Tag Archives: Dominick Pizzano

A personal touch enhances 401(k) plan

One telecommunications company seeking an upgrade of its 401(k) plan’s design and administration determined that Milliman was able to provide them with the type and quality of services needed. Milliman consultants offered the company a three-pronged solution to address several operational concerns related to its 401(k) plan. The case study entitled “Service is in the eye of the beholder” by Dominick Pizzano highlights the approach.

Here is an excerpt:

(1) Plan design revisions. Milliman’s analysis of their situation revealed that several of the ongoing administrative burdens could be addressed through amending the plan. Suggested revisions included (a) removing the joint and survivor annuity requirements which had been included and continued in the plan even though by law the plan was not a type of plan that required such annuities and neither the firm nor participants had expressed any interest in using these payment options; (b) increasing the 401(k) deferral limit which had never been modified to reflect the higher limit that went into effect with a past law change; and (c) adding a $5,000 mandatory cash-out threshold. Milliman proposed amending the plan to incorporate these revisions.

(2) Implementing a more service-oriented administrative approach. There were several operational areas (e.g., loan applications, withdrawal requests, and qualified domestic relations order determinations) where the previous provider did not assume responsibility. Milliman assured the organization that if they made the switch to Milliman, they would be relieved of such tasks in the future as these services would fall within the scope of Milliman’s responsibility.

(3) The existing 401(k) plan currently offered participants a choice of 34 investment alternatives, many of which were similar in asset composition, expense ratio, and average return so as to be redundant. Analysis of the breakdown by fund indicated that many of these funds were not being used by participants. Accordingly, the current array of funds was creating more confusion than appreciation with participants. Milliman proposed to have its investment consultants analyze the existing funds and replace them with a more concise set of funds that would provide sufficient diversification opportunities for participants by covering each of the investment categories previously provided but doing so with a smaller number of funds carrying lower expense ratios. In conjunction with this smart-sizing of the plan’s investment alternatives, Milliman also proposed to have the plan offer Milliman’s InvestMap as an alternative for those participants who did not want to assume the initial task of designing a unique investment portfolio as well as the ongoing responsibility of monitoring fund allocations. By choosing InvestMap, such participants would have an age-appropriate allocation mix created for them upon their selection with such mix proportionately rebalanced as they approached retirement.

An executive survival guide for tax-exempt employers sentenced to Section 457

Pizzano-DominickThis 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.

By the time executives of the corporate world-at-large experienced the first full-fledged legislative lockdown of their nonqualified deferred compensations, when the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 instituted Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 409A, most of their counterparts in the tax-exempt sector had already been long used to having such benefits confined. Many years earlier, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA 86) sentenced these benefits to the custody of IRC Section 457, generally effective for taxable years beginning after December 31, 1986. The problem is that even as we approach the 30th anniversary of this sentence, Section 457 applicability and compliance still remain sources of confusion and frustration for many not-for-profit employers as they seek to provide significant executive compensation programs.

Tax-exempt employers, not employees
When not-for-profit organizations hire key decision-makers from the “for-profit” world, these organizations frequently find individuals desiring deferred compensation benefits similar to those offered by their former employers. Unfortunately, too often the tax-exempt organization complies and implements a plan that, while perfectly in compliance with the tax laws governing similar plans sponsored by corporations in the for-profit sector, does not comply with the more restrictive limitations applicable to most not-for-profit entities. If the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) discovers such a plan during an audit of the individual or the organization, the employer’s good intentions could result in extremely adverse tax consequences for the executive.

The deliberations that led to the 457 sentence
Why are tax-exempt employers subject to stricter limits than their for-profit counterparts? Because the IRS gives these organizations a pass come tax time, they cannot afford to offer the same charity to their employees. The IRS does not mind if executives of taxable entities defer as much as 100% of their compensation because, while the opportunity to tax this pay is generally deferred until the funds are distributed, the plan sponsor’s ability to take a tax deduction on such amounts is similarly delayed, thereby creating a vital trade-off that enables the U.S. Department of the Treasury to view these arrangements as tax-neutral. In contrast, tax-exempt employers have no tax deductions that can be deferred and thus no trade-off to offset the Treasury’s loss of current tax revenue incurred by their employees’ deferrals of compensation. Because tax-exempt entities as non-taxpayers are not concerned with deductibility of compensation, unless it involves unrelated trade or business income, there would be no incentive for them to limit their employees’ deferrals on their own if Section 457 did not exist.

