meets all of the following criteria as set forth in California U.I. Code § 679(f)(4), then the “employer” is the client motion picture production company:
  • Contractually provides the services of motion picture production workers to a motion picture production company or to an allied motion picture services company.
  • Is a signatory to a collective bargaining agreement for one or more of its clients.
  • Controls the payment of wages to the motion picture production workers and pays those wages from its own account or accounts.
  • Is contractually obligated to pay wages to the motion picture production workers without regard to payment or reimbursement by the motion picture production company or allied motion picture services company.
  • At least 80 percent of the wages paid by the motion picture payroll services company each calendar year are paid to workers associated between contracts with motion picture production companies and motion picture payroll services companies.

If your business uses a motion picture payroll services company you should review the terms of your services agreement with them and confirm that it meets all of these requirements. If it does not, please the response to Question 10.

  1. What if my business uses a third party staffing or payroll arrangement that does not fall within any of those definitions? In such instance, your business will be considered the employer for California payroll tax purposes per California Unemployment Insurance Code § 606.5(c), and likely for CalSavers employer coverage (employee headcount) purposes. The cited Unemployment Insurance Code section clarifies that the staffing or payroll company is considered a mere agent of your business in such instances, and is not a separate employing entity for payroll tax purposes.
  2. Does CalSavers apply to out-of-state employers? An employer’s eligibility is based on the number of California employees it employs. Eligible employees are any individuals who have the status of an employee under California law, who receive wages subject to California taxes, and who are at least 18 years old. If an out-of-state employer has more than 100 employees meeting that description, then as of June 30, 2020 it would need to either sponsor a retirement plan, or register for CalSavers.
  3. Does CalSavers apply to businesses located in California, with workers who perform services out of state? Yes, if the employer is not otherwise exempt, and if they have a sufficient number of employees who have the status of an employee under California law, who receive wages subject to California taxes, and who are at least 18 years old.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  (c) 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

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Filed under Affiliated Service Groups, CalSavers Program, Common Control Issues, Controlled Groups, Gig Economy, Payroll Issues, Payroll Services, Professional Employer Organizations, Staffing Agencies, State Auto-IRA Programs

Does Your Retirement Plan Incorporate State Law Into the Plan?  Check Your Spousal Benefit Obligations!

jordan-mcdonald-766295-unsplashRetirement plan documents are contracts and generally they contain a “choice of law” provision.  The choice of law provision dictates what laws will govern interpretation of the contract, for instance in the event of a dispute over the contract’s application.  A recent, unpublished Ninth Circuit court opinion held that the Plan’s choice of California law required the plan to provide spousal survivor rights to registered domestic partners, because California law affords registered domestic partners the same legal status as spouses, and because doing so did not conflict with any provision of the plan document, ERISA or the Internal Revenue Code.  In light of the opinion, plan sponsors should examine their plan documents to determine whether or not choice of law provisions carry state domestic partner rights into their plan document, and if this is the case, should consult with counsel as to how that might impact their plan distribution and plan loan approval procedures, and QDRO procedures as well.

In Reed v. KRON/IBEW Local 45 Pension Plan, No. 4:16-cv-04471-JSW (9th Cir. May 16, 2019), plaintiff David Reed entered into a long-term relationship with Donald Gardner in 1998.  Gardner was an employee at KRON-TV and a participant in the KRON/IBEW Local 45 Pension Plan, a union-management sponsored defined benefit pension plan.  In addition to a choice of law provision that invoked California law, to the extent consistent with ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, the KRON plan document did not limit the term “spouse” or “married” to opposite-sex spouses.

In 2004, Reed and Gardner registered as domestic partners under California law.  Registered domestic partners have had the same status under California law as legally married spouses since the California Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 went into effect on January 1, 2005.[1]

Gardner retired in 2009 and began receiving pension benefits under the plan.  Prior to retiring he attended meetings with KRON-TV’s human resources department together with Reed.  Although HR knew that the couple were registered domestic partners (Reed, for example, received benefits under the group health plan), the HR personnel did not mention the availability of a joint-and-survivor form of benefit under the Plan.  Gardner accordingly elected a single life annuity form of benefit.  He also designated Reed as his beneficiary under the Plan.

