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  • BC Network
    Tuesday, February 21, 2017

    On January 20, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order entitled “Regulatory Freeze Pending Review” (the “Freeze Memo“).  The Freeze Memo was anticipated, and mirrors similar memos issued by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush during their first few days in office.  In light of the Freeze Memo, we have reviewed some of our recent posts discussing new regulations to determine the extent to which the Freeze Memo might affect such regulations.

    TimeoutThe Regulatory Freeze

    The two-page Freeze Memo requires that:

    1. Agencies not send for publication in the Federal Regulation any regulations that had not yet been so sent as of January 20, 2017, pending review by a department or agency head appointed by the President.
    2. Regulations that have been sent for publication in the Federal Register but not yet published be withdrawn, pending review by a department or agency head appointed by the President.
    3. Regulations that have been published but have not reached their effective date are to be delayed for 60 days from the date of the Freeze Memo (until March 21, 2017), pending review by a department or agency head appointed by the President. Agencies are further encouraged to consider postponing the effective date beyond the minimum 60 days.

    Putting a Pin in It: Impacted Regulations

    We have previously discussed a number of proposed IRS regulations which have not yet been finalized.  These include the proposed regulations to allow the use of forfeitures to fund QNECs, regulations regarding deferred compensation plans under Code Section 457, and regulations regarding deferred compensation arrangements under Code Section 409A (covered in five separate posts, one, two, three, four and five).

    Since these regulations were only proposed as of January 20, 2017, the Freeze Memo requires that no further action be taken on them until they are reviewed by a department or agency head appointed by the President.  This review could conceivably result in a determination that one or more of the proposed regulations are inconsistent with the new administration’s objectives, which might lead Treasury to either withdraw, reissue, or simply take no further action with respect to such proposed regulations.

    A Freeze on Reliance?

    The proposed regulations cited above generally provide that taxpayers may rely on them for periods prior to any proposed applicability date.  Continued reliance should be permissible until and unless Treasury takes action to withdraw or modify the proposed regulations.

    The DOL Fiduciary Rule

    The Freeze Memo does not impact the DOL’s fiduciary rule, which was the subject of its own presidential memorandum, discussed in detail elsewhere on our blog.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2016

    Good NewsOn the TV show Futurama, the aged proprietor of the delivery company Planet Express, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, had a habit of entering a room where the other characters were gathered and sharing his trademark line, “Good news, everyone!”  Of course, his news was rarely good.  More often, it was the beginning of some misadventure through which the other characters would inevitably suffer, often to great comedic effect.  So we can forgive you for thinking that we may be standing in his shoes when we tell you that new 409A regulations are good news, but really, hear us (read us?) out.

    The IRS released proposed changes to both the existing final regulations and the proposed income inclusion regulations.  And the news is mostly good.  Additionally, taxpayers can rely on the proposed regulations.

    The changes are legion, so we are breaking up our coverage into a series of blog posts. This last in our series is about the changes to the proposed income inclusion regulations and the other minor changes and clarifications made by the regulations.  See our prior posts, “Firing Squad,” “Taking (and Giving) Stock,” “Don’t Fear the (409A) Reaper,” and “Getting Paid.”

    Preventing Waste, Fraud, and Abuse (Okay, well, mostly just abuse). The only change to the proposed income inclusion regulations was to “fix” the anti-abuse rule that applied to correcting unvested amounts that violated 409A.  “Why?” you might ask.  Apparently, because people were abusing it.

    Under the proposed income inclusion regulations, a broken (that’s a technical legal term) 409A arrangement could be fixed in any year before the year it would vest (what we will call “nonvested” amounts). The prior proposed regulations did not put many parameters on how the fix had to happen (other than it needed to, you know, comply with 409A).

    Some hucksters (again, technical term) were apparently amending arrangements that complied with 409A to make them noncompliant. Then they would amend them again to “fix” them in the way they wanted.  This would allow them to get around the change in election rules, as long as the amount would not vest that year.  Clever, perhaps, but pretty clearly not within the spirit of the rules.

    To prevent this kind of abuse, the IRS has revised this permitted correction rule. First, if there is no good faith basis for saying that the arrangement violates 409A, it cannot be fixed.

    Second, the regulations provide a list of facts and circumstances for determining if a company has a pattern or practice of permitting impermissible changes. If they do, then they would not be able to fix a nonvested amount.  The facts and circumstances include:

    • Whether the service recipient has taken commercially reasonable measures to identify and correct substantially similar failures upon discovery;
    • Whether substantially similar failures have occurred with respect to nonvested deferred amounts to a greater extent than with vested amounts;
    • Whether substantially similar failures occur more frequently with respect to newly adopted plans; and
    • Whether substantially similar failures appear intentional, are numerous, or repeat common past failures that have since been corrected.

