Treasury and IRS Issue Final Regulations Amending the Definition of Qualified Matching Contributions and Qualified Nonelective Contributions

The Treasury and IRS have issued final regulations amending the definitions of qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) under regulations regarding certain qualified retirement plans that contain cash or deferred arrangements under section 401(k) or that provide for matching contributions or employee contributions under section 401(m).

Under these new regulations, an employer contribution to a plan may be a QMAC or QNEC if it satisfies applicable nonforfeitability requirements and distribution limitations at the time it is allocated to a participant’s account, but need not meet these requirements or limitations when it is contributed to the plan.

History

On January 18, 2017, the Treasury Department and the IRS issued a notice of proposed rulemaking. Several comments on the proposed rules were submitted, and, after consideration of all the comments, the final rules adopt the proposed rules without substantive modification. However, the Treasury Department and the IRS determined that the distribution requirements referred to in the existing definitions of QMACs and QNECs in §§ 1.401(k)-6 and 1.401(m)-5 are more appropriately characterized as distribution limitations (consistent with the heading of § 1.401(k)-1(d)), and, accordingly, these definitions have been amended to refer to distribution limitations.

Implications of the New Rules

The new rule raises some questions relating to the application of Code section 411(d)(6) (protected benefits) in cases in which a plan sponsor seeks to amend its plan to apply the new rules. The application of section 411(d)(6) is generally outside the scope of these regulations. However, the IRS indicates in the discussion of the new rules that if a plan sponsor adopts a plan amendment to define QMACs and QNECs in a manner consistent with the final regulations and applies that amendment prospectively to future plan years, section 411(d)(6) would not be implicated.

In addition, in the common case of a plan that provides that forfeitures will be used to pay plan expenses incurred during a plan year and that any remaining forfeitures in the plan at the end of the plan year will be allocated pursuant to a specified formula among active participants who have completed a specified number of hours of service during the plan year, section 411(d)(6) would not prohibit a plan amendment adopted before the end of the plan year that permits the use of forfeitures to fund QMACs and QNECs (even if, at the time of the amendment, one or more participants had already completed the specified number of hours of service). This is because all conditions for receiving an allocation will not have been satisfied at the time of the amendment, since one of the conditions for receiving an allocation is that plan expenses at the end of the plan year are less than the amount of forfeitures. See § 1.411(d)-4, Q&A-1(d)(8) (features that are not section 411(d)(6) protected benefits include “[t]he allocation dates for contributions, forfeitures, and earnings, the time for making contributions (but not the conditions for receiving an allocation of contributions or forfeitures for a plan year after such conditions have been satisfied), and the valuation dates for account balances”).

Statutory Background

Section 401(k)(1) provides that a profit-sharing or stock bonus plan, a pre-ERISA money purchase plan, or a rural cooperative plan will not be considered as failing to satisfy the requirements of section 401(a) merely because the plan includes a qualified cash or deferred arrangement (CODA). To be considered a qualified CODA, a plan must satisfy several requirements, including: (i) Under section 401(k)(2)(B), amounts held by the plan’s trust that are attributable to employer contributions made pursuant to an employee’s election must satisfy certain distribution limitations; (ii) under section 401(k)(2)(C), an employee’s right to such employer contributions must be nonforfeitable; and (iii) under section 401(k)(3), such employer contributions must satisfy certain nondiscrimination requirements.

Under section 401(k)(3)(D)(ii), the employer contributions taken into account for purposes of applying the nondiscrimination requirements may, under such rules as the Secretary may provide and at the election of the employer, include matching contributions within the meaning of section 401(m)(4)(A) that meet the distribution limitations and nonforfeitability requirements of section 401(k)(2)(B) and (C) (also referred to as qualified matching contributions or QMACs) and qualified nonelective contributions within the meaning of section 401(m)(4)(C) (QNECs). Under section 401(m)(4)(C), a QNEC is an employer contribution, other than a matching contribution, with respect to which the distribution limitations and nonforfeitability requirements of section 401(k)(2)(B) and (C) are met.

