This blog is part of a 12-part series entitled “The nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) dirty dozen: An administrative guide to avoiding 12 traps.” To read the introduction to the series, click here.
Last month’s blog discussed similarities and differences between the rules governing participant deferrals made under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) versus those contributed to a qualified 401(k) plan. This month’s entry will again turn to the NDCP-401(k) connection; however, this time it will show that when NDCP sponsors choose to link their NDCP’s benefits with their 401(k) plans’, they must be aware of and comply with not only Internal Revenue Code Section 409A’s restrictions but also Section 401(k)’s “contingent benefit rule” (CBR). While such compliance does not directly affect the NDCP, it is a qualification requirement for the 401(k) plan.
In general, an employer may not directly or indirectly condition another employer benefit (other than matching contributions) upon an employee’s election to make or not make elective contributions. If the employer conditions any such other employer benefit upon elective contributions, it is a qualification defect. The purpose of this rule is to prevent employers from encouraging employees to make or not make elective contributions by linking valuable benefits to their contributions or lack of contributions. These other benefits include but are not limited to the following:
• Benefits under a defined benefit plan
• Nonelective employer contributions to a defined contribution plan
• The right to make after-tax employee contributions
• The right to health and life insurance
• The right to employment
• Benefits under a NDCP
Because NDCP benefits are included among the items for which 401(k) contingency is prohibited, NDCP sponsors must guard against including provisions in their NDCPs under which participants may receive additional deferred compensation under the NDCP, depending on whether they make or do not make 401(k) elective contributions. Each of the following three examples illustrates provisions that would create such a contingent benefit and thus a violation of the CBR:
• Example 1: Employer T maintains a 401(k) plan for all of its employees and a NDCP for two highly paid executives, Employees R and C. Under the terms of the NDCP, R and C are eligible to participate only if they do not make elective contributions under the 401(k) plan. Participation in the NDCP is a contingent benefit because R’s and C’s participation is conditioned on their electing not to make elective contributions under the 401(k) plan.
• Example 2: Assume the same fact pattern as Example 1 except that this time, under the terms of the NDCP, Employees R and C may defer a maximum of 15% of their compensation and may allocate their deferrals between the 401(k) plan and the NDCP in any way they choose (subject to the overall 15% maximum). Because the maximum deferral available under the NDCP depends on the elective deferrals made under the 401(k) plan, the right to participate in the NDCP is a contingent benefit.
• Example 3: Employer S maintains three plans: a 401(k) plan, a qualified defined benefit (DB) plan, and a defined benefit NDCP. Under the terms of the NDCP, each participant’s NDCP benefit is offset not only by the qualified DB plan benefit but also by the total account balance under the 401(k) plan. Because the amount a participant elects to defer or not defer under the 401(k) will directly affect the amount of the offset and thus the resulting NDCP benefit, the offset is a contingent benefit.