Gardner and Reed married in May 2014, five days before Gardner passed away.  Reed submitted a claim for survivor’s benefits under the plan.  Although the Pension Committee of the Plan never formally responded to Reed’s claim, Reed was deemed to have exhausted his administrative remedies and filed suit in federal court against the Plan, the Pension Committee, and the parent company of KRON-TV.  The federal trial court granted the Plan Committee’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that it did not abuse its discretion in denying Reed’s benefit claim.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court and remanded the case with instructions to determine the payments owed to Reed.  The panel stated:

“The Committee abused its discretion by denying benefits to Reed. During either time the Committee evaluated the Plan’s benefits in this case—in 2009 or in 2016—California law afforded domestic partners the same rights, protections, and benefits as those granted to spouses. See Cal. Fam. Code § 297.5(a); see also Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club, 36 Cal. 4th 824, 837-89 (2005). Neither ERISA nor the Code provided binding guidance inconsistent with applying this interpretation of spouse to the Plan. See United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) (striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s definitions of “spouse” and “marriage” as unconstitutional); cf.26 C.F.R. § 301.7701-18(c) (as of September 2, 2016, the Code excludes registered domestic partners from the definition of “spouse, husband, and wife”). Therefore, because Reed and Gardner were domestic partners at the time of Gardner’s retirement, the Committee should have awarded Reed spousal benefits in accordance with California law, as was required by the Plan’s choice-of-law provision.”

Despite the fact that the Internal Revenue Code does not recognize domestic partners as equivalent to spouses, this did not limit the terms of the plan document; in this regard Reed successfully argued that federal law established a floor, but not a ceiling, for drafting the terms of the plan.  This case is of particular relevance to plan sponsors in California and Hawaii, as both states fall within the Ninth Circuit, and both states grant domestic partners the same rights as married couples.[2]  As mentioned, if domestic partner rights are imported into the plan document, they may be implicated even in the absence of joint and survivor annuity provisions.  For instance, if the plan document expressly requires spousal consent for a loan or hardship withdrawal, domestic partner approval in such instances may be required, and QDRO procedures may have to be expanded.

For this to be the case, the plan’s choice of law provision must invoke the law of a state which grants to domestic partners rights equal to those of spouses, and the plan must also not define “spouse” in a more limiting way, for instance by limiting the term to legally married couples. These factors are more likely to be present in individually drafted retirement plans, whether in a “Taft-Hartley” plan such as the KRON plan, or in a document drafted specifically for a unique single employer.

The situation posed in the Reed case is not as likely to occur under a pre-approved plan document.  Fidelity’s Volume Submitter Defined Contribution Plan (Basic Plan Document No. 17), for instance, defines “spouse” as “the person to whom an individual is married for purposes of Federal income taxes.”  This, then, would include same-sex and opposite-sex spouses, but would exclude domestic partners, irrespective of the Fidelity plan document’s choice of law provision (which invokes the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).

By contrast, the Empower basic plan document (formally, the Great-West Trust Company Defined Contribution Prototype Plan and Trust (Basic Plan Document #11)) allows the plan sponsor to define “spouse” in Appendix B to the Adoption Agreement.  If the plan sponsor fails to specify a definition, the basic plan document choice of law clause (Section 7.10(H)) defaults to the law of the state of the principal place of business of the employer, to that of the corporate trustee, if any, or to that of the insurer (for a fully insured plan).  Plan sponsors using an Empower prototype document may want to consult benefits counsel as to the consequences of the default language as applied to their specific factual circumstances.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, Defense of Marriage Act, ERISA, GINA/Genetic Privacy, Profit Sharing Plan, Qualified Domestic Relations Orders, Registered Domestic Partner Benefits, Same-Sex Marriage, Uncategorized

California Employers: Get Ready for the CalSavers Program

Beginning on July 1, 2019, California private employers with 5 or more employees, who do not already sponsor a retirement plan, may enroll in the CalSavers Retirement Savings Program (CalSavers).   Mandated employers must enroll in CalSavers according to the following schedule:

  • Over 100 employees – June 30, 2020
  • 50-99 employees – June 30, 2021
  • 5-49 more employees – June 30, 2022

Below, we describe the key features of the CalSavers program.

