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The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF): Guidelines

04.28.20

Editor's note: Read this if you are a leader in higher education.

The Department of Education has released guidance to colleges and universities on how the CARES Act grants to institutions, under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), may be used. The guidance comes in the form of answers to frequently asked questions, which we recommend institutions read before accepting the funds. Some key answers included in the document:

  1. A school has to participate in the HEERF funding to be used for grants to students to get the institutional share.
  2. Schools can use these funds to cover the costs of refunds for room and board provided as a result of campus closure.
  3. These funds can be used to make additional emergency financial aid grants to students impacted by campus closure.

We urge schools to retain supporting documentation of the proper use of these funds to allow for a compliance audit, should that be required. 

Questions?
Please contact Renee Bishop, Sarah Belliveau, or Mark LaPrade. We’re here to help.

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Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the ninth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

Employee benefit plan loan basics 

If your plan’s adoption agreement is set up to allow loans, participants can borrow against their account balance. Some participants may find this an attractive option as the interest they pay on the loan is returned to their retirement account as opposed to other loans where the interest is paid to the lender. 

Additionally, while interest is charged at the market rate, it may be lower than other options available to the participant, such as a credit card or other unsecured debt. Unlike hardship distributions, there are no restrictions on the circumstances under which a participant may take a loan. A potential downside is that if the borrower defaults on the loan or ends their employment and cannot repay the loan in full, it converts from a loan to a deemed distribution, potentially incurring taxes and penalties.

If a participant decides that an employee benefit plan loan is their best option, they will apply for the loan through your plan administrator. Loans are limited in both size and quantity. Participants may take loans up to 50% of their vested account balance with a maximum loan of $50,000. The provisions of a plan determine how many loans an employee may have at once; however, the combined loan balances cannot exceed 50% of the employee’s vested balance or $50,000. Furthermore, the $50,000 loan maximum must also consider payments made on loans within the previous 12 months.

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans may be done through after tax payroll contributions, making it a relatively easy process for the participant. If a plan sponsor elects to provide this repayment option, they must ensure that repayments are remitted to the plan in a timely manner, just as they must with other employee funded contributions. The term of the loan is typically limited to five years and must be repaid in at least quarterly installments. However, a loan can be extended to as long as thirty years if specified within the plan’s loan policy. If the loan term is for longer than five years, the loan proceeds must be used to purchase a primary residence.

Like any source of debt, there are pros and cons to taking out an employee benefit plan loan, and it remains an important option for participants to understand. The benefits include the ease of applying for such a loan and loan interest that is then added to the participant’s retirement account balance. Potential pitfalls include lost earnings during the loan period and the risk of the loan becoming a deemed distribution if the participant is unable to repay within the allotted time. 

If you would like more information, or have specific questions about your specific situation, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.

Article
Retirement plan loans: A brief review

This article 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.

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

BerryDunn’s Healthcare/Not-for-Profit Practice Group members have been working closely with our clients as they navigate the effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on their ability to sustain and advance their missions.

We have collected several of the questions we received, and the answers provided, so that you may also benefit from this information. We will be updating our COVID-19 Resources page regularly. If you have a question you would like to have answered, please contact Sarah Belliveau, Not-for-Profit Practice Area leader, at sbelliveau@berrydunn.com.

The following questions and answers have been compiled into categories: stabilization, cash flow, financial reporting, endowments and investments, employee benefits, and additional considerations.

STABILIZATION
Q: Is all relief focused on small to mid-size organizations? What can larger nonprofit organizations participate in for relief?
A:

We have learned that there is an as-yet-to-be-defined loan program for mid-sized employers between 500-10,000 employees. You can find information in the Loans Available for Nonprofits section (link below) of  the CARES Act as well as on the Independent Sector CARES Act web page, which will be updated regularly.

