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Not the summer of love: IRS universal availability examinations

By:

An experienced Staff Accountant, David is a member of our Financial Services Group and Employee Benefits groups. He provides audit and accounting services to a wide range of clients, including financial institutions, broker-dealers and employee benefit plans. As a Certified Fraud Examiner, he supports BerryDunn's forensic accounting engagements, assisting with the investigation, detection, and prevention of suspected fraudulent activity.

David Stone
06.11.19

The IRS announced plans to conduct examinations of the universal availability requirements for 403(b) plans (Plans) this summer. Noncompliance with these requirements results in operational errors for Plans―ultimately requiring correction. Plan sponsors should review their Plans for proper inclusion and exclusion of employees. Such review can help you avoid costly penalties if the IRS does conduct an examination and uncovers an issue with the Plan’s implementation of universal availability.

Universal availability requires that, if you permit one employee to make elective deferrals into a 403(b) plan, then all other employees must receive the same opportunity. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Plan sponsors may exclude employees who meet one of the following exceptions:

  • Employees who will contribute $200 annually or less
  • Employees eligible to participate in a § 401(k), 457(b), or other 403(b) plan of the same employer
  • Employees who normally work less than 20 hours per week (the equivalent of less than 1,000 hours in a year)
  • Students performing services described in Internal Revenue Code § 3121(b)(10)

Of these exceptions, errors in applying the universal availability requirements are typically found with the less than 20 hours per week exception. Even if an employee works less than 20 hours per week (essentially a part-time employee), if this employee works 1,000 hours or more, you must allow this employee to make elective deferrals into the Plan. Further, you can’t revoke this permission in subsequent years―once the employee meets the 1,000 hour requirement, they are no longer included in the less than 20 hours per week employee class.

We recommend Plan sponsors review their Plan documents to ensure they are appropriately applying elected eligibility provisions. Further, we recommend Plan sponsors annually review an employee census to ensure those exceptions (listed above) remain appropriate for any employees excluded from the Plan. For instance, if you note that an employee worked 1,000 hours during the year, who was being excluded as part of the “less than 20 hours per week” category, you should ensure you notify this employee of their eligibility to participate in the Plan. In addition, you should retain documentation regarding the employee’s deferral election or election to opt out of the Plan. Such practices will help ensure, if your Plan is selected for IRS examination, it passes with no issues.

For more information: https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/403b-plan-fix-it-guide-you-didnt-give-all-employees-of-the-organization-the-opportunity-to-make-a-salary-deferral
 

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    P 207.541.2300

LIBOR is leaving—is your financial institution ready to make the most of it?

In July 2017, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority announced the phasing out of the London Interbank Offered Rate, commonly known as LIBOR, by the end of 20211. With less than two years to go, US federal regulators are urging financial institutions to start assessing their LIBOR exposure and planning their transition. Here we offer some general impacts of the phasing out, some specific actions your institution can take to prepare, and, finally, background on how we got here (see Background at right).

How will the phase-out impact financial institutions?

The Federal Reserve estimates roughly $200 trillion in LIBOR-indexed notional value transactions in the cash and derivatives market2. LIBOR is used to help price a variety of financial services products,  including $3.4 trillion in business loans and $1.3 trillion in consumer loans, as well as derivatives, swaps, and other credit instruments. Even excluding loans and financial instruments set to mature before 2021—estimated by the FDIC at 82% of the above $200 trillion—LIBOR exposure is still significant3.

A financial institution’s ability to lend money is largely dependent on the relative stability of its capital position, or lack thereof. For institutions with a significant amount of LIBOR-indexed assets and liabilities, that means less certainty in expected future cash flows and a less stable capital position, which could prompt institutions to deny loans they might otherwise have approved. A change in expected cash flows could also have several indirect consequences. Criticized assets, assessed for impairment based on their expected future cash flows, could require a specific reserve due to lower present value of expected future cash flows.

The importance of fallback language in loan agreements

Fallback language in loan agreements plays a pivotal role in financial institutions’ ability to manage their LIBOR-related financial results. Most loan agreements include language that provides guidance for determining an alternate reference rate to “fall back” on in the event the loan’s original reference rate is discontinued. However, if this language is non-existent, contains fallbacks that are no longer adequate, or lacks certain key provisions, it can create unexpected issues when it comes time for financial institutions to reprice their LIBOR loans. Here are some examples:

  • Non-existent or inadequate fallbacks
    According to the Alternative Reference Rates Committee, a group of private-market participants convened by the Federal Reserve to help ensure a successful LIBOR transition, "Most contracts referencing LIBOR do not appear to have envisioned a permanent or indefinite cessation of LIBOR and have fallbacks that would not be economically appropriate"4.

