Based on proposed regulations released by the U.S. Department of Treasury on November 14, 2018 (the “Proposed Regulations”), participants in 401(k) and 403(b) plans may find it easier to get hardship withdrawals as early as plan years beginning after December 31, 2018. Hardship withdrawals are permitted on account of financial hardships if the distribution is made in response to an “immediate and heavy financial need” and the distribution is necessary to satisfy that need. The Proposed Regulations incorporate various prior statutory changes, including changes imposed by the 2017 Tax Act, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, and the Pension Protection Act of 2006. These changes are summarized below:

1. Safe Harbor Expenses. Under the current regulations, a withdrawal to cover an expense on the safe harbor list is deemed to be made on account of an immediate and heavy financial need. The Proposed Regulations expand the safe harbor list of expenses for which a participant may take a hardship withdrawal, which may be applied to withdrawals occurring on or after January 1, 2018. The primary changes to the safe harbor list made by the Proposed Regulations are:

  • the expansion of the category of individuals for whom a participant may take a hardship distribution for qualifying medical, educational, and funeral expenses incurred by a participant to include a “primary beneficiary under the plan”, i.e., the individual who the participant has designated as the beneficiary to receive the participant’s plan account upon the death of the participant;
  • the elimination of the requirement that expenses related to damage to a principal residence that would qualify for a casualty deduction under Section 165 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended be attributable to a federally declared disaster, which was imposed by the 2017 Tax Act; and
  • the addition of a new item allowing for hardship distributions for expenses incurred as a result of certain disasters that occur in areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) as eligible for individual assistance.

2. Six-Month Deferral Suspension Requirement Eliminated. Under current regulations, a plan participant must be prohibited from making elective deferrals and employee contributions for six months and must take any available plan loans before the hardship withdrawal. Under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, the six-month suspension requirement must be eliminated by January 1, 2020 and the Proposed Regulations allow the six-month suspension to be eliminated for plan years after December 31, 2018 if the plan sponsor so elects. The elimination of the six-month suspension reflects the concern of Congress that a suspension would impede the employee’s ability to replace distributed funds. Plans, however, may elect to continue to require a plan loan prior to a hardship withdrawal.

3. Participant Representation. To determine whether a distribution is necessary to satisfy an immediate and heavy financial need, the Proposed Regulations rely on the following general non-safe harbor standard:

  • the withdrawal may not exceed the amount of the participant’s need; and
  • the participant must have obtained other available distributions under the employer plans.

Under the current regulations, the plan must use a facts and circumstances test to establish the general non-safe harbor standard. Effective as of January 1, 2020, a participant seeking a hardship withdrawal must represent that he or she has insufficient cash or other liquid assets to satisfy the financial need. The plan administrator may rely on the representation unless the plan administrator has actual knowledge to the contrary.

4. Expanded Sources. The current regulations generally only permit hardship withdrawals from elective contributions. Under the Proposed Regulations, a plan may permit hardship withdrawals from elective contributions, qualified non-elective contributions (QNECs), and qualified matching contributions (QMACs), and also from earnings on these contributions, regardless of when contributed or earned. Since contributions to a 401(k) safe harbor plan are subject to the same limitations as QNECs and QMACs, the Proposed Regulations provide that safe harbor contributions may also be a source for hardship withdrawals.

5. 403(b) Plans. The Proposed Regulations will have some impact on 403(b) plans. While income attributable to elective deferrals will not be eligible for hardship withdrawals under the Proposed Regulations, QNECs and QMACs that are not in a custodial account may be withdrawn on account of hardship.

6. Relief for Hurricane Victims. Because the Treasury Department and IRS recognized that employees adversely impacted by Hurricanes Florence and Michael might need expedited access to their plan accounts, the Proposed Regulations extend to these employees the relief provided by Announcement 2017-15 to victims of Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires. The new automatic FEMA safe harbor standard described above will provide greater certainty and expedited access for plan sponsors and participants that may be affected in the future by such disasters.

Effective Dates and Plan Amendments

As noted above, the Proposed Regulations generally apply to hardship withdrawals made in plan years beginning after December 31, 2018, with a few exceptions described above.

Once the Proposed Regulations are finalized, the deadline for adopting plan amendments related to the final hardship withdrawal regulations will be the end of the second calendar year that begins after the issuance of the Required Amendments List that includes the changes. However, since many of the changes included in the Proposed Regulations reflect statutory changes, plan sponsors may wish to adopt some of the required amendments in 2019 so that their plan documents are consistent with plan administration.

