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.
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.
Every 409A attorney knows the look. It’s a look that is dripping with the 409A attorney’s constant companion – incredulity. “Surely,” the client says, “IRS doesn’t care about [insert one of the myriad 409A issues that the IRS actually, for some esoteric reason, cares about].” In many ways, the job of the 409A attorney is that of knowing confidant – “I know! Isn’t it crazy! I can’t fathom why the IRS cares. But they do.”
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how this section of the tax code works and to whom it applies. While we cannot possibly address every misconception, below is a list of the more common ones we encounter.
I thought 409A only applied to public companies. While wrong, this one is probably the most difficult because it has a kernel of truth. All of the 409A rules apply to all companies, except one. 409A does require a 6-month delay for severance paid to public company executives. However, aside from this one rule, all of 409A’s other rules apply to every company.
But it doesn’t apply to partnerships or LLCs. Wrong, although again a kernel of truth. Every company, regardless of form, is subject to 409A. However, the IRS hasn’t yet released promised guidance regarding partnerships or LLCs, most of the 409A rules (like the option rules) apply by analogy.
But I can still change how something is paid on a change of control. Maybe, but maybe not. If a payment is subject to 409A, there are severe restrictions on how it can be modified, even on a change of control. Even payments not subject to 409A by themselves can, inadvertently, be made subject to 409A if the payment terms are modified. There is some latitude to terminate and liquidate plans in connection with a change in control, but – word to the wise – these termination payments are very tricky to implement and require a pretty comprehensive review of all plans in place following the change in control.
409A only affects executives. Nope. Any time “deferred compensation” is implicated, 409A applies, even to rank and file. In fact, 409A can have adverse effects for a mind boggling array of employees, including innocuous arrangements like school-year teacher reimbursement programs!
And the definition of deferred compensation is broad, including such items as severance agreements or plans or even bonuses, if paid beyond the short-term deferral period. As a practical matter, many rank and file severance and bonus plans qualify for exemptions that make them not subject to 409A’s restrictions on time and form of payment, but it’s still worth reviewing them to make sure.
Okay then, it only applies to employees, right? Wrong again. Directors and other independent contractors are subject to 409A’s grip. There are some exemptions, but, again, they are difficult to implement.
What’s the company’s tax burden if we screw up? This question itself is not a misconception, but the unstated assumption – that it’s the company’s liability – is. The penalties fall entirely on the employee, director, or contractor.
But put yourself in the shoes of an executive who, unexpectedly, gets hit with a 409A penalty. The executive may argue that the employer designed the plan and the employer administered the plan. The executive’s role was to work, possibly even contribute his or her own money to the plan, and reap the benefit down the road. The IRS rules say that something got messed up and the executive owes substantial additional taxes – perhaps even before payment is made from the plan – through no fault of the executive.
What’s the first thing the executive does? Turn to the employer and loudly proclaim, “Make me whole.”
In addition, employers can also have additional direct withholding and reporting penalties. Depending upon culpability, those penalties can be very large.
The bottom line is that 409A potentially applies to anyone who hires anyone else to do anything for them – and does not pay them immediately.
Code Section 409A is, in part, a response to perceived deferred compensation abuses at companies like Enron and WorldCom. The story of Code Section 409A’s six month delay provision is inextricably tied to the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies.
Under established IRS tax principles, participants’ rights under a non-qualified plan can be no greater than the claims of a general creditor. Because deferred compensation plans often pay out upon termination of employment, a plan participant with knowledge of a likely future bankruptcy could potentially terminate employment and take a non-qualified plan distribution to the detriment of the company’s creditors (a number or Enron executives with advance knowledge of Enron’s accounting irregularities did just this). This opportunistic cash out is obviously unfair to the company’s creditors. In addition, the cash out only helps hasten the likely bankruptcy because non-qualified plan payments come from the general assets of the company.
How did Congress solve this problem? By requiring that a payment of deferred compensation to any of the most highly compensated employees of public companies (called “specified employees”) be delayed at least six months if the payment is due to a separation from service. The thought was that for public companies (like Enron and WorldCom), plan participants would not have enough time to opportunistically terminate employment and receive payout if the payouts were delayed at least six months following termination.
Code Section 409A requires that the six month delay for specified employees of public companies be codified in the relevant plan document. Generally, plans are drafted so that payments due upon separation from service are delayed the required six months, but only if the terminating employee is a specified employee at the time of termination, and only to the extent such payments are “deferred compensation” within the meaning of Code Section 409A.
What should you do if you work for a public corporation and your high-level employment and severance agreements do not contain the required six month delay language? (more…)
Your company sponsors an annual bonus program. Bonuses are tied to company calendar year performance. The bonus plan says that payments are to occur by March 15th of the year following the performance year. March 15th has always struck you as an odd date.