    For instance, industry regulators have warned that without updated fallback language, the discontinuation of LIBOR could prompt some variable-rate loans to become fixed-rate2, causing unanticipated changes in interest rate risk for financial institutions. In a declining rate environment, this may prove beneficial as loans at variable rates become fixed. But in a rising rate environment, the resulting shrink in net interest margins would have a direct and adverse impact on the bottom line.

  • No spread adjustment
    Once LIBOR is discontinued, LIBOR-indexed loans will need to be repriced at a new reference rate, which could be well above or below LIBOR. If loan agreements don’t provide for an adjustment of the spread between LIBOR and the new rate, that could prompt unexpected changes in the financial position of both borrowers and lenders3. Take, for instance, a loan made at the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), generally considered the likely replacement for USD LIBOR. Since SOFR tends to be lower than three-month LIBOR, a loan agreement using it that does not allow for a spread adjustment would generate lower loan payments for the borrower, which means less interest income for the lender.

    Not allowing for a spread adjustment on reference rates lower than LIBOR could also cause a change in expected prepayments—say, for instance, if borrowers with fixed-rate loans decide to refinance at adjustable rates—which would impact post-CECL allowance calculations like the weighted-average remaining maturity (WARM) method, which uses estimated prepayments as an input.

What can your financial institution do to prepare?

The Federal Reserve and the SEC have urged financial institutions to immediately evaluate their LIBOR exposure and expedite their transition. Though the FDIC has expressed no intent to examine financial institutions for the status of LIBOR planning or critique loans based on use of LIBOR3, Federal Reserve supervisory teams have been including LIBOR transitions in their regular monitoring of large financial institutions5. The SEC has also encouraged companies to provide investors with robust disclosures regarding their LIBOR transition, which may include a notional value of LIBOR exposure2.

Financial institutions should start by analyzing their LIBOR exposure beyond 2021. If you don’t expect significant exposure, further analysis may be unnecessary. However, if you do expect significant future LIBOR exposure, your institution should conduct stress testing using LIBOR as an isolated variable by running hypothetical transition scenarios and assessing the potential financial impact.

Closely examine and assess fallback language in loan agreements. For existing loan agreements, you may need to make amendments, which could require consent from counterparties2. For new loan agreements maturing beyond 2021, lenders should consider selecting an alternate reference rate. New contract language for financial instruments and residential mortgages is currently being drafted by the International Securities Dealers Association and the Federal Housing Finance Authority, respectively3—both of which may prove helpful in updating loan agreements.

Lenders should also consider their underwriting policies. Loan underwriters will need to adjust the spread on new loans to accurately reflect the price of risk, because volatility and market tendencies of alternate loan reference rates may not mirror LIBOR’s. What’s more, SOFR lacks abundant historical data for use in analyzing volatility and market tendencies, making accurate loan pricing more difficult.

Conclusion: Start assessing your LIBOR risk soon

The cessation of LIBOR brings challenges and opportunities that will require in-depth analysis and making difficult decisions. Financial institutions and consumers should heed the advice of regulators and start assessing their LIBOR risk now. Those that do will not only be better prepared―but also better positioned―to capitalize on the opportunities it presents.

Need help assessing your LIBOR risk and preparing to transition? Contact BerryDunn’s financial services specialists.

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2017/07/27/acdd411c-72bc-11e7-8c17-533c52b2f014_story.html?utm_term=.856137e72385
2 Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Newsstand April 10, 2019
3 https://www.fdic.gov/regulations/examinations/supervisory/insights/siwin18/si-winter-2018.pdf
4 https://bankingjournal.aba.com/2019/04/libor-transition-panel-recommends-fallback-language-for-key-instruments/
5 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fed-libor/fed-urges-u-s-financial-industry-to-accelerate-libor-transition-idUSKCN1RM25T

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When one loan rate closes, another opens

In auditing, the concept of professional skepticism is ubiquitous. Just as a Jedi in Star Wars is constantly trying to hone his understanding of the “force”, an auditor is constantly crafting his or her ability to apply professional skepticism. It is professional skepticism that provides the foundation for decision-making when conducting an attestation engagement.