    Finally, the regulations require that a broken amount be fixed using a method provided in IRS correction guidance. This doesn’t mean that you have to use the correction guidance for unvested amounts.  What it means is that, if a method is available and would apply if the amount was vested, then you have to use the mechanics of that correction (minus the tax reporting or paying any of the penalties).  For example, under IRS Notice 2010-6, if a plan has two impermissible alternative times of payment for a payment event, it has to be corrected by providing for payment at the later of the two times.  You would have to fix a nonvested amount in the same manner under these rules.

    While these changes are intended to ferret out abusers of the rules, this does make it harder for well-intentioned companies who merely have failures to make changes.

    Other Minor Changes and Clarifications.  The proposed regulations also confirmed and clarified the following points of the current final regulations:

    – 409A does apply to non-qualified arrangements of foreign entities that are also subject to 457A.

    – Entities can be subject to 409A as service providers in the same way that individuals are.

    – Payments can be accelerated for compliance with bona fide foreign ethics laws or conflicts of interest laws.

    – On plan termination and liquidation outside a change in control, all plans of the same type (e.g., all account balance plans) have to be terminated. And no additional plans of that type can be adopted for three years.  This is what the IRS always understood the rule to be, but they just made it clearer in these proposed regulations.

    – Payments can also be accelerated, without limit, to comply with Federal debt collection laws.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2016

    Good NewsOn the TV show Futurama, the aged proprietor of the delivery company Planet Express, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, had a habit of entering a room where the other characters were gathered and sharing his trademark line, “Good news, everyone!”  Of course, his news was rarely good.  More often, it was the beginning of some misadventure through which the other characters would inevitably suffer, often to great comedic effect.  So we can forgive you for thinking that we may be standing in his shoes when we tell you that new 409A regulations are good news, but really, hear us (read us?) out.

    The IRS released proposed changes to both the existing final regulations and the proposed income inclusion regulations.  And the news is mostly good.  Additionally, taxpayers can rely on the proposed regulations.

    The changes are legion, so we are breaking up our coverage into a series of blog posts. This fourth in our series is about payment-related changes.  See our first three posts, “Firing Squad,” “Taking (and Giving) Stock,” and “Don’t Fear the (409A) Reaper.” Check back for one more post on these regulations.

    What’s a Payment?  That’s not merely a philosophical question.  The current regulations use “payment” a great many times, but without definition.  The proposed regulations state that a payment, for 409A purposes, is generally made when a taxable benefit is actually or constructively received.  For this purpose, if something is included in income under 457(f), it is now treated as a payment for all purposes under 409A.  Additionally, a transfer of nonvested property is not a payment, unless the recipient makes an election to include the current value in income under Section 83(b).

    Additional Permitted Delays for Short-Term Deferral Payments.  Amounts paid shortly after the service provider obtains the right to the payment or becomes vested are exempt from 409A as “short-term deferrals.”  The deadline is the 15th day of the third month following the year in which the right arises or the service provider becomes vested (often, March 15).  If an amount is paid after that date, it is subject to 409A and must comply with 409A’s rules to avoid adverse tax consequences.

    The regulations provided a few limited exceptions where payment could be delayed and still have the payment qualify as a short-term deferral. Now there are two more!  Under the proposed rules, if payment by the short-term deferral deadline would violate Federal securities laws or other laws, then the payment can be delayed until such violation would not occur.  Unfortunately, this exception does not appear to extend to insider trading policies of the company, but in our experience, that is not often a hurdle for the settlement of equity awards that were previously granted.

    Teachers, Professors, et al. Get a Break. Often times, educators and related professions have the choice of being paid over the school year or electing instead to have their 9- or 10-month salary spread out over 12 months.  Since these elections can result in a deferral of compensation, they are potentially subject to 409A (as an aside, it’s hard to see how this is in any way related to the perceived executive compensation abuses that 409A was ostensibly designed to address, but we digress).  The existing rules treated these elections as exempt and thus outside 409A, but only if a small amount of compensation was to be shifted to the next tax year based on this election.  The new proposed rules provide some additional flexibility.

    Under the new proposed rules, these elections are still exempt as long as two conditions are met. First, the compensation cannot be deferred beyond the 13th month following the first day of the service period (e.g., the beginning of the school year).  Second, the service provider’s total compensation for the year cannot exceed the 401(a)(17) limit ($265,000, adjusted annually).

