This post is the fifth and final post in our BenefitsBryanCave.com series on five common Code Section 409A design errors and corrections. Go here, here, here, and here to see the first four posts in that series.
Code Section 409A abhors discretion. One concern with discretion is that it could lead to the type of opportunistic employee action or employer/employee collusion that hurt creditors and employees during the Enron and WorldCom scandals.
Another concern is that discretion could be used opportunistically to affect the taxation of deferred compensation. Consider an employment agreement with a lump-sum payment due at any time within thirteen months following a change in control, as determined in the employer’s discretion. This provision would permit the employer to pick the calendar year of the payment. Because non-qualified payments are generally taxable to the recipient when paid, this type of provision would allow a company to essentially pick the year in which the employee is taxed on the payment. In this situation, the IRS would be concerned that the plan participant (who often has great influence with the company) would collude with the company so that the resulting payment was of most tax benefit to the participant.
Code Section 409A addresses this problem by restricting the timing of a deferred compensation payments following a triggering event to a single taxable year, a period that begins and ends in the same taxable year, or a period of up to 90 days that could potentially span two taxable years. If the “up to 90 day period” approach is taken, Code Section 409A also requires that the service provider not have the right to designate the taxable year of the payment. Most plans provide for payments within a 90 day period following the appropriate Code Section 409A triggering event.
Plans are occasionally drafted using a payment period longer than 90 days. Fortunately, the IRS allows correction of these over-long payment periods. The correction is to amend the plan to either remove the over-long payment period from the plan or to provide for an appropriate period of time for the payment. This amendment can even occur within a reasonable amount of time following the Code Section 409A triggering event, but penalties would apply. As always, certain correction documents must be filed with the IRS.