A brief definition

The professional standards define professional skepticism as “an attitude that includes a questioning mind, being alert to conditions that may indicate possible misstatement due to fraud or error, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.” Given this definition, one quickly realizes that professional skepticism can’t be easily measured. Nor is it something that is cultivated overnight. It is a skill developed over time and a skill that auditors should constantly build and refine.

Recently, the extent to which professional skepticism is being employed has gained a lot of criticism. Specifically, regulatory bodies argue that auditors are not skeptical enough in carrying out their duties. However, as noted in the white paper titled Scepticism: The Practitioners’ Take, published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, simply asking for more skepticism is not a practical solution to this issue, nor is it necessarily always desirable. There is an inevitable tug of war between professional skepticism and audit efficiency. The more skeptical the auditor, typically, the more time it takes to complete the audit.

Why does it matter? Audit quality.

First and foremost, how your auditor applies professional skepticism to your audit directly impacts the quality of their service. Applying an appropriate level of professional skepticism enhances the likelihood the auditor will understand your industry, lines of business, business processes, and any nuances that make your company different from others, as it naturally causes the auditor to ask questions that may otherwise go unasked.

These questions not only help the auditor appropriately apply professional standards, but also help the auditor gain a deeper understanding of your business. This will enable the auditor to provide insights and value-added services an auditor who doesn’t apply the right degree of skepticism may never identify.

Therefore, as the white paper notes, audit committees, management, and investors should be asking “How hard do our auditors get pushed on fees, and what effect does that have on the quality of the audit?” If your auditor is overly concerned with completing the audit within a fixed time budget, professional skepticism and, ultimately, the quality of the audit, may suffer.

Applying skepticism internally

By its definition, professional skepticism is a concept that specifically applies to auditors, and is not on point when it comes to other audit stakeholders. This is because the definition implies that the individual applying professional skepticism is independent from the information he or she is analyzing. Other audit stakeholders, such as members of management or the board of directors, are naturally advocates for the organizations they manage and direct and therefore can’t be considered independent, whereas an auditor is required to remain independent.

However, rather than audit stakeholders applying professional skepticism as such, these other stakeholders should apply an impartial and diligent mindset to their work and the information they review. This allows the audit stakeholder to remain an advocate for his or her organization, while applying critical skills similar to those applied in the exercise of professional skepticism. This nuanced distinction is necessary to maintain the limited scope to which the definition of professional skepticism applies: the auditor.

Specific to the financial statement reporting function, these stakeholders should be assessing the financial statements and ask questions that can help prevent or detect flaws in the financial reporting process. For example, when considering significant estimates, management should ask: are we considering all relevant information? Are our estimates unbiased? Are there alternative accounting treatments we haven’t considered? Can we justify our selected accounting treatment? Essentially, management should start by asking itself: what questions would we expect our auditor to ask us?

It is also important to be critical of your own work, and never become complacent. This may be the most difficult type of skepticism to apply, as most of us do not like to have our work criticized. However, critically reviewing one’s own work, essentially as an informal first level of review, will allow you to take a step back and consider it from a different vantage point, which may in turn help detect errors otherwise left unnoticed. Essentially, you should both consider evidence that supports the initial conclusion and evidence that may be contradictory to that conclusion.

The discussion in auditing circles about professional skepticism and how to appropriately apply it continues. It is a challenging notion that’s difficult to adequately articulate. Although it receives a lot of attention in the audit profession, it is a concept that, slightly altered, can be of value to other audit stakeholders. Doing so will help you create a stronger relationship with your auditor and, ultimately, improve the quality of the financial reporting process—and resulting outcome.

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Professional skepticism and why it matters to audit stakeholders

Editor’s note: read this if you are a Maine business owner or officer.

New state law aligns with federal rules for partnership audits

On June 18, 2019, the State of Maine enacted Legislative Document 1819, House Paper 1296, An Act to Harmonize State Income Tax Law and the Centralized Partnership Audit Rules of the Federal Internal Revenue Code of 1986

Just like it says, LD 1819 harmonizes Maine with updated federal rules for partnership audits by shifting state tax liability from individual partners to the partnership itself. It also establishes new rules for who can—and can’t—represent a partnership in audit proceedings, and what that representative’s powers are.

