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Joseph (Joe) K. Urwitz focuses his practice on employee benefits, executive compensation and Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary matters. He advises clients on a wide range of issues, including fiduciary duties and prohibited transactions, employee benefit matters arising in mergers and acquisitions, benefits issues unique to nonprofit entities, deferred compensation arrangements, equity award and bonus plan design, employment and severance arrangements, and qualified plan work. Read Joe Urwitz's full bio.

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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In early 2017, the IRS updated its Golden Parachute Payments Audit Technique Guide for the first time since its 2005 issuance. While intended as an internal reference for IRS agents conducting golden parachute examinations, the Audit Technique Guide offers valuable insight for both public and private companies, and recipients of golden parachute payments, into how IRS agents are likely to approach golden parachutes when conducting an audit.

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In a major victory for church-affiliated hospitals, the US Supreme Court overturned three appellate court rulings and decided unanimously that church-affiliated hospitals can maintain their pension plans as “church plans” exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), regardless of whether a church actually established the plan. Impacted health systems, and especially their management, should evaluate how best to document and demonstrate their common religious bonds and convictions with the church.

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The 2016 proposed regulations significantly expanded 457(f) plan sponsors’ ability to permit elective deferrals, use noncompetition agreements and make larger severance payments than otherwise permitted under 409A without immediate taxation to participants. In a recent presentation, Ruth Wimer, Mary Samsa and Joseph Urwitz discuss the surprising opportunities with respect to tax-exempt and governmental entities’ “ineligible nonqualified deferred compensation” arrangements in 2016 regulations. They also address the rules and limitations of the short-term deferral exception, the interaction of the 2016 regulations with existing regulations, other types of arrangements potentially affected, as well as best practices for employers.

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Multiple large, class action lawsuits have been filed against prominent higher education institutions claiming fiduciary breaches under their Code Section 403(b) plans as a result of insufficient oversight of plan investments, which allegedly caused excessive fees to be paid by participants. Last week, district courts in Georgia and North Carolina, respectively, ruled on defendants’ motions under Henderson v. Emory University and Clark v. Duke University. Although the defendants in these cases has some success in eliminating certain causes of action, other causes of actions involving the payment of excessive fees and use of multiple record-keepers will continue through litigation.

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Join members of the McDermott Employee Benefits team in May at one of these programs covering a variety of employee benefits topics.

The John Marshall Law School The Center for Tax Law & Employee Benefits 14th Annual Employee Benefits Symposium | May 1, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speaker, Joseph S. Adams

Proposed 457(f) Regulations: Opportunities and Challenges | May 3, 2017 | Webinar presented by Mary K. Samsa, Joseph K. Urwitz, Ruth Wimer

M&A Workshop: New Developments and Key Legal and Tax Issues Throughout the Life Cycle of a Deal | May 4, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speaker, Joseph S. Adams

Benefits Emerging Leaders Working Group | May 10, 2017 | Chicago, Illinois | Speakers, Lisa K. Loesel, Lisa Schmitz Mazur, Jacob M. Mattinson, Jeffrey Arnold, Sarah Raaii

There are numerous reasons why organizations exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c) (3), as amended (the “Code” and, such organizations, “Tax-Exempt Entities”) may offer severance payments to employees who incur involuntary terminations of employment. For example, severance that is conditioned on the departing employee’s execution of a release of claims in favor of the Tax-Exempt Entity can reduce the likelihood of costly and burdensome litigation. Similarly, payment of severance may reduce the risk of negative publicity for the Tax-Exempt Entity by diminishing resentment felt by departing employees. Severance may also help retain existing employees by providing them with a measure of economic security that can dissuade them from seeking alternative employment, particularly if they suspect that the Tax-Exempt Entity has encountered budgetary shortfalls and may be implementing near-term workforce reductions. For these and other reasons, many Tax-Exempt Entities have either implemented or are considering implementing severance programs. Tax-Exempt Entities should be aware of unique opportunities and recent IRS regulations that impact the design of severance programs. This article discusses key decisions and planning opportunities for Tax-Exempt Entities to consider when designing and implementing severance plans and individual severance arrangements. Tax-Exempt Entities face a number of legal and regulatory challenges in establishing severance arrangements, particularly with respect to executive-level severance, as discussed in more detail in Part I. Part II discusses the legal parameters around using Code Section 403(b) retirement savings plans to offer severance to employees with lower levels of compensation.

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On June 22, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued proposed regulations under Section 457(f) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (Code). These long-awaited regulations were first previewed in IRS Notice 2007-62. In that Notice, the IRS announced its intention to issue proposed regulations that would harmonize the rules for deferred compensation plans of tax-exempt organizations (and state and local governments) under Section 457(f) with the then-new special rules for all deferred compensation arrangements under Section 409A. After nine years, the proposed regulations now issued address three principal issues, although with some unexpected changes and opportunities.

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The recent wave of 403(b) lawsuits against more than a dozen prominent US universities could herald similar suits for other 403(b) plan sponsors. Plan sponsors can minimize their risk by reviewing their plan governance procedures, investment policy statements, and plan investment lineup and fee structure.

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On July 11, 2016, the Department of Labor (DOL) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced a proposal to implement significant changes to the forms and regulations that govern annual employee benefit plan reporting on Form 5500. The proposed changes, which were published in the Federal Register on July 21, 2016, would considerably increase the annual reporting obligations for nearly all health and welfare plans. The changes would also have a considerable impact on annual retirement plan reporting obligations.  For more information about the effect of the proposed changes on retirement plan sponsors, see Proposed Changes to Form 5500 Reporting Requirements May Have Significant Impact on Retirement Plan Sponsors.

The DOL is seeking written comments on the proposed changes, which must be provided by October 4, 2016. The revised reporting requirements, if adopted, generally would apply for plan years beginning on and after January 1, 2019.

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