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.