The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Tax Act) did not directly modify the rules governing hardship withdrawals from 401(k) plans. However, one change enacted by the Tax Act does necessitate a careful review of 401(k) plan hardship withdrawal language and could impact the administration of hardship withdrawal requests. Further, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, enacted on February 9, 2018 (Spending Act), makes certain changes to the statutory rules governing hardship withdrawals and requires that the IRS make certain additional changes to applicable regulations. It will be important for 401(k) plan sponsors to understand these recent changes, monitor related IRS guidance, and assess whether changes in administration of hardship withdrawal requests and/or plan amendments are required.

Among the many changes made by the Tax Act is a narrowing of the circumstances under which taxpayers may be eligible for a deduction under Section 165 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) with respect to a casualty loss. For tax years beginning before January 1, 2018, a taxpayer could potentially take a casualty loss deduction pursuant to Section 165 for uncompensated damage to the taxpayer’s home resulting from any fire, storm, flood or other isolated incidents. Under the new law, however, in order to be deductible under Section 165 for a tax year beginning on or after January 1, 2018 and before January 1, 2026, the loss must result from a Federally-declared disaster. The change to Section 165 of the Code may indirectly impact whether a hardship withdrawal is permitted under many 401(k) plans.

Often 401(k) plans that allow hardship withdrawals rely on “safe harbors” set forth in IRS regulations for determining whether a request satisfies the regulations’ requirements. One of the safe harbor reasons for determining whether the request relates to an immediate and heavy financial need (a requirement for hardship withdrawals) is to cover expenses for the repair of damage to the participant’s principal residence that would qualify for the casualty deduction under Section 165 of the Code (determined without regard to a minimum threshold that applies to the casualty loss deduction). When a plan document specifically cross references deductibility under Section 165, permitting a withdrawal for expenses that result from an isolated incident could now be contrary to the plan’s terms. For example, the Tax Act’s changes to Section 165 may prevent a hardship withdrawal by a participant who incurs expenses to repair damage to his or her principal residence resulting from an isolated incident, such as a fire or thunderstorm.

It isn’t clear whether Congress intended to narrow the circumstances in which a hardship withdrawal may be taken when enacting the change to Section 165, and it’s possible that the IRS will publish guidance obviating the need to impose the Federally-declared disaster requirement in the hardship context. In the meantime, however, it’s important for a 401(k) plan sponsor to be sure that its tax-qualified plan is administered in accordance with the plan’s terms. Therefore, the Section 165 changes should be taken into account if necessary in light of plan language, or plan administrators should forego use of the IRS safe harbor and plan documents should be amended if necessary to align with administration.

While reviewing plan documents and administration in light of the foregoing Tax Act change, plan sponsors should also consider future changes to hardship withdrawal administration to take advantage of additional flexibility enacted by the Spending Act, which apply to plan years beginning after December 31, 2018.

The Spending Act directly expands availability of hardship withdrawals to qualified nonelective contributions, qualified matching contributions, and earnings, which amounts are not eligible for distribution due to hardship under current rules. Further, the Spending Act modifies current rules that require a participant, in some circumstances, to have exhausted any available plan loans before taking a hardship withdrawal.

Finally, in addition to the safe harbor described above, under current IRS regulations, a hardship withdrawal will be deemed necessary to satisfy an immediate and heavy financial need (also a requirement for hardship withdrawals) if certain requirements are met, including that the participant is restricted from contributing to the plan and all other plans maintained by the employer for at least six months after taking the withdrawal. The Spending Act directs the IRS to modify the regulations so that the six-month suspension is not required to rely on the safe harbor.

 

As a follow up to our previous post, the Department of Labor announced earlier this month that its revised disability claims procedure regulations will indeed take effect on April 1, 2018.  The DOL stated that it received few substantive comments with quantitative data on the burdens imposed by the regulations.  Moreover, the DOL found that none of the comments established that the final rule imposed an unnecessary burden or significantly impaired worker access to disability benefits.

With a looming April 1 deadline, employers and their third party administrators and insurers should review all materials for ERISA plans that provide disability benefits, including plan documents and summary plan descriptions.  Particular attention should be given to reviewing and revising processes and communications used for claims and appeals, as the regulations impact the manner of claims processing and expand the disclosures that must be included in benefit denial notices.