    Wednesday, July 20, 2016

    Good NewsOn the TV show Futurama, the aged proprietor of the delivery company Planet Express, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, had a habit of entering a room where the other characters were gathered and sharing his trademark line, “Good news, everyone!”  Of course, his news was rarely good.  More often, it was the beginning of some misadventure through which the other characters would inevitably suffer, often to great comedic effect.  So we can forgive you for thinking that we may be standing in his shoes when we tell you that new 409A regulations are good news, but really, hear us (read us?) out.

    The IRS released proposed changes to both the existing final regulations and the proposed income inclusion regulations.  And the news is mostly good.  Additionally, taxpayers can rely on the proposed regulations.

    The changes are legion, so we are breaking up our coverage into a series of blog posts. This third post is about the death benefit changes.  See our first two posts, “Firing Squad” and “Taking (and Giving) Stock.” Check back for future posts on these regulations.

    Accelerated Payments for Beneficiaries. 409A generally allows plans to add death, disability, or unforeseeable emergency as potentially earlier alternative payment dates.  However, this special rule only applied to the service provider.  If the service provider dies, then the payment schedule applicable on the service provider’s death controlled and generally could not be changed.

    The proposed rules loosen this. Now, plans can add accelerated payments on the death, disability, or unforeseeable emergency of a beneficiary.  This only applies to amounts that are being paid after the service provider’s death, but it creates some welcome flexibility.

    Also, Possibly Delayed Payments for Beneficiaries. The proposed regulations say that a payment on a service provider’s death will be timely if it is made any time between the date of death and December 31 of the year after the death occurs.  Additionally, a plan is not required to have a specific payment window following death to use this rule and it can allow the beneficiary to choose to be paid any time in this window.  If a plan does have a payment period that falls in this window, payment can even be made sooner without amending the plan.

    This is helpful for many reasons. Sometimes companies may not know a service provider has died until months after the death and, even once the company is made aware, it can take time to set up an estate.  This additional payment flexibility is welcome.  (However, we were surprised, with all this talk of death benefits, that the IRS did not incorporate Notice 2007-90.  It’s almost as if they didn’t write it or something.)

    Thursday, July 14, 2016

    Governmental Buildings and MoneyAfter more than nine years of deliberations, the IRS has finally released proposed regulations governing all types of deferred compensation plans maintained by non-profit organizations and governmental entities.

    In issuing these regulations, the IRS reiterates its long-standing theme that these regulations are intended to work in harmony with, and be supplemental to, the 409A regulations. However, the IRS provides little guidance on how these regulations interact with each other.  The following discussion focuses on 3 key aspects of the new guidance: the severance exemption, the substantial risk of forfeiture requirement, and leave programs.

    As with the 409A regulations, the 457 regulations exempt severance pay plans from the rules and taxes applicable to deferred compensation. The 457 regulations apply similar criteria with one notable exception: they do not apply the 401(a)(17) compensation limit in determining the “two times” dollar cap on amounts that can be paid pursuant to an exempt severance pay plan.  Practitioners in the for-profit arena currently believe they enjoy wide latitude in restructuring severance arrangements that are exempt from 409A.  It would not appear that practitioners will have that same latitude for severance arrangements that are exempt from 457, unless the arrangements also satisfy the severance pay exemption under 409A, particularly with regard to the dollar cap limit.

    Historically, the proposed 457 rules afforded greater flexibility with respect to what is considered a substantial risk of forfeiture, particularly in the context of non-competes and rolling risks of forfeiture. The regulations restrict, but do not eliminate this flexibility by establishing requirements that must be satisfied for non-competes and rolling risks of forfeitures to create a substantial risk of forfeiture.  Despite the fact that there is wide latitude in restructuring short-term deferral arrangements in the for-profit arena, these restrictions will limit the ability to  restructure short-term deferral arrangements when using non-competes or rolling risks of forfeiture without taking into consideration whether any restructuring would constitute a separate transgression of the 409A rules.

    Finally, the proposed 457 regulations raise the possibility that many leave programs, especially those maintained by governmental entities, could be suspect as deferred compensation arrangements. A paid leave program may be considered suspect if it allows large amounts of leave to be accumulated over the course of many years.  In our experience, this is not an uncommon design for many governmental and educational leave programs.  If the IRS does not retreat from this position, many such employers may need to reassess the structure of their leave programs.  The position taken in the proposed 457 rules might also give for-profit employers some pause as to whether the IRS might take a view that overly liberal leave programs may be subject to 409A requirements as deferred compensation.

