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 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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On June 29, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officially sounded the death knell for the five-year remedial amendment cycle with its release of Revenue Procedure 2016-37. Effective January 1, 2017, employers that sponsor an individually designed qualified retirement plan—a group that includes most large retirement plans—may no longer request periodic determination letters. Instead, the IRS will continue to conduct random audits to assess plan compliance with plan document operational requirements.

The IRS will continue to conduct random audits to assess plan compliance with plan document operational requirements. Beginning in 2017, the IRS expects plan sponsors to amend written plan documents in accordance with Revenue Procedure 2016‑37 and without reliance on a determination letter. In the context of an audit, a plan sponsor may rely on a plan’s last favorable determination letter, but only with respect to provisions that have not been amended since the last issued determination letter. Sponsors of individually designed plans must develop new means for assuring they comply with the qualification requirements in the wake of Revenue Procedure 2016-37.

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