Final Rules Regarding Religious Accommodation of Contraceptive Coverage Mandate

On July 14, 2015 the IRS, DOL and HHS will jointly issue final rules regarding no additional cost preventive services, including contraceptive services, under the Affordable Care Act.

The final rules maintain the existing accommodation for eligible religious nonprofits, but also finalizes an alternative pathway for eligible organizations that have a religious objection to covering contraceptive services to seek an accommodation from contracting, providing, paying, or referring for such services. The rules allow these eligible organizations to notify HHS in writing of their religious objection to providing contraception coverage, as an alternative to filling out the form provided by the Department of Labor (EBSA Form 700) to provide to their issuer or third-party administrator. HHS and the DOL will then notify insurers and third party administrators of the organization’s objection so that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate payments for contraceptive services, with no additional cost to the enrollee or organization, and no involvement by the organization.

The alternative notice must include:

  • the name of the eligible organization and the basis on which it qualifies for an accommodation;
  • its objection based on sincerely held religious beliefs to covering some or all contraceptive services, as applicable (including an identification of the subset of contraceptive services to which coverage the eligible organization objects, if applicable);
  • the plan name and type; and
  • the name and contact information for any of the plan’s third party administrators and health insurance issuers.

The departments issued a model notice to HHS that eligible organizations may, but are not required to, use.

Nothing in this alternative notice process (or in the EBSA Form 700 notice process) provides for a government assessment of the sincerity of the religious belief underlying the eligible organization’s objection.

In addition, the final rules provide certain closely held for-profit entities the same accommodations. Relying on a definition used in federal tax law, the final rules define a “closely held for-profit entity” as an entity that is not publicly traded and that has an ownership structure under which more than 50 percent of the organization’s ownership interest is owned by five or fewer individuals, or an entity with a substantially similar ownership structure. For purposes of this definition, all of the ownership interests held by members of a family are treated as being owned by a single individual. The rules finalize standards concerning documentation and disclosure of a closely held for-profit entity’s decision not to provide coverage for contraceptive services.

The final rules also finalize interim final rules on the coverage of preventive services generally, with limited changes.

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IRS Ends Lump Sum Risk Transferring Programs in Defined Benefit Plans

Treasury Department and the IRS announced today in Notice 2015-49 that they intend to amend the required minimum distribution regulations under Code Section 401(a)(9) to address the use of lump sum payments to replace annuity payments being paid by a qualified defined benefit pension plan.

The revised regulations will provide that qualified defined benefit plans generally are not permitted to replace any joint and survivor, single life, or other annuity currently being paid with a lump sum payment or other accelerated form of distribution. These amendments to the regulations will apply as of July 9, 2015.


Section 401(a)(9) prescribes required minimum distribution rules for a qualified plan under Code Section 401(a). Under the regulations, a defined benefit pension plan cannot permit a current annuitant to convert their annuity payments to a lump sum or otherwise accelerate those payments, except in a narrow set of circumstances specified in the regulations, such as in the case of retirement, death, or plan termination. In addition, the regulations permit annuity payments to increase “[t]o pay increased benefits that result from a plan amendment.”

A number of defined benefit plan sponsors have amended their plans pursuant to this “plan amendment” exception to provide a limited period during which certain retirees who are currently receiving joint and survivor, single life, or other life annuity payments from those plans may elect to convert that annuity into a lump sum that is payable immediately. These arrangements are sometimes referred to as lump sum risk-transferring programs because longevity risk and investment risk are transferred from the plan to the retirees.

In 2012, the IRS issued Private Letter Rulings to General Motors and Ford specifically approving such programs for those companies. See PLR 201228045 and PLR 201228051. While Private Letter Rulings do not apply to anyone other than the person to whom they are issued, many employers found support in those PLRs for their risk transfer programs. With the change in the regulations announced today, those PLRs no longer provide any support.


The Treasury Department and the IRS have concluded that a broad exception for increased benefits that would permit lump sum payments to replace rights to ongoing annuity payments (of the kind approved in the two 2012 PLRs) would undermine the intent of the required minimum distribution regulations. Therefore, the exception for changes to the annuity payment period provided in the regulations (as intended to be amended) will not permit acceleration of annuity payments to which an individual receiving annuity payments was entitled before the amendment, even if the plan amendment also increases annuity payments.

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Supreme Court Obergefell Decision Impacts Employer Welfare Benefit Plans

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, requiring all 50 States to license same sex marriages, has two immediate implications for employer-sponsored welfare benefit plans:

1. Do your welfare benefit plan documents define “Spouse”, and if so, how?

If all of your operations are in a state that recognized same sex marriage before today’s ruling, then your welfare benefit plans probably already either do not contain a definition of “Spouse”, or they define “Spouse” by reference to state law. If that is true for you, then you probably do not need to amend your plan documents. You will automatically extend benefits to legally married same sex spouses, just as you have already done, since you operate in a state that recognized same sex marriage before today’s ruling.

However, if you operate in a state that did not recognize same sex marriage before today’s ruling, then your welfare benefit plans might define “Spouse” by reference to one man and one woman. If that is how your plan defines “Spouse”, you ought to discuss with ERISA counsel whether to change that definition.