Applicability of Section 457: Not all tax-exempts are treated equally

Free from Section 457: No separation of Church and the Feds: Originally sentenced to Section 457 by TRA 86 with the other tax-exempts, NDCPs maintained by churches and qualified church-controlled organizations (QCCOs) were paroled in 1988, when the Technical and Miscellaneous Revenue Act exempted this congregation of plans from the application of Section 457 (however, a nursing home or hospital that is associated with a church, but which is not itself a church or a QCCO, would be covered by Section 457 if it is a tax-exempt entity). The only other NDCPs granted Section 457 immunity are those established by the federal government or any agency or instrumentality thereof; although this should not be too surprising given that the creation of these rules as well as determining who must comply with them is, after all, a federal function.

Those sentenced to Section 457: The states, cities, towns, and the rest of the tax-exempts: If an employer is an entity that is a state or local government or a tax-exempt entity other than those described in the preceding paragraph, any NDCP it establishes must comply with Section 457. Plans of states and local governments have been subject to Section 457 from its creation in 1978; however, because the rules governing these arrangements are more similar to those covering qualified plans (e.g., all employees—not just executives—participate, and plan assets must be held in a separate trust for the exclusive benefit of participants), the remainder of this blog will focus on the rules applicable to the nongovernmental tax-exempts sentenced to 457.

What are the terms of a Section 457 sentence?
While a 457 sentence is mandatory, in the sense that it is levied based on the employer’s status, tax-exempt employers do have considerable discretion over the manner in which they choose to serve this sentence: a 457(b) plan (aka an eligible 457 plan), a 457(f) plan (aka an ineligible plan), or concurrently using both. The following chart reveals their major differences:

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Observing the 409A speed limit on payment accelerations after an NDCP termination

Pizzano-DominickThis 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.

Nonqualified deferred compensation plans (NDCPs) are designed to run their course at the usual payment pace with the only designated distribution pit stops made along the way being those specifically prescribed by the plan’s provisions. Internal Revenue Code Section 409A (409A) serves as an ever waving yellow caution flag warning NDCP sponsors of the consequences of accelerating distributions (see the “Timing is Everything” blog entry from this series for description). So the question arises, what is an NDCP sponsor to do when it concludes that its vehicle for high-performance executives is now no longer running smoothly and/or too costly to maintain on a per participant basis?

Prior to 409A going into effect, many NDCPs contained provisions permitting the sponsor to terminate the plan at its discretion and distribute benefits as soon as possible after such termination. This unlimited distribution discretion upon termination created the potential for the following two suspect scenarios under which sponsors and participants could violate the spirit (if not technically the rules in effect at that time) of how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) intended NDCPs to be administered:

Pre-409A suspect scenario #1: Until distributed, NDCPs’ benefits are required to remain subject to the creditors of the sponsor in the event of the sponsor’s insolvency, in which case the participants have no greater rights than such creditors. There were cases where, because the plan sponsor was on shaky financial ground with the prospect of insolvency looming, the decision was made to terminate the NDCP so that the participants could “take their money and run” before the sponsor’s insolvency became official and the fate of any NDCP assets were left to the judgment of a bankruptcy court.

Pre-409A suspect scenario #2: Even before 409A, NDCPs were governed by the general tax principle of “constructive receipt,” which generally provides that participants should be taxed on benefits if they could potentially have access to such benefits even if they did not actually access them. Consequently, NDCPs could not contain provisions that would allow participants to withdraw funds while still employed. However, prior to 409A, there were no statutory restrictions preventing sponsors from terminating plans, distributing benefits to the participants, and then immediately creating new programs to provide future benefits, thereby in effect creating a loophole around the prohibition against “no withdrawals while employed” rule.

Recognizing there may still be legitimate reasons for an NDCP sponsor to want or need to terminate its plan(s) and distribute benefits, 409A does allow for an exception to its general prohibition against accelerations of payments. However, in an effort to prevent future occurrences of the past abuses described in scenarios #1 and #2, the 409A rules mandate that such payments will only be permissible upon certain specified circumstances. The remainder of this blog entry will review those cases where 409A raises the green flag for such early payments upon a plan’s termination.

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The DB/NDCP funding conundrum

Pizzano-DominickThis 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.