Q: Should I perform financial modeling so I can understand the impact this will have on my organization? Things are moving so fast, how do I know what federal programs are available to provide assistance?
A:

The first step in developing a short-term model to navigate the next few months is to gain an understanding of the programs available to provide assistance. These resources summarize some information about available programs:

Loans Available for Nonprofits in the CARES Act
Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA): FAQs for Businesses
CARES Act Tax Provisions for Not-for-Profit Organizations

The next step is to develop scenarios ranging from best case to worst case to analyze the potential impact of revenue and/or cost reductions on the organization. Modeling the various options available to you will help to determine which program is best for your organization. Each program achieves a different objective – for instance:

  • The Paycheck Protection Program can assist in retaining employees in the short term.
  • The Emergency Economic Injury Grants are helpful in covering a small immediate liquidity need.
  • The Small Business Debt Relief Program provides aid to those concerned with making SBA loan payments.

Additionally, consider non-federal options, such as discussing short-term deferrals with your current bank.

Q: How should I create a financial forecast/model for the next year?
A:

If you have the benefit of waiting, this is likely a time period in which it makes sense to delay significant in-depth forecasting efforts, particularly if your business environment is complicated or subject to significantly volatility as a result of recent events. The concern with beginning to model for future periods, outside of the next three-to-six months, is that you’ll be using information that is incomplete and ever-changing. This could lead to snap judgments that are short-term in nature and detrimental to long-term planning and success of your organization. 

With that said, we recognize that delaying this analysis will be unsettling to many CFOs and business managers who need to have a strategy moving forward. In developing this model for next year, consider the following elements of a strong model:

  1. Flexible and dynamic – Allow room for the model to adapt as more information is available and as additional insight is requested by your constituents (board members, department heads, lenders, etc.).
  2. Prioritize – Start with your big-ticket items. These should be the items that drive results for the organization. Determine what your top two to three revenue and expense categories are and focus on wrapping your arms around the future of those. From there, look for other revenue and expense sources that show correlation with one of the big two to three. Using a dynamic model, these should be automatically updated when assumptions on correlated items change. Don’t waste time on items that likely don’t impact decision making. Finally, build consensus on baseline assumptions, whether it be through management or accounting team, the board, or finance committee.
  3. Stress-test – Provide for the reality that your assumptions, and thus model, will be wrong. Develop scenarios that run from best-case to worst-case. Be honest with your assumptions.
  4. Identify levers – As you complete stress-testing, identify your action plan under different circumstances. What are expenditures that can be deferred in a worst-case scenario? What does staffing look like at various levels?
  5. Cash is king – The focus on forecasting and modeling is often on the net income of the organization and the cash flows generated. In a time such as this, the exercise is likely to focus on future liquidity. Remember to consider your non-income and expense items that impact cash flow, such as principal payments on debt service, planned additions to property & equipment, receipts on pledge payments, and others.  
CASH FLOW
Q: How can I alleviate cash flow strain in the near term?
A:

While the House and Senate have reacted quickly to bring needed relief to individuals and businesses across the country, the reality for most is that more will need to be done to stabilize. Operationally, obvious responses in the short term should be to eliminate all nonessential purchasing and maximize the billing and collection functions in accounts receivable. Another option is to utilize or increase an existing line of credit, or establish a new line of credit, to alleviate short term cash flow shortfalls. Organizations with investment portfolios can consider the prudence of increasing the spending draw on those funds. Rather than making a few drastic changes, organizations should take a multi-faceted approach to reduce the strain on cash flow while protecting the long term sustainability of the mission.

Q: How can I increase my organization’s reach to help with disaster relief? If we establish a special purpose fund, what should my organization be thinking about?
A:

Many organizations are looking for ways to increase their direct impact and give funding to individuals or organizations they may not have historically supported. For those who are want to expand their grant or gift making or want to establish a disaster relief fund, there are things to consider when doing so to help protect the organization. The nonprofit experts at Hemenway & Barnes share their thoughts on just how to do that.

FINANCIAL REPORTING
Q: What accounting standards have been delayed or are in the process of being delayed?
A:

FASB:
The $2.2 trillion stimulus package includes a provision that would allow banks the temporary option to delay compliance with the current expected credit losses (CECL) accounting standard. This would be delayed until the earlier end of the fiscal year or the end of the coronavirus national emergency.

GASB:
On March 26, 2020, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) announced it has added a project to its current technical agenda to consider postponing all Statement and Implementation Guide provisions with an effective date that begins on or after reporting periods beginning after June 15, 2018. The GASB has received numerous requests from state and local government officials and public accounting firms regarding postponing the upcoming effective dates of pronouncements as these state and local government offices are closed and officials do not have access to the information needed to implement the Statements. Most notably this would include Statement No. 84, Fiduciary Activities, and Statement No. 87, Leases.