A friend at another company calls you up, very excited. Her company’s financial performance last year was stellar, and she’s expecting a large payment by March 15th. Another friend at a different company mentions that he’s buying new furniture on the 17th. The proximate cause? Annual bonuses are paid on March 15th.
It is no coincidence that companies often pay out annual bonuses around March 15th. In the case of a company with a calendar year tax year, paying bonuses by March 15 will generally allow the company to deduct the bonuses in the tax year which ends on the prior December 31. But there may be another reason for structuring bonus payouts in this manner: to comply with Code Section 409A.
Code Section 409A generally applies when the right to an amount arises in one year, but the amount can be paid in the next. So, for example, an annual bonus paid shortly after the end of a calendar year could potentially be subject to Code Section 409A.
However, amounts paid by the 15th day of the third month following the end of the year in which the amount “vests” are exempt from Code Section 409A as “short term deferrals.” Thus, March 15th.
But what happens if your company needs to delay scheduled annual bonus payments past March 15th? What if, for example, calculating the company performance for the bonus year takes longer than anticipated, and pushes the payments to March 20th? Surely Code Section 409A doesn’t care about short delays. . .
Code Section 409A cares about most short delays. If your payment is even one day late, it could fall out of the safe confines of the “short term deferral” exception and into the cold and hard rules of Code Section 409A proper. The only exceptions available are for unforeseeable exigent circumstances or because making the payment would jeopardize the company as a going concern. But these exceptions are limited – if there is a practice of regularly making payments after March 15th, there could be Code Section 409A issues.
There is a saving grace. You can structure your bonus plan to both be exempt from Code Section 409A and comply with Code Section 409A’s fixed payment rules. This would require, for example, using a fixed date (e.g. January 1) or period (e.g. January 1 through March 15th) for payment, but providing a March 15th outside payment drop dead date.
What does this approach buy you? If the payment occurs after March 15 but on or before the following December 31, there is no Code Section 409A violation (although there may be a contractual violation).
Let’s say that you are negotiating your CEO’s new employment agreement. Because she is preparing for retirement, the CEO would like to be entitled to a stream of monthly lifetime separation payments upon her voluntary termination. This type of lifetime benefit makes sense for your company, and, based on the CEO’s long and faithful service to the company, you agree.
The CEO then asks for a provision calling for an immediate lump-sum payment upon her involuntary termination. The amount of the payment would be the present value, using reasonable actuarial assumptions, of the monthly separation pay annuity. This request seems reasonable – the fact that things may go sour in the future doesn’t change the fact of the CEO’s long service. And in an involuntary termination situation, who would want to receive payments over a period of time rather than in a lump sum? Should you agree to this request?
No. And regular readers of this blog will not be surprised as to why – Code Section 409A.
Code Section 409A generally requires that payments be made in a single form following each permissible payment triggering event. This means, for example, that a plan couldn’t provide for payment of an amount in a lump-sum if a change in control occurs in a January and a one-year stream of payments if a change in control occurs in a February. Payment forms can differ, however, if the permissible triggering event differs. It is permissible to call for payment of an amount over five years upon separation from service, but call for an immediate lump-sum payment of the same amount upon an intervening change in control.
There are quite a few exceptions to this rule. First, a payment upon a triggering event other than a separation from service can be in different forms on either side of an objectively determinable pre-specified date. For example, a change in control benefit could be paid in a lump-sum if the change in control occurs prior to a plan participant’s attainment of age 55 and could be paid in a life annuity if the change in control occurs after age 55. In essence, this exception permits a plan to “toggle” between two (and only two) forms of payment.
Separation from service payments can potentially “toggle” between three different forms of payment: a normal form of payment, a separate form for separations within up to two years following a change in control, and a final form for separations that occur before or after a specified date (or combination of a date and years of service). For example, an employment agreement could call for the same amount of separation pay to be paid in 36 monthly installments upon separation before age 62, a life annuity upon separation on or after age 62, and in a lump-sum if separation occurs during the year following a change in control.
What to do if your plan impermissibly toggles between forms of payments? The IRS generally permits correction by amending the plan so that the longest permissible forms of payment apply. And if the problematic triggering event occurs within one year of the date of correction, penalties could apply. As always, certain correction documents must be filed with the IRS.
Recently, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance issued an Advisory Opinion regarding whether New York State may impose income tax on distributions from a nonqualified deferred compensation plan made to a former resident. Under federal law, states may not impose income tax on these retirement payments. Plan sponsors that participate in nonqualified deferred compensation plans should be aware of the tax implications of this law.
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