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Sarah Engle focuses her practice on employee benefits matters. She counsels clients regarding a variety of issues, including the design, drafting and operation of tax-qualified pension and profit sharing plans, health and welfare arrangements, and deferred compensation plans. Sarah has experience advising clients on employee benefits design, implementation and transition matters arising in connection with corporate mergers and acquisitions. Read Sarah Engle's full bio.

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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The Internal Revenue Service recently released final regulations confirming that employers can use plan forfeitures to fund qualified non-elective contributions (QNECs), qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and safe harbor contributions.

As explained in our earlier On the Subject discussing this topic, IRS regulations historically provided that QNECs, QMACs and certain safe harbor contributions had to be 100 percent vested at the time the amounts were contributed to an employer’s plan. The IRS interpreted this requirement to prohibit employers from using forfeitures to fund QNECs, QMACs and certain safe harbor contributions. In particular, according to the IRS, using forfeitures for this purpose was impermissible because contributions allocated to a plan’s forfeiture account were subject to a vesting schedule when the contributions were first made to the plan (as employer matching or profit sharing contributions). Therefore, the IRS took the position that forfeitures could never be used to fund QNECs, QMACs or certain safe harbor contributions even if the forfeitures were fully vested at the time they were ultimately re-allocated to participant accounts as QNECs, QMACs or safe harbor contributions.

In response to numerous comments regarding this requirement, the IRS issued proposed regulations in January, 2017 clarifying that QNECs, QMACs and safe harbor contributions were only required to be fully vested at the time the contributions were allocated to participant accounts, rather than when first contributed to the plan. As a result, employers could use forfeitures to fund QNECs, QMACs and safe harbor contributions.

The final regulations issued late last month confirm the approach outlined in the proposed regulations. Importantly, employers were actually permitted to rely on those proposed regulations immediately. As a result, the final regulations simply confirm that plan sponsors can continue to use forfeitures to fund QNECs, QMACs and safe harbor contributions. Before doing so, however, plan sponsors should review their plan documents carefully to ensure that the plans allow forfeitures to be used for such purposes.

The PBGC’s missing participants program, which previously applied only to single-employer defined benefit pension plans, has been expanded to defined contribution plans, multiemployer defined benefit plans and small professional service defined benefit plans that end on or after January 1, 2018. The revised program provides a helpful alternative for plan administrators of terminating defined contribution plans, and also includes welcome clarifications that enhance the program available to defined benefit pension plans.

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On February 9, 2018, President Trump signed a bipartisan budget deal into law, effectively extending federal funding through March 23, 2018. The act includes multiple provisions affecting employee benefit plans, including relaxed hardship withdrawal rules and relief for individuals affected by the California wildfires.

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The Bipartisan Budget Act helped avoid another government shutdown, but did it cause problems for your benefit plans? Sarah L. Engle and D. Finn Pressly will discuss everything you need to know about the new legislation, including changes to hardship distributions and new wildfire relief. The panel will also bring you up to speed on other key developments in the employee benefits sphere over the last month.

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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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