Employee Benefits Law Report

Proposed tax bill would make big changes to (and create new opportunities for) executive compensation

Three games into the 2014 National Football League season, the Green Bay Packers had a 1-2 record. Fans were panicking. Many were questioning whether the Packers and its quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, were doomed to have a bad season. Rodgers responded with a simple message for fans: “R-E-L-A-X”. The Packers redoubled their efforts and made the playoffs that year, showing that the initial panic was rather silly. A similar scenario could be playing out with respect to the nonqualified deferred compensation and other executive compensation provisions of the recently proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the Proposed Act). Some of the initial commentary is expressing some concern that the proposed Act could spell the end of traditional deferred compensation arrangements. This reaction seems a bit premature. One reason is that the Proposed Act still has a number of hurdles to clear before becoming law, and the final law could have different terms from the current Proposed Act. Another reason is that even if the Proposed Act’s deferred compensation terms remain unchanged, employers will still have opportunities to create deferred compensation arrangements for key executives (although they may have to be more creative). So, let’s take a deep breath and explore the three main executive compensation changes in the Proposed Act. Continue Reading

Federal disaster relief available to employees in aftermath of natural disasters

Natural forces wreaked havoc on a number of states and territories this fall when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall. The federal government sprang into action by making disaster declarations for affected areas to provide aid in the aftermath of these tragic events. More recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared parts of northern California to be major disaster areas, due to highly destructive wildfires that ravaged parts of the state. In the wake of these disasters, employers are asking how they can help their employees and their communities.

Fortunately, there are options available to companies making an effort to provide assistance to their employees. First, companies may provide direct payments to employees and others affected by federally declared disaster areas on a tax-free basis. Amounts employers give to cover reasonable and necessary personal or living expenses of individuals impacted by one of the federally declared disasters are considered “qualified disaster relief payments.” The qualified disaster relief payments are excludable from the employee’s gross income. The tax-free treatment applies whether an employer pays for expenses directly or reimburses the individual. Continue Reading

Are the ERISA disability claims procedure regulations going to be delayed? How qualified and nonqualified plan sponsors should respond to the latest guidance

While the fiduciary rule has received most of the attention in the world of ERISA as of late, a lesser known regulation that was finalized late last year also may require action by plan sponsors. This regulation , issued by the Department of Labor (DOL) in December 2016, requires applicable plans to satisfy additional procedural and notice requirements for disability claims. As a result, disability claims procedures will become more aligned with the claims and appeals procedures that govern group health plans under the Affordable Care Act. Or so we thought.

On July 20, 2017, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) and the DOL announced that they will be reviewing the disability benefit claim and appeal regulations “for questions of law and policy.”

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The “final” countdown: DOL fiduciary rule still applies June 9, 2017

Much has been written to speculate what may become of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule. Recently, the DOL issued a FAQ confirming that the new fiduciary rule will become effective June 9, 2017. Transition exemptions that were previously announced also will go into effect on that date. The DOL also issued non-enforcement guidance that should help mitigate the risk of litigation against fiduciaries who make a good faith attempt to comply with the new rule and applicable prohibited transaction exemptions during the transition period ending on Jan. 1, 2018.

The phased implementation can seem confusing. The bottom line is that many advisers who may not have been fiduciaries in the past will become fiduciaries starting on June 9, 2017. That includes advisers who give recommendations to ERISA plan participants to rollover their accounts to IRAs. Based on common compensation practices, they may need to adhere to requirements of a prohibited transaction exemption starting on that date as well. Until further notice is given, additional requirements (anti-conflicts policies, disclosures, and representations and warranties) for an exemption will apply beginning on Jan. 1, 2018.

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Will the DOL continue to make ESOPs a compliance priority?

One question that has been on the minds of plan sponsors is how aggressive the Department of Labor (DOL) under President Trump will be compared to that of President Obama. In recent years, the DOL made a priority of investigating ERISA fiduciary issues, with a particular focus on employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). After the DOL delayed the effective date of the ERISA fiduciary rule, some commentators speculated as to whether the DOL would scale back its priority on reviewing and auditing ESOPs. A recently filed case (Acosta v. Reliance Trust Co., Inc. , E.D.N.C., No. 5:17-cv-00214, complaint filed 5/4/17), however, suggests that the DOL may continue to make a priority out of investigating potential abuses in ESOP transactions. As such, employers who are considering the adoption of the ESOP should be mindful of putting together an experienced team to guide them through the fiduciary issues. In particular, it is critical for the trustee of an ESOP to hire an independent appraiser that has not performed a preliminary ESOP feasibility study for the company, and the trustee and other fiduciaries of the ESOP should be engaged with the due diligence process.

As background, ERISA fiduciaries have a duty to act solely in the best interest of plan participants and beneficiaries. Continue Reading

ERISA fiduciary rule delayed to June 9, 2017, with bonus transition relief through 2017

Today (April 7, 2017), the Department of Labor (DOL) published in the Federal Register a final rule delaying the new ERISA fiduciary rule until June 9, 2017. Everyone expected a comprehensive 60-day delay to the rule, including the related Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) and other prohibited transaction exemptions (PTE). But, in welcome news to many, the rule also provided a significant transition period until 2018 for the more onerous requirements of the BICE, PTE 84-24 and other prohibited transaction exemptions. Here is a quick run-down of the more significant aspects of the delay: Continue Reading

Hurry up and wait: ERISA fiduciary rule delayed

While it took longer than many expected, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a proposed rule that would provide a 60-day delay to the application of the new fiduciary rule and related prohibited transaction exemptions. As we reported in our previous blog, the rule was set to impose new fiduciary obligations on those who provide participant investment advice, which would have a trickle-down effect on the sponsors of qualified retirement plans in which those individuals participate. In anticipation of the original April 10, 2017 applicability date, many service providers and plan sponsors have already taken significant steps towards compliance.