The Board plans to consider an Exposure Draft for issuance in April and finalize the guidance in May 2020.

ENDOWMENTS AND INVESTMENTS 
Q: What should I consider with regard to endowments?
A:

Many nonprofits with endowments are considering ways to balance an increased reliance on their investment portfolios with the responsibility to protect and preserve the spending power of donor-restricted gifts. Some things to think about include the existence (or absence) of true restrictions, spending variations under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) applicable in your state, borrowing from an endowment, or requesting from the donor the release of restrictions. All need to be balanced with the intended duration and preservation of the endowment fund. Hemenway & Barnes shares their thoughts relative to the utilization of endowments during this time of need.

EMPLOYEE BENEFITS
Q: We are going to suspend our retirement plan match through June 30, 2020 and I picked a start date of April 1st. What we need help with is our bi-weekly payroll (which is for HOURLY employees). Their next pay date is April 3rd, for time worked through March 28th. Time worked March 29-31 would be paid on April 17th. How should we handle the match during this period for the hourly employees?
A:

The key for determining what to include for the matching calculation is when it is paid, not when it was earned. If the amendment is effective April 1st, then any amounts paid after April 1st would not have matching contributions calculated. This means that the amounts paid on April 3rd would not have any matching contributions calculated.

Q: Can you please provide guidance on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and how it may impact my organization?
A:

On March 30th, BerryDunn published a blog post to help answer your questions around the FFCRA.

If you have additional questions, please contact one of our Employee Benefit Plan professionals

ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS
Q: I heard there was going to be an incentive for charitable giving in the new act. What's that all about?
A:

According to Sections 2204 and 2205 of the CARES Act:

  • Up to $300 of charitable contributions can be taken as a deduction in calculating adjusted gross income (AGI) for the 2020 tax year. This will provide a tax benefit even to those who do not itemize.
  • For the 2020 tax year, the tax cap has been lifted for:
    • Individuals-from 60% of AGI to 100%
    • Corporations-annual limit is raised from 10% to 25% (for food donations this is raised from 15% to 25%)
Q: Have you heard if the May 15th tax deadline will be extended?
A:

Unfortunately, we have not heard. As of April 6th, the deadline has not been extended.

Q: Could you please summarize for me the tax provisions in the CARES Act that you think are most applicable to not-for-profits?
A: Absolutely! Our not-for-profit tax professionals have compiled this document, which provides a high-level outline of tax provisions in the CARES Act that we believe would be of interest to our clients.

We are here to help
Please contact the BerryDunn not-for-profit team if you have any questions, or would like to discuss your specific situation.

Article
COVID-19 FAQs—Not-for-Profit Edition

Benchmarking doesn’t need to be time and resource consuming. Read on for four simple steps you can take to improve efficiency and maximize resources.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before (from your Board of Trustees or Finance Committee): “I wish there was a way we could benchmark ourselves against our competitors.”

Have you ever wrestled with how to benchmark? Or struggled to identify what the Board wants to measure? Organizations can fall short on implementing effective methods to benchmark accurately. The good news? With a planned approach, you can overcome traditional obstacles and create tools to increase efficiency, improve operations and reporting, and maintain and monitor a comfortable risk level. All of this creates competitive advantage — and isn’t as hard as you might think.

Even with a structured process, remember that benchmarking data has pitfalls, including:

  • Peer data can be difficult to find. Some industries are better than others at tracking this information. Some collect too much data that isn’t relevant, making it hard to find the data that is.
     
  • The data can be dated. By the time you close your books for the year and data is available, you’re at least six months into the next fiscal year. Knowing this, you can still build year-over-year models you can measure consistently.
     
  • The underlying data may be tainted. As much as we’d like to rely on financial data from other organization and industry surveys, there’s no guarantee that all participants have applied accounting principles consistently, or calculated inputs (full-time equivalents), in the same way, making comparisons inaccurate.

Despite these pitfalls, it is a useful tool for your organization. It lets you take stock of your current financial condition and risk profile, identify areas for improvement and find a realistic and measurable plan to strengthen your organization.

