What’s the Impact of 2017 IRS Retirement Plan Limits?

The IRS just announced the 2017 retirement plan benefit limits, and there are some notable changes from 2016. What does it all mean for employer-sponsored retirement plans? Here is a table summarizing the primary benefit limits, followed by our analysis of the practical effects for both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans.

Qualified Plan Limit 2015 2016 2017
415 maximum DC plan annual addition $53,000 $53,000 $54,000
Maximum 401(k) annual deferral $18,000 $18,000 $18,000
Maximum 50+ catch-up contribution $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
415 maximum DB “dollar” limit $210,000 $210,000 $215,000
Highly compensated employee (HCE) threshold $120,000 $120,000 $120,000
401(a)(17) compensation limit $265,000 $265,000 $270,000
Social Security Taxable Wage Base $118,500 $118,500 $127,200

 

Changes affecting both DB and DC plans

  • Qualified compensation limit increases to $270,000. High-paid participants will now have more of their compensation “counted” towards qualified plan benefits and less towards non-qualified plans. This could also help plans’ nondiscrimination testing if the ratio of benefits to compensation decreases.
  • HCE compensation threshold remains at $120,000. For calendar year plans, this will first affect 2018 HCE designations because $120,000 will be the threshold for the 2017 “lookback” year. When the HCE compensation threshold doesn’t increase to keep pace with employee salary increases, employers may find that more of their employees become classified as HCEs. This could have two direct outcomes:
    • Plans may see marginally worse nondiscrimination testing results (including ADP results) if more employees with large deferrals or benefits become HCEs. It could make a big difference for plans that were previously close to failing the tests.
    • More HCEs means that there are more participants who must receive 401(k) deferral refunds if the plan fails the ADP test.

DC-specific increases and their significance

  • The annual DC 415 limit increases from $53,000 to $54,000 and the 401(k) deferral limit remains at $18,000. A $1,000 increase in the overall DC 415 limit may not seem like much, but it will allow participants to get a little more “bang” out of their DC plan. Since the deferral limit didn’t increase, this means that any additional DC benefits will have to come from higher employer contributions. Individuals can now receive up to $36,000 from match and profit sharing contributions ($54K – $18K).
  • 401(k) “catch-up” limit remains at $6,000. Participants age 50 or older still get a $6,000 catch-up opportunity in the 401(k) plan, which means they can effectively get a maximum DC deduction of $60,000 ($54K + $6K).

DB-specific increases and their significance

  • DB 415 maximum benefit limit (the “dollar” limit) increases to $215,000. This limit finally increased after being static for three straight years. The primary impact is that individuals who have very large DB benefits (say, shareholders in a professional firm cash balance plan) could see a deduction increase if their benefits were previously constrained by the 415 dollar limit.
  • Social Security Taxable Wage Base increases to $127,200. This is a big jump from the prior $118K limit and effectively reflects two years of indexing (the limit couldn’t increase last year because the Social Security COLA was 0% and caps the wage base increase rate). With regards to qualified retirement benefits, a higher wage base can slightly reduce the rate of pension accruals for highly-paid participants in integrated pension plans that provide higher accrual rates above the wage base.

False alarm! IRS withdraws controversial proposed cross-testing regulation provisions

A couple of months ago, the IRS proposed some changes to the §1.401(a)(4) nondiscrimination testing regulations.  On Thursday, they withdrew the part of those proposed regulations that was bad news for plan sponsors, as noted in our prior post.

We are pleased the IRS has reconsidered the unintended consequences benefit formula restrictions and “facts and circumstances” based determinations could have on employers’ willingness to sponsor qualified retirement plans.

Surprises in the proposed cross-testing regulations

surprised face

On January 29th, the IRS proposed revisions to the nondiscrimination testing regulations of §1.401(a)(4).  The title of proposed regulations (and most of the attention generated by them) is focused on the relief for closed defined benefit (DB) plans.  This post summarizes the proposed changes that would affect more than just closed DB plans.  Most of them are beneficial to plan sponsors, but one is not.

 

The bad news – benefit formula restrictions

The biggest surprise is a proposed restriction in setting different benefit levels for different participant groups.

