Near the end of 2016, the Department of Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published two significant sets of proposed regulations on issues pertaining to defined benefit pension plans, including mortality table updates that likely would increase pension funding liabilities for many plan sponsors.
Since 2014, large church-controlled health systems that offer defined benefit pension plans have seen lawsuits filed as to whether such plans are eligible to qualify for the ERISA church-plan exemption, which governs those arrangements. When a retirement plan meets the ERISA church-plan exemption, it is exempt from the typical funding and vesting requirements of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code as well as from the ERISA reporting and disclosure requirements. As the church-plan litigation moves to the appellate level, two adverse decisions are reached denying ERISA church-plan exemption to two health systems.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) stated in a filing published in the Federal Register on September 23, 2014, that it intends to require that plan sponsors report to the PBGC “certain undertakings” to cashout or annuitize benefits for specified groups of employees under defined benefit pension plans. PBGC intends to make this reporting part of the 2015 PBGC premium filing procedures.
Recently, many defined benefit pension plan sponsors have been implementing lump-sum distribution windows, primarily to former employees who are not receiving benefits, as part of a de-risking strategy. If participants elect to take lump-sum distributions in lieu of annuity payments, the plan sponsor can minimize the risk of interest rate fluctuations negatively affecting plan assets.
In addition, lump-sum distribution windows under defined benefit pension plans typically have the effect of reducing the number of defined benefit pension plan participants because eligible participants are paid their full benefit under the plan at the time of the lump-sum distribution. The reduction in defined benefit pension plan participants has the effect of reducing premium payments due from such plans to the PBGC.
Some pension rights advocates have recently raised public policy concerns about the increasing use of lump-sum cashouts, claiming that cashouts jeopardize the retirement security of plan participants by providing them with unrestricted access to their retirement funds. However, it is the reduction in premium payments that is likely most concerning to the PBGC. PBGC relies on annual premium payments from a dwindling number of ongoing defined benefit pension plans to fund guaranteed benefits under plans that have been taken over by the PBGC.
At this time, the PBGC is only proposing to require disclosure of certain lump-sum distributions and annuitizations, and has not proposed any other type of PBGC review or oversight.