Under § 1.401(k)-1(b)(1)(ii), a CODA satisfies the applicable nondiscrimination requirements if it satisfies the actual deferral percentage (ADP) test of section 401(k)(3), described in § 1.401(k)-2. The ADP test limits the disparity permitted between the percentage of compensation made as employer contributions to the plan for a plan year on behalf of eligible highly compensated employees and the percentage of compensation made as employer contributions on behalf of eligible nonhighly compensated employees. If the ADP test limits are exceeded, the employer must take corrective action to ensure that the limits are met. In determining the amount of employer contributions made on behalf of an eligible employee, employers are allowed to take into account certain QMACs and QNECs made on behalf of the employee by the employer.

In lieu of applying the ADP test, an employer may choose to design its plan to satisfy an ADP safe harbor, including the ADP safe harbor provisions of section 401(k)(12), described in § 1.401(k)-3. Under § 1.401(k)-3, a plan satisfies the ADP safe harbor provisions of section 401(k)(12) if, among other things, it satisfies certain contribution requirements. With respect to the safe harbor under section 401(k)(12), an employer may choose to satisfy the contribution requirement by providing a certain level of QMACs or QNECs to eligible nonhighly compensated employees under the plan.

A defined contribution plan that provides for matching or employee after-tax contributions must satisfy the nondiscrimination requirements under section 401(m) with respect to those contributions for each plan year. Under § 1.401(m)-1(b)(1), the matching contributions and employee contributions under a plan satisfy the nondiscrimination requirements for a plan year if the plan satisfies the actual contribution percentage (ACP) test of section 401(m)(2) described in § 1.401(m)-2.

The ACP test limits the disparity permitted between the percentage of compensation made as matching contributions and after-tax employee contributions for or by eligible highly compensated employees under the plan and the percentage of compensation made as matching contributions and after-tax employee contributions for or by eligible nonhighly compensated employees under the plan. If the ACP test limits are exceeded, the employer must take corrective action to ensure that the limits are met. In determining the amount of employer contributions made on behalf of an eligible employee, employers are allowed to take into account certain QNECs made on behalf of the employee by the employer. Employers must also take into account QMACs made on behalf of the employee by the employer unless an exclusion applies (including an exclusion for Start Printed Page 34470QMACs that are taken into account under the ADP test).

If an employer designs its plan to satisfy the ADP safe harbor of section 401(k)(12), it may avoid performing the ACP test with respect to matching contributions under the plan, as long as the additional requirements of the ACP safe harbor of section 401(m)(11) are met.

As previously defined in § 1.401(k)-6, QMACs and QNECs must satisfy the nonforfeitability requirements of § 1.401(k)-1(c) and the distribution limitations of § 1.401(k)-1(d) “when they are contributed to the plan.” Similarly, under the independent definitions in § 1.401(m)-5, QMACs and QNECs must satisfy the nonforfeitability requirements of § 1.401(k)-1(c) and the distribution limitations of § 1.401(k)-1(d) “at the time the contribution is made.” In general, contributions satisfy the nonforfeitability requirements of § 1.401(k)-1(c) if they are immediately nonforfeitable within the meaning of section 411, and contributions satisfy the distribution limitations of § 1.401(k)-1(d) if they may not be distributed before the employee’s death, disability, severance from employment, attainment of age 59.5, or hardship, or upon the termination of the plan.

Background to the Rule Change

Before 2017, the Treasury Department and the IRS received comments with respect to the definitions of QMACs and QNECs in §§ 1.401(k)-6 and 1.401(m)-5. In particular, commenters asserted that employer contributions should qualify as QMACs and QNECs as long as they satisfy applicable nonforfeitability requirements at the time they are allocated to participants’ accounts, rather than when they are first contributed to the plan. Commenters pointed out that interpreting sections 401(k)(3)(D)(ii) and 401(m)(4)(C) to require satisfaction of applicable nonforfeitability requirements at the time amounts are first contributed to the plan would preclude plan sponsors with plans that permit the use of amounts in plan forfeiture accounts to offset future employer contributions under the plan from applying such amounts to fund QMACs and QNECs. This is because the amounts would have been allocated to the forfeiture accounts only after a participant incurred a forfeiture of benefits and, thus, generally would have been subject to a vesting schedule when they were first contributed to the plan. Commenters requested that QMAC and QNEC requirements not be interpreted to prevent the use of plan forfeitures to fund QMACs and QNECs. The commenters urged that the nonforfeitability requirements under § 1.401(k)-6 should apply when QMACs and QNECs are allocated to participants’ accounts and not when the contributions are first made to the plan.