Currently, plans can generally separate the participant population into groups with different benefit levels/formulas as desired, so long the plan is doesn’t disproportionately favor Highly Compensation Employees (HCEs) relative to non-HCES.  Plans can even go so far as to separate each plan participant into his or her own “group”.

The proposed regulations would require HCEs’ benefit formulas to apply to a “Reasonable Classification” of employees*.  This is a “facts and circumstances” determination.  §1.410(b)-4(b) states that “reasonable classifications generally include specified job categories, nature of compensation (i.e. salaried or hourly), geographic location, and similar business criteria”.  Picking participants by name (or in a way that effectively does that) is not considered a reasonable classification.

This is an important issue for plans that allow each participant to have a separate benefit level and rely of the Average Benefit Test to satisfy §1.401(a)(4).  Other plans may need to consider if their benefit groups are a reasonable classification.

*Unless the rate group satisfies the Ratio Percentage Test.

 

The good news – cross-testing gateways for aggregated DB/DC plans

The favorable part of the proposed regulations is more flexibility in combining DB and DC plans for nondiscrimination testing.  These proposed changes were suggested by the IRS in Notice 2014-5, so they aren’t a surprise to those that have kept up with the IRS’s previous relief efforts for closed DB plans.  However, those suggestions haven’t got much attention so they are good news for many.

Plans must pass through a “gateway” before aggregating DC and DB plans in a cross-test.  A cross-test is generally much more favorable than testing each plan separately.  The currently available gateways are:

  1. The DB/DC plan is “primarily defined benefit in character”
  2. The DB/DC plans consist of broadly available separate plans
  3. The DB/DC plan provides a minimum allocation to all benefitting non-HCEs

 

The proposed regulations would expand the DB/DC gateway options in three ways:

1.  New gateway: The proposed regulations would add another gateway – passing the cross-test test with a 6% interest rate (rather than the standard 7½% to 8½%). While the DB/DC would technically still need to pass the cross-test with a standard interest rate, this option could practically eliminate the gateway requirement for DB/DC plans that can pass with 6% interest.

2.  Matching contributions use: The proposed regulations would allow the average matching contribution for non-HCEs (up to 3% of pay) to count toward the DB/DC minimum allocation gateway. Matching contributions would still not be included in the cross-test.

3.  Option to average DC allocation rates: Current rules allow DB allocation rates for non-HCEs to be averaged for satisfying the minimum allocation gateway. The proposed regulations would allow the same treatment for DC allocation rates.  The purpose of this change is to allow plans to provide lower allocation rates for those with less service by providing higher rates to those with more service.

The IRS notes that they’re considering if restrictions on this option are needed to ensure it is used as intended, and not as another technique for minimizing non-HCE benefits.  The proposed regulations would also limit averaging of DB and DC rates to reduce the impact of outliers.

 

Many plans that satisfy the §1.401(a)(4) requirements with a general test will need or want to revisit their benefit formula design if these proposed regulations become final.  There is sure to be a lot of resistance to the benefit formula restrictions, so the regulations may not be finalized as proposed.  If you would like to send comments on the proposed regulations you can do so until April 28, 2016.

Plan sponsors may apply the proposed regulations specific to closed DB plans right away, but may not use the flexibility of the other proposed cross-testing rules until they are finalized.  We encourage you to contact your actuary if you have questions about how these proposed rules would affect your plan.

What’s the Impact of 2016 IRS Retirement Plan Limits?

The IRS just announced the 2016 retirement plan benefit limits, and there are virtually no changes from 2015. What does it all mean for employer-sponsored retirement plans? Below is a table summarizing the primary benefit limits, followed by our analysis of the practical effects for both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans.