    Notwithstanding the long-awaited guidance afforded by these regulations, practitioners and plan sponsors would have welcomed greater guidance with respect to the interaction of the 409A and 457 rules. For instance, the rules could have better addressed where and how the 409A rules claw back some of the greater flexibility historically provided by the proposed 457 rules.  In the absence of guidance, some of that greater flexibility may turn out to be illusory – and the IRS will have failed to adequately highlight the pitfalls that await those that rely upon the greater flexibility afforded 457 arrangements.  Such failure to adequately address the interaction of the regulations raises some troubling questions and possible traps for the unwary.

    Monday, October 12, 2015

    A recent case from a federal court in the Northern District of Georgia provides an interesting perspective on the termination of a nonqualified retirement plan with a traditional defined benefit formula offering lifetime annuity payments. In Taylor v. NCR Corporation et. al., NCR elected to terminate such a nonqualified retirement plan. The termination decision not only precluded new entrants to the plan and the cessation of benefit accruals for active employees, but it also affected retirees in payout status receiving lifetime payments. Those retirees received lump sum payments discounted to present value in lieu of the lifetime payments then being paid to them.

    At the time NCR terminated the plan, its provisions apparently provided that the plan could be terminated at any time provided that “no such action shall adversely affect any Participant’s, former Participant’s or Spouse’s accrued benefits prior to such action under the Plan. . . ” The plaintiff was a retiree receiving a lifetime joint and survivor annuity of approximately $29,000 annually. As a result of the plan’s termination, NCR calculated a lump sum benefit for the plaintiff of approximately $441,000, with the plaintiff ultimately receiving a net payment of approximately $254,000 after federal and state income tax withholdings.

    The key allegations made by the plaintiff, as recited by the court, were (1) that the lump sum payment caused the plaintiff to incur a significant taxable event and (2) that the plaintiff objected to the use of a discount factor to reduce the value of the lump sum payment being made to him.

    The court rejected the first claim by citing widely established precedent that tax losses do not fall within the relief available under ERISA. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s complaint about the actuarial reduction, citing an Eleventh Circuit decision, Holloman v. Mail-Well Corp., in which the Eleventh Circuit seemed to conclude that the power to accelerate a stream of benefit payments necessarily included the ability to discount the value of those future payments to a present value lump sum.

    The court faulted the plaintiff’s allegations for simply complaining about the use of an actuarial reduction.  The court stated that the allegation “that the present value reduction factor decreased his further monthly payments as correct, but irrelevant” as a present value decrease of future payments was “precisely the purpose of applying a present value reduction factor.” Furthermore, the court said that the allegation that “the use of the present value reduction factor was, in itself, improper because it amounted to a reduction of his future monthly payments under the plan” was “incorrect as a matter of law.”

    The most interesting aspect of this case is how willing the court was to read a broad grant of authority into a very simple and concise reservation of an employer’s right to terminate a nonqualified retirement plan. The court was willing to infer that the power to terminate necessarily includes the power to commute annuity payments to lump sums and to discount the value of those annuity payments using appropriate actuarial assumptions, including discount rates. This case did not survive NCR’s motion to dismiss. The court indicated that it may have at least survived that stage of the litigation had the plaintiff alleged that the actuarial assumptions used by NCR were improper, rather than simply complaining about the mere use of such factors.

     

    Thursday, March 6, 2014

    As we have noted previously, March 15 is tax “Code Section 409A Day.”  For employers with calendar fiscal years, that is generally the last day an amount can be paid and still qualify as a short-term deferral that is exempt from 409A’s stringent timing and form of payment requirements.  But what does one do when March 15 falls on a weekend, as it does this year?  You likely aren’t cutting payroll checks on a Saturday.  Can you wait until Monday to pay?

    The answer is no.  The rules are clear that the payment generally has to be made by the 15th day of the 3rd month (hence, March 15) of the year following the year in which either the right to the compensation arises or the compensation is no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture (and note that for this purpose, the 409A definition is different than the Section 83 definition).  (The deadline can be different if an employer has a non-calendar year fiscal year, but the concept is essentially the same.)

    There are a few exceptions.  First, if making the payment by the deadline is administratively impracticable and such impracticability was not reasonably foreseeable when the right to the compensation arose, then payment can be made after the deadline, as long as payment is made as soon as practicable.  Of course, for 2014 it is difficult to argue that the impracticability wasn’t foreseeable simply because you didn’t happen to look into next March in your Outlook, iCal, or Gmail calendar.

    A company can also pay late if the payment would jeopardize the company as a going concern and the payment is made as soon as practicable after the payment would no longer jeopardize the company.  As you can probably tell, that is a pretty high standard.