In considering the comments, the Treasury Department and the IRS took into account that the nonforfeitability requirements applicable to QMACs and QNECs are intended to ensure that QMACs and QNECS provide nonforfeitable benefits for the participants who receive them. In accordance with that purpose, the Treasury Department and the IRS concluded that it is sufficient to require that amounts allocated to participants’ accounts as QMACs and QNECs be nonforfeitable at the time they are allocated to participants’ accounts, rather than when such contributions are made to the plan.

The Final Rules

IRS Issues 2017 “Required Amendments List”

The IRS has issued the 2017 “Required Amendments List” for qualified plans. This is the second list issued since the IRS eliminated the five-year remedial amendment cycle and significantly curtailed the favorable determination letter program for individually designed plans. The IRS will issue a new List each year.

This new List, set forth in Notice 2017-72 contains amendments that are required as a result of changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2017. The plan amendment deadline for a disqualifying provision arising as a result of a change in qualification requirements that appears on the 2017 List must be adopted by December 31, 2019.

The Required Amendments List is divided into two parts:

Part A lists the changes that would require an amendment to most plans or to most plans of the type affected by the particular change. Part A of the 2017 List contains two changes applicable to most plans of the type affected by the changes:

Final regulations regarding cash balance/hybrid plans. Cash balance/hybrid plans must be amended to the extent necessary to comply with those portions of the regulations regarding market rate of return and other requirements that first become applicable to the plan for the plan year beginning in 2017. (This requirement does not apply to those collectively bargained plans that do not become subject to these portions of the regulations until 2018 or 2019 under the extended applicability dates provided in § 1.411(b)(5)-1(f)(2)(B)(3).)

Note: The relief from the anti-cutback requirements of § 411(d)(6) provided in § 1.411(b)(5)-1(e)(3)(vi) applies only to plan amendments that are adopted before the effective date of these regulations.

Note: See also Notice 2016-67, which addresses the applicability of the market rate of return rules to implicit interest pension equity plans.

• Benefit restrictions for certain defined benefit plans that are eligible cooperative plans or eligible charity plans described in section 104 of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, as amended (“PPA”)). An eligible cooperative plan or eligible charity plan that was not subject to the benefit restrictions of § 436 for the 2016 plan year under § 104 of PPA ordinarily becomes subject to those restrictions for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2017. However, a plan that fits within the definition of a “CSEC plan” (as defined in § 414(y)) continues not to be subject to those rules unless the plan sponsor has made an election for the plan not to be treated as a CSEC plan.

Part B lists changes that the Treasury Department and IRS do not anticipate will require amendments in most plans, but might require an amendment because of an unusual plan provision in a particular plan. Part B of the 2017 List contains a single change that may apply to certain defined benefit plans as follows:

Final regulations regarding partial annuity distribution options for defined benefit pension plans (81 Fed. Reg.  62359). Defined benefit plans that permit benefits to be paid partly in the form of an annuity and partly as a single sum (or other accelerated form) must do so in a manner that complies with the § 417(e) regulations. Section 1.417(e)-1(d)(7) provides rules under which the minimum present value rules of § 417(e)(3) apply to the distribution of only a portion of a participant’s accrued benefit.

Section 1.417(e)-1(d)(7) applies to distributions with annuity starting dates in plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2017, but taxpayers may elect to apply § 1.417(e)-1(d)(7) with respect to any earlier period.

Note: The regulations provide relief from the anti-cutback rules of § 411(d)(6) for certain amendments adopted on or before December 31, 2017.