Qualified Plan Limit 2015 2016
415 maximum DC plan annual addition $53,000 $53,000
Maximum 401(k) annual deferral $18,000 $18,000
Maximum 50+ catch-up contribution $6,000 $6,000
415 maximum DB “dollar” limit $210,000 $210,000
Highly compensated employee (HCE) threshold $120,000 $120,000
401(a)(17) compensation limit $265,000 $265,000
Social Security Taxable Wage Base $118,500 $118,500

 

Changes affecting both DB and DC plans

  • Qualified compensation limit remains at $265,000. A flat qualified compensation limit could have several consequences. These include:
    • More compensation counted towards SERP excess benefits if a participant’s total compensation (above the threshold) increases in 2016.
    • Lower-than-expected qualified pension plan accruals for participants whose pay is capped at the 401(a)(17) limit and were hoping for an increase.
  • HCE compensation threshold remains at $120,000. For calendar year plans, this will first affect 2017 HCE designations because $120,000 will be the threshold for the 2016 “lookback” year. When the HCE compensation threshold doesn’t increase to keep pace with employee salary increases, employers may find that more of their employees become classified as HCEs. This could have two direct outcomes:
    • Plans may see marginally worse nondiscrimination testing results (including ADP results) if more employees with large deferrals or benefits become HCEs. It could make a big difference for plans that were previously close to failing the tests.
    • More HCEs means that there are more participants who must receive 401(k) deferral refunds if the plan fails the ADP test.

DC-specific increases and their significance

  • The annual DC 415 limit remains at $53,000 and the 401(k) deferral limit remains at $18,000. Although neither of these limits has increased to allow higher contributions, it should make administering the plan a little easier in 2016 since there are no adjustments to communicate or deal with. Since the 401(k) deferral limit counts towards the total DC limit, this means that an individual could potentially get up to $35,000 from profit sharing ($53K – $18K) if they maximize their DC plan deductions.
  • 401(k) “catch-up” limit remains at $6,000. Participants age 50 or older still get a $6,000 catch-up opportunity in the 401(k) plan, which means they can effectively get a maximum DC deduction of $59,000 ($53K + $6K).

DB-specific increases and their significance

  • DB 415 maximum benefit limit (the “dollar” limit) remains at $210,000. This limit remained unchanged for a third straight year, which may constrain individuals with very large DB benefits (e.g., shareholders in a professional firm cash balance plan) who were looking forward to increasing their DB plan contributions/deductions.
  • Social Security Taxable Wage Base remains at $118,500. When this limit increases, it can have the effect of reducing benefit accruals for highly-paid participants in integrated pension plans that provide higher accrual rates above the wage base. When the wage based remains unchanged (like this year), it means that these individuals’ accruals may be higher-than-expected if their total compensation (above the wage base) continues to increase.

 

What’s the Impact of 2015 IRS Retirement Plan Limits?

The IRS just announced the 2015 retirement plan benefit limits and we’re seeing some modest increases from 2014. What does it all mean for employer-sponsored retirement plans? This post analyzes the practical effects for both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans, followed by a table summarizing the limit changes.

Changes affecting both DB and DC plans

  • Qualified compensation limit increases from $260,000 to $265,000. Highly-paid participants will now have more of their compensation “counted” towards qualified plan benefits and less towards non-qualified plans. This helps for both nondiscrimination testing as well as for benefits.
  • HCE compensation threshold increases from $115,000 to $120,000. For calendar year plans, this will first affect 2016 HCE designations because $120,000 will be the threshold for the 2015 “lookback” year. Slightly fewer participants will meet the new HCE compensation criteria, which will have two direct outcomes:
  • Plans may see better nondiscrimination testing results (including ADP results) if there are fewer participants at the low end of the HCE range, especially those with big deferrals. It could make a big difference for plans that were close to failing the tests.
  • Fewer HCEs means that there are fewer participants who must receive 401(k) deferral refunds if the plan fails the ADP test.

DC-specific increases and their significance

  • The annual DC 415 limit increases from $52,000 to $53,000 and the 401(k) deferral limit increases from $17,500 to $18,000. A $1,000 increase to the overall DC limit and $500 increase to the deferral limit may not seem like much, but it will allow participants to get a little more “bang” out of their DC plan. This means that individuals can get up to $35,000 from employer match and profit sharing ($53K – $18K) if they maximize their 401(k) deferrals. Previously, their profit sharing limit would have been $34,500 ($52K – $17.5K).