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has recently extended the relief previously granted to five financial institutions which allows these banks to continue to rely on the QPAM exemption (Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-14). The QPAM exemption permits ERISA plans and comingled funds to engage in transactions with “parties in interest” to those ERISA clients without running afoul of ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules, provided that the ERISA plan or fund is managed by a qualified professional asset manager (“QPAM”) and certain other conditions are satisfied.  Continue Reading DOL Extends QPAM Relief to Five Financial Institutions

Although retirement plans and schemes are generally jurisdiction specific creatures, the governance of the retirement plans and schemes of multinational companies is very much a global issue.  Retirement funds, whether defined contribution plans or defined benefit plans, are essentially large pots of money (frequently in the billions of dollars) located in jurisdictions around the world.  These arrangements tend to be heavily regulated and pose numerous risks to the sponsor, including legal and regulatory compliance gaps, participant lawsuits, government investigations, and embezzlement of trust funds.  Of further concern are plan funding obligations and material risk to the corporate balance sheet (e.g., the effect of unfunded defined benefit plan liabilities on financial statements and the management of plan assets and liability for possible losses.)  At the same time, the arrangements may be tied to various corporate/HR goals, with tensions between a company’s desire to harmonize global benefits and/or achieve cost control objectives and the reality of local labor markets and legal requirements.

Global and multinational employers may have a local committee or officer in each country responsible for that country’s retirement arrangements, but the degree to which such local personnel operate independently, and the amount of reporting to, and oversight by, a committee at the parent level varies.  Not infrequently, the allocation of responsibility between parent and subsidiary committees does not fully align with the goals and risk management objectives of the company as a whole.

We are finding that many employers are in the process of assessing (or reassessing) their governance and risk management structures for their retirement programs on a global basis.  Mayer Brown’s Global Guide to Retirement Plans & Schemes provides a brief overview of the laws relating to the regulation of retirement plans and schemes in 50 key countries.  The guide was launched in 2017 with the hope that it will be a valuable starting point for multinational and global employers that are developing or updating governance and risk management structures for their retirement programs.  While the guide is not a comprehensive discussion of the laws governing retirement programs in each applicable country, it summarizes the general contours of the country’s social security system and employer-sponsored broad-based plans/schemes, with an emphasis on those aspects of the regulatory structure that pose potentially significant liability/risk management issues for empl0yers.  We hope that our clients and friends will find the guide useful.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.  Goldilocks was hungry.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

“This porridge is too cold,” she said

So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

 

Virtually all companies that offer participant-directed retirement plans permit their participants to elect an income-producing, low risk, liquid fund, such as a money market fund or a stable value fund. A stable value fund, as the name suggests, is a conservative investment option designed to provide stability, as opposed to growth.

Stable value funds have desirable features.  By combining bonds and an investment wrap, participants can achieve bond-like returns without the interest-rate volatility present in bond funds.  But those features do not eliminate the risk of losses, they just delay them. Indeed, a stable value fund with a longer duration is riskier than a fund with a shorter duration.

The stability-enhancing features of a stable value fund mean that, if a stable value fund invests in a bond that defaults, the value of the fund will not take an immediate tumble, but the loss will be amortized over a period of time.  Over the long run, the performance of a stable value fund approaches the performance of the underlying bond portfolio, minus the expenses of maintaining the wrap coverage and administering the fund.

There is, however, no typical stable value fund. According to How to Evaluate Stable Value Funds and Their Managers by Andrew Apostol, “[d]ue to the varying expectations of individual plan sponsors and the range of management techniques used by their stable value managers, there is not a single style or strategy that is common across all stable value funds.” For example, the plans for a Silicon Valley startup or a hedge fund will differ. Even if both aim for stability, the participants likely have different risk targets, which will lead to different markups across stable value funds.

Even though there is no typical stable value fund, there are three typical types of lawsuits filed against fiduciaries offering stable value funds. Fiduciaries have been sued for 1) offering a stable value fund that is too risky and 2) offering a stable value fund that is not risky enough. Only Goldilocks, it seems, could safely offer a stable value fund.

Considering the litigation risks for fiduciaries who do not set the stable value fund just right—a task that always looks easier in the hindsight of a lawsuit—a fiduciary may conclude the best option is not to offer a stable value fund at all. Yet fiduciaries have also been sued for 3) not offering a stable value fund. Let’s take a deeper dive into these three bears of a lawsuit. Continue Reading Stable Value Funds: A Financial Investment with Risky Litigation Consequences

After working to reconcile differences between the two Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bills, the Senate and House Conference Committee reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday, December 13. Although there is not yet a published version of the Conference Committee’s bill, both the Senate and House had proposed adding a new Section 4960 to the Internal Revenue Code (Code) which would, effective for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, impose an excise tax of 20% on certain compensation paid to a covered employee by a tax-exempt organization in excess of $1,000,000 and for certain excess parachute payments. The excise tax would be payable by the tax-exempt organization.  This post summarizes key provisions of the proposed excise tax provision.