Note: Model  amendments that a sponsor of a qualified defined benefit plan may use to amend its plan to offer bifurcated benefit  distribution options in accordance with these final regulations are provided in Notice 2017-44.

Additional Background

In Rev. Proc. 2016-37, the IRS eliminated, effective January 1, 2017, the five-year remedial amendment/determination letter cycle for individually-designed qualified plans. After January 1, 2017, individually-designed plans will only be able to apply for a determination letter upon initial qualification, upon termination, and in certain other circumstances that the IRS may announce from time to time. See Announcement 2015-19.

To provide individually designed plans with guidance on what amendments must be adopted and when, the IRS announced that it would publish annually a Required Amendments List. The Required Amendments List generally applies to changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2016. The List also establishes the date that the remedial amendment period expires for changes in qualification requirements contained on the list. Generally, an item will be included on a Required Amendments List only after guidance (including any model amendment) has been issued.

Where a required amendment appears on the List, then for an individually-designed non-governmental plan, the deadline to adopt the amendment is extended to the end of the second calendar year that begins after the issuance of the Required Amendments List in which the change in qualification requirements appear (i.e. until December 31, 2018 for items on the 2016 List; and until December 31, 2019 for items on the 2017 List.)

See our prior post regarding the 2016 Required Amendment List Here.

IRS Provides Guidance on Calculating the Maximum Loan Amount under IRC § 72(p)(2)(A)

The IRS has issued a memorandum providing guidance to its Employee Plans (EP) Examinations staff to determine, the amount available for a loan under § 72(p)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), where the participant has received multiple loans during the past year from a qualified plan.

Background
In general, IRC § 72(p)(1) provides that a loan from a plan is a distribution to the participant. IRC § 72(p)(2)(A) excepts a loan that does not exceed the lesser of:

(i) $50,000, reduced by any excess of

(I) the highest outstanding balance of loans during the 1-year period ending on the day before the date on which such loan was made, over

(II) the outstanding balance of loans on the date on which such loan was made; or

(ii) the greater of

(I) half of the present value of the vested accrued benefit, or

(II) $10,000.

Under IRC § 72(p)(2)(A)(i), if the initial loan is less than $50,000, the participant generally may borrow another loan within a year if the aggregate amount does not exceed $50,000. The $50,000 is reduced by the highest outstanding balance of loans during the 1-year period ending the day before the second loan, in turn reduced by the outstanding balance on the date of the second loan.

The guidance to EP examiners is best illustrated by an example: assume a participant borrowed $30,000 in February, which was fully repaid in April, and then borrowed $20,000 in May, which was fully repaid in July, before applying for a third loan in December.

In this example, the IRS instructs its examiners that the Plan can apply the limitations in one of two ways.

In the first approach, the plan may determine that no further loan would be available in December, since $30,000 + $20,000 = $50,000.

Alternatively, the plan may identify “the highest outstanding balance” as $30,000, and permit the third loan in the amount of $20,000 in December.

At this time, IRS EP examiners will accecpt the position that the law does not clearly preclude either computation of the highest outstanding loan balance in the above example.

IRS Proposes Amendments to Definition of QMACs and QNECs – Allowing Broader use of Forfeitures

The IRS has issued proposed regulations that would amend the definitions of qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) applicable to certain qualified retirement plans that contain cash or deferred arrangements under section 401(k) or that provide for matching contributions or employee contributions under section 401(m).

Under the proposed regulations, employer contributions to a plan would be able to qualify as QMACs or QNECs if they satisfy applicable nonforfeitability and distribution requirements at the time they are allocated to participants’ accounts, but need not meet these requirements when they were originally contributed to the plan. The effect of this is that plan sponsors could use forfeitures from matching and profit sharing contributions (which were not fully vested when originally allocated to the Plan) to fund QMACs, QNECs and safe harbor contributions. Under existing IRS guidance, forfeitures cannot be used to fund such contributions (which are fully vested when made) because the original contribution was not fully vested at the time it was made.

Proposed Regulations

IRS Issues Updated Determination Letter Revenue Procedure

The IRS has updated and restated its revenue procedures governing determination letters for various types of employee benefit plans.

