- Nondiscrimination Testing
- Contribution and Benefit Limitations
- Top Heavy Testing
- Reporting Requirements
- Participant Notifications
A qualified retirement plan can
provide many benefits to employees as well as the sponsoring employer.
Employees are ultimately provided with income to help sustain their
lifestyle in their post-retirement years. Employers are given a tax
deduction for contributions made to the plan, which helps them provide a
valuable fringe benefit and boost employee morale.
In 1974 Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act
(ERISA), which provided much needed protection for workers’ retirement
benefits. That law, as well as applicable sections of the Internal Revenue
Code (IRC), established a host of administrative rules which must be
followed in order for a plan to maintain its qualified status and avoid
excise taxes and fiduciary penalties. Following is a summary of the ongoing
compliance requirements for qualified plans.
One of the basic requirements of a qualified plan is that it not
discriminate in favor of employees who are considered "highly compensated
employees" (HCEs). HCEs are employees who own more than 5% of the employer
in the current year or the previous year (including family attribution
rules) or who earned more than $90,000 (increased to $95,000 in 2005) in the previous year.
The first area of possible discrimination involves the coverage
requirements of IRC section 410(b). This comes into play where a plan is
established for only a portion of the employer’s staff and not the entire
company. Testing is done on an annual basis to insure that the percentage of
the company’s non-HCEs covered under the plan is at least 70% of the
percentage of the company’s HCEs that are covered. Alternatively, the plan
can pass a more complicated "average benefits test" which illustrates that
the benefits provided do not discriminate in favor of the HCEs.
Money purchase pension plans and profit sharing plans contain a formula
for allocating employer contributions, although in profit sharing plans
contributions are often discretionary (optional) from year to year. Such
contribution allocations must not violate nondiscrimination rules. While the
formula established under the plan generally must prohibit discrimination,
certain facts and circumstances need to be considered each year. For
example, a plan may require employment on the last day of the plan year to
be eligible to share in the contribution, as well as completion of up to
1,000 hours of service. But if a significant number of employees who worked
over 500 hours are eliminated from the allocation because of these rules,
the plan may be considered discriminatory. This could result in having to
include some of the otherwise ineligible participants in the allocation.
Plans that allow salary deferrals, matching contributions and/or other
employee contributions must test these contributions for discrimination at
the end of each plan year (except safe-harbor 401(k) plans). The ADP (actual
deferral percentage) and ACP (actual contribution percentage) tests compare
contributions made on behalf of the HCEs with contributions made on behalf
of the non-HCEs. Generally, the HCEs are allowed an average percentage that
is somewhat larger than the average for the non-HCEs. The differential
varies depending upon the non-HCE contribution level.
Plans that don’t pass the ADP and/or ACP test usually satisfy the test(s)
through corrective distributions, although other methods are available such
as making additional employer contributions. A failed test must be corrected
within 12 months of the end of the plan year. However, corrective
distributions made more than 2½ months after the plan year-end will be
subject to a 10% excise tax.
IRC section 415 provides the maximum benefit and annual additions
limitations for each participant. For 2004, the
maximum annual retirement benefit that can be provided in a defined benefit
pension plan is $165,000 (for 2005 the limit is $170,000). In defined contribution plans, the maximum annual
additions (i.e., total contribution and forfeiture allocations) is the
lesser of 100% of a participant’s compensation or $41,000 (for 2005 the limit is $42,000). For benefit and
contribution calculation purposes, the maximum compensation that can be
utilized is $205,000 (for 2005 the limit is $210,000).
The maximum salary deferral for 2004 is $13,000 ($14,000 for 2005). If permitted by the
plan, those age 50 and older can defer an additional $3,000 ($4,000 for 2005) as a catch-up
contribution (even if it causes the annual additions to exceed the above limits.
The plan administrator must make sure that these limits are not exceeded.
Excess annual additions must be distributed to the participant, reallocated
or transferred to a suspense account, in accordance with the plan
provisions. Excess deferrals must be distributed by April 15th following the
calendar year of the excess. Since the deferral limit includes all plans in
which an employee participated during the calendar year, it is the
employee’s responsibility, if he participated in salary deferral plans of
more than one employer, to notify such employers of any excess.
Each retirement plan must perform an annual test to determine if it is
"top heavy." A plan is considered top heavy if key employees (generally
owners and highly paid officers) have more than 60% of the total account
balances (defined contribution plans) or present value of accrued benefits
(defined benefit plans) of all plan participants. The determination date for
the calculation of top heavy status is the last day of the previous plan
If a plan is determined to be top heavy, the employer must provide
certain minimum contributions or benefits, and meet one of the enhanced
Most plan sponsors must file an annual report, Form 5500, with the
Department of Labor by the end of the 7th month following the plan year-end.
