The SECURE Act, enacted in December 2019, greatly enhances the ability of employers (particularly small and medium-sized employers) to maintain retirement programs for their employees. Specifically, it provides for the creation of a new retirement vehicle called a “Pooled Employer Plan.”  Unrelated employers may participate in a Pooled Employer Plan, which is sponsored by a “Pooled Plan Provider.”  Learn more about Pooled Employer Plans in our recent client alert, available here.

The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) released two informal updates to guidance on income inclusion timing, and withholding and deposit rules, for stock options and for stock-settled stock appreciation rights (“SARS”) and restricted stock units (“RSUs”).  First, the IRS released Generic Legal Advice Memorandum 2020-004 (the “GLAM”) on May 22, 2020, which outlines the views of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel with respect to the timing of income inclusion and the application of Federal Insurance Contribution Act (“FICA”) and Federal income tax (“FIT”) withholding and deposit obligations for three types of stock-settled equity awards.  Second, the IRS updated Section 20.1.4.26.2 of the Internal Review Manual (“IRM Update”) on May 26, 2020, to expand the categories of equity awards eligible for certain administrative relief from the penalties of the Next-Day Deposit Rule (described below), while slightly tightening the conditions for such relief. Continue Reading IRS Updates Guidance on Timing of Wage and FICA Withholding for Stock Options and RSUs

The Tenth Circuit’s recent split decision in M. v. Premera Blue Cross, No. 18-4098 (July 24, 2020), poses a significant threat to the deferential standard of review typically applied to benefit plan claim determinations, and imposes a new burden on plan administrators.

More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court held in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), that benefit denials are “reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.” Applying the Firestone doctrine, lower courts have consistently applied the substantially more deferential “arbitrary and capricious” or “abuse of discretion” standard of review to benefit denials when the plan at issue granted the plan administrator (or relevant fiduciary) discretionary authority consistent with the Firestone case.

The Tenth Circuit, in Premera, changes that standard.

Continue Reading Tenth Circuit Decision Puts New Emphasis on Including Discretionary Authority Language in Summary Plan Descriptions

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued Notice 2020-52 on June 29, 2020, making it temporarily easier for employers to suspend or reduce matching contributions and nonelective contributions to safe harbor 401(k) plans mid-year.

As described in our earlier blog post, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”) imposes rules that limit the ability of employers to suspend or reduce safe harbor matching contributions and safe harbor nonelective contributions, in the middle of a plan year, to a plan that is intended to be a safe harbor plan under sections 401(k) or 401(m) of the Code (such a plan referred to below as a “safe harbor plan”). Notice 2020-52 eases several of those restrictions for a limited period of time in recognition of the ongoing economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The relief also applies to plans subject to section 403(b) of the Code that apply section 401(m) safe harbor rules. Continue Reading IRS Eases Ability of Employers to Reduce or Suspend Safe Harbor Matching and Nonelective Contributions

On June 22, 2020, the United States Department of Labor (the “DOL”) submitted a proposed regulation (the “Proposal”) regarding the use of Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) factors in selecting investments for plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”). The Proposal generally cautions plan fiduciaries against considering ESG factors when making investment decisions, unless such factors are relevant to the plan’s pecuniary goals.

Interest in ESG-themed investments has surged in popularity in recent years. One 2020 survey showed that nearly 74% of global investors intend to increase their allocation to ESG-oriented ETFs. However, ESG-themed investments have also captured the attention of regulators, including the DOL. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently listed ESG investments in its list of examination priorities with respect to the accuracy and adequacy of disclosures in the marketing of such investments. In addition, President Trump issued an Executive Order on April 10, 2019, which included a section on ESG investments. The Executive Order required the DOL Secretary to complete a review of trends with respect to ERISA plan investment in the energy sector.

Continue Reading DOL Proposed Rule Urges Caution Regarding the Use of ESG Factors for ERISA Plans

Many plan administrators and participants have struggled with how to satisfy certain qualified plan spousal consent rules while social distancing guidelines have been in effect. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provided much-needed relief on that topic in Notice 2020-42, published on June 3, 2020 (the Notice).