Rev. Proc. 2017-4 reflects the prior elimination of the five-year remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans and includes other changes made to the determination letter program, including:

  • limited-scope determination letters on partial terminations if an employer is not otherwise eligible to request a determination letter;
  • determination letters on leased employees only if the employer is otherwise eligible to request a determination letter;
  • no determination letters on affiliated service groups; and
  • modified procedures for requesting relief from retroactive revocations of determination letters or letter rulings.

IRS Issues 2016 “Required Amendments List”

The IRS has issued its first “Required Amendments List” for qualified plans since it eliminated the five-year remedial amendment cycle, and significantly curtailed the favorable determination letter program for individually designed plans. The IRS will issue a new List each year.

This first List, set forth in Notice 2016-80 contains amendments that are required as a result of changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2016. December 31, 2018 is the plan amendment deadline for a disqualifying provision arising as a result of a change in qualification requirements that appears on the 2016 List.

The Required Amendments List is divided into two parts:

Part A lists the changes that would require an amendment to most plans or to most plans of the type affected by the particular change. Part A of the 2016 List contains no changes applicable to most plans.

Part B lists changes that the Treasury Department and IRS do not anticipate will require amendments in most plans, but might require an amendment because of an unusual plan provision in a particular plan. Part B of the 2016 List contains a single change that may apply to certain collectively bargained defined benefit plans: Restrictions on accelerated distributions from underfunded single-employer plans in employer bankruptcy under Code § 436(d)(2), which was enacted as part of the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014, P.L. 113-159, § 2003. Code Section provides (amendments made by P.L. 113-159, § 2003 in italics):

A defined benefit plan which is a single-employer plan shall provide that, during any period in which the plan sponsor is a debtor in a case under title 11, United States Code, or similar Federal or State law, the plan may not pay any prohibited payment. The preceding sentence shall not apply on or after the date on which the enrolled actuary of the plan certifies that the adjusted funding target attainment percentage of such plan (determined by not taking into account any adjustment of segment rates under section 430(h)(2)(C)(iv)) is not less than 100 percent.

Section 430(h)(2)(C)(iv) sets minimum and maximum and maximum rates for actuarial calculations of the funded status of defined benefit plans.

If a defined benefit plan incorporates the limitation of Section 436(d)(2) by reference to the statute or regulations (or through the use of the sample amendment in Notice 2011-96, which incorporated the statute and regulations), then no amendment to the plan would be required to comply with the changes.

Additional Background

In Rev. Proc. 2016-37, the IRS eliminated, effective January 1, 2017, the five-year remedial amendment/determination letter cycle for individually-designed qualified plans. After January 1, 2017, individually-designed plans will only be able to apply for a determination letter upon initial qualification, upon termination, and in certain other circumstances that the IRS may announce from time to time. See Announcement 2015-19.

To provide individually designed plans with guidance on what amendments must be adopted and when, the IRS announced that it would publish annually a Required Amendments List. The Required Amendments List generally applies to changes in qualification requirements that become effective on or after January 1, 2016. The List also establishes the date that the remedial amendment period expires for changes in qualification requirements contained on the list. Generally, an item will be included on a Required Amendments List only after guidance (including any model amendment) has been issued.

Where a required amendment appears on the List, then for an individually-designed non-governmental plan, the deadline to adopt the amendment is extended to the end of the second calendar year that begins after the issuance of the Required Amendments List in which the change in qualification requirements appear (i.e. until December 31, 2018 for items on the 2016 List).