President Trump’s recently issued Executive Order entitled “Strengthening Retirement Security In America” (the “EO”) may be helpful to businesses that sponsor or participate in multiple employer retirement plans (“MEPs”), as well as single employer plans, even if the sponsors and employers are not small business owners. While the stated purpose of the EO, which was issued on August 31, 2018 (the “EO Date”), is to “promote retirement security for America’s workers,” the EO directs attention to small business owners (less than 100 employees), noting that such businesses are less likely than larger businesses to offer retirement benefits. The EO also notes that regulatory burdens and complexity can be costly and discourage businesses, especially small ones, from offering retirement plans to employees. This post summarizes the four actions identified in the EO that the Federal Government may take to promote retirement security. While these actions are intended to benefit small businesses, large businesses that participate may benefit as well.

First, the EO may expand the circumstances under which a business or organization can sponsor or participate in an MEP. The EO directs the Secretary of Labor to consider, within 180 days following the EO Date, proposing regulations to clarify when a group or association of employers or other appropriate business or organization can be treated as an “employer” within the meaning of Section 3(5) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”). The definition of “employer” is significant, as an employee benefit plan, such as an MEP, is typically sponsored by an “employer”. (An “employee organization”, such as a labor union, may also sponsor an employee benefit plan.) If an MEP were sponsored by businesses that were not considered a “group or association of employers” pursuant to Section 3(5) of ERISA, the MEP would not be treated as a single plan covering all of the participating businesses. In that case, each business participating in the MEP would be treated as sponsoring its own plan for all purposes under ERISA and would have to separately comply with ERISA’s requirements, such as preparing a written plan document and summary plan description, having an ERISA bond, and filing a Form 5500. Clarification of the term “employer” may allow businesses that sponsor or participate in single employer plans to treat such plans as an MEP and thereby minimize their individual responsibilities under ERISA. The clarification may also create new opportunities for businesses to sponsor MEPs.

Second, the EO may reduce compliance burdens for MEP sponsors. The EO directs the Secretary of the Treasury to consider, within 180 days following the EO Date, amending regulations to modify the rule providing that if one participating employer in an MEP fails certain non-discrimination requirements, the entire MEP fails. For example, under current Treasury regulations, the actual deferral percentage test and actual contribution percentage test are applied separately to each participating employer in the MEP, as if that employer maintained a separate plan. If one participating employer fails one of the tests, then the MEP fails the test and could potentially be disqualified for all participating employers. This regulation can present a dilemma for MEP sponsors, as they cannot be certain that each participating employer will satisfy the non-discrimination requirements. Therefore, modification of the regulations should benefit businesses that sponsor MEPs.

Third, the EO may reduce the costs associated with required disclosures to participants in MEPs, and in single employer plans. The EO directs the Secretaries of Labor and Treasury to review, within one year following the EO Date, actions that could make retirement plan disclosures more useful for participants, while reducing costs for sponsors and participating employers.

Finally, the EO directs the Secretary of the Treasury to determine, within 180 days following the EO Date, whether the actuarial tables used to calculate the amount of required minimum distributions should be updated annually (or on another periodic basis) to reflect current mortality data. This update could reduce the amount of annual required minimum distributions, which would benefit participants in single employer plans, as well as in MEPs. Such change could also reduce the administrative burden on plan sponsors and participating employers associated with making these distributions.

Takeaways

If the actions described above result in changes in law, such changes should benefit businesses that sponsor or participate in MEPs and single employer plans.   In addition, such changes may provide new opportunities for businesses to sponsor MEPs. Given the time frames imposed by the EO, businesses might see proposed regulations or other guidance addressing some of these changes during 2019.

The New York City Council (the “NYCC”) has proposed to establish a “Savings Access New York Retirement Program” (the “NYC Retirement Program”) that would require New York City private-sector employers with at least 10 employees to offer a new savings program to employees who are not eligible to participate in an employer-provided savings plan (such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan). Currently the NYCC proposal is in committee, and no further action has been taken to date.

Although passage of the NYC Retirement Program is far from certain, this proposal is consistent with other state and local government legislative efforts to increase the retirement savings of employees. To assist employers with long-range benefits planning, this blog provides a high-level summary of the NYCC proposal and the potential questions and issues that employers may face if required to implement the NYC Retirement Program.