  • CalSavers is the byproduct of California Senate Bill 1234, which Governor Brown signed into law in 2016. It is codified in Title 21 of the Government Code and in applicable regulations. It creates a state board tasked with developing a workplace retirement savings program for employers with at least 5 employees that do not sponsor their own retirement plans (“Eligible Employers”). This may mean a 401(k) plan, a 403(b) plan, a SEP or SIMPLE plan, or a multiple employer (union) plan.
  • CalSavers applies to private for-profit and non-profit employers, but not to federal or state governmental entities.
  • CalSavers calls for employees aged at least 18, and receiving a Form W-2 from an eligible employer, to be automatically enrolled in the CalSavers program after a 30 day period, during which they may either opt out, or customize their contribution level and investment choices.
  • The default is an employee contribution of 5% of their wages subject to income tax withholding, automatically increasing each year by 1% to a maximum contribution level of 8%. Employer contributions currently are prohibited, but may be allowed at a later date.
  • Prior to their mandatory participation date, Eligible Employers will receive a notice from the CalSavers program containing an access code, and a written notice that may be forwarded to employees. Eligible Employers must log on to the CalSavers site to either register online, or certify their exemption from Calsavers by stating that their business already maintains a retirement plan. The link to do so is here. To do either, you will need your federal tax ID number and your California payroll tax number, as well as the access code provided in the CalSavers Notice.
  • Eligible Employers who enroll in CalSavers will provide some basic employee roster information to CalSavers. CalSavers will then contact employees directly to notify them of the program and to instruct them about how to enroll or opt-out online. Those who enroll will have an online account which they can access in order to change their contribution levels or investment selections.
  • Once an Eligible Employer has enrolled in CalSavers, their subsequent obligations are limited to deducting and remitting each enrolled employee’s contributions each pay period, and to adding new eligible employees within 30 days of hire (or of attaining eligibility by turning age 18, if later).
  • Eligible employers may delegate their third party payroll provider to fulfill these functions, if the payroll provider agrees and is equipped to do so.
  • Eligible Employers are shielded from fiduciary liability to employees that might otherwise arise regarding investment performance or other aspects of participation in the CalSavers program.
  • There are employer penalties for noncompliance. The penalty is $250 per eligible employee for failure to comply after 90 days of receiving the CalSavers notification, and $500 per eligible employee if noncompliance extends to 180 days or more after the notice.
  • Eligible Employers must remain neutral about the CalSavers program and may not encourage employees to participate, or discourage them from doing so. They should refer employees with questions about CalSavers to the CalSavers website or to Client Services at 855-650-6918 or clientservices@calsavers.com.

The CalSavers program was challenged in court by a California taxpayer association, on the grounds that it was preempted by ERISA as a consequence of the automatic enrollment feature.[1] On March 29, 2019, a federal court judge concluded that ERISA did not prevent operation of the CalSavers program, because the program only applies to employers who do not have retirement plans governed by ERISA.  The taxpayer association is deciding whether to amend their complaint by May 25, 2019, or appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit.  Therefore, further litigation may ensue, but after this important early victory the timely rollout of CalSavers seems likely, and employers should act accordingly.  (Programs similar to CalSavers are up and running in Oregon and Illinois, and have been proposed in a handful of other states.)

Employers reviewing this information should pause to re-examine their earlier decisions against maintaining a retirement plan for employees. The benefit of sponsoring your own plan is that it will bear the “brand” of your business and will serve to attract and retain quality employees.  Further, the administrative functions you must fulfill in order to participate in CalSavers are comparable to those required by a SEP or SIMPLE plan, both of which offer larger contribution limits and an employer deduction to boot.  If mandatory participation in CalSavers is bearing down on your business, now is a good time to talk to a retirement plan consultant, or your CPA or attorney, to determine whether you can leverage the time investment CalSavers will require, into a retirement arrangement that offers considerably more to your business and your employees.