Here are four steps to take to start a successful benchmarking program and overcome these pitfalls:

  1. Benchmark against yourself. Use year-over-year and month-to-month data to identify trends, inconsistencies and unexplained changes. Once you have the information, you can see where you want to direct improvement efforts.
  2. Look to industry/peer data. We’d love to tell you that all financial statements and survey inputs are created equally, but we can’t. By understanding the source of your information, and the potential strengths and weaknesses in the data (e.g., too few peers, different size organizations and markets, etc.), you will better know how to use it. Understanding the data source allows you to weigh metrics that are more susceptible to inconsistencies.
  1. Identify what is important to your organization and focus on it. Remove data points that have little relevance for your organization. Trying to address too many measures is one of the primary reasons benchmarking fails. Identify key metrics you will target, and watch them over time. Remember, keeping it simple allows you to put resources where you need them most.
  1. Use the data as a tool to guide decisions. Identify aspects of the organization that lie beyond your risk tolerance and then define specific steps for improvement.

Once you take these steps, you can add other measurement strategies, including stress testing, monthly reporting, use in budgeting, and forecasting. By taking the time to create and use an effective methodology, competitive advantage can be yours. Want to learn more? Check out our resources for not-for-profit organizations here.

Article
Benchmarking: Satisfy your board and gain a competitive advantage

Read this if you are at a financial institution.

Feeling stuck, or maybe even frozen, in your CECL readiness efforts? No matter where you are in the process, here are three things you can do right now to ensure your CECL implementation is on track:

  1. Create or re-visit your 2022 timeline
    With just under 12 months to the January 2023 CECL adoption date, it’s important to make every moment count. Consider CECL adoption your Olympic moment and, like every great Olympic athlete, you have interim events—a timeline of major milestones—to ensure you are ready for “Day 1” and beyond. One strategy to ensure you do not “run out of time” is to start at the end of your timeline and work backward.

    Tip: Whether it be 1/1/2023 (“Day 1” adoption), or the first date by which you want to start parallel runs, fix the date of that final must-hit milestone, and work backward. For example, in order to adopt CECL on 1/1/2023, what major milestone has to be achieved before then and how much time will you need for that? Setting milestones from the final date backward will help you fit the remaining major activities into the time you have left—you can’t “run out of time” this way!



     
  2. Assess where you are, tactically, and fill in the gaps
    What would an Olympic athlete be without a training schedule, and coaches, trainers, and other professionals to guide and push them? In order to make the most of each event (or milestone) in the countdown to CECL adoption, let’s fill in our training schedule. What key decisions still need to be made or documented? Who has the authority to approve them? What’s the right time and venue to obtain that approval? Will these be one-to-one, small group, or committee/board meetings? Will meetings be set up as-needed, or is the meeting schedule (e.g. quarterly executive/board) already set? Who are you engaging for model validation and key control review? What is the date of that review work? 

    Tip: Add those key approval, review, and validation dates to your timeline, and make sure the meeting time you need with decision-makers is booked in their calendars now. Scheduling this time in advance is a transparent and tangible sign that you’ve charted the course, helps ensure decision-makers are available to you when needed most, and incremental progress is being consistently made toward your ultimate goal. 
  3. Identify the top three tasks to complete this week, reserve the time in your calendar, and complete them!
    Like any athlete, you are now “in training”, and daily and weekly actions you take will ensure you reach your goal in as strong a position possible. Whether it’s scheduling those meetings, identifying subject matter experts you can rely upon for coaching, or putting the finishing touches on model documentation and internal control mapping, booking that time with yourself to complete these tasks is key to feeling prepared and ready for CECL adoption. 

    Tip: Set aside a few minutes at the end or start of each week to review your timeline/milestones and identify the next key actions to complete.

Would you like assistance with certain aspects of your CECL readiness efforts? Are you ready for some validation/review work, or need guidance on policy, governance, or internal/financial reporting controls?

Contact our Financial Institutions team. We'll help you get your CECL implementation over the finish line. 


 

Article
CECL implementation: Three steps for a medal-winning adoption 

Read this if you are at a not-for-profit organization.