Summary of the NYC Retirement Program

  • An employer, whether for-profit or otherwise, with a physical presence in NYC will be a “covered employer” subject to the NYC Retirement Program if the employer (i) currently employs no fewer than 10 employees and has employed no fewer than 10 employees for the prior calendar year, (ii) has been in continuous operation for at least two years, and (iii) has not offered, in the previous two years, a retirement plan to its “eligible employees” (as defined below).
  • An employee will be eligible for the NYC Retirement Program if such employee (i) is at least 18 years old, (ii) is employed part-time or full-time for compensation in New York City by a covered employer, and (iii) has not been offered a retirement plan by the covered employer during the preceding two years. Under the NYC Retirement Program, a “retirement plan” includes a qualified retirement plan under Section 401(a) and Section 403(a) and (b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, however, many such retirement plans exclude certain classifications of employees, such as part-time or temporary employees that would be covered by the NYC Retirement Program.
  • The NYC Retirement Program provides for an automatic 3% contribution via payroll deduction by eligible employees to a Roth or traditional IRA. The employee will be permitted to opt-out of the program or to contribute an amount other than 3%.
  • Covered employers will have the following obligations:
    • Enrolling eligible employees;
    • Remitting payroll deductions for deposit in the NYC Retirement Program;
    • Providing information to eligible employees about the NYC Retirement Program; and
    • Maintaining records documenting compliance with the NYC Retirement Program.
  • Covered employers that fail to comply with the NYC Retirement Program may be subject to civil monetary penalties, the amount of which will be based on the number of eligible employees affected and the duration of the compliance failure.
  • Administrative fees for the NYC Retirement Program will be allocated pro rata to the accounts of eligible employees.
  • The NYC Retirement Program is intended to be exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended, although the current proposal does not indicate the exemption that will be used.

Takeaways for Employers

Given the potential reach of the NYCC proposal and the ambiguities it raises, employers with a presence in New York City should monitor the status of the NYCC proposal. Even large employers who currently offer broad-based retirement plans may not be exempt from the NYC Retirement Program if retirement benefits are not offered to all eligible employees covered by the NYC Retirement Program.

Our colleague Sharon L. Lippett, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Potential Impact of Trump Tax Reform Plan on Retirement Plans: What’s Old Could Be New Again.”

Following is an excerpt:

While Congress’ attention has most recently been focused on the American Health Care Act, that bill will most likely not be the only proposed legislation that Congress will consider in 2017. It appears that a tax reform plan (the “2017 Tax Proposal”), which could also have a wide-reaching impact, is also on the agenda.

If the 2017 Proposal includes provisions relating to defined contribution retirement plans sponsored by private employers, such as 401(k) plans, the impact will be felt by employers and investment managers, as well as by plan participants. While the Trump Administration has stated that the current version of its 2017 Tax Proposal does not reduce pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans, speculation continues that a later draft may include curtailment of these contributions or other changes with a similar impact. …

Read the full post here.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, employers with employees and operations impacted by Hurricane Sandy are asking what types of tax and employee benefits relief may be available to them and their affected employees.  The Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), the Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) have moved quickly to provide disaster relief guidance for affected employers and their employees.

IRS Relief.  In response to Hurricane Sandy, on November 2, 2012, the IRS in IR-2012-84 declared Hurricane Sandy a “qualified disaster” for federal income tax purposes under Section 139 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”).  The IRS then acted to institute the following relief measures:

  • Qualified disaster relief payments.  The designation of Hurricane Sandy as a “qualified disaster” under Code Section 139 allows employers to make “qualified disaster relief payments” for expenses resulting from or attributable to Hurricane Sandy.  Qualified disaster relief payments are excluded from the employees’ federal gross income and are not wages for purposes of employment taxes.  Qualified disaster relief payments are defined as payments that are not covered by insurance made for personal, family, living or funeral expenses resulting from the qualified disaster, including the costs of repairing or rehabilitating personal residences damaged by the qualified disaster and replacing their contents.
  • Sharing and/or donating accrued vacation, sick and PTO leave.  On November 6, 2012, the IRS announced in IR-2012-88 and IRS Notice 2012-69 that employees will be permitted to forego vacation, sick or personal leave and contribute the value of the leave as a cash payment for the relief of victims of Hurricane Sandy.  The cash payments may be contributed to a Code Section 170(c) private foundation, including an employer-sponsored foundation, for the relief of victims of Hurricane Sandy, as long as those amounts are paid to the organization on or before January 1, 2014.  The leave contributed by an employee will not be included in the employee’s gross income or wages and the right to make a contribution will not result in constructive receipt for purposes of income or employment taxes.  Electing employees, however, may not claim a charitable contribution deduction under Section 170 for the value of the cash payment.  On November 6, 2012, the IRS also announced in IR 2012-87 an expedited review and approval process for Code Section 170(c) private foundations that are newly established to help individuals impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
  • Delay of tax filing deadlines to February 1, 2013.  On November 2, 2012, the IRS announced in IR-2012-83 that certain taxpayers affected by Hurricane Sandy will be eligible for filing and payment federal tax relief.  Affected individuals and businesses located in certain counties of the States of Connecticut CT-2012-48 (effective October 27), New Jersey NJ-2012-47 (effective October 26), New York NY-2012-47 (effective October 27) and Rhode Island RI-2012-30 (effective October 26), as well as relief workers working in those areas, will have until February 1, 2013 to file certain tax returns and pay any taxes due.  This includes the filing of the fourth quarter individual estimated tax payment, payroll and excise taxes for the third and fourth quarters, and Form 990 and Form 5500 if the deadlines or extensions occur during the applicable extended filing period.  The extension does not apply to Forms W-2, 1098 and 1099, or Forms 1042-S and 8027.  The IRS is also waiving failure to deposit penalties for federal and excise tax deposits on or after the applicable disaster area effective date through November 26, 2012 if deposits are made by November 26, 2012.
  • Expansion of hardship distributions and participant loans under 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and 457(b) plans.  On November 16, 2012, the IRS announced in IR-2012-93 and IRS Notice 2012-44that a qualified retirement plan will not be treated as violating any tax qualification requirements if it makes hardship distributions for a need arising from Hurricane Sandy or loans to employees or former employees whose primary residence or place of employment is in a qualified disaster area.
    • Hardship distributions and loans also may be made to employees who have relatives living in the qualified disaster area impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Relatives for this purpose include an employee’s grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, dependents, or a spouse.
    • Certain documentation and procedural requirements, and other limitations, are not required if the plan administrator makes a good-faith diligent effort to satisfy those requirements and the plan administrator, as soon as practicable, uses reasonable efforts to assemble any forgone documentation.
    • If the plan does not provide for loans or hardship distributions, the plan may be amended to allow for Hurricane Sandy distributions no later than the end of the first plan year beginning after December 31, 2012.
  • Code Section 409A deferred compensation plans.  Hurricane Sandy may qualify as an “unforeseeable emergency” affecting a service provider that allows for a distribution under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan subject to Code Section 409A.  Though not clear, it may be possible for a plan to be amended to allow for payment upon an unforeseeable emergency after the occurrence of the emergency.

DOL Relief.  The DOL is providing disaster relief by allowing plans to take certain actions that otherwise could be a violation of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”).  The DOL will not consider the following events to be a fiduciary violation under ERISA:

  • The plan provides for loans and hardship distributions in compliance with the IRS Hurricane Sandy disaster relief guidance described above.
  • There is a temporary delay under the plan in forwarding participant contributions and loan repayments from payroll processing services in the Hurricane Sandy qualified disaster area and the affected employers and service providers act reasonably.
  • There is a blackout period under a retirement plan related to Hurricane Sandy and the plan is not able to comply with the requirements to give participants and beneficiaries 30-day advance written notice of the blackout.
  • Group health plans make reasonable accommodations due to Hurricane Sandy for plan participants and beneficiaries for deadlines and documentation in filing claims for benefits, including COBRA elections.
  • Group health plans and issuers are not able to comply with pre-established claims procedures and disclosures due to the physical disruption to the plan or service provider’s principal place of business from Hurricane Sandy.