A particularly perplexing piece of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is Internal Revenue Code section 409A(b)(3), which creates a mandatory funding (i.e., a cash contribution) connection between a plan sponsor’s tax-qualified defined benefit (DB) plan and any nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) it maintains. Sponsors are prohibited from “funding” an NDCP for certain highly paid employees if circumstances arise that either actually or potentially jeopardize their DB plans’ funding status. The puzzle lies neither with the purpose of this rule nor its desired effect. True to PPA’s overall goal of protecting qualified DB plans, the prohibition put some teeth into the message that DB plan funding must take priority over dedicating corporate assets to NDCPs. Consequently, sponsors must continue to look closely at their DB plan funding before leaping into funding any NDCPs.

While the statute’s intent seems clear enough, the dilemma is in the details or, in some cases, the lack thereof. As currently written, and still absent any clarifying guidance, the statute raises a host of questions, including:

• Which employees are actually affected by the funding restraints?
• What does “fund” mean in this context?
• How does the law affect a sponsor’s ability to pay NDCP benefits?
• What are the ramifications for deferral-only plans?

When do restrictions apply?
NDCP restrictions apply during the appropriately named “restricted period,” which goes into effect:

• When the “employer” is a debtor in a federal or state bankruptcy proceeding. (Note: Throughout this article, “employer” means the NDCP sponsor and any other employers in the same control group.)

• Six months before or after the date that an underfunded DB plan of the employer is formally terminated and approved by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and/or Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

• During any period when an employer’s DB plan is “at-risk,” which generally means the plan has more than 500 participants and the assets of the plan represent less than 80% of the value of the benefits earned under the plan.

Are all NDCP participants affected by the funding restraints?
The funding restraints of the NDCP only apply if an individual is identified as an “applicable covered employee” of the employer. This term includes not only presently “covered employees” of the employer but also captures any employees who were “covered employees” of the employer at the time of those employees’ termination of employment. The term “covered employee” has a two-pronged definition:

1. The principal executive officer (or an individual acting in that capacity during the last completed fiscal year) or an employee whose total compensation is required to be reported to shareholders under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by reason of the employee being among the three highest compensated officers for the taxable year (not counting the principal executive officer), as described in tax code section 162(m)(3) and clarified by IRS Notice 2007-49.

2. An officer, director, or shareholder who owns 10% or more of a publicly traded company’s equity (i.e., an individual subject to the requirements of section 16(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934).

While the application of these definitions to NDCP sponsors that are publicly traded is clear-cut, the extent, if any, of their applicability to private companies is the subject of debate. Some analysts have argued that private companies are completely exempt. Their rationale is that such companies generally would not be subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which would by definition exclude them from coverage under prong 2 of the above definition. In prong 1, they argue that the reference is to section 162(m)(3), which is part of section 162(m) and deals with the $1 million deduction limit for publicly traded companies. Accordingly, they ask, “How can this definition apply to private companies if it is from a code section governing publicly held entities?”

Getting a legal opinion before relying on that interpretation is advisable. If prong 1 applies to private companies, it may only apply on a limited basis, given that they have no employees “whose total compensation is required to be reported to shareholders under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by reason of the employee being among the three highest compensated officers.” Thus, in a private company, if anyone is affected, it would only be the principal executive officer. The IRS has not confirmed or denied a total exemption for private companies and no timetable for clarifying guidance has been announced, so the conservative approach for such companies (absent the above-referenced legal opinion) may be to treat the principal executive officer as an “applicable covered employee.”

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Sponsors and participants must follow 409A true to form

Pizzano-DominickThis 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.

While last month’s blog explored the permissible times NDCP distributions may occur under section 409A of the tax code, this month’s entry examines the rules surrounding the forms of payment that may be offered under these plans. Accelerations and deferrals can just as easily be effected with a choice of form (e.g., lump sum versus installment payments) as they can with timing elections. These two sets of rules are connected because they share a common purpose: proving some degree of flexibility while preventing the type of excessive control that 409A was enacted to eliminate. The following will examine how sponsors can ensure that their NDCP forms follow 409A function.