There is no question the investment landscape is forever changing. Even before COVID-19 placed a vice grip on all aspects of society, many not-for-profit organizations were looking for ways to maximize the value of their current investment holdings. One such way of accomplishing this is through the use of alternative investments, defined for our purposes as investments outside of standard assets such as traditional stocks and bonds. Alternative investments have become increasingly specialized and are often seen in the form of foreign corporations or partnerships (often times domiciled in locales such as the Cayman Islands where tax laws are more favorable to investors) and are much more commonplace than ever before.

While promises of higher rates of return are received warmly by not-for-profit organizations, alternative investments often carry with them the potential for additional compliance costs in the form of tax filing obligations and substantial penalties should those filings be overlooked.

This article will highlight some of those potential foreign filings, as well as highlight potential consequences they carry and what you need to know in order to avoid the pitfalls. 

Potential foreign filings related to investment activities

Not-for profit organizations should be aware of the potential filings/disclosures required in regards to their ownership of investments located outside of the United States. The federal government uses a variety of forms to track transfers of property, ownership, and account balances related to foreign activity/investments. A list of some of the potential foreign filings are detailed below (not an all-inclusive list):

Form 926 – Return by a US Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation

This form is generally required when a US investor transfers more than $100,000 in a 12-month period, or any other contribution when the investor owns 10% or more of a foreign corporation. The requirement to file this form can be via a direct investment in the foreign corporation, or indirectly through another entity (such as a partnership interest). The penalty for failure to file is equal to 10 percent of the transfer amount, up to $100,000 per missed filing.

Form 8865 – Return of US Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Partnerships

Similar to Form 926, this filing arises when a US person (which includes not-for-profit organizations) transfers $100,000 or more in a given year, or if they own 10% or more of the foreign partnership. There are different levels of disclosure required for different categories of filers. Filings are also triggered by both direct and indirect investments. The penalty for failure to file varies by category type, ranging from $10,000 to up to $100,000 per missed filing.

FinCEN Form 114 – Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts

Commonly referred to as the FBAR, this form tracks assets that US taxpayers hold in offshore accounts, whether they be foreign bank accounts, brokerage accounts, or mutual funds. This form is required when the aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeds $10,000 at any time during the calendar year. Further, any individual or entity that owns more than 50 percent of the account directly or indirectly must file the form. Lastly, individuals who have signature authority over accounts held by the organization are also required to file the FinCEN Form 114 with their individual income tax return. The penalty for failure to file can vary, but can be as high as 50 percent of the account’s value.

Please note: there is a specific definition of the term “foreign financial account” which excludes certain items from the definition. Organizations are encouraged to consult their tax advisors for more information.

Form 5471 – Information Return of US Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations

Form 5471 is required to be filed when ownership is at least 10% in a foreign corporation. There are different disclosures required for different categories of ownership. Organizations required to file Form 5471 are typically operating internationally and have ownership of a foreign corporation which triggers the filing, but this form would also apply to investments in foreign corporations if ownership is at least 10%. The penalty for failure to file is typically $10,000 per missed filing.

Recommendations to avoid the pitfalls of alternative investments

In order to avoid missed filing requirements, exempt organizations should ask their investment advisors if any investment will involve organizations outside of the United States. If the answer is “yes,” then your organization needs to understand any additional filing requirements up front in order to take into consideration any additional compliance costs related to foreign filings. You should review and share all relevant investment documentation and subsequent information (e.g., prospectus and any other offering materials) with your finance/accounting department, as well as your tax advisors—prior to investment.

We also recommend you engage in open and frequent communication with your investment managers and advisors (both within and outside the organization). Those who manage the entity’s investments should also stay in close contact with fund managers who can help communicate when assets are invested in a way that might trigger a foreign filing obligation.

As investment practices and strategies become increasingly complex, organizations need to stay vigilant and aware in this forever changing landscape. We’re here to help. If you have any questions or concerns about current investment holdings and potential foreign filings, please do not hesitate to reach out to a member of our not-for-profit tax team.

Article
Alternative investments: Potential pitfalls not-for-profit organizations need to know

Read this if you are an employee benefit plan fiduciary.

Fiduciary risk management

This is the final article in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with ERISA requirements. You can find the full series here.

If, as part of your involvement with an employee benefit plan, you have decision-making ability; you advise those with decision-making ability; or someone tasks you with decision-making related to the plan, you are more likely than not, a fiduciary. As discussed in the first article of the series, this status comes with responsibilities and, therefore, risks and consequences.

