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Jeffrey (Jeff) M. Holdvogt advises clients regarding a wide range of employee benefits matters. He focuses primarily on the design and administration of complex pension, defined contribution and executive deferred compensation arrangements. Jeff counsels privately and publicly held corporations on ongoing day-to-day retirement and executive compensation issues, as well as employee benefits design and transition matters arising from corporate mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. Read Jeff Holdvogt's full bio.

In late December, US Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Retirement Parity for Student Loans Act (Student Loan Act), which would allow employers to make matching contributions under 401(k), 403(b) and SIMPLE plans with respect to student loan repayments made by employees. If enacted, this legislation would provide powerful new guidance for employers looking to offer student-loan-repayment-related benefits to their employees.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released a groundbreaking private letter ruling (PLR) that helped to clear the way for employers to begin providing student loan repayment benefits as part of their 401(k) plans. More specifically, the PLR confirmed that, under certain circumstances, employers might be able to link the amount of employer contributions made on an employee’s behalf under a 401(k) plan to the amount of student loan repayments made by the employee outside the plan. However, the PLR only applied to the plan sponsor requesting the ruling and only addressed the specific issue and facts presented by the plan sponsor. As a result, although the PLR provided helpful guidance to employers, it also left many questions unanswered.

In response, many employers and industry groups have pushed for legislation that provides comprehensive guidance on how employers can and should structure student loan repayment benefits under their retirement plans. The Student Loan Act would address a number of the questions raised in response to the PLR and would provide employers more flexibility to offer student loan repayment benefits under their plans. In particular, the Student Loan Act would open the door for student loan repayments to be treated as elective deferrals under an employer’s plan and to qualify for corresponding matching contributions (rather than the special non-elective contributions described in the PLR). In addition, the Student Loan Act would clarify nondiscrimination testing requirements for student loan repayment benefits and address how student loan repayment benefits may be provided under not only traditional 401(k) plans, but also under safe harbor 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and SIMPLE plans.

The Student Loan Act is part of the broader Retirement Security & Savings Act, which has bipartisan backing. The prospects for enactment of the Student Loan Act and Retirement Security & Savings Act are uncertain. Nevertheless, the release of the Student Loan Act, and its inclusion as part of the Retirement Security & Savings Act, shows that legislators are responding to employer demand and industry group efforts to seek further clarification on how they can provide employees with student loan repayment benefits under their tax-qualified retirement plans.

On Friday, the IRS released a private letter ruling (PLR) which will help clear the way for employers to provide a new type of student loan repayment benefit as part of their 401(k) plans. By issuing the PLR, the IRS gave its blessing to an employer-provided student loan repayment benefit offered through an employer’s 401(k) plan. Historically, many plan sponsors had questioned whether such an approach would be permissible under IRS rules. As a result, the PLR provides welcome confirmation that such an arrangement is permissible under certain circumstances.

Generally speaking, the PLR confirmed that, under certain circumstances, employers may be able to link the amount of employer contributions made on an employee’s behalf under a 401(k) plan to the amount of student loan repayments made by the employee outside the plan. More specifically, as explained in our On the Subject published on Friday, the IRS concluded that an employer could make a non-elective contribution to its 401(k) plan where the amount of the non-elective contribution would be based on an employee’s total student loan repayments and would be contributed to the plan in lieu of the matching contributions that would otherwise be made to the plan had the employee made pre-tax, Roth 401(k) or after-tax contributions.

Because student loan benefit programs are becoming an increasingly powerful way for employers to attract and retain key talent, particularly employers with a young and educated workforce, the PLR will very likely cause many employers to consider offering a student loan benefit as part of their retirement program. Importantly, employers who wish to do so should take care to review their 401(k) plans for special rules, features or design elements (outside those discussed in the PLR) that might create additional hurdles to linking the amount of employer contributions made on an employee’s behalf under a 401(k) plan to the amount of student loan repayments made by the employee outside the plan. For example, some of the special rules that apply to safe harbor plans could limit an employer’s ability to create a similar student loan benefit structure.

For more information about this groundbreaking ruling, including the key features of the student loan benefit program described in the PLR, the advantages of such programs and other important considerations, please see our On the Subject published on Friday.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently released “Issue Snapshots” on a number of topics related to tax-qualified retirement plans, including both pension and savings plans. Historically, the snapshots have explained new(er) laws and guidance, and have often included audit tips for IRS examiners. As a result, although the IRS has indicated that the snapshots are not official pronouncements of law or directives, the snapshots provide helpful insight into issues that the IRS thinks merit further discussion or clarification. Therefore, the snapshots can be instructive for plan sponsors and plan administrators.

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On Monday, November 27, 2017, the Social Security Administration announced (announcement here) that the it is lowering the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax for 2018 to $128,400.  The Social Security Administration had previously announced the amount as $128,700.  The revision is the result of updated wage data reported to Social Security.  Our On The Subject article has been updated to reflect the lower amount.

The US Department of the Treasury recently issued guidance that retirement plan sponsors should consider as part of their obligation to take reasonable steps to locate missing participants. Specifically, the Treasury issued a memorandum which sets forth guidelines that prohibit auditors from challenging qualified plans as failing to satisfy the required minimum distribution standards under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 401(a)(9) if the plan has fulfilled all of the following with respect to participants that cannot be located:

  • Searched for alternative contact information in plan, plan sponsor and publicly available records for directories;
  • Used a commercial locator service, credit reporting agency or a proprietary internet search tool for locating individuals; and
  • Sent mail via United States Postal Service (USPS) certified mail to the last known mailing address and attempted contact “through appropriate means for any address or contact information,” which includes email addresses and telephone number.

The Treasury guidance is similar to, but also expands upon, prior guidance provided by the US Department of Labor, which addresses locating missing participants for terminated retirement plans.

Locating missing participants and beneficiaries can be challenging for plan sponsors. Many plan sponsors find that they are unable to locate participants who left employment many years prior and, as a result, are unable to make required minimum distributions. Both the IRS and Department of Labor have stepped up their enforcement of these requirements in recent years. In particular, the Department of Labor has made locating missing participants an enforcement priority for plan audits.

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The IRS recently issued new mortality tables for 2018, which will likely increase pension funding liabilities for many plan sponsors. Plan sponsors should consider options to delay the use of the new mortality tables for funding purposes, while large plan sponsors should consider the option to utilize plan-specific mortality tables instead.

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The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently announced the cost-of-living adjustments to the applicable dollar limits for various employer-sponsored retirement and welfare plans for 2018. Although some of the dollar limits currently in effect for 2017 will remain the same, the majority of the limits will experience minor increases for 2018.

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Since the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that sponsors of individually designed retirement plans may no longer receive a periodic determination letter, plan sponsors have faced uncertainty about how to demonstrate compliance for their retirement plans. Our McDermott Retirement Plan Compliance Program, a new opinion letter and operational review program for individually designed 401(a) and 403(b) retirement plans, will allow plan sponsors to document their plans’ compliance with tax code requirements in response to the curtailment of the IRS’ determination letter program.

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