In the meantime, here are some online resources for Eligible Employers:

  • Employer checklist – a punchlist to help you prepare for enrollment.
  • CalSavers Program Disclosure Booklet – this goes into significant detail about the way CalSavers contributions will be invested; notably the cost of these investments (consisting of an underlying fund fee, a state fee, and a program administration fee), will range at launch between $0.83 to $0.95 for every $100 invested, which is approximately twice the cost load for typical 401(k) investments.  It is expected that the fees will drop as the assets in the program grow, according to a breakpoint schedule approved by the CalSavers board and program administrator.
  • Online FAQ

 

[1] A Department of Labor “safe harbor” dating back to 1975 excludes “completely voluntary” programs with limited employer involvement from the definition of an ERISA plan.  29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(d).  The Obama administration finalized regulations in 2016 that would have expressly permitted state programs like CalSavers as exempt from ERISA coverage. However, Congress passed legislation in 2017 that repealed those regulations.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, CalSavers Program, ERISA, IRA Issues, Profit Sharing Plan, State Auto-IRA Programs

Bankruptcy Case Highlights Importance of Promptly Transferring Retirement Assets in Divorce

When a couple divorce, it is not uncommon for one partner to have accumulated significantly larger retirement accounts (e.g., in 401(k) plans or IRAs) than the other.  In such cases the parties generally divide IRA accounts pursuant to Internal Revenue Code 408(d)(6) and/or enter into a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) to divide a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan.

The importance of moving promptly to divide and transfer title to retirement accounts in divorce was highlighted in a Bankruptcy Court case from 2018, In re Lerbakken, 590 B.R. 895 (8th Cir. 2018).  In the case, the husband’s failure to take formal legal custody of half of his ex-wife’s 401(k) account (through obtaining a QDRO), and the entirety of one of her IRAs, resulted in those amounts becoming available to creditors in the husband’s bankruptcy case.

In Lerbakken, the court’s dissolution order/property settlement directed Lerbakken’s attorney to submit a QDRO with respect to the 401(k) account, and presumably contained language relevant to transferring title to the IRA, for which a QDRO is not necessary.  However no steps towards obtaining a QDRO or transferring title of the IRA were taken.  When Lerbakken filed a voluntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, he claimed his share of the 401(k) account, and the IRA, as exempt retirement accounts.  The bankruptcy court disallowed the exemption on the basis of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Clark v. Rameker, 134 S.Ct. 2242 (2014), which held that a non-spousal inherited IRA (in that case, from a mother to a daughter) was not entitled to the same protection from bankruptcy creditors as are retirement funds that are individually set aside by the person claiming bankruptcy protection; e.g. inherited accounts are more in the nature of a financial windfall than an intended source of retirement living expenses.

On appeal, the Bankruptcy panel of the 8th Circuit court agreed, noting that Clark v. Rameker limits the bankruptcy exemption to “individuals who create and contribute funds into the retirement account,” and disregarding Lerbakken’s claim that he would use the funds for retirement income.  The court’s final summing up suggests that a different result would have obtained,  had Lerbakken obtained a QDRO and moved the IRA funds into his own name, rather than simply having relied on the wording of the property settlement:

            “We recognize that Lerbakken’s interest in the 401(k) and IRA did not arise in the identical manner as the IRA account addressed in Clark.  This distinction is not material to our de novo review.  Any interest he holds in the Accounts resulted from nothing more than a property settlement.  Applying the reasoning of Clark the 401(k) and IRA accounts are not retirement funds which qualify as exempt under federal law.”  (Emphasis added.)

In essence, the result is that without having taken actual ownership to the retirement funds, Lerbakken could not “borrow” the exemption status for the 401(k) and IRA that his wife would have been able to claim, had she been the bankruptcy debtor.  The fact that Lerbakken himself may have been saving money during the marriage to allow for his ex-wife’s 401(k) and IRA contributions simply does not come into play.   The Lerbakken opinion did not address the question of how one of Lerbakken’s creditors (who included his family law counsel) would actually obtain the assets still held in the ex wife’s 401(k) account and IRA, but presumably they would intervene in any attempt to later transfer these amounts over to Lerbakken or to accounts established on his behalf.