First step: Grounding form flights of fancy
NDCP participants are used to the free-flowing flexibility of the qualified plan world in which they can typically wait right up until their benefit commencement date (BCD) before having to commit to the form of payment under which they wish to have their plan benefits distributed. A further false sense of flexibility may arise from pre-409A provisions, which permitted the linking of the form of payment from the NDCP to the form of payment elected by the participant under the qualified plan that the NDCP was intended to supplement. These were most prevalent in defined benefit (DB) style NDCPs but occasionally also appeared in some defined contribution (DC) ones. The 409A rules do allow grandfathering of prior amounts (see the “Honor thy 409A grandfather” entry of this series for details); however, such linking is prohibited for benefits attributable to post-December 31, 2004, accruals or contributions.

Because the rules governing NDCP form elections for such amounts are much more rigid, NDCP sponsors must make sure they clearly communicate these differences to participants, develop the appropriate 409A-compliant plan designs for their executive groups, and vigilantly administer their NDCPs in accordance with such designs. The rules for 409A generally require that a participant’s form of payment under a NDCP be designated much earlier than would be the case under a qualified plan. For most NDCPs, the rule requires participants to elect their form of payments when they first become eligible for the NDCP. Accordingly, sponsors need to provide participants with sufficient notice and means to make this election prior to the expiration of their initial eligibility periods (i.e., generally 30 days from the date they are first designated as eligible).

Exceptions to the rule
There are two exceptions to this rule requiring participants to make form elections to be made when first eligible:

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The NDCP dirty dozen: Timing is everything

Pizzano-DominickThis 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.

While most nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) sponsors will be hard-pressed to find humor in 409A compliance, they may be willing to acknowledge that proper administration of NDCP distributions shares at least one common attribute with a winning comic performance: for the NDCP to successfully stand up in front of the most demanding critic—i.e., the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—without facing any heckling, the plan must practice precision timing with its distributions to participants. Just as a comedian must work not to deliver a punch line too early or too late, an NDCP needs to avoid improper accelerations or delays of participant payments. A failure to do so can elicit a most unpleasant response in the form of a cacophony of catcalls and boos from participants, or an IRS audit discovery of 409A noncompliance, thereby triggering the resultant penalties.

This blog entry examines some of the toughest timing tests for the satisfactory operation and administration of NDCPs under section 409A of the tax code.

Activating the trigger
Section 409A severely restricts employer and/or executive discretion on the timing of distributions. It identifies six permissible NDCP distribution triggers, which generally must be established within 30 days of the date the executive first becomes eligible to participate in the plan:

1. A specified payment date (i.e., a future distribution date is designated either by the employer and/or executive upon the participant’s initial eligibility)
2. Separation from service
3. Disability
4. Death
5. Change in ownership or control of a corporation
6. Unforeseeable emergency

Except for death, each trigger has its own special 409A definition, along with complicated rules regarding how it may be applied. There is also a separate rule that permits the attachment of a “window” period to the applicable trigger. Under this rule, the participant may not designate the taxable year of payment; and such period must either both begin and end within one taxable year or must not be more than 90 days.

Recent IRS guidance expanded the permissible early payout alternatives to an NDCP participant’s beneficiaries in cases of death, disability, or unforeseeable emergencies. The guidance also clarifies that the NDCP may provide that the occurrence of death, disability, or an unforeseeable emergency may accelerate a schedule of payments that has already commenced prior to a participant’s or beneficiary’s death.

One of the most complex triggers happens to be one of the most commonly used: the “separation from service” distribution trigger. This trigger will not pose problems when the separation is clear-cut and final, such as a full retirement, resignation, or termination of employment. However, employment separations are often not so simple, such as where an executive’s duties are scaled back from his or her previous role (e.g., under a “phased retirement” scenario) or where a key employee “retires” but is then retained to consult as an independent contractor. Depending on the extent of the cutback and the terms of the NDCP, the plan may risk either prematurely commencing payment or impermissibly delaying a distribution that should commence. This may occur if the employer and/or the executive’s idea of what constitutes a separation does not align with the guidance under 409A. Although it basically is a facts-and-circumstances test, 409A considers a termination to have occurred if the employer and employee reasonably anticipate that either of these two conditions applies:

1. No future services will be performed after a certain date.
2. The rate of bona fide services to be performed after such date will not exceed 20% of the average rate of services performed over the preceding 36-month period (or the full period, if less than 36 months). (If the new rate of services is over 20% but less than 50%, such reduction may be treated as a separation from service under 409A, provided special rules are met.)

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