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

04.18.19

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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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!

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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Not the summer of love: IRS universal availability examinations

What are the top three areas of improvement right now for your business? I asked this question of 20 business leaders and advisors on Wednesday morning (March 13th) during the third session of our value acceleration series. In this discussion, we focused on how to increase business value by aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving what we call the “four C’s.”

To back up for a minute, value acceleration is the process of helping clients increase the value of their business and build liquidity into their lives. Previously, we looked at the Discover stage, in which business owners take inventory of their personal, financial, and business goals and assemble information into a prioritized action plan. On Wednesday, we focused on the Prepare stage of the value acceleration process.

Aligning values may sound like an abstract concept, but it has a real world impact on business performance and profitability. For example, if a business has multiple owners with different future plans, the company can be pulled in two competing directions. Another example of poor alignment would be if a shareholder’s business plans (such as expanding the asset base to drive revenue) compete with personal plans (such as pulling money out of the business to fund retirement). Friction creates problems. The first step in the prepare stage is therefore to reduce friction by aligning values.

Reducing risk

Personal risk creates business risk, and business risk creates personal risk. For example, if a business owner suddenly needs cash to fund unexpected medical bills, planned business expansion may be delayed to provide liquidity to the owner. If a key employee unexpectedly quits, the business owner may have to carve time away from their personal life to juggle new responsibilities. 

Business owners should therefore seek to reduce risk in their personal lives, (e.g., life insurance, use of wills, time management planning) and in their business, (e.g., employee contracts, customer contracts, supplier and customer diversification, etc.).

Intangible value and the four C's

Now more than ever, the value of a business is driven by intangible value rather than tangible asset value. One study found that intangible asset value made up 87% of S&P 500 market value in 2015 (up from 17% in 1975). We Therefore, we focused on how to increase business value by increasing intangible asset value. Specifically, we talked about the “four C’s” of intangible asset value: human capital, structural capital, social capital, and consumer capital. 

We highlighted a couple of strategies to increase intangible asset value. First of all, do a cost-benefit analysis before implementing any strategies to boost intangible asset value. Second, to avoid employee burnout, break planned improvements into 90-day increments with specific targets.

At BerryDunn, we often diagram company performance on the underlying drivers of the 4 C’s (below). We use this tool to identify and assess the areas for greatest potential improvements:

By aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving the four C’s, business owners can achieve a spike in cash flow and business value, and obtain liquidity to fund their plans outside of their business.

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The four C's: Value acceleration series part three (of five)

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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