Classic tunes—The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982

Until recently, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA) set federal standards for IRS audits of partnerships and those entities treated as partnerships for income tax purposes (LLCs, etc.). Those rules changed, however, following passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA) and the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act). Changes made by the BBA and PATH Act included:

  • Replacing the Tax Matters Partner (TMP) with a Partnership Representative (PR);
  • Generally establishing the partnership, and not individual partners, as liable for any imputed underpayment resulting from an audit, meaning current partners can be held responsible for the tax liabilities of past partners; and
  • Imputing tax on the net audit adjustments at the highest individual or corporate tax rates.

Unlike TEFRA, the BBA and PATH Act granted Partnership Representatives sole authority to act on behalf of a partnership for a given tax year. Individual partners, who previously held limited notification and participation rights, were now bound by their PR’s actions.

Fresh beats—new tax liability laws under LD 1819

LD 1819 echoes key provisions of the BBA and PATH Act by shifting state tax liability from individual partners to the partnership itself and replacing the Tax Matters Partner with a Partnership Representative.

Eligibility requirements for PRs are also less than those for TMPs. PRs need only demonstrate “substantial presence in the US” and don’t need to be a partner in the partnership, e.g., a CFO or other person involved in the business. Additionally, partnerships may have different PRs at the federal and state level, provided they establish reasonable qualifications and procedures for designating someone other than the partnership’s federal-level PR to be its state-level PR.

LD 1819 applies to Maine partnerships for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2018. Any additional tax, penalties, and/or interest arising from audit are due no later than 180 days after the IRS’ final determination date, though some partnerships may be eligible for a 60-day extension. In addition, LD 1819 requires Maine partnerships to file a completed federal adjustments report.

Partnerships should review their partnership agreements in light of these changes to ensure the goals of the partnership and the individual partners are reflected in the case of an audit. 

Remix―Significant changes coming to the Maine Capital Investment Credit 

Passage of LD 1671 on July 2, 2019 will usher in a significant change to the Maine Capital Investment Credit, a popular credit which allows businesses to claim a tax credit for qualifying depreciable assets placed in service in Maine on which federal bonus depreciation is claimed on the taxpayer's federal income tax return. 

Effective for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2020, the credit is reduced to a rate of 1.2%. This is a significant reduction in the current credit percentages, which are 9% and 7% for corporate and all other taxpayers, respectively. The change intends to provide fairness to companies conducting business in-state over out-of-state counterparts. Taxpayers continue to have the option to waive the credit and claim depreciation recapture in a future year for the portion of accelerated federal bonus depreciation disallowed by Maine in the year the asset is placed in service. 

As a result of this meaningful reduction in the credit, taxpayers who have historically claimed the credit will want to discuss with their tax advisors whether it makes sense to continue claiming the credit for 2020 and beyond.
 

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Maine tax law changes: Music to the ears, or not so much?

Proposed House bill brings state income tax standards to the digital age

On June 3, 2019, the US House of Representatives introduced H.R. 3063, also known as the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act of 2019, which seeks to modernize tax laws for the sale of personal property, and clarify physical presence standards for state income tax nexus as it applies to services and intangible goods. But before we can catch up on today, we need to go back in time—great Scott!

Fly your DeLorean back 60 years (you’ve got one, right?) and you’ll arrive at the signing of Public Law 86-272: the Interstate Income Act of 1959. Established in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. v. Minnesota, P.L. 86-272 allows a business to enter a state, or send representatives, for the purposes of soliciting orders for the sale of tangible personal property without being subject to a net income tax.

But now, in 2019, personal property is increasingly intangible—eBooks, computer software, electronic data and research, digital music, movies, and games, and the list goes on. To catch up, H.R. 3063 seeks to expand on 86-272’s protection and adds “all other forms of property, services, and other transactions” to that exemption. It also redefines business activities of independent contractors to include transactions for all forms of property, as well as events and gathering of information.

Under the proposed bill, taxpayers meet the standards for physical presence in a taxing jurisdiction, if they:

  1.  Are an individual physically located in or have employees located in a given state; 
  2. Use the services of an agent to establish or maintain a market in a given state, provided such agent does not perform the same services in the same state for any other person or taxpayer during the taxable year; or
  3. Lease or own tangible personal property or real property in a given state.

The proposed bill excludes a taxpayer from the above criteria who have presence in a state for less than 15 days, or whose presence is established in order to conduct “limited or transient business activity.”

In addition, H.R. 3063 also expands the definition of “net income tax” to include “other business activity taxes”. This would provide protection from tax in states such as Texas, Ohio and others that impose an alternate method of taxing the profits of businesses.