    Finally, if you’re dealing with a public company, and the payment would not be deductible under 162(m), then the public company can pay as soon as the payment would be deductible.  Here, however, you have to establish that a reasonable person would not have anticipated the application of 162(m) to the payment to be able to take advantage of the delay.

    Regrettably, there is no exception permitting a delay in payment merely because the 15th of the month happens to fall on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday.

    So the bottom line is that you should make sure that any payments you want to qualify as short-term deferrals get paid by Friday the 14th.  Unless you qualify for one of the exceptions, waiting until Monday is not an option.

    Monday, January 6, 2014

    Given the migratory nature of society these days, it is not uncommon for an employee benefit plan to accumulate significant sums of money attributable to the accounts of lost participants.  For a number of States, the assets attributable to lost participants are an attractive revenue source.  Utilizing their unclaimed property statutes, many States attempt to seize these funds so they can add them to the State’s coffers.

    Most employee benefit plans subject to ERISA can sidestep this potential leakage of plan assets through the use of clear plan language that expressly provides for the forfeiture of amounts from the accounts of participants who are determined to be lost after some predetermined period. The language should also provide that those forfeited funds will be utilized either through a reduction of the sponsor’s contribution obligation or their application to reduce plan expenses.  The Department of Labor has unequivocally concluded that such plan provisions are to be honored irrespective of unclaimed property statutes that might otherwise dictate a contrary result. Most plans that provide for the forfeiture of the accounts of lost participants further provide that those accounts will be restored if the lost participants are later found.

    Employee benefit plans that are not subject to ERISA and, therefore, do not benefit from  ERISA preemption, can be designed to sidestep unclaimed property statutes with plan provisions that provide for forfeitures before the shortest applicable escheat period runs.

    An exception to this approach, however, applies to employee benefit plans that are funded with insurance (even if subject to ERISA).  Both the Department of Labor and courts have sided with the States regarding the application of their unclaimed property statutes based on the insurance exception to preemption under ERISA’s statutory scheme.  Further, the provisions of ERISA do not appear to preclude an employee benefit plan from voluntarily turning over assets attributable to lost participants to a State’s unclaimed property department.  We believe the better use of such plan assets provide for their utilization to reduce plan expenses or to reduce the sponsor’s contribution obligation rather than letting them escheat.

    Monday, August 12, 2013

    The 409A rules do not provide a clear roadmap to determine what compensation arrangements are subject to their regime of requirements and restrictions.  In this brief video, Brian Berglund provides a description of the approach you should take to evaluate whether your compensation arrangement should be structured to comply with the 409A rules regarding deferral elections, timing of payments and other requirements.

    (You can also view the video by going here.)

    Thursday, March 14, 2013

    In this recently reported case, one Dr. Sutardja, a recipient of an allegedly discounted option, sued to recover 409A taxes imposed by the IRS.  The case does not decide whether the option was discounted, but Dr. Sutardja argued that his option, even if discounted, shouldn’t be subject to 409A.

    Essentially, he tried to argue that (1) the grant of the discounted option is not a taxable event, (2) stock options aren’t “deferred compensation,” (3) he didn’t have a legally binding right until he exercised the option, or (4) 409A couldn’t apply to the discounted option.  Those familiar with 409A will sigh upon reading the list since clearly none of these arguments holds any water.  Discounted options are subject to 409A and must have fixed dates for exercise and payment.

    The interesting part of the case, though, was the government arguing that Dr. Sutardja did not have a legally binding right to the supposedly discounted option until it vested.  This is an interesting argument for the government to make because the 409A regulations themselves say:

    A service provider does not have a legally binding right to compensation to the extent that compensation may be reduced unilaterally or eliminated by the service recipient or other person after the services creating the right to the compensation have been performed. … For this purpose, compensation is not considered subject to unilateral reduction or elimination merely because it may be reduced or eliminated by operation of the objective terms of the plan, such as the application of a nondiscretionary, objective provision creating a substantial risk of forfeiture. 26 C.F.R. 1.409A-(b)(1)

    Generally speaking, before an option vests, it is subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.  This means the opportunity to buy stock could be lost if the recipient leaves employment or service with the granting company before it vests.  Applying that analysis to the above language, the legally binding right to an option is created when it’s granted, not when it vests.

    In the end, the argument doesn’t amount to much because any portion of the option that vested after December 31, 2004 is still subject to 409A and its stringent taxes.  However, the case is interesting in that it shows that the IRS has begun enforcing 409A.  It will also be interesting to see if the government’s argument in this case is used against it in future cases.