The general approach to handling risk is a cycle of identifying, assessing, controlling, and reviewing controls over risks. Based on the assessment of a given risk, there are four ways to manage it: you can avoid, reduce, transfer, or accept the risk. 

Identifying and assessing fiduciary risk1 

The risks facing a plan fiduciary include, but are not limited to, the following:

Removal of fiduciary

In appropriate cases, a fiduciary may be removed and permanently prohibited from acting as a fiduciary or from providing services to ERISA plans.

Civil penalties

Among other penalties, the DOL may assess a civil penalty equal to 20% of the amounts recovered for the plan through litigation or settlement.

Criminal prosecution

Upon a conviction for a willful violation of ERISA’s reporting and disclosure requirements, a fiduciary may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment for not more than ten years. There is also a provision in ERISA that applies to any person, not just ERISA fiduciaries, that makes coercive interference with ERISA rights a criminal offense punishable by fines and/or imprisonment for up to ten years. In addition, outside of ERISA, there are a number of criminal statutes that apply to any person, not just ERISA fiduciaries, including criminal statutes for embezzling from an ERISA plan, making false statements in ERISA documents, and taking illegal kickbacks in connection with an ERISA plan.

Participant lawsuits

Additionally, plan participants may file a lawsuit against the fiduciary for breach of their fiduciary duty. Over the past few years, this has become more common and has generally been related to the fiduciary’s failure to adequately negotiate and monitor plan fees. 

Co-fiduciary liability

ERISA's unique co-fiduciary liability provisions make each fiduciary responsible for the actions of the other plan fiduciaries but only under certain circumstances. As a general rule, fiduciaries aren’t responsible for the breach of another fiduciary unless:

  • They participate knowingly in, or knowingly undertake to conceal, an act or omission of such other fiduciary, knowing such act or omission is a breach;
  • Their failure to be prudent in the administration of their own fiduciary responsibilities enables the other fiduciary to commit a breach; or
  • They have knowledge of a breach by such other fiduciary and don’t make reasonable efforts under the circumstances to remedy the breach.

Controlling fiduciary risk

There are several ways to effectively manage fiduciary risk. When used together, they give you solid controls to greatly reduce your level of risk.

Plan documentation

A fiduciary and/or plan sponsor should reduce their exposure to the risks identified above and their first line of defense is through plan documentation (discussed in depth here). Broadly speaking, the organizers and fiduciaries of the plan should ensure that policies and procedures are laid out to ensure proper oversight and internal controls are in place to prevent any voluntary or involuntary noncompliance with ERISA and the DOL.

Oversight

Fiduciaries should meet formally on a regular basis to review the plan’s offerings, service providers, fees, and other issues that may affect the plan. A single individual who is the sole fiduciary for a plan may not have the knowledge or bandwidth to appropriately fulfill the responsibilities of the plan. Additionally, having an auditor come in and audit the plan can help identify some of the risks identified above, although an audit of the plan does not reduce your responsibility to monitor and review the plan’s activity on an ongoing basis.

Third Party Administrators (TPA) & recordkeepers

Fiduciaries may also be able to mitigate some of the risks identified above through use of a TPA and/or recordkeeper. While TPAs and recordkeepers are not generally considered fiduciaries or co-fiduciaries, TPAs have varying service offerings, including recordkeeping, that are powerful tools to plan administrators to review and operate the plan. For example, depending on the plan sponsor’s existing payroll and HR structure, inclusive of TPAs and recordkeepers, fiduciaries may be able to automate the transfer of contributions to ensure timeliness of deposits. The plan may also be able to add another layer of internal controls by incorporating the TPA’s or recordkeeper’s internal controls into the plan’s control environment assuming the fiduciary has gained an understanding and comfort around the controls present at the TPA and/or recordkeeper.