PBGC Relief.  The PBGC is providing limited disaster relief for a plan or plan sponsor located in the qualified disaster area, specifically Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, or a plan or plan sponsor that cannot reasonably obtain information from a service provider, bank or other person whose operations were directly affected by Hurricane Sandy.  The PBGC relief includes the following:

  • Any premium payment required to be made on and after October 26, 2012 and on or before February 1, 2013 (the “PBGC disaster relief period”) will not be subject to penalties if made by February 1, 2013.
  • Single-employer standard terminations and distress terminations deadlines required to be made during the PBGC disaster relief period are extended to February 1, 2013.
  • Reportable event post-event notice deadlines for the PBGC disaster relief period are extended to February 1, 2013.  Pre-event reportable event notice deadlines may be extended on a case-by-case basis.
  • Annual financial and actuarial information reporting for certain large underfunded plans, missed contributions or funding waivers may be extended on a case-by-case basis.
  • If information is requested under an allowable extension of a Form 5500 filing date, and the Form 5500 is eligible for a filing extension under the IRS guidance for Hurricane Sandy, the allowable extension will commence on the last day of the qualified disaster extended deadline.
  • Requests for reconsiderations or appeals are extended through the PBGC disaster relief period.
  • Multiemployer plans’ premium deadlines will be extended as described above.  The PBGC will not assess a penalty or take enforcement action for the failure to comply with multiemployer plan deadlines during the PBGC disaster relief period.

All employers with employees and operations impacted by Hurricane Sandy directly or indirectly should take immediate action to review the relief available for their businesses and employees.

For further information on employment considerations for qualified disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, please see our client advisory entitled HR Guide for Employers – Responding to Natural Disasters.

Acquirers of businesses often prefer to buy the assets of a seller, rather than the stock, to avoid assuming the seller’s liabilities.  Indeed,  the general common law rule is that a purchaser of assets does not assume the seller’s liabilities absent an agreement to do so, fraud or other inequitable conduct between the parties, whereas in a stock sale, the buyer steps into the shoes of the seller and assumes all assets and liabilities of the seller.  In an asset sale, the seller, in turn, would typically use part or all of the sale proceeds to pay its liabilities.  During the pre-sale due diligence process, the parties typically exchange information about themselves including, most importantly, information concerning the seller’s assets, actual and potential liabilities and claims, employee and employee benefits information and so on, and the acquirer often hires many of the seller’s employees in order to carry on the business.

Unwittingly, however, asset purchasers may, under recent decisions, actually assume liability for ERISA and other employment-related liabilities and claims despite an intention to the contrary.  Federal circuit and district courts have departed from the general rule and expanded liability under the federal common law successorship doctrine.  For example, in a 2011 decision in Einhorn v. M.L. Ruberton Construction Co., 632 F. 3d 89 (3d Cir. 2011), Ruberton agreed to purchase assets and hire employees of Statewide, a construction contractor.  Ruberton took over several of Statewide existing projects as well.   Under two collective bargaining agreements, Statewide was delinquent in making employee benefit contributions  to a union’s pension and welfare funds and, as part of a deal struck among the parties and the union, Statewide agreed to remit the payments owed to the funds. After the sale closed, Statewide defaulted, and the funds’ administrator sued Ruberton to recover the delinquent funds contributions.  See Reed v. EnviroTech Remediation Services, Inc. et. al., Civ. No. 09-1976 (D. Minn. July 1, 2011).

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals applied the successorship doctrine to hold Ruberton liable for Statewide’s debts to the ERISA funds to “vindicate important federal statutory policy” and because Ruberton had notice of the liability prior to sale and there was sufficient continuity of Statewide’s operations after the sale.  Id. at 99.  This same rationale has been used to hold an asset purchaser liable for claims of employment discrimination, FLSA wage and hour claims, and claims of unfair labor practices under the National Labor Relations Act brought against the seller of which the purchaser was aware at the time of sale.  See Brzozowski v. Correctional Physician Services, 360 F. 3d 173 (3d Cir. 2004) ; Steinbach v. Hubbard, 51 F. 3d 843 (9th Cir. 1995) ; Golden State Bottling Co., 414 U.S. 168 (1973) .

The bottom line:  Buyer beware if you are or may be a  “successor” to the seller!  Asset purchasers must pay careful attention to due diligence information and understand that they may be unable to legally avoid responsibility for ERISA and other employment/labor-related claims and liabilities of the seller.   In order to best protect themselves against what happened to Ruberton and others in the cases discussed above, these issues must be factored into the negotiations of the purchase price, indemnification obligations, mandatory payments, reserves, and other terms of the deal.