IRS Updates EPCRS Retirement Plan Correction Procedures

The IRS released Revenue Procedure 2016-51 on September 29, 2016, updating its prior Employee Plans Compliance Resolutions System (EPCRS) correction guidance.  Significant changes made to the EPCRS system include:

  • Plan sponsors applying under EPCRS to correct a plan document failure will not longer be permitted to include an application for a favorable determination letter with their EPCRS application. This change is to coordinate EPCRS with the recently announced changes to the IRS determination letter program.
  • Similarly, individually designed plans using the Self-Correction Program (SCP) to correct significant failures will no longer need to have a current favorable determination letter (since the IRS will no longer issue periodically updated determination letters). Individually designed plans will simply need a favorable determination letter.
  • Fees associated with the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) will now be considered user fees and therefore will no longer be set forth in the EPCRS revenue procedure. For VCP submissions made:
    • in 2016, refer to Rev. Proc. 2016-8 and Rev. Proc. 2013-12 to determine the applicable user fee.
    • after 2016, refer to the annual Employee Plans user fees revenue procedure to determine VCP user fees for that year.
  • The IRS is changing its approach to determining Audit CAP sanctions. A reasonable sanction will no longer be a negotiated percentage of the maximum payment amount (MPA). Instead, it will be based on all of the facts and circumstances, but will generally not be less than the user fee for a VCP application. The MPA is one of the factors they will consider. Others include:
    • the type of failure;
    • the number and type of employees affected;
    • the steps the plan sponsor took to prevent the error and identify it; and
    • the extent to which the error has been corrected before discovery.
  • The IRS will no longer refund half the paid user fee if there is disagreement over correction in Anonymous Submissions.

    The new revenue procedure is effective January 1, 2017. Unlike with prior EPCRS updates, plan sponsors may not elect to voluntarily apply the updated provisions before January 1, 2017.

IRS Announces More Changes to its Determination Letter Program

On June 29, 2016, the IRS updated its determination letter program for individually designed tax qualified retirement plans, making a number of significant changes, mostly having to do with (1) when individually designed plans must be amended to comply with changes in the law and other guidance, and (2) when those plans may request a favorable determination letter.

The bottom line for sponsors of individually designed plans is that they will need to amend their plans as frequently as annually to incorporate changes in the law, starting with required changes the IRS identifies in 2016, which will need to be made before December 31, 2018.

Background

Rev. Proc. 2007-44 provided a 5-year remedial amendment cycle (RAC) system for individually designed plans to request a determination letter generally every 5 years. Under that system, plans had to adopt interim amendments by the end of the year in which the amendments became effective. Plans would then have to make final conforming amendments at the end of their 5-year RAC cycle.

In Announcement 2015-19 the IRS stated that the RAC system would end, and a replacement system for the IRC Section 401(b) period would be created. Revenue Procedure 2016-37 ends the RAC system and replaces it with a new approach to the remedial amendment period.

When must individually designed plans be amended?

Interim amendments will no longer be required for individually designed plans. Instead, an individually designed plan’s Code Section 401(b) remedial amendment period for required amendments will be tied to a Required Amendment List (RA List) issued by the IRS, unless legislation or other guidance states otherwise. The RA List is the annual list of all the amendments for which an individually designed plan must be amended to retain its qualified plan status.

IRS will publish the RA List after October 1 of each year. Generally, plan sponsors must adopt any item placed on RA List by the end of the second calendar year following the year the RA List is published. For example, plan amendments for items on the 2016 RA List generally must be adopted by December 31, 2018.

Discretionary amendments will still be required by the end of the plan year in which the plan amendment is operationally put into effect.

What About Operational Compliance?

Revenue Procedure 2016-37 doesn’t change a plan’s operational compliance standards. Employers need to operate their plans in compliance with any change in qualification requirements from the effective date of the change, regardless of the plan’s 401(b) period for adopting amendments. To assist employers, IRS intends to provide annually an Operational Compliance List to identify changes in qualification requirements that are effective during a calendar year.

When may a plan apply for a Determination Letter?
Under Revenue Procedure 2016-37, a plan sponsor can request a determination letter only if any of these apply:

  • The plan has never received a letter before
  • The plan is terminating
  • The IRS makes a special exception

Other Implications

The new determination letter program makes the consequences of failing to timely amend a Plan potentially more dangerous, because the failure could continue for many years before being identified.  Therefore, sponsors of individually designed plans that still have the option of converting to a volume submitter or prototype document should revisit that question now.

In addition, if your plan remains individually designed, you ought to incorporate into your annual compliance schedule a check of the RA List in the fall of each year.

