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).