Employers with “closed” DB pension plans (i.e., closed to new entrants, but benefits continue to accrue for existing participants) received another extension of nondiscrimination testing relief in IRS Notice 2016-57. This will help these employers demonstrate compliance with existing nondiscrimination testing rules while waiting for final regulations likely to be effective starting in 2018.
Closed DB pension plans often run into unintended nondiscrimination testing problems. Why? Generally there is higher turnover among non-highly compensated employees (NHCEs) vs. highly compensated employees (HCEs). The NHCEs positions are filled with new employees who are not eligible for the closed DB plan, so the DB plan gradually becomes “concentrated” with HCEs. This will eventually cause the plan to fail the nondiscrimination testing requirement that pension plans not cover a disproportionate share of HCEs.
The IRS acknowledged this unintended consequence with Notice 2014-5 which provided temporary relief for DB plans with a soft-freeze date prior to December 31, 2013. The relief applied to the 2014 and 2015 plan years and allowed aggregated nondiscrimination testing of DC plans and closed DB plans without having to pass the usual “gateway” requirements, as long as the DB plan passed testing on a standalone basis in 2013. This was a significant development because gateway allocations can be very expensive and require per-participant allocations of up to 7.5% of pay. The alternative was to freeze all DB plan accruals so that the coverage requirements no longer applied to the DB plan.
The relief in Notice 2014-5 was extended to the 2016 plan year in Notice 2015-28, and proposed regulations were issued on January 29, 2016. Since those regulations likely won’t be finalized and effective until the 2018 plan year, the IRS is now extending the temporary nondiscrimination testing relief for the 2017 plan year as well.
Although this relief is welcome news to plan sponsors, they should not lose sight of the fact the closed DB plan still needs to pass nondiscrimination testing when aggregated with the employer’s DC plan(s). This shouldn’t be a problem in most cases, unless the DB plan provides such large benefits to HCEs that the aggregated plans fail the 401(a)(4) benefits testing.
Sponsors of small and mid-sized closed DB plans should also keep in mind that eventually 401(a)(26) minimum participation requirements could become a problem. These rules require that the smaller of (a) 40% of active employees or (b) 50 active employees participate in the DB plan. In high turnover industries, those thresholds may not be far on the horizon.