Preview of 2014 Lump Sum Interest Rates

As mentioned in our July lump sum interest rate post, many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are considering lump sum payouts to their terminated vested participants as a way of “right-sizing” their plan. The ultimate goal is to reduce plan costs and risk. The IRS recently released the November 2013 417(e) rates, which will be the 2014 reference rates for many DB plans. This post shares a brief update of the impact these rates could have on 2014 lump sum payout strategies.

Background
DB plans generally must pay lump sum benefits using the larger of two plan factors:

(1)  The plan’s actuarial equivalence; or
(2)  The 417(e) minimum lump sum rates.

Since interest rates have been so low over the past few years, the 417(e) rates are usually the lump sum basis. In particular, 2013 lump sums were abnormally expensive due to historically low interest rates at the end of 2012 (the reference rates for 2013 lump sum calculations). This is because lump sum values increase as interest rates decrease and vice versa.

Effect of Interest Rate Changes
For calendar year plans, the lookback month for the 417(e) rates is often a couple of months before the start of the plan year. Here’s a comparison of the November 2012 rates (for 2013 payouts) versus the November 2013 rates (for 2014 payouts).

November 2013 segment rate table

As we can see, all three segments have increased substantially since last November. So, what’s the potential impact on lump sum payments? The table and chart below show the difference in lump sum value at sample ages assuming payment of deferred-to-65 benefits using the November 2012 and November 2013 417(e) interest rates.

November 2013 lump sum chart

November 2013 lump sum table

Note: If we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2014 (and thus one fewer years of discounting), then this decreases the savings by about 5% at most ages.

Lump Sum Strategies
So, what else should plan sponsors consider?

1. If you haven’t already considered a lump sum payout window, the 2014 lump sum rates may make this option much more affordable than in 2013.

2. With the scheduled increase in PBGC flat-rate and variable-rate premiums due to MAP-21 (plus the proposed additional premium increases in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013) there’s an incentive to “right-size” a pension plan to reduce the long-term cost of PBGC premiums.

3. In addition to lump sum payout programs, plan sponsors should consider annuity purchases and additional plan funding as ways to reduce long-term plan costs/risks

What’s the Impact of 2014 IRS Retirement Plan Limits?

The IRS just announced the 2014 retirement plan benefit limits and we’re seeing some modest increases from 2013. What does it all mean for employer-sponsored retirement plans? This post analyzes the practical effects for both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans, followed by a table summarizing the limit changes.

Changes affecting both DB and DC plans

  • Qualified compensation limit increases from $255,000 to $260,000. Highly-paid participants will now have more of their compensation “counted” towards qualified plan benefits and less towards non-qualified plans. This helps for both nondiscrimination testing as well as for benefits.
  • HCE compensation threshold remains at $115,000. For calendar year plans, this will first affect 2015 HCE designations because $115,000 will be the threshold for the 2014 “lookback” year. When the HCE compensation threshold doesn’t increase to keep pace with employee salary increases, employers may find that more of their well-paid employees become classified as HCEs. Eventually, this could have two direct outcomes:
  • Plans may see marginally worse nondiscrimination testing results (including ADP results) if more employees with large deferrals or benefits become HCEs. It could make a big difference for plans that were close to failing the tests.
  • More HCEs means that there are more participants who must receive 401(k) deferral refunds if the plan fails the ADP test.

DC-specific increases and their significance

  • The annual DC 415 limit increases from $51,000 to $52,000 but the individual 401(k) deferral limit remains unchanged at $17,500. A $1,000 increase to the overall DC limit will allow participants to potentially get a little more “bang” out of their DC plan – at least if their employer wants to give them more money.

Since the 401(k) deferral limit counts towards the total DC limit, this means that an individual could potentially get up to $34,500 from employer profit sharing ($52K – $17.5K). Previously, their profit sharing limit would have been $33,500 ($51K – $17.5K).

Lump Sum Interest Rate Update – June 2013

Many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are considering lump sum payouts to their terminated vested participants as a way of reducing plan costs and risk. This post shares a brief update of the interest rates used to calculate deferred vested lump sums and the impact it could have on potential lump sum payout strategies.

Background
DB plans generally must pay lump sum benefits using the larger of two plan factors:

(1)  the plan’s actuarial equivalence; or
(2)  the 417(e) minimum lump sum rates.

