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Maureen O'Brien advises clients on a broad range of employee benefits matters, including qualified plan design, welfare plan design, employee benefit plan compliance issues, fiduciary matters, multi-employer pension plan issues and nonqualified deferred compensation plans. Read Maureen O'Brien's full bio.

On Tuesday night, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) released a new modified mark of the Senate version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that modifies provisions related to Internal Revenue Code (Code) Sections 409A and 162(m).

The Chairman’s modification adds a transition rule for the elimination of employer deductions for payments over $1 million to certain executives under Code Section 162(m). The transition rule provides that elimination of the employer deduction does not apply to payments under a written and binding contract in effect on November 2, 2017, provided that the contract was not materially modified after that date.

In addition, the Chairman’s modification eliminates the provision that would have replaced Code Section 409A with a new Section 409B, which would have required payments under non-qualified deferred compensation plans to be taxed when they vested. Currently, Section 409A allows employees to defer taxation on such fully-vested payments, provided they meet other requirements under Section 409A. The proposed replacement of 409A with 409B would have had significant tax implications for those employees with non-qualified deferred compensation plans.

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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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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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On February 28, Todd Solomon and Maureen O’Brien presented a Strafford live webinar, “Private Equity Compliance With ERISA: Navigating Manager Fiduciary Duties for Funds Holding ERISA Plan Assets”. ERISA imposes fiduciary obligations on funds that hold employee benefit plan assets, including private equity managers responsible for investing fund assets. Managing those fiduciary obligations requires knowledge of the ERISA plan asset requirements. In addition, last year’s Sun Capital decision has broad implications for private equity funds and their investors. The ruling subjects funds to joint and several liabilities for the ERISA pension obligations of their portfolio companies. These slides discuss the ERISA fiduciary issues relevant to private equity funds and the implications of the most recent Sun Capital case.

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Sun Capital Partners III, LP v. New England Teamsters and Trucking Industry Pension Fund has been analyzed extensively over the past four years, as it has made its way from the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts to the First Circuit Court of Appeals and back again. With the case once again on appeal, we must wait to see how the latest court decision will further influence the structure of private equity deals. In the meantime, private equity funds should use the most recent District Court and First Circuit Sun Capital decisions as a road map for structuring deals where the target portfolio company has defined benefit pension plan or multiemployer pension plan liabilities.

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Effective January 1, 2016, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) altered the reportable event rules for defined benefit pension plans. Although new PBGC regulations make electronic filing of all reportable event notices mandatory, the regulations also substantially reduce the reporting requirements for pension plan administrators, sponsors and contributing employers.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently addressed the notice requirement of the federal successor liability doctrine where withdrawal from a multiemployer pension plan occurred after a sale of assets.

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In many transactions, particularly those where the buyer is a portfolio company of a private equity fund, the buyer agrees to cause its 401(k) plan to accept a transfer of assets from the seller’s 401(k) plan. The asset transfer from the seller’s plan provides the buyer’s with an asset base with which to negotiate the best possible administrative fee structure, and seamlessly transfers the retirement plan benefits of employees being retained or hired by the buyer. If the seller’s plan contains employer stock as an investment however, the buyer should be aware of fiduciary concerns that may arise under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended.

“Stock-drop” litigation is a well-known phenomenon centering on plan fiduciary liability to plan participants when the value of employer stock investments in a retirement plan drops significantly. Less well-known is the fiduciary liability exposure facing new 401(k) plan sponsors and fiduciaries accepting a transfer of assets from the seller’s plan that includes former employer stock. Holding a significant block of a single security that is not company stock implicates ERISA prudence and diversification issues, and must be closely monitored.

Fiduciaries of 401(k) plans considering accepting asset transfers of former employer stock have often been advised to engage counsel to evaluate the prudence of holding the former employer stock in the buyer’s plan as an investment alternative (even if “frozen” to new investment) and establish a timeline for requiring that plan participants divest the former employer stock within one to two years of the asset transfer from the seller’s plan.

In light of the decision in Tatum v RJR Pension Inv. Comm., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 14924 (4th Cir. Aug. 4, 2014), buyer 401(k) plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries must now be even more careful to engage in a process that separates fiduciary from non-fiduciary acts and carefully follows established procedures for implementing any required divestitures of former employer stock. In Tatum, the plan was not properly amended to require the divestiture of former employer stock. This failure to properly amend the plan converted a plan design decision, which was a non-fiduciary or “settlor” decision, into a fiduciary act. In Tatum, the plan fiduciaries also failed to follow a prudent process for determining whether or not to eliminate former employer stock and for determining the timeline for implementing such divestitures.

The Tatum decision highlights that, in addition to fiduciary risk in holding former employer stock in the buyer’s 401(k) plan as an investment, there is also fiduciary risk in the process of eliminating former employer stock as an investment in the buyer’s plan.

When establishing a new 401(k) plan, the buyer should consult with legal counsel regarding the risks involved in accepting an asset transfer from a seller’s plan that includes former employer stock. Any new plan sponsors or plan fiduciaries that are contemplating accepting former employer stock as part of an asset transfer should consider whether or not they should engage an independent third party to monitor the former employer stock fund and/or conduct an investigation into the prudence of eliminating the former employer stock. In addition, new plan sponsors should ensure that any third-party administrators or prototype providers have adequately discussed with the plan sponsor the feasibility of having the elimination of the former employer stock part of the plan document as a plan design decision. Given the fiduciary risk for both continuing to allow the former employer stock as an investment alternative, and of implementing any decision to eliminate the former employer stock fund, buyers may now determine that the fiduciary risks of accepting a transfer outweigh the benefits of better administrative pricing and easier employee transition.