By way of background, IRS regulations require that in the case of a participant election that is required to be witnessed by a plan representative or a notary public (such as a spouse’s consent to the waiver of a qualified joint and survivor annuity), the individual making the election must sign in the physical presence of a plan representative or a notary public. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provides tax breaks for certain coronavirus-related distributions from both defined benefit and defined contribution plans, it did not liberalize the distribution requirements for defined benefit plans. The combination of social distancing and the continued physical presence requirement has proved to be a hindrance for married participants seeking distribution of pension plan benefits in a form other than a qualified joint and survivor annuity.

Weighing the need for relief during the pandemic with the importance of protecting spouses’ interests in retirement plan benefits, the IRS has provided temporary relief from the physical presence requirement. The relief is effective only for elections made during calendar year 2020, and is available only if certain requirements are satisfied.

Under the Notice, for now, the physical presence requirement may be satisfied by an electronic presence, using live audio-video technology that otherwise satisfies the requirements for an electronic election. If a notary public will witness the election, applicable state law must allow the notary to perform his or her services remotely.

As an alternative (and regardless of whether or not state law allows notarization to be accomplished remotely), a plan representative may witness a spouse’s signature using live audio-video technology if the following requirements are met:

  • The individual signing the election must present valid photo identification to the plan representative during a live audio-video conference;
  • The live audio-video conference must allow for direct interaction between the individual and the plan representative;
  • The individual who signed must send a legible copy of the signed document directly to the plan representative on the same date it was signed, by fax or other electronic means; and
  • After receiving the signed document, the plan representative must acknowledge that the signature has been witnessed by the plan representative in accordance with the requirements of the Notice and transmit the signed document, including the acknowledgement, back to the individual using a system that satisfies the applicable notice requirements under the IRS regulations’ standards for the use of an electronic medium.

On May 21, 2020, the US Department of Labor (DOL) and the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued final regulations expanding the use of electronic disclosures for retirement plans. The regulations provide a new safe harbor that will substantially ease the use of electronic delivery by retirement plan administrators to satisfy the disclosure requirements of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The new regulations were published in the Federal Register on May 27, 2020, and they take effect on July 27, 2020 (though the DOL will not take enforcement action against a plan administrator that relies on the regulations’ new safe harbor before that date).

Continue Reading The DOL Embraces Wider Use of Electronic Notices for ERISA Disclosures

The Department of Labor’s recent pronouncement on the permissibility of investing 401(k) and other defined contribution plan assets in private equity has gotten wide-spread attention. Yet the guidance, which was issued in the form of an information letter, does not establish any new fiduciary principles, or provide any exemptions under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). Nevertheless, the guidance is of great significance to the industry and this blog discusses why. Continue Reading DOL Issues Guidance about Private Equity Investments in 401(k) Plans

The IRS and the Treasury Department, acknowledging the widespread impact of COVID-19, have issued Notice 2020-29 and Notice 2020-33, granting much-sought flexibility for flexible spending accounts (“FSAs”) and health plans.  Though the Section 125 cafeteria plan rules applicable to FSAs and health plans already permitted some limited election changes in the case of changes in status (for example, in the event of significant cost or coverage changes), they did not address the wide array of changes that many participants have wanted to make based on the ripple effects of the COVID-19 crisis.  In addition, the existing Section 125 rules required that any change to the election be consistent with (as determined under the rules) and on account of the applicable change in status.

Continue Reading Flexibility for Flexible Spending Accounts in Light of COVID-19

During the economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some 401(k) plan sponsors may be considering a mid-year reduction or suspension of matching contributions or nonelective contributions to their 401(k) plans as a cost-saving measure. Generally, whether the matching or nonelective contributions may be reduced or suspended will depend on the specific terms of the plan. In addition, in the case of  a plan that is intended to be a safe harbor plan under sections 401(k) or 401(m) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as amended (the “Code”), the Code imposes particularly restrictive rules limiting mid-year changes. The following summarizes steps that a plan sponsor must take to reduce or suspend matching or nonelective contributions to its safe harbor plan during the plan year without jeopardizing the plan’s tax-qualified status.

Continue Reading Reducing or Suspending Matching or Nonelective Contributions Under a Safe Harbor Plan