Category Archives: Student Loans

CARES Act Student Loan Benefits Can Aid Employees of Essential Businesses

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In these troubled times, not all employers are eliminating benefits and reducing staff – essential businesses such as healthcare providers, grocery and pharmacy chains, high-tech and certain nonprofit organizations such as food banks, are actually adding staff (with Amazon and Walmart being obvious examples).

Those essential businesses that are adding to payroll or are asking extraordinary efforts from their existing employees should consider making tax-advantaged payments towards employees’ student loans through a new CARES Act measure made available from March 27, 2020 (the CARES Act adoption date), through the end of this calendar year. The CARES Act provision is not in any way limited to essential employers, but by necessity these may be the only employers who are in a financial and staffing position to give the measure serious consideration at this time.

The measure is an add-on to existing Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code which currently allows employers to provide eligible employees with tax-free educational assistance of up $5,250 per year provided certain conditions are met.  Section 127 plans are sometimes referred to as qualified educational assistance programs or EAPs.  Permitted types of educational assistance include tuition, fees, and books, for a broad range of educational pursuits, including graduate degrees, which need not be directly job-related.  Employers can pay the amounts directly to educators or can reimburse employees after the fact.

Under Section 2206 of the CARES Act, the annual maximum benefit remains the same, but “educational assistance” is expanded to include direct payment or reimbursement of principal and interest payments to a provider of any qualified education loan as defined under 26 U.S.C. 221(d).  Notably, the CARES Act does not change the maximum annual budget.  In other words, employers could “spend” the $5,250 per year for a single employee three different ways:

  • by using the entire budget for tuition;
  • by using the entire budget for student loan payments; or
  • by making a combination of tuition payments and student loan payments, with the total not exceeding $5,250.

There are some other requirements to offer this benefit. There must be a written plan document that sets forth the following information:

  • the group of employees eligible to receive benefits, which must not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees, defined as those owning more than 5% of the employer company, or earning in excess of $125,000 in 2019;
  • the types of benefits offered, e.g., tuition assistance, student loan repayments, or either/both, subject to the dollar limit;
  • the annual dollar limit (currently $5,250 is the maximum amount but an employer can choose a lower amount); and
  • any applicable limitations on benefits, such as the requirement to pay benefits back in the event the employee leaves employment within one year after receiving the tuition or loan repayment assistance. Some tuition assistance programs may also impose a requirement that a certain grade level be attained.

In addition:

  • benefits must be 100% employer-funded, and not in any way offered as an alternative to employees’ existing or additional cash compensation; and
  • there must be substantiation of use of the tax-qualified dollars for permitted tuition or student loan repayments.  This may be automatic where the employer makes direct payments to educators or student loan vendors, but additional steps are needed if these amounts are reimbursed after employees incur them directly.

The CARES Act is drafted in a way that suggests an employer must have an EAP in place, to which this new feature is added, but employers should be able to adopt an EAP this year, and either limit it to student loan repayments, or make it a traditional educational assistance program with student loan repayments one of the forms of educational assistance, alongside qualifying types of tuition, fees, etc.

Although this measure is meant to sunset at the end of this year, if there is meaningful uptake by essential employers there is a greater chance that it could be extended, perhaps indefinitely. Especially if the annual dollar limit is adjusted upwards to track inflation (or, better yet, the more rapidly increasing inflation in education costs), tax-advantaged student loan repayments could remain a useful means of attracting and retaining qualified employees both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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. © 2020 Christine P. Roberts, all rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Andre Hunter, Unsplash.

 

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Filed under CARES Act, COVID-19 Benefits Issues, Fringe Benefits, Student Loans

IRS Weighs In on 401(k) “Match” to Student Loan Repayments

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The IRS has approved an arrangement under which an employer “matches” employee student loan repayments by making non-elective contributions to its 401(k) plan on behalf of the employees paying the loans. The guidance is in the form of a Private Letter Ruling (PLR 201833012) that is only citable authority for the taxpayer who requested the ruling, but it is a promising development on the retirement plan front given the heavy student loan debt carried by current millennial employees and the generations following them. The program described in the ruling solves the problem of low 401(k) plan participation by employees who are carrying student loan debt, allowing them to obtain the “free” employer matching funds that they would otherwise forego.