General Rule:  Tax-exempt organizations will be required to pay a 20% excise tax equal to 20% of the sum of (i) remuneration paid in excess of $1,000,000 during a taxable year to a covered employee and (ii) any excess parachute payment paid to the employee by such organization during such year.  The proposed statutory text notes, though, in relevant part that any such amounts shall be considered “paid” for this purpose when there is no substantial risk of forfeiture. Continue Reading The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act-Understanding the Proposed Excise Tax On Tax-Exempt Organizations

The Internal Revenue Service has released its annual cost-of-living adjustments applicable to employee benefit plans. A year-to-year comparison of limitations applicable to plan sponsors can be found here: Mayer Brown – Annual Limitations Chart 2018.

Reflecting a slight uptick in inflation in the past year, several benefit plan limitation amounts will increase for 2018. Noteworthy changes for retirement plan participants include an increase in the elective deferral limitation for defined contribution plans from $18,000 to $18,500, which is the first such increase since 2015. The limit on compensation taken into account under qualified plans will rise from $270,000 to $275,000.

Health and welfare plan participants will also see some increases in the amounts contributable to health care flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts (although the latter increase comes at a price, namely, an increased minimum deductible for HSA-eligible high-deductible health plans). Small employers taking advantage of the fairly recent opportunity to provide Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangements (QSEHRAs) to eligible employees in 2018 can provide increased reimbursements of up to $10,250, up from $10,050, for family coverage. (QSEHRA maximums for self-only coverage will increase from $4,950 to $5,050.)

On November 16, 2017, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) published its updated proxy voting guidelines for the US, Canada, and Brazil effective for shareholder meetings that occur on or after February 1, 2018. In addition to many other changes, ISS addressed two issues that relate to compensation programs that should be considered by public company clients.

First, ISS added a problematic compensation practice related to non-employee director compensation. ISS notes that it will generally vote against the members of the board committee responsible for non-employee director compensation if there is a pattern of awarding excessive compensation to non-employee directors.  Although excessive is not defined, ISS notes that it has identified cases of “extreme outliers” of non-employee director compensation relative to peers and the broader market so it appears that peer data will be used as a justification for identifying excessive compensation.  Additionally, because a pattern of excessive compensation is the trigger for a negative vote (as opposed to a single instance), ISS will not consider non-employee director compensation for vote recommendations in 2018, but may take current compensation into account in the future if a pattern of excessive compensation is identified in consecutive years.

Second, ISS updated guidance regarding the responsiveness of the company’s board of directors to an advisory vote of less than 70% in favor of executive compensation. ISS will consider a failure to adequately respond to investors following a previous say-on-pay vote that received less than 70% support on a case-by-case basis when evaluating ballot items related to executive compensation.  Factors considered when evaluating the company’s response include:

  • Disclosure of engagement efforts with institutional investors (including the timing and frequency of engagements and whether independent directors participated);
  • Disclosure of specific concerns voiced by such investors that led to voting against the say-on-pay proposal;
  • Disclosure of specific actions taken by the company in response to such concerns; and
  • Disclosure of any other recent changes in the compensation program made by the company.

ISS notes that independent director participation in any engagement with shareholders is preferred as being more conducive to receiving candid shareholder feedback. ISS also notes that it wants a summary of the concerns raised to more effectively evaluate whether changes are responsive to the feedback and to evaluate not just whether changes were made but whether quality changes were made.

As we previously reported in our Legal Update, in April 2016 the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) replaced its 1975 regulation that set the parameters for determining when a person should be treated as a fiduciary under ERISA when providing advice with respect to investment matters (the “Fiduciary Rule”).  The new definition treats persons who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of a plan or IRA as fiduciaries in a much wider array of relationships than was true under the 1975 regulation. In connection with the publication of the new Fiduciary Rule, the DOL also published two new administrative class exemptions from the prohibited transaction provisions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code—the BIC Exemption and the Principal Transactions Exemption—as well as amendments to PTE 84-24, commonly relied upon for the sale of insurance contracts to ERISA plans.  As discussed in the Legal Update, just as plan fiduciaries geared up for these major changes, the DOL began to back peddle as a result of the change in administration and new leadership at the DOL. So where are we now? Continue Reading DOL Fiduciary Rule Update – Where Are We Now?

For an update on the status of the revised claims procedure regulations, see here.

The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has announced, via final rule, that it is delaying the applicability of revised claims procedures that would have applied to disability benefit plans governed by ERISA.  The revised claims procedures, which are similar to those that apply to group health plans and include expanded disclosure and translation obligations, were originally scheduled to become effective as of January 1, 2018 and are now slated to take effect on April 1, 2018.  In the meantime, EBSA plans to complete its comment solicitation process, examine the information and data submitted, and take any appropriate next steps.

Continue Reading Disability Claims Procedure Regulations Delayed… For the Last Time?