Since interest rates have been so low over the past few years, the 417(e) rates are usually the lump sum basis. This means that lump sums are at historically high levels since lump sum values increase as interest rates decrease (and vice versa). Plan sponsors need to consider whether the recent increase in 417(e) interest rates will materially decrease lump sum values and make it worthwhile to postpone a lump sum program until 2014 if it means that lump sums will be “cheaper” then.

Effect of Preliminary Interest Rate Changes
For calendar year plans, the lookback month for the 417(e) rates is often a couple of months before the start of the plan year (e.g., the November rates). Here’s a brief comparison of the November 2012 rates (for 2013 payouts) versus the June 2013 rates (i.e., what rates might look like for 2014 payouts).

June 2013 segment rate table

As we can see, all three segments have increased since last November. So, what’s the potential impact on lump sum payments? The table and chart below show the difference in lump sum value at sample ages assuming payment of deferred-to-65 benefits using the November 2012 and June 2013 417(e) interest rates.

June 2013 lump sum chart

June 2013 lump sum table

Note: If we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2014 (and thus one fewer years of discounting), then this decreases the savings by about 5% at most ages.

Lump Sum Strategies
So, what should plan sponsors consider?

1. If you’re in the process of implementing a 2013 lump sum payout window for terminated vested participants, you may want to consider the potential savings of waiting until 2014 to pay benefits.

2. There’s no guarantee that interest rates will remain higher until your plan locks-in its lump sum rates later this year. Rates could go up or down, so you’ll need to consider whether you can handle the risk and cost if interest rates go back down and lump sum values increase.

3. Even if you’ve started the process of preparing for a 2013 lump sum window, it’s not a wasted effort if you decide to wait until 2014. Work spent tracking down missing participants, finalizing accrued benefit calculations, and drafting plan amendments needs to be done anyways. However, you’ll want to set a firm “go” or “wait” deadline so there’s enough time to complete the project in 2013 if you desire.

Small Closed DB Plans Need to Monitor §401(a)(26) Status

Strategy blocksIn last week’s blog post covering nondiscrimination testing pitfalls for soft-frozen pension plans, we discussed how defined benefit (DB) plans that are closed to new participants can run afoul of the IRC §410(b) minimum coverage rules. Today’s post discusses how small DB plans closed to new entrants can also have difficulties passing the IRC §401(a)(26) minimum participation test.

Background
IRC §401(a)(26) requires that a minimum number of employees receive a “meaningful” benefit from a DB pension plan. Like §410(b), this is intended to prevent an employer from setting up a plan that only benefits a few highly compensated employees (HCEs) while the remaining staff receive minimal or no benefits.

Specifically, §401(a)(26) requires that the number of benefiting employees be equal to the smaller of:

1. 50 employees; or

2. The larger of (a) 40% of employees or (b) 2 employees

For most medium and large-sized pension plans, achieving the 50 employee threshold is easy and §401(a)(26) doesn’t pose an immediate concern. However, small employers can quickly run into §401(a)(26) difficulties because a small change in the number of DB plan members can have a large impact on whether 40% of employees are benefiting in the plan.

Example
Suppose Company A has 50 employees and sponsors a DB plan that was closed to new entrants in 2008. The number of employees covered under the DB plan has steadily shrunk due to natural turnover and there are currently only 22 employees earning benefits in the DB plan. This means that if 5 new employees are hired (55 x 40% = 22) or if 2 current DB participants retire (50 x 40% = 20), then the plan would be on the verge of failing the §401(a)(26) minimum participation test.

Strategies
So, what should sponsors of small pension plans do if faced with a §401(a)(26) failure? There are no alternative testing options, so the solutions are very similar to the plan changes that can solve a §410(b) failure.

1. Freeze DB accruals for HCEs

2. Freeze DB accruals for all employees

3. Add new participants to the DB plan

Note that Option #1 is only available if (A) the plan is not top-heavy and (B) the plan is not aggregated with any other retirement plans in order to pass other nondiscrimination tests. Most employers will likely choose option #1 or #2.