In addition, even if you maintained an opposite sex definition of “Spouse” for your welfare benefit plans in states that previously recognized same sex marriage, you should revisit this issue in light of today’s ruling.

While welfare benefit plans are not required to offer spousal coverage, and therefore in concept could extend coverage only to a subset of Spouses (opposite sex spouses), this practice is more risky today than it was yesterday. Given the Obergefell holding – that same sex marriage is a fundamental right protected by the 14th Amendment, there are now significant risks associated with offering spousal coverage that is limited to opposite sex people.

Public sector employers cannot maintain such policies because they would be subject to a direct claim of employment discrimination based on the 14th amendment fundamental rights holding in Obergefell. A direct claim such as this in the private employment market would have significant weaknesses, at least in jurisdictions that do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or preference. The reason? The 14th Amendment does not apply to private actors. However, additional circumstances, such as a disparate impact of such a provision on one sex or the other, could make such a claim viable.

Moreover, employers that maintain the opposite sex definition of “Spouse” will increasingly be out of the mainstream. This may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your market.

The point is, check your plan documents and talk to counsel about the implications of leaving them unchanged vs. changing them.

2. Do you offer Domestic Partner Coverage? If so is it limited to same sex domestic partners? Is it limited to domestic partners in states that did not recognize same sex marriage before today’s ruling?

In recent years many employers offered welfare benefits to same sex domestic partners, but may not have done so for opposite sex domestic partners, on the theory that same sex domestic partners could not get married. Other employers may have limited domestic partner coverage to states that did not recognize same sex marriage, again on the theory that this was only an issue on those states. This rationale has been breaking down as more states recognized same sex marriage, and it is now gone entirely.

You should revisit your decisions regarding domestic partner coverage in light of today’s ruling. Employers that limit domestic partner coverage in one of these ways need to decide whether to :

(a) continue offering coverage only to same sex domestic partners,

(b) extend coverage to all domestic partners (both same sex and opposite sex), or

(c) eliminate domestic partner coverage.

There are serious risks associated with option (a) (continue offering coverage only to same sex domestic partners), for many of the same reasons discussed above, except that now, opposite sex unmarried domestic partners who do not get a benefit offered to same sex domestic partners might challenge those provisions.

Option (b) (extend coverage to all domestic partners) is a legally safer course, though it may have significant financial implications for employers. Extending benefits to same sex unmarried domestic partners was not very costly because not many people took up the offer. Extending those benefits to opposite sex unmarried domestic partners could be attractive to a much larger pool of your employees.

Option (c) (eliminate domestic partner coverage) might make logical sense, and may be the best alternative to (b). Bloomberg reports that this may in fact be a significant result of the ruling:

“A survey of large corporations released earlier this month showed that far fewer of them offer health coverage to unmarried heterosexual couples — 62 percent — than to same-sex domestic partners, at 93 percent.

That gap suggests less of a willingness to cover unmarried couples when legal marriage is an option. More powerfully, 22 percent of the companies said they plan to drop coverage of domestic partners as a response to a ruling that makes gay marriage a viable option nationwide.”

But there are both legal and practical risks associated with taking a benefit away from a group of employees.

Again, think about these issues, discuss them with counsel and make deliberate and informed decisions about how to deal with them, given your unique situation.

IRS Expands Pre-Approved Plan Document Program to Include Cash Balance Plans and ESOPs

On June 8, 2015, the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2015-36, which announces the IRS expansion of its pre-approved plan program to include cash balance plans and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). With this expansion, master & prototype and volume submitter plan providers can apply for opinion and advisory letters for cash balance plans by October 30, 2015, and for ESOPS during the defined contribution application period beginning February 1, 2017.

While this presents opportunities for ESOP sponsors to streamline their plan documentation, it is not without risks. As Cindy Shupe warned back in 2013, use of pre-approved documents can increase the risk of non-compliance if plan sponsors assume that use of a pre-approved document will ensure compliance with the complicated ESOP financing and prohibited transactions rules. Therefore, while we encourage ESOP sponsors to consider adopting a pre-approved plan document in the next cycle, we also encourage early conversations with ERISA counsel to evaluate the viability and implications of doing so. In addition to the above compliance issues, Employers currently maintaining individually designed ESOPS that intend to adopt a pre-approved plan (when available) will need to complete Form 8905, Certification of Intent To Adopt a Pre-approved Plan, before the end of their plan’s current 5-year remedial amendment cycle.

DOL Provides Timing Relief for Fee Disclosures in Participant-Directed Individual Account Plans

On March 19, 2015 the Department of Labor issued final rules that give retirement plan administrators a two-month window in which to provide annual fee disclosures to plan participants. Under existing regulations, plan administrators must provide fee disclosures to participants in plans with individually directed accounts at “at least once in any 12-month period, without regard to whether the plan operates on a calendar or fiscal year basis”. This 12-month rule presents some administrative difficulty because Plans that provide the disclosures in the same month every year could easily run afoul of the regulatory language if their disclosures are not done on the exact same day of the month each year.

The new rule replaces “12-month period” with “14-month period”, giving plan administrators a two month window each year in which to make the disclosures The new rules will become effective on June 17, 2015 (unless the DOL gets significant adverse comments on the rule, which is not expected). In the meantime, the DOL indicates that for enforcement purposes plan administrators can rely on the new rule immediately.

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