The deadline may be extended an additional 2½ months by filing an extension.
Where the owner of the company is the only participant, the plan is exempt
from filing a Form 5500 until total assets of all plans of the employer
Plans with 100 or more participants at the beginning of the year ("large
plans") are required to attach an accountant’s audit report to the Form
5500. An exception applies for plans with no more than 120 participants that
were able to file as a small plan the previous year. Small plans are only
exempt from the audit requirement if 95% of the assets are "qualifying plan
assets" or if a fidelity bond is purchased for non-qualifying assets and a
notice requirement is satisfied in the summary annual report (see below).
Qualifying plan assets include assets held or issued by a registered
investment company or financial institution, qualifying employer securities,
participant loans and participant-directed investments.
ERISA requires plan fiduciaries to obtain a surety bond for at least 10%
of the value of plan assets. The amount of the bond in force must be
reported on Form 5500.
Distributions from qualified plans are required to be reported to the IRS
on Form 1099-R with a copy furnished to the participant. This is true even
if the distribution is nontaxable, as in the case of a direct rollover to an
IRA or other qualified plan. Form 1099-R must also be filed for a defaulted
loan treated as a distribution. The deadline for furnishing the
participant’s copy is January 31st following the calendar year of
Defined benefit plans that are subject to the federal government’s PBGC
(Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) insurance program must pay the
required annual premium accompanied by the appropriate PBGC forms. The
deadline varies depending upon the size of the plan and its funding status.
Certain information must be provided to participants throughout the year.
Here is a list of the necessary notifications:
Summary Annual Report: A summary of Form 5500 must be
provided to each participant within two months of the 5500 filing deadline
Summary Plan Description (SPD): This document which
summarizes the plan provisions should be provided to new participants within
90 days of their plan entry date. The SPD should be updated every five years
if the plan has been amended, or every ten years if no amendments have been
Summary of Material Modifications: When a plan amendment
results in a material modification of one or more plan provisions, an
explanation of the amendment must be provided to participants within 210
days of the end of the plan year in which the amendment was adopted.
Benefit Statements: Most plans provide benefit statements
to participants at least once a year and, if not, are required to do so upon
request. Pension plans must automatically provide a benefit statement when a
participant terminates employment or has experienced a one-year break in
service within 180 days of the close of the plan year in which such
termination or service break occurred.
Safe-Harbor Notice: 401(k) plan sponsors who elected to
make safe-harbor contributions to avoid ADP and ACP testing must give out a
safe-harbor notice within a reasonable time before the start of the plan
year. A notice distributed between 30 and 90 days before the first day of
the plan year will automatically be considered timely.
Distribution Forms: Participants who are entitled to a
distribution of their benefits should be provided with appropriate
distribution forms as well as tax and rollover information. Plans that
contain annuity distribution options must also furnish a notice explaining
spousal rights and comparing equivalent values of optional forms of
Qualified Pre-Retirement Survivor Annuity (QPSA) Forms:
Plans that offer annuity distribution options must provide a written
explanation of the QPSA and a waiver form to each participant between the
ages of 32 and 35. Where the QPSA first becomes available after age 35 (as
with participants hired after that age), the materials must be provided
within one year of applicability. Participants who terminate employment
before age 35 should be notified within one year of separation.
Investment Information: Many plans today, particularly
401(k) plans, allow participants to direct the investments in their
accounts. In order for plan fiduciaries to limit their liability for poor
investment results in such accounts, ERISA section 404(c) requires that
participants be given the opportunity to exercise control over their
accounts. Consequently, they must be furnished with sufficient information
about the investments available to them under the plan. Prospectuses and
other reports about available investments must be provided on a regular
basis (and upon request), and statements showing account balances and
activity should be provided at least once every three months.
Blackout Notice: When investment direction, loans or
distributions will be unavailable to participants, as in the case of the
transfer of plan assets from one custodian to another, a blackout notice
must be provided between 30 and 60 days before the blackout period begins.
There are numerous administrative procedures and reporting requirements
that must be followed throughout the year to keep a qualified retirement
plan in compliance with ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. Failure to
comply can result in fines, excise taxes and even plan disqualification. A
properly administered plan can be a valuable fringe benefit for employers
This newsletter is intended to provide general information on matters of interest in the area of qualified retirement plans and is distributed with the understanding that the publisher and distributor are not rendering legal, tax or other professional advice. Readers should not act or rely on any information in this newsletter without first seeking the advice of an independent tax advisor such as an attorney or CPA.
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