Finally, all tax qualified retirement plan sponsors (whether their plan is individually designed or volume submitter or prototype) should incorporate into their annual compliance schedule  a check of the IRS Operational Compliance List, to ensure they are operating their plan in compliance with law changes.

IRS Gives Individually Designed Plans an Additional Year to Convert to Pre-Approved Plan Documents

IRS has announced in Notice 2016-03 that it will extend the deadline for an employer to restate an individually designed plan onto a current pre-approved defined contribution plan document (which is based on the 2010 Cumulative List), and to apply for a determination letter, if otherwise permissible, from April 30, 2016, to April 30, 2017. The extended deadline will also apply with respect to any defined contribution pre-approved plan that is first adopted on or after January 1, 2016.  This extension will facilitate a plan sponsor’s ability to convert an existing individually designed plan into a current defined contribution pre-approved plan.

The extension does not apply for a plan that is adopted as a modification and restatement of a defined contribution pre-approved plan that was maintained by the employer prior to January 1, 2016.  An employer that adopted a defined contribution pre-approved plan prior to January 1, 2016, continues to have until April 30, 2016 to adopt a modification and restatement of the defined contribution pre-approved plan within the current 6-year remedial amendment cycle for defined contribution plans and to apply for a determination letter, if permissible.

icon Notice 2016-03

icon 2010 Cumulative List of Changes in Plan Qualification Requirements

IRS Announces Significant Reduction in Determination Letter Program

On July 21, 2015, the IRS announced changes to the favorable determination letter program for qualified retirement plans. Employers that sponsor individually designed plans should take a close look at whether they can state their plans on a pre-approved plan document, particularly a volume submitter document, for the reasons explained in this post.

Most significantly, the IRS will eliminate the staggered 5-year determination letter remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans as of January 2017. This means that, effective as of January 1, 2017, sponsors of individually designed plans will only be permitted to submit a determination letter application for qualification in two circumstances:

  • upon initial plan adoption; and
  • upon plan termination.

In addition, effective immediately, the IRS will no longer accept determination letter applications for individually designed plans that are submitted off-cycle, except for new plans and for terminating plans.

Implications for Plan Sponsors

These changes to the determination letter program increase the risk that document failures may get into, and remain for a long period of time in, plan sponsor’s qualified retirement plans.  For example, a failure to adopt a required amendment to the plan document, which ordinarily would have been discovered and corrected in connection with the staggered 5-year determination letter remedial amendment cycle, could now persist for years or even decades before being discovered. Plan terminations will likely become more difficult, time consuming and costly if such errors are not discovered until the Plan submits for a favorable determination upon termination.

Plans that are stated on a pre-approved document (such as a volume submitter or prototype plan document) will continue to receive IRS opinion letters on the language in those plans. In addition, plan sponsors who adopt a volume submitter plan and make limited modifications to the approved specimen plan, which does not create an individually designed plan, will still be able to get a favorable determination on their plans every six years.  These plans will thereby avoid the above risks.

For this reason, employers that sponsor individually designed plans should closely evaluate whether they can convert their plans to a pre-approved plan document, with a goal of completing the transition by January 1, 2017. Many individually designed plans may be able to fit onto a volume submitter plan with minor modifications, which will allow those sponsors to continue receiving a favorable determination lettre on their plan every six years.

Additional Guidance Expected from the IRS

The IRS has asked for comments, and expects to issue further guidance, regarding how it can assist plan sponsors that wish to convert individually designed plans to pre-approved plans.

We should also expect some changes to the IRS’s EPCRS correction program, to help correct errors that inevitably will increase as a result of this curtailment in the favorable determination letter program.

In addition, the IRS is considering ways to make it easier for plan sponsors that continue to sponsor individually designed plans to comply with the qualified plan document requirements, including:

  • providing model amendments,
  • not requiring certain plan provisions or amendments to be adopted if and for so long as they are not relevant to a particular plan (for example, because of the type of plan, employer, or benefits offered),
  • or expanding plan sponsors’ options to document qualification requirements through incorporation by reference.

icon IRS Announcement 2015-19