As legal precedent, the Lerbakken ruling is limited to states in the 8th Circuit, namely Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, but it’s invocation of the Supreme Court’s Clark v. Rameker decision could be invoked in other districts.  It is also possible that this concept could influence state courts deciding the rights of non-bankruptcy creditors.  It therefore provides a timely reminder of the importance of moving promptly to obtain a QDRO and to move IRA assets pursuant to Internal Revenue Code 408(d)(6) pursuant to divorce.  Sitting on your rights in such instances could result in loss of the protected status of retirement savings in a bankruptcy or possibly other creditor situation.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

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VP of HR Sued Over 401(k) Operational Error

A proposed class action lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois involving a failure to follow the terms of a 401(k) plan personally names the Vice President of Human Resources for Conagra Brands, Inc. Karlson v. Conagra Brands, Case No. 1:18-cv-8323 (N.D. Ill., Dec. 19, 2018) as a defendant, and, as it happens, the lead plaintiff is the former senior director of global benefits at the company. Other named defendants included the benefits administrative and appeals committee of the Conagra board, both of which committees included the named VP of Human Resources among its members.

Generally, class action litigation over 401(k) plans has alleged fiduciary breaches over plan investments, such as unnecessarily expensive share classes, undisclosed revenue sharing, and the like. However a failure to follow the written terms of a plan document is also a fiduciary breach under ERISA § 404(a)(1)(D), which requires fiduciaries to act “in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan” insofar as they are consistent with ERISA.

In the Conagra case, the plan document defined compensation that was subject to salary deferrals and employer matching contributions to include bonus compensation that was paid after separation from employment provided that it would have been paid to the participant, had employment continued, and further provided that the amounts were paid by the later of the date that is 2 ½ months after the end of employment, or end of the year in which employment terminated. Post-severance compensation was included in final regulations under Code § 415 released in April 2007 and is generally an option for employers to elect in their plan adoption agreements.  Note that, when included under a plan, post-severance compensation never includes actual severance pay, only items paid within the applicable time period that would have been paid in the course of employment had employment not terminated.

Karlson was terminated April 1, 2016 and received a bonus check 3 ½ months later, on July 15, 2016, and noted that the Company did not apply his 15% deferral rate to the bonus check and did not make a matching contribution. Because the bonus check fell squarely within the definition of “compensation” subject to contributions under the plan, Karlson filed an ERISA claim and exhausted his administrative remedies under the plan before filing suit.

The complaint alleges that the failure to apply deferral elections and make matching contributions on the bonus check was not a mere oversight on Conagra’s part. Instead, until 2016 Conagra had allowed deferrals to be made from all post-termination bonus checks (provided they were paid by the end of the year in which termination occurred), but in 2016 it limited it to instances where the bonus check was paid within 2 ½ months of termination.  In claim correspondence with Karlson, Conagra referred to this as an “administrative interpretation” of the terms of the Plan that was within its scope of discretion as Plan Administrator, and did not require a plan amendment.

Karlson maintained that the “administrative interpretation” contradicted the written terms of the plan and pursued his claim through the appeals stage. Karlson alleged, in relevant part, that Conagra’s narrowed administrative interpretation coincided with a layoff of 30% of its workforce and was motivated by a desire to reduce its expenses and improve its financial performance.  This, Karlson alleged, was a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty to plan participants and of the exclusive benefit rule and hence violated ERISA.  In addition to the fiduciary breach claim under ERISA § 502(a)(2), Karlson also alleged a claim to recover benefits under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B).

As of this writing, per the public court docket the parties are slated for a status hearing to discuss, among other things, potential settlement of Karlson’s claims.

Although the timing of the layoff certainly adds factual topspin to Karlson’s fiduciary breach claim, the troubling takeaway from this case is that Conagra’s simple failure to follow the written terms of the plan is sufficient for a court to find that it violated its fiduciary duty. The other concern is that operational errors relating to the definition of compensation are among the IRS “top ten” failures corrected in the Voluntary Compliance Program and are also among the most frequent errors that the author is called upon to correct in her practice.

To limit the occurrence of operational failures related to the definition of compensation, plan sponsors should do a “table read” of the definition of compensation in their adoption agreement and summary plan description, together with all personnel whose jobs include plan administration functions (e.g., human resources, payroll, benefits, etc.) Reference to the basic plan document may also be required.  Most important, outside payroll vendor representatives should attend the table read meeting either in person, or by conference call.  All attendees should review, and be on the same page, as to the items that are included in compensation for plan contribution purposes, and on procedures relating to post-termination compensation.

If questions ever arise in this regard, benefit counsel can help.

The above information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  Readers should not apply the information to any specific factual situation other than on the advice of an attorney engaged specifically for that or a related purpose.  © 2019 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, ERISA, Fiduciary and Fee Issues, Fiduciary Issues, Profit Sharing Plan

Online VCP Filing System Up and Running

The IRS Voluntary Correction Program, or VCP, generally must be used by plan sponsors who need to fix certain errors in their retirement plans, including document errors such as missed amendments, and “significant” errors in operation of the plan going back more than two years. VCP is a component program of the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System, the terms of which are outlined in a Revenue Procedure that the IRS updates every few years.  As previously reported, the most recent update, set forth in Revenue Procedure 2018-52, mandates online filing of VCP submissions starting April 1, 2019. The IRS opened the online filing system for voluntary use starting January 1 of this year.  Paper filing is optional through March 31, 2019.  This post reports on first experiences with the online filing system.

  • First, you file online at www.pay.gov, which is also how the applicable VCP user fee is paid electronically. You must have an account established in order to file. The online filing portal at pay.gov is titled “Application for Voluntary Correction Program.” Note that there is a different link at pay.gov called “Additional Payment for Open Application for Voluntary Correction Program” that should not be used for an initial filing. This link is only to be used to make an additional user fee payment for an existing VCP case, which generally would only be at the instruction of an IRS employee.   Plan sponsors and preparers should exercise caution because, when you enter “Voluntary Correction Program” into the pay.gov search engine, this alternative link for the additional payment tends to pop up before the correct link for an initial filing.
  • Form 8950, Application for Voluntary Correction Program, is completed online at www.pay.gov. This version of the form dates to January 2019. Note that the prior version of Form 8950 from November 2017 should not be used as part of the online submission. It can continue to be filed in hard copy through March 31, 2019. Preparers should be careful to follow the Instructions for whatever version of Form 8950 they are working with, as there are differences between them.
  • Any attachments to Form 8950, such as the statement required of Section 403(b) plans, should be part of a single PDF file that contains all portions of the submission (other than Form 8950) that formerly were filed in hard copy (e.g., Form 2848 Power of Attorney, Form 14568 Model VCP Compliance Statement, Schedules thereto, sample corrective calculations, relevant portions of the plan document). The application link at www.pay.gov lists the proper order in which items should go (as does Section 11.11 of Revenue Procedure 2018-52).
  • Items unique to the online filing process that must be included in the PDF file include a signed and dated Penalty of Perjury Statement from an authorized representative of the plan sponsor (formerly this was part of Form 8950), and an optional cover letter to the IRS.
  • Complications ensue when the PDF file exceeds 15 MB. If that is the case, you are to file online and upload as much of your application as fits within 15 MB limit. You and your Power of Attorney then will receive email confirmation of filing from pay.gov. Locate the Tracking ID number that is listed on the confirmation. You then need to prepare one or more fax transmittals that bear the Tracking ID number on the fax coversheet, as well as the EIN, applicant name, and plan name, and fax in the balance of your application to the IRS at (855) 203-6996. Note that the fax (or multiple faxes, if necessary), must be 25MB or smaller to go through the IRS system. Larger files will fail to transmit and no notice of failure will be provided.
  • Either the preparer can provide the PDF to the plan sponsor to upload at www.pay.gov (together with online completion of Form 8950 and payment of the VCP user fee), or the preparer can obtain written authorization from the plan sponsor to use the plan sponsor’s credit card to pay the VCP user fee online, and upload the submission itself. (Hat tip to Alison J. Cohen of Ferenczy Benefits Law Center for input on this latter method, and for other assistance with this post).

This is just a very brief overview of the filing process. More details are found in the January 2019 instructions to Form 8950, and at the online filing portal at http://www.pay.gov

Other than the unfortunate need to separately fax portions of larger VCP applications, the online system operates smoothly and is fairly user-friendly. Time will tell as to whether online filing allows the IRS to process the VCP applications more swiftly than has been possible with paper filings.

 

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, EPCRS, ERISA, Profit Sharing Plan, Voluntary Correction Program