Since the demographics of small DB plans can change quickly, it’s imperative that plan sponsors monitor their §401(a)(26).status closely each year. Advance planning is the key to avoiding unpleasant corrective measures such as having to add new participants to the plan retroactively.

Beware Nondiscrimination Pitfalls for Frozen Pension Plans

pitfall-signMany defined benefit (DB) pension plans were closed to new entrants over the past several years. Oftentimes, these plan closures were done with a focus on short-term cost control without understanding some of the long-term compliance implications.

Then, one day, the plan sponsor gets an unwelcome surprise from their actuary – their DB plan is failing the IRS’ nondiscrimination tests! How can this happen – particularly if the DB plan is a “safe harbor” formula that has never needed nondiscrimination testing before?

This post explores how closed DB plans are increasingly faced with IRS nondiscrimination testing compliance issues and suggests some strategies for dealing with this situation.

Background
IRC §410(b) requires that a tax-qualified retirement plan “cover” a nondiscriminatory group of employees. In other words you can’t set up a retirement plan that benefits only highly compensated employees (HCEs) – that’s unfair and you need to include some non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs) too.

§410(b) coverage testing is generally a non-issue as long as a DB plan is open to all employees. However, once a DB plan is closed to new entrants, there will eventually be enough staff turnover so that only a fraction of an employer’s total employee group participates in the DB plan. If this grandfathered group is composed of proportionately more HCEs than NHCEs (which happens when there is higher turnover among the NHCEs), then the DB plan will run into §410(b) testing problems.

Technical Details
There are two ways to prove compliance with §410(b) minimum coverage requirements.

1. Ratio Percentage Test (RPT). This is the most straightforward §410(b) testing option. In this test, A divided by B must be at least 70% where:

A = # of NHCEs in the DB plan divided by the total number of NHCEs, and

B = # of HCEs in the DB plan divided by the total number of HCEs.

Note that “total” NHCEs and HCEs includes all employees who would otherwise meet the DB plan’s age and service eligibility requirements.

2. Average Benefits Test (ABT). When you can’t pass the RPT, you must tackle the Average Benefits Test. This is a multi-step process that focuses on the relative disparity of retirement benefits provided to NHCEs versus HCEs. I won’t go into all of the gory details here, but suffice to say that this is a numerically-intensive test and includes benefits provided by ALL of the employer’s retirement plans. If you can pass this test, then your frozen DB plan satisfies the IRS’ §410(b) minimum coverage requirements.

Example
Suppose Company A has 1,000 employees (900 NHCEs and 100 HCEs) and sponsors a DB plan that was closed to new entrants in 2008. The employer still has a total of 1,000 employees (900 NHCEs and 100 HCEs), but the number of employees covered under the DB plan has steadily shrunk due to natural turnover. There are now only 550 NHCEs and 90 HCEs in the DB plan. Their RPT result is: (550/900) / (90/100) = 67.9% which is below the 70% passing threshold.

In this case, the plan sponsor would need to complete an ABT in order to satisfy the §410(b) nondiscrimination rules.

Forewarned is Forearmed
So, what should plan sponsors do if faced with a potential §410(b) failure? Advance planning is the key to avoiding unpleasant corrective measures. Here are a few options:

1. Have your actuary complete a ratio percentage test, especially if you are in a high-turnover industry. This will help you see how close you are to the passing threshold and will suggest how long you have until the DB plan no longer passes the RPT.

2. If your DB plan is close to failing the RPT, have your actuary run an ABT to make sure that it provides passing results and is a viable back-up to the RPT.

3. If the DB plan’s ABT results are marginal as well, then you should consider some contingency plan design options. These include:

– Freezing DB accruals for HCEs
– Freezing DB accruals for all employees
– Adding new participants to the DB plan

Options #1 and #2 are likely the most agreeable. Very few sponsors who have closed their DB plan ever intend to open it up again like Option #3. Whatever your decision, it helps to be familiar with your options ahead of time so that you can address nondiscrimination testing issues quickly when they arise.

Closed DB plans face special challenges with respect to IRS nondiscrimination testing. Although these issues may emerge slowly over time, plan sponsors should be aware of the consequences and develop a strategy to maintain compliance with IRC §410(b) minimum coverage requirements.