While the proposed delay is welcome news for many, it does not provide any real guarantees on the fate or future of the fiduciary rule. The comment period for the proposed delay ends on March 17, 2017. After the DOL receives comments, it will likely issue a final regulation that will delay the fiduciary rule for a period of time while the DOL continues to decide whether to pursue revisions, or even a complete revocation, of the fiduciary rule. In other words, final guidance delaying the fiduciary rule would likely not be issued until fairly close to the original April 10, 2017 applicability date. And any substantive changes to the rule would likely come at an even later date. This puts service providers and plan sponsors in the uncomfortable position of having to continue on their current course to compliance, while taking a parallel path focused on influencing the final structure (or possibly complete revocation) of the rule.

To be continued…

2017’s fiduciary rules are near. Are plan sponsors ready?

In the plan sponsor and financial adviser community, as 2016 gives way to 2017, all eyes will be on the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule. As we blogged previously, the new rule will impose many new obligations on advisers, and plan sponsors also will have to be mindful of how these changes affect their relationships with their advisers. We have seen some articles that speculate that the new administration may delay or weaken, if not repeal, these new regulations. As we publish this blog, there already has been a bill introduced in the new Congress to delay the effective date of these rules for two more years. Yet, we believe that whether the new rules are delayed, weakened, or left intact is largely irrelevant. The attention that the new rule has received has created such a focus and interest on fees, conflicts of interest, and the value that financial advisers provide to their clients that plan sponsors need to demonstrate now more than ever why the services their advisers provider are in the best interest of their participants.

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IRS issues proposed Code Section 409A regulations clarifying many nonqualified deferred compensation plan issues

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently published proposed regulations under Internal Revenue Code Section 409A. The proposed regulations clarify 19 policy items addressed in the final regulations published in 2007 and also in proposed income inclusion regulations published in 2008. These clarifications generally are not surprising, and we do not expect that employers will need to take any immediate action in response to these proposed regulations. This blog will highlight some of the clarifications that we believe employers may find particularly interesting. In a future blog, we will describe a related set of proposed regulations that the IRS also published under Code Section 457 that affect only tax-exempt and governmental employers. Continue Reading

Final fiduciary rule creates implications for plan sponsors and financial advisers

After a drawn out and controversial regulatory review process, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) on April 6, 2016, issued final guidance that expands the definition of a “fiduciary” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code regarding persons or entities that render investment advice for compensation, received directly or indirectly, with respect to assets held in retirement plans or individual retirement accounts (IRA). This rule replaces the original fiduciary rules that were adopted in 1975 shortly after ERISA was enacted, and reflects the DOL’s belief that the retirement industry has evolved significantly since then considering the explosive growth in participant-directed 401(k) plans and in IRA’s nationwide. The rule extends the fiduciary standard contained in ERISA to investment advisers who until now have not been required to adhere to those standards or to contend with ERISA’s related prohibited transaction rules. While the final rule retains the basic structure and approach as the DOL’s proposed rule, which was released in 2015, the final rule includes significant changes and clarifications that the DOL hopes will make the rule more useable and will reduce compliance burdens. The scope of the DOL’s revisions suggests the agency carefully considered the extensive comments received in response to the proposed rule.

The final rule could threaten common arrangements that financial advisers have with ERISA-covered plans and IRAs under ERISA’s fiduciary duty rules or under related prohibited transaction rules. To provide relief, the DOL also released several related pieces of guidance, including:

  1. The final form of the new best interest contract exemption (BICE).
  2. An amendment to and a partial revocation of Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24.
  3. A mendments to Class Exemptions 75-1, 77-4, 80-83 and 83-1.

Upon the satisfaction of express conditions, the BICE provides conditional relief for common conflicted compensation arrangements, including commissions and revenue sharing, that advisers historically have received in connection with rendering investment advice. The BICE is available to both plans and IRAs and provides needed relief from the otherwise applicable prohibited transaction provisions in ERISA that would otherwise apply if a participant is deemed to be a fiduciary. The BICE outlines the steps to be taken in order to gain relief (as covered below, those necessary steps have been significantly streamlined in the final rule). The other pieces of guidance are aimed at allowing certain broker-dealers, insurance agents and other vendors that act as investment fiduciaries to continue to receive various forms of conflicted compensation that otherwise may be prohibited under ERISA.

While the final rule is aimed primarily at financial advisers, it also affects plan sponsors considerably. Plan sponsors need to review and understand the nature of the relationships they have with their advisers, including whether their advisers should be considered ERISA fiduciaries and whether the fees they pay their advisers are reasonable. Failure to do so could subject the plan sponsors to potential ERISA fiduciary violations. Moreover, plan sponsors should expect to receive new disclosures and amended contracts from their advisers. Continue Reading