H.R. 3063, a measure that would only apply to state income and business activity tax, is in direct contrast to the recent overturn of Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, a sales and use tax standard. Quill required a physical presence but was overturned by the decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. Since the Wayfair decision, dozens of states have passed legislation to impose their sales tax regime on out of state taxpayers without a physical presence in the state.

If enacted, the changes made via H.R. 3063 would apply to taxable periods beginning on or after January 1, 2020. For more information: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/3063/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22hr3063%22%5D%7D&r=1&s=2
 

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Back to the future: Business activity taxes!

This blog is the first in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with ERISA requirements.

On Labor Day, 1974, President Gerald Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, commonly known as ERISA, into law. Prior to ERISA, employee pensions had scant protections under the law, a problem made clear when the Studebaker automobile company closed its South Bend, Indiana production plant in 1963. Upon the plant’s closing, some 4,000 employees—whose average age was 52 and average length of service with the company was 23 years—received approximately 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they were owed. Nearly 3,000 additional employees, all of whom had less than 10 years of service with the company, received nothing.

A decade later, ERISA established statutory requirements to preserve and protect the rights of employees to their pensions upon retirement. Among other things, ERISA defines what a plan fiduciary is and sets standards for their conduct.

Who is—and who isn’t—a plan fiduciary?
ERISA defines a fiduciary as a person who:

  1. Exercises discretionary authority or control over the management of an employee benefit plan or the disposition of its assets,
  2. Gives investment advice about plan funds or property for a fee or compensation or has the authority to do so,
  3. Has discretionary authority or responsibility in plan administration, or
  4. Is designated by a named fiduciary to carry out fiduciary responsibility. (ERISA requires the naming of one or more fiduciaries to be responsible for managing the plan's administration, usually a plan administrator or administrative committee, though the plan administrator may engage others to perform some administrative duties).

If you’re still unsure about exactly who is and isn’t a plan fiduciary, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Disagreements over whether or not a person acting in a certain capacity and in a specific situation is a fiduciary have sometimes required legal proceedings to resolve them. Here are some real-world examples.

Employers who maintain employee benefit plans are typically considered fiduciaries by virtue of being named fiduciaries or by acting as a functional fiduciary. Accordingly, employer decisions on how to execute the intent of the plan are subject to ERISA’s fiduciary standards.

Similarly, based on case law, lawyers and consultants who effectually manage an employee benefit plan are also generally considered fiduciaries.

A person or company that performs purely administrative duties within the framework, rules, and procedures established by others is not a fiduciary. Examples of such duties include collecting contributions, maintaining participants' service and employment records, calculating benefits, processing claims, and preparing government reports and employee communications.

What are a fiduciary’s responsibilities?
ERISA requires fiduciaries to discharge their duties solely in the interest of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits for them and defraying reasonable plan administrative expenses. Specifically, fiduciaries must perform their duties as follows:

  1. With the care, skill, prudence, and diligence of a prudent person under the circumstances;
  2. In accordance with plan documents and instruments, insofar as they are consistent with the provisions of ERISA; and
  3. By diversifying plan investments so as to minimize risk of loss under the circumstances, unless it is clearly prudent not to do so.

A fiduciary is personally liable to the plan for losses resulting from a breach of their fiduciary responsibility, and must restore to the plan any profits realized on misuse of plan assets. Not only is a fiduciary liable for their own breaches, but also if they have knowledge of another fiduciary's breach and either conceals it or does not make reasonable efforts to remedy it.

ERISA provides for a mandatory civil penalty against a fiduciary who breaches a fiduciary responsibility under ERISA or commits a violation, or against any other person who knowingly participates in such breach or violation. That penalty is equal to 20 percent of the "applicable recovery amount" paid pursuant to any settlement agreement with ERISA or ordered by a court to be paid in a judicial proceeding instituted by ERISA.

ERISA also permits a civil action to be brought by a participant, beneficiary, or other fiduciary against a fiduciary for a breach of duty. ERISA allows participants to bring suit to recover losses from fiduciary breaches that impair the value of the plan assets held in their individual accounts, even if the financial solvency of the entire plan is not threatened by the alleged fiduciary breach. Courts may require other appropriate relief, including removal of the fiduciary.

Over the coming months, we’ll share a series of blogs for employee benefit plan fiduciaries, covering everything from common terminology to best practices for plan documentation, suggestions for navigating fiduciary risks, and more.

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What's in a name? A lot, if you manage a benefit plan.