Professional investment advisors and co-fiduciaries

Employee benefit plans must meet certain requirements with regard to their investment offerings. For instance, the plan must allow participants to invest in a diversified portfolio. The plan may try to transfer some of these risks and employ the help of a professional investment advisor to help ensure the plan’s investment offerings meet such criteria. This could involve hiring either an ERISA 3(21) fiduciary or an ERISA 3(38) fiduciary. The former serves as an advisor and a co-fiduciary, but does not have any authority by themselves, while the latter is an investment manager and therefore authorized to select investments for the plan. Doing so may help demonstrate to regulators that a fiduciary has fulfilled their duty in this regard. Alternatively, a plan may hire a 3(16) Fiduciary. 3(16) Fiduciaries are individuals or organizations that are charged with running plans as the plan administrator. A company may be able to shift most of their fiduciary risk to such a fiduciary. 

In any case, the plan fiduciary must continue to monitor a 3(16), 3(21) or 3(38) advisor to make sure it is still prudent to use that advisor.

Bonding and fiduciary liability insurance

Bonding is required for most EB plans and does not protect the fiduciary from any risk. It does however protect the plan from fraud or dishonesty. On the other hand, fiduciary liability insurance can protect the fiduciary in the case of breach of fiduciary duty. This type of insurance is not required but is another option to transfer fiduciary risk.

As mentioned in our second article, much like owning a car, regular preventative maintenance can help you avoid the need for costly repairs. Plan fiduciaries should periodically refresh their understanding of ERISA requirements and re-evaluate their current and future business activities on an ongoing basis. Doing so will help mitigate any risks associated with non-compliance with the DOL and IRS and keep the plan running smoothly. 

Need help navigating the fiduciary road? Reach out to the BerryDunn employee benefit consulting team today.

1From Fidelity’s Plan Sponsor Webstation: Consequences of breach of fiduciary duties 

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Fiduciary risk: Five ways to control and reduce it

Read this if you are an employer that gives employee gifts.

The holiday season is officially in full swing! Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, many employers are looking for ways to recognize the dedication and hard work of their employees. This gratitude often comes in the form of a holiday gift of some fashion. While this generosity is well-intended, gifts to employees can be fraught with potential tax consequences organizations should be aware of. This article will attempt to demystify the rules surrounding employee gifts to ensure organizations and their employees have a joyous holiday season.

Holiday gifts: Taxable or not?

So, are holiday gifts to employees taxable? The answer, as is so often the case with tax questions, is it depends. The IRS is very clear that cash and cash equivalents (specifically including gift cards) are always included as taxable income when they are provided by the employer, regardless of amount, with no exceptions. This means that if you plan to give your employees cash or a gift card this year, the value must be included in the employees’ wages and is subject to all payroll taxes. Bah humbug indeed!

Nontaxable gift options

There are however, a few ways to make nontaxable gifts to employees. In each instance the gift must be noncash (nor convertible to cash). IRS Publication 15 offers a variety of examples of de minimis (minimal) benefits, defined as any property or service you provide to an employee that has a minimal value, making the accounting for it unreasonable and administratively impracticable. Examples include holiday or birthday gifts with a low market value (a card and flowers, fruit baskets, a box of chocolates, etc.), or occasional tickets for theater or sporting events, among others. Again, cash and cash equivalents never qualify. The key is that the gift must be occasional or unusual in its frequency and must not be a form of disguised compensation. While de minimis benefits can be a gray area, the IRS has generally deemed items with a value exceeding $100 as too large to qualify as de minimis.

Holiday gifts can also be nontaxable if they are in the form of a gift coupon, if given for a specific item (with no redeemable cash value). A common example would be issuing a coupon to your employee for a free ham or turkey redeemable at the local grocery store. Nontaxable employee gifts can also come in the form of achievement awards, either for length of service or for safety achievements. The proverbial gold watch upon retirement is a classic example of such a gift. Here too, the award must always be tangible personal property—never cash or a cash equivalent. There are additional rules and value thresholds on any such gift. Please contact a member of your tax team to discuss these specific details further.

Whether employers are considering supplying gift cards, turkeys, or something in between, we hope all find this guidance helpful and still in the giving spirit! Coincidentally, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer himself gives Bob Cratchit a turkey on Christmas day. Of course Mr. Scrooge would be aware of the potential tax consequences! We wish you all a very happy and healthy holiday season!

Not-for-profit resources

If you are a not-for-profit organization receiving charitable gifts, read Donor Acknowledgements: We have to file what?

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What employers need to know before making gifts to employees