retirement plan audits

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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Recent reports show that the number of retirement plan audits by government agencies is increasing. A survey released by Willis Towers Watson indicates that one in every three plan sponsors has experienced a retirement plan audit by a government agency in the past two years. Unofficial reports also indicate that the US Department of Labor (DOL) has added staff to conduct more retirement plan audits.

The increase in audit activity is not surprising after the DOL released its report last year on the quality of audit work performed by independent qualified public accountants. That report—“Assessing the Quality of Employee Benefit Plan Audits”—found that nearly four out of 10 (39 percent) employee benefit plan audits completed by independent qualified public accountants for the 2011 filing year contained “major deficiencies with respect to one or more relevant GAAS requirements” which “would lead to rejection of a Form 5500 filing.” Common audit deficiencies cited in the DOL report include insufficient review of plan documents and administration, failure to obtain evidence of required communications to participants, inadequate review of employee eligibility, participant accruals and non-discrimination testing, and failure to obtain evidence of adequate internal controls.

The reports of increased audit activity and the DOL findings on the quality of plan audits illustrate the importance for plan sponsors to continually monitor their employee benefit plans for compliance with the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code. Plan sponsors and fiduciaries may erroneously assume that once the independent audit is complete they can rest assured that the plan complies with legal requirements. However, an independent audit is not enough—plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to ensure their plans are properly maintained and administered beyond what is required to complete the annual audit.

For a summary of the most common issues under audit examination, please see our article on the “Top IRS and DOL Audit Issues for Retirement Plans.” The article describes numerous steps plan sponsors should take to review their plans to identify problems that come up on Internal Revenue Service and DOL audits, and to make sure they have proper internal controls to avoid those problems in the future. Regular review of these issues and proper focus on internal controls can help prevent costly fines and fees when a government agency audits a plan.