Executive compensation is often a contentious issue in business valuations, as business valuations are often valued by reference to the income they produce. If the business being valued pays its employees an above-market rate, its income will be depressed. Accordingly, if no compensation adjustments are made, the value of the business will also be diminished.

When valuing controlling ownership interests, valuation analysts often restate above- or below-market executive compensation to a market level to reflect what a hypothetical buyer would pay the executives. In the valuation of companies with ESOPs, the issue of executive compensation gets more complicated. The following hypothetical example illustrates why.

Glamorous Grocery is a company that is 100% owned by an ESOP. A valuation analyst is retained to estimate the fair market value of each ESOP share. Glamorous Grocery generates very little income, in part because several executives are overcompensated. The valuation analyst normalizes executive compensation to a market level, thereby increasing Glamorous Grocery income, the fair market value of Glamorous Grocery, and the ESOP share value.

Glamorous Grocery’s trustee then uses this valuation to establish the market price of ESOP shares for the following year. When employees retire, Glamorous Grocery buys employees out at the established share price. The problem? As mentioned before, Glamorous Grocery generates very little income and as a result has difficulty obtaining the liquidity to buy out employees.

This simple example illustrates the concerns about normalizing executive compensation in ESOP valuations. If you reduce executive compensation for valuation purposes, the share price increases, putting a heavier burden on the company when you redeem shares. The company, which already has reduced income from paying above-market executive compensation, may struggle to redeem shares at the established price.

A second issue is whether control-level adjustments are appropriate in ESOP valuations. A company might be 100% ESOP-owned, but an owner of an ESOP share may not actually be able to reduce executive compensation.

Interested in learning more? Please leave a comment below, or contact me. For additional discussion of the shareholder/executive compensation federal tax statutes and historical judicial precedents and sources of executive compensation data, please click here.

Blog
Executive compensation: Making or breaking an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)

Are you spending enough time on your paid time off plan?
Many questions arise regarding paid time off (PTO) plans and the constructive receipt of income, which can cause payroll complications for employers and phantom income inclusion for employees. In order to avoid being subject to penalties for not withholding income and payroll taxes and having employees be subject to tax on cash they have not received, certain steps need be followed if an employer wants to properly allow employees to cash-out PTO.

What the IRS is looking for.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued a number of Private Letter Rulings (PLRs) that examine earned time cash-out programs. While such rulings don’t serve as precedent, it appears the IRS has come up with the following factors that it deems important in order to avoid constructive receipt in a PTO cash-out situation:

  1. Employees must make a written election before the end of December in the year prior to the year they will be earning and receiving the accrued earned time to be cashed-out.  This is an election to receive a cash payout of the earned time to be accrued in the following year.
  2. The election must be irrevocable.
  3. The payout can only happen once the employee has actually earned and accrued the earned time in the following year. Payouts are generally once or twice per year, but may happen more frequently.

The IRS appears to generally require that the earned time being paid out be substantially less than the accrued earned time owed to the employee. This is to ensure that the earned time program remains a bona fide sick or vacation pay plan and not a plan of deferred compensation. This particular requirement can get tricky and may be different in each employer’s case.

Why does it matter?
The danger of failing to follow IRS guidelines regarding earned time cash-outs is that the IRS could claim that the employees offered a choice to cash-out are in constructive receipt of their accrued earned time balances regardless of their choice. This would result in immediate taxation of all accrued amounts to the employees, even if they hadn’t received the cash. The employer would also be subject to penalties for not properly withholding federal and state taxes.

It is important to review your PTO plan to be sure there are no issues regarding constructive receipt and to make sure your payroll systems are correctly reporting income.

The IRS issued proposed regulations under Code Section 457 in June of 2016 regarding, in part, non-qualified deferred compensation plans of not-for-profit (NFP) organizations. Those regulations contain guidance regarding the cash-out of sick and vacation time and the possibility that certain cash-out provisions may create a plan of deferred compensation and not a bona fide sick leave or vacation leave plan. As noted above, such a determination would be disastrous as all amounts accrued would become immediately taxable. NFP organizations and their advisors should keep a close eye on the proposed Section 457 regulations to see how they develop in final form. Once the regulations are finalized, NFP organizations may need to make changes to their cash-out provisions.

Please note that the above information is general in nature and is not meant to provide guidance on any particular case. If you have any questions about your PTO plan, please contact Bill Enck.

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Paid time off plans: IRS guidelines and why they matter

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