The employer who obtained the ruling maintained a 401(k) plan that included a generous matching formula – 5% of eligible compensation for the pay period, provided that the employee made an elective deferral of at least 2% of compensation for the pay period. The employer proposed establishing a “student loan repayment (SLR) nonelective contribution” program with the following features:

Program Features
• It would be completely voluntary; employees must elect to enroll;
• Once enrolled, employees could opt out of enrollment on a prospective basis;
• Enrollees would still be eligible to make pre-tax or Roth elective deferrals, but would not be eligible to receive regular matching contributions while enrolled;
• Employees would be eligible to receive “SLR nonelective contributions” and true-up matching contributions, as described below; and
• If an employee initially enrolls in the program but later opts out of enrollment, the employee will resume eligibility for regular matching contributions.

SLR Nonelective Contributions
• If an employee makes a student loan repayment during a pay period that equals at least 2% of compensation for the pay period, the employer will make an SLR nonelective contribution equal to 5% of compensation for the pay period.
• Although based on each pay period’s compensation, the collective SLR nonelective contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year. (Because employees may stop and restart student loan repayments or regular elective deferrals, presumably it would not be possible for an employer to know, before the end of the plan year, precisely how much SLR nonelective contributions, and catch-up contributions, each program participant is due.)
• The SLR nonelective contribution is made regardless of whether or not the employee makes any regular salary deferrals throughout the year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the SLR nonelective contribution.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The SLR nonelective contributions are subject to all applicable plan qualification requirements: eligibility, vesting, distribution rules, contribution limits, and coverage and nondiscrimination testing.
• The SLR nonelective contributions will not be treated as a regular matching contribution for purposes of 401(m) testing.

True-Up Contributions
• In the event an employee does not make a student loan repayment for a pay period equal to at least 2% of the employee’s eligible compensation, but does make a regular elective deferral equal to at least 2% of compensation, the employer will make a “true-up matching contribution” equal to 5% of the employee’s eligible compensation the pay period.
• Although based on pay period compensation, the collective true-up matching contribution will be made as soon as practicable after the end of the plan year.
• The employee must be employed on the last day of the plan year (other than when employment terminates due to death or disability) in order to receive the true-up matching contribution.
• The true-up matching contributions are subject to the same vesting schedule as regular matching contributions.
• The true-up matching contributions are treated as regular matching contributions for purposes of 401(m) testing.

The specific ruling that the IRS made was that the SLR nonelective contribution program would not violate the prohibition on “contingent benefits” under applicable Income Tax Regulations. Under this rule, an employer may not make other benefits, such as health insurance, stock options, or similar entitlements, contingent on a participant’s making elective deferrals under a 401(k) plan. There are a few exceptions, most notably employer matching contributions, which are expressly contingent on elective deferrals. Because the SLR nonelective contributions are triggered by employees’ student loan repayments, and not by elective deferrals, and because employees who receive them are still eligible to make regular elective deferrals, the IRS concluded that they did not violate the contingent benefit rule. The IRS stated that, in reaching this conclusion, it presumed that the taxpayer had not extended any student loans to employees who were eligible for the program and had no intentions to do so.

Closing Thoughts
Existing vendors who help employers contribute towards student loan repayments will probably move to establish and market versions of the SLR nonelective contribution program described in the private letter ruling, in which case additional, and more broadly applicable, IRS guidance would be welcome. In the meantime, employers wishing to put such a program in place should not assume that reproducing the facts in the ruling is a safe harbor from adverse tax consequences, and should consult legal counsel to assess potential liability.

Note:  The employer who obtained the Private Letter Ruling was later identified as Abbott Labs.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Benefit Plan Design, ERISA, Payroll Issues, Student Loans