IRS Rolls Out Collection Process for ACA Large Employer Penalty Tax

The IRS is rolling out enforcement of the large employer “pay or play” penalty tax for 2015, with preliminary penalty calculation letters anticipated to begin to be issued between now and the end of 2017.   This will potentially impact employers who, over 2014, averaged 100 or more full-time employees, plus full-time equivalents, and who in 2015 either did not offer group health coverage to at least 70% of its full-time employees, or offered coverage that was “unaffordable,” as defined under the ACA, and for whom at least one full-time employee qualified for premium tax credits on a health exchange.

The sample penalty summary table the IRS has just circulated leaves space for a six-figure annual penalty amount, so substantial amounts of business revenue could be at stake in the collection process. Below is a timeline beginning with receipt of a notice from the IRS of a preliminary penalty calculation (Letter 226J), which includes the penalty summary table; the timeline is based on recently-updated IRS FAQs on the penalty collection process.   Employers must respond by the date set forth in the Letter 226J, which generally will be 30 days from the date of the letter. However due to habitually slow IRS internal processing, employers may have less than two weeks from date of actual receipt, to prepare a response.  ACA reporting vendors may not be equipped to assist with responses to preliminary penalty assessments, so employers who receive a Letter 226J identifying a preliminary penalty amount should look to ERISA or other tax counsel, or an accountant with knowledge of the ACA, in order to best protect their interests.  Not all IRS communication forms referenced below had been released as of the date of this post but it will be updated as the forms become available.

  1. The start point is an employer who is an ALE for 2015 (based on 2014 headcount) and who has one or more FT employees who obtain premium tax credits for at least one month in 2015, as reflected in ACA reporting (and an affordability safe harbor or other relief was not available).
  2. The ALE receives Letter 226J with enclosures, including the penalty summary table, Form 14764 Employer Shared Responsibility Payment (ESRP) Response, and Form 14765 Premium Tax Credit (PTC) List, identifying employees who potentially trigger ACA penalties.
  3. The ALE has until the response date set forth on Letter 226J to submit Form 14764 ESRP Response and backup documentation. The deadline will generally be no more than 30 days from date of Letter 226J but internal IRS processing may cut in to that time budget.
  4. The IRS will acknowledge the ALE’s response, via one of five different versions of Letter 227.
  5. The ALE either takes the action outlined in Letter 227 (e.g., makes original or revised ESRP payment), or
  6. the ALE requests a pre-assessment conference with IRS Office of Appeals, in writing, within 30 days from the date of Letter 227, following instructions set forth in Letter 227 and in IRS Publication 5, Your Appeal Rights.
  7. If ALE fails to respond to Letter 226J or Letter 227, the IRS will assess the proposed ESRP payment amount and issue Notice CP 220J, notice and demand for payment.
  8. Notice CP 220J will include a summary of the ESR payment amount and reflect payments made, credits applied, and balance due, if any; it will instruct ALE how to make payment. Installment agreements may be reached per IRS Publication 594.

 

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Applicable Large Employer Reporting, Health Care Reform, Minimum Essential Coverage Reporting, Post-Election ACA, PPACA, Premium Tax Credits

Proposed Tax Reform Targets Executive Deferred Compensation

Buried deep within the 429 pages of the tax reform proposal, titled the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” is a provision that would significantly change the landscape for executive deferred compensation plans. Specifically, Section 3801 of the Act, titled “Nonqualified Deferred Compensation,” would move the point of taxation of most forms of deferred compensation from the time of actual payout to the executive, which is generally the case under the current rules, to the point at which the executive need no longer perform substantial services in order to receive the compensation; e.g., the point at which the funds “vest.”  Other changes are proposed, but this single timing issue would remove much of the appeal of deferred compensation plans. The changes, if they become law, would affect not just deferrals of cash compensation, but also equity forms of compensation such as stock options and stock appreciation rights.

The Act would also repeal the current compliance regime for nonqualified deferred compensation, known as the “Enron rules” (because they were inspired by manipulation of deferred compensation by certain Enron executives), and codified at Code Section 409A, which have been in place since 2005.  The new rules, if passed into law, will be set forth under Section 409B of the Code.

This is not the first time that Congress has proposed these changes to deferred compensation; a version of them appeared in the Tax Reform Act of 2014, also under Section 3801 of that bill.  An excellent and detailed overview of the those earlier proposed changes appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of the Benefits Law Journal.  The article deserves re-reading now that deferred compensation reform is back on the table under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

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Filed under Deferred Compensation, Section 409A, Section 409B, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Top-Hat Exemption

IRS Announces New Benefit Limits for 2018

olga-delawrence-386839On October 19, 2017 the IRS announced 2018 cost-of-living adjustments for annual contribution and other dollar limits affecting 401(k) and other retirement plans.   Salary deferral limits to 401(k) and 403(b) plans increased $500 to $18,500, but other dollar limits remained unchanged, including the compensation threshold for highly compensated employee status. Specifically, an employee will be a highly compensated employee (HCE) in 2018 on the basis of compensation if he or she earned more than $120,000 in 2017.  Citations below are to the Internal Revenue Code.

In a separate announcement, the Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2018 